French filmmakers are a busy bunch. Every year, the country's cinematic talent pumps out nearly 300 new movies — enough to rank among the top five film-producing nations in 2016, behind only India, the US, China and Japan.
It's no wonder, then, that Australia's annual Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is always jam-packed with flicks, spoiling viewers for choice when it comes to Gallic cinema's latest and greatest. The fest's team clearly has plenty of picks to choose from, with their 2018 event touring 47 features, two documentaries and one television series around local screens until mid-April.
This year's fest kicks off with the laughs of C'est la vie! thanks to The Intouchables duo Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, ends with rom-com 50 Is the New 30, and features everything from multiple Isabelle Huppert appearances to multiple César Award winners among its lineup. In short: there's more than enough on offer to make you think you're on the other side of the world, and not just in your nearest cinema. And if you need some help deciding what to see, that's where we come in.
BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE)
When last year's Cannes favourite (and award-winner) BPM (Beats Per Minute) didn't make this year's Oscars shortlist for the best foreign-language film category, it was considered quite the shock. Come French cinema's own night of nights, the Césars, and the AIDS activism drama fared much, much better, taking out best film, editing, screenplay, score, male newcomer and supporting actor. It's easy to see why, the latest from Eastern Boys' filmmaker Robin Campillo is both intimate and wide-ranging as it explores the efforts of a passionate group to fight for acceptance and affordable HIV treatment in the early '90s. The writer-director himself was a member of ACT UP, the organisation at the movie's centre, adding an extra layer of authenticity — something the film already oozes courtesy of its naturalistic style, personal approach and exceptional performances.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN
In Let the Sunshine In, Juliette Binoche plays a just-divorced 50-something artist attempting to find love again — and causing audiences to fall for the great French actress's many charms in the process. Take our word for it: if you weren't already a fan before seeing this thoughtful romantic comedy (and if not, why not?), then you will be afterwards. Headlining a distinctive change of pace from acclaimed filmmaker Claire Denis, Binoche glows even as her character struggles with re-entering the dating scene, navigating the ups and downs that go with it, and working out what she actually wants as she flits through a series of varying dates. When we saw and loved the feature at last year's Melbourne International Film Festival, we said it was "a smart, spirited and soulful exploration of affection and intimacy — as driven by Binoche's enigmatic candour — that cuts deep". We still think so.
Another year, another Isabelle Huppert film in the AFFFF program. Anything else really is virtually unthinkable. The adored French star actually features in two of this year's festival flicks, but if the prospect of seeing the inimitable actress in a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde doesn't get you excited, then nothing will. Lighter in tone than Robert Louis Stevenson's literary classic, and filled with commentary about class clashes in contemporary French society as well as laughter, Serge Bozon's effort is set within a Parisian high school. It also features a pivotal lightening strike and sees Huppert's stressed teacher undergo quite the transformation.
French singer Barbara gets the biopic treatment in the film that shares her name, but it's also much, much more than that. The third feature directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Mathieu Amalric, it's a tale about an actress (Jeanne Balibar) preparing to play Barbara in a biopic, and a director (played by Amalric) who's obsessed with his subject. Yes, there's a film within a film, as well as archival footage of the real figure herself, just to keep things even more ambitious. Adding further layers to the flick, Balibar — who just won the Cesar for best actress for her excellent efforts — was once married to Amalric.
What's the French Film Festival without a dose of French film history? This year, they're delivering it in biopic form, focusing on one of the country's great directors and pioneers of the French New Wave. In Redoubtable, Louis Garrel steps into Jean-Luc Godard's shoes, following his relationship with his Weekend and La Chinoise muse Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin), his career in the late '60s, and the surrounding French political and social unrest. Plus, for director Michel Hazanavicius, it's a return to making movies about movies after his Oscar-winning The Artist.
The heartbreaking drama, anxiety and tension of a hard-fought custody battle sits at the centre of this aptly titled effort, which first premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival and has been garnering praise ever since. Actor-turned-writer/director Xavier Legrand plunges viewers into a social realist look at a divorcing couple and the 12-year-old son stuck in the middle, which might sound like a familiar situation. It is; however the first-timer favours naturalism and observation over heavy sentiment, and has earned many a comparison to the Dardenne brothers (Lorna's Silence; Two Days, One Night) as a result.
Another AFFFF favourite — but behind the lens — François Ozon (Frantz) is back in psychological sexual thriller territory with Double Lover. Yes, as the name gives away, there's duplicity involved. It's rarely a good idea to fall in love with a psychoanalyst in these kinds of films, so when former model Chloé (Marine Vacth) does just that with Paul (Jérémie Renier), there's unexpected consequences. Fans of Swimming Pool, In the House, Young & Beautiful and The New Girlfriend will know just the mood, tone and simmering unease they're in for, as well as the all-round provocative air.
Films about filmmakers are a definite trend at this year's AFFFF. And not just that — films starring Mathieu Amalric as a filmmaker, too. The aforementioned Barbara director and star plays the titular Ismaël in Ismaël's Ghosts, who's just about to get immersed in his latest project when the past comes calling. Also featuring Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Redoubtable's Louis Garrel, the movie is the latest from My Golden Days' Arnaud Desplechin, and opened the Cannes Film Festival last year.
Another effort with a connection to Cannes, The Workshop not only premiered there last year, but was directed by 2008 Palme d'Or winner Laurent Cantet (The Class) and co-written with BPM's Robin Campillo. The drama unfolds at a creative writing workshop, where participants clash over more than just writing, and their novelist teacher (Marina Foïs) doesn't quite know how to react. With Cantent known for his naturalism, like Campillo, a portrait of modern-day France emerges as the feature plays out, delving into fears, fractures and friction.
IF YOU SAW HIS HEART
It mightn't be a French Film Festival without Isabelle Huppert, but it's often not a film festival at all without Gael Garcia Bernal. This time, the Mexican favourite stars in this French-language effort from first-time writer/director Joan Chemla. Taking inspiration from the work of Cuban author Guillermo Rosales, If You Saw His Heart follows a man holed up in a hotel and at a loss after the death of his best friend. The result promises a hefty dose of existential malaise, plus South of France scenery, all served up with Bernal's usual charm.
The Alliance Française French Film Festival tours Australia from February 27, screening at Sydney's Chauvel Cinema, Palace Norton Street, Palace Verona, Palace Central and Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace from February 27 to March 27; Melbourne's Palace Balwyn, Palace Brighton Bay, Palace Cinema Como, Palace Westgarth, Kino Cinemas and The Astor Theatre from February 28 to March 27; and Brisbane's Palace Barracks and Palace Centro from March 8 to April 4. For more information, visit the festival website.