Ten Must-See Films at the 2020 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
This year's lineup features an ethereal zombie thriller, Eva Green as an astronaut and an Oscar-nominated drama inspired by 'Les Misérables'.
It's the country responsible for everything from A Trip to the Moon and The 400 Blows to Amelie and Portrait of a Lady on Fire — and, each year, Australia celebrates accordingly. The largest of the nation's annual cultural cinema showcases, the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival has been highlighting the latest and greatest in French flicks for 31 years now. And, after initially kicking off in March, then shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's returning in July — to charge forth in 2020 as it always has.
For movie buffs around the country, that means a heap of new French flicks, all as part of the fest's revived season from Tuesday, July 14. Start with opening night's suitably movie-obsessed La Belle Epoque, then dive into Oscar-nominated dramas, the latest work from top directors and a stellar exploration of heading into space.
If you're feeling a little spoiled for choice, that's where we come in. Grab a glass of wine and a cheese platter, then nab a ticket to one of our top ten picks of the fest — and say 'oui' to a very French night at the movies.
After making one of the best films of the past few years — 2016's mesmerising and provocative Nocturama — writer/director Bertrand Bonello is back with another instant standout. Don't be fooled by Zombi Child's name — this isn't your usual undead thriller. Instead, the film weaves together two tales. Firstly, in the 60s, Haitian man Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) is turned into a zombie through a vodou ritual. That part of Zombi Child is actually based on real-life details. Later, in the present day, Parisian boarding school student Fanny (Louise Labèque) befriends Haitian student Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), with the latter's cultural background proving of particular interest. Bonello's ability to challenge, confront complex themes and topics, and create an atmospheric, ambiguous piece of art remains in this folklore-infused colonial critique, as does his winning ways with moody imagery, an ethereal vibe and pitch-perfect soundtrack choices.
Even astronauts have to deal with work-life balance. Indeed, that seemingly elusive concept comes into sharp focus in Proxima; however Sarah's (Eva Green) situation is a little different to most folks'. A single mother to Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle), she's in training for year-long space mission 'Proxima' — an already complicated task that's made all the more so by her guilt over what it means for her daughter. A space-related saga with a firmly female mindset, this is the latest film by Mustang co-writer Alice Winocour, who filmed the feature on location inside the European Space Agency. Co-starring Matt Dillon, Toni Erdmann's Sandra Hüller and real-life French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, Proxima benefits from its formidable leading lady, too. From Casino Royale to Penny Dreadful, Green makes an impact on-screen like few other actors.
Ladj Ly's Oscar-nominated crime-thriller takes its name from a very obvious source, and its Montfermeil setting and exploration of class clashes as well. In the process, it openly invites comparisons to Victor Hugo's famous, much-adapted work, all while twisting its various components into its own compelling and confronting piece of cinema. Taking to the banlieues of Paris, Les Misérables spends its time flitting between cops, kids and gangs, as tensions between all three reach boiling point — over the usual prejudices, long-held beefs, stolen lions, a wrongful shooting and some highly sought-after drone footage. Unrelentingly terse, deftly choreographed and unafraid to filter real-world unrest through every frame, it's not always subtle; however, given the complicated terrain that it traverses, Ly's film needn't be. What it occasionally lacks in nuance, it feverishly makes up for both emotional and visceral power.
One book. Nine international language experts. A leak, a ransom and one big mystery. That's the nuts and bolts of The Translators, which twists the world's current crime fiction obsession in a clever direction. Assembled to work on the final novel in a best-selling French trilogy that's been compared to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — adapting it into English, Danish, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Greek, Portuguese and German — a team of translators is placed on lockdown. Alas, that doesn't stop the manuscript's first ten pages from somehow getting out. Whodunnits have been increasingly in big-screen popularity of late (see: Murder on the Orient Express and Knives Out, both of which proved such huge box office hits that they're getting sequels), with this film starring Olga Kurylenko (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), Alex Lawther (The End of the F***ing World), Riccardo Scamarcio (John Wick: Chapter 2) and Sidse Babett Knudsen (Westworld) adding another to the fold thanks to Populaire writer/director Régis Roinsard.
Towards the end of this year, when No Time to Die finally releases after its coronavirus-inspired delay, French actor Léa Seydoux will return to the Bond franchise. She's also part of another highly anticipated new 2020 movie, aka Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch — but first, she's dabbling with a murder-mystery in Oh Mercy! In fact, her character Claude is one of the main suspects after an elderly woman is killed. It's a brutal case in the northern French city of Roubaix, and police station captain Yakoub Daoud (this year's Cesar Award-winner Roschdy Zem) is determined to get to the bottom of it. Inspired by a 2008 television documentary, this true-crime drama boasts a stellar cast, and also marks the latest feature by Jimmy P, My Golden Days and Ismael's Ghosts filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin.
Inspired by not only a real-life figure, but also the reality for many autistic youth and their families in France, it's easy to see why The Intouchables' Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano were moved to make The Extraordinary. Drawn from the story of Stéphane Benhamou — who is renamed Bruno here, and played by the great Vincent Cassel — it explores his efforts to run an unofficial Parisian shelter to care for kids that the state-run system won't take. In a sensitive and heartfelt drama that weaves between two specific cases, also charts the government's investigation into Bruno's informal facility and makes plain the general struggle to stay running, the passion that the directors have for this tale always shines through. Indeed, there's no missing the point that the film makes about the need for better treatment for those in need. That said, this situation earns its sometimes heavy-handed on-screen treatment, and both Cassel and his co-star Reda Kateb (as a colleague who runs a similar space) put in nuanced and affecting performances.
It not only stars Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of The Truth and Farewell to the Night's Catherine Deneuve, but it earned her the Un Certain Regard Prize for Best Actress at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Like many a French comedy, it ponders infidelity and a midlife crisis. And, in news of particular interest to fans of 2018's sublimely melancholy Sorry Angel, it's the latest film by writer/director Christophe Honoré. Yes, all of the above apply to Room 212, and even one would make this movie worth watching. Story-wise, it follows the middle-aged Maria (Mastroianni) as she's forced to reassess her marriage, sift through her feelings about love and confront her many affairs — including via A Christmas Carol-style ghostly exchanges with all the men that have been in her life — while staying in the hotel suite that gives the feature its title.
ONLY THE ANIMALS
Stepping into the thriller realm, Only the Animals draws upon a familiar setup: a mysterious murder. But, even with its also well-worn small-town setting — an isolated, mountainous locale in the thick of winter, in fact — the latest film by veteran director Dominik Moll has more than a few compelling tricks up its sleeves. Disappearing during a snowstorm, the unhappy Évelyne Ducat (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is the unfortunate victim. Also connected to her demise are Alice (Laure Calamy) and her husband Michel (Custody's Denis Ménochet), who run a farm near where she lives; fellow farmer Joseph (Damien Bonnard); and Évelyne's lover Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz). Cycling between their perspectives, and serving up suitably complex performances in the process, Only the Animals teases out its thorny, puzzle-like narrative with precision.
Even if you don't think you know anything about Cyrano de Bergerac, you probably do. Penned back in 1897, the French play fictionalises the broad story of the eponymous real-life figure — and it has been brought to the screen many times in various shapes and guises, including as the 80s Steve Martin-starring comedy Roxanne, 90s rom-com The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and, in the past few years, Netflix flicks Sierra Burgess Is a Loser and The Half of It. Now, Edmond explores the tale behind the famous and immensely popular drama, focusing on playwright Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès). It's a movie about a writer struggling to jot down words, desperate for a career-changing hit and finding inspiration a lot closer to home than he expected — that is, a film with a very familiar premise — but the end product proves imaginative and entertaining.
FAREWELL TO THE NIGHT
In Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Truth, Catherine Deneuve reminded audiences just why she's been such a star — and a titan of French filmmaking — for decades, not that anyone should need the nudge. She's similarly superb in Farewell to the Night, her latest collaboration with director André Téchiné, although she's in distinctively different thematic and narrative territory. Playing a grandmother who runs a cherry farm and horse-riding school, she's forced to reckon with an unexpected revelation. When Muriel's (Deneuve) beloved grandson Alex (Kacey Mottet Klein) comes to stay, it's his last stop before following his girlfriend Lila (Oulaya Amamra) to Syria, where the newly radicalised teen intends to join ISIS. Understandably, a weighty, intimate drama about personal ties and political turmoil results.
The Alliance Française French Film Festival tours Australia from Tuesday, July 14–Tuesday, August 4, screening at Sydney's Chauvel Cinema, Palace Norton Street, Palace Verona, Palace Central and Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace; Brisbane's Palace Barracks and Palace James Street; and Perth's Palace Raine Square, Luna on SX and Windsor Cinema. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the AFFFF website.
Published on July 14, 2020 by Sarah Ward