The 24th Cork French Film Festival (3 – 10 March, 2013)
Emmet O’Brien reports from he 24th Cork French Film Festival.
For fans of classic French Cinema this years 24th Cork French Film Festival provided a wide array of delights ranging from hugely influential New Wave films to more recent examples of monochromatic mischief.
Making a virtue of its “Noir et Blanc” theme the programme emanated that elusive and trademark kind of cool that we associate with Franco film-making, the expressive shadows concealing what seemed like a million askew narratives. Whether it was dealing with a straight ahead Film Noir, surely the province of such dark pools and austere skies, a matinee type serial fare or tackling social and economic pressures in far flung countries it never failed to, at its heart, entertain with wit and flair.
Godard, one of the most iconic of the French New Wave lot was well represented in the screening of Alphaville, an odd fusion of dystopic science fiction filtered through a gumshoe detective story, the influences of this seminal film providing templates for future hits such as Blade Runner. Featuring a brooding central performance by Eddie Constatine, admittedly never the most versatile of actors but his granite like face and natural stoicism put to good use and when set against the luminous presence of Goddess (and Godard muse) Anna Karina the films hypnotic gaze remains hard to resist. A science fiction film bereft of any real special effects, the sleek architecture of Paris stands in for the distant future and it’s metropolitan beauty is given an ominous and menacing sheen here. One of my favourite Godard pieces even with some of its odd storytelling lurches.
Keeping with the New Wave for a moment, Shoot the Piano Player was screened, Truffauts follow on to his stunning debut The 400 Blows, it’s easy to see why on it intitial release, the reception was so muted. Following 400 Blows would be a daunting task for anyone and a genre fusion of gangster farce and existential musing must have puzzled the audience first time around. Seen from a distance there is no doubting that it’s a minor work for the director, it’s attempts to marry it’s disparate threads never quite cohering as much as you like. For every well observed, tense moment you get a throwaway gag that is quite jarring and the film prides itself on being almost wilfully obscure from an exposition point of view. Tyring to figure out the relationships becomes gradually less important as the more farcical elements get ramped up. Best to just forget it and enjoy some of its well staged scenes, an awakrd fight sequence gets special attention for its attempts to convey a really messy scuffle and how something like that might go in real life. For all it’s comedy moments that don’t quite work, the film has a chilly unsettling air that is interesting when contrasted against it’s on the surface fluff. Not essential to be seen but diverting while it lasts.
A highlight of the festival was a multi-media event in which La Jetee was screened alongside exhibit of photographs from the film in the Wandesford Quay art gallery. This evening was competed with a performance by electronic musicians I AM THE COMOS. La Jetee itself, is an undisputed masterpiece, directed by Chris Marker (his only foray into Sci-Fi alas) and its tight story of fate and time travel mechanics is a disquieting creation. Filmed using only still photographs and voice over it shows that when a concept is strong enough,like Alaphaville no special effects are required and the clipped nature of its production adds a layer to the piece. It makes the audience feel that we are less seeing a narrative than unearthing a horrific document of sorts that outlines a terrifying temporal cautionary tale. With language that finds an elegiac balance between technical and poetic La Jetee has earned its place as towering science fiction and it’s no surprise it gave a template to the still most satisfying film of Terry Gilliams career, Twelve Monkeys (sorry Brazil fans).
Persepolis, one of the most contemporary films at the festival this year, is an utterly charming coming of age tale about a girl named Marjane living under a strict Iranian regime and her curiosity about the world at large. Based on a graphic novel which had a distinctive look thankfully retained for its cinematic translation, the story is an fascinating insight into the conservative traditions and violent past of Iran. Following Marjane’s attempts to explore the wider world, it encompasses a great many tones, the comedy is sweet natured and truthful but the film isn’t afraid to show just how bleak things can get for the central character not just within Iran’s borders but beyond in Europe as she makes a number of mistakes and ends up homeless. What emerges is a truthful, touching story that if played straight might not have been anywhere near as poignant. The cartoonish presentation allows many inspired flights of visual imagination, the narrative strains at the leash of standard storytelling devices and it’s this fluid integration between the reality and the more abstract dreams and thoughts of its central character that makes it as affecting as it is. For anyone who feels a stigma with regards to animation, this should be seen as sophisticated and mature filmmaking.
Maturity was in short supply in the best film of the festival, Aki Kaurismäki’s 1992 take on the famous novel La Vie de Bohème, it follows three Bohemian artists, a writer, a painter and musician and their strange meandering adventures chasing fortune and romance. Rodolfo played by Kaurismäki regular Matti Pellonpää gets the meat of the story, his relationship with a woman named Mimi gives the film it’s main emotional hook. Pellonpää had this ability to essay a perfect man child, an emotionally stunted adult who with just one laconic expression could convey a depth of feeling, be it love or longing. His awkward courtship and the genuinely sweet relationship that springs up gives some of the film’s best gags but it is the unusual formation of bonds between the characters that the film really takes hold. There’s just no reason we should be so charmed by these individuals but each actor brings a sort of lived nuance to the role and it makes their interactions very effective. While episodic in nature and a bit too over long, it’s surprising how much this gets under your skin and it’s all down to the subtlety Kaurismäki brings to the affair. Nothing is overstated, and while some longeurs heavy with melancholy it never gets to grim and even at its bleakest the film has a winning edge and many laughs. It certainly wouldn’t suit everyones tastes but as an exercise in bohemian whimsy it packs a pretty big emotional punch come the films end.
A festival then which covered a myriad of tones all coated in eternal monochrome cool, it showed most definitely who indeed was hue when it comes to the possibilities of classic French cinema.