The French Film Festival’s Top Five

Five films you must see at the 2018 Alliance Française French Film Festival

There are forty seven new features at this year’s festival, which completely dominates Palace Cinema’s programming for the whole month of March – how is anyone to decide what to see?

Sure, trawling through the entire program on the AFFF website watching trailers is fun (I could do it all day), and you can also reliably rely on festival patron David Stratton‘s picks. You may like to take our advice too. Fortunately the kind people at AFFF have given us a selection to preview, and here’s five of the very best.

Double Lover (L’Amant Double)

Even those who accept that the French have different attitudes to sex and nudity may find the gender politics of Francis Ozon’s deliciously mad erotic thriller a challenge. It opens with a scene familiar only to a gynaecologist, all pink and moist and panning out to be recognizable to the rest of us only briefly before morphing into a human eye. Both body parts belong to Chloé (Marine Vacth, the star of Ozon’s Young and Beautiful), and she’s an ex-model getting treatment for mysterious cramps and stomach pains. She’s sent to a shrink (Jérémie Renier) who before long invites her into his lush apartment and bed. So far, so disreputably “French”, but “inappropriate sexual contact” was just what the doctor ordered, apparently. And Chloe even seems to get better, before spying an exact doppelganger of her new lover (also played by Reinier). She discovers he’s not only her partner’s unacknowledged twin brother but also a psychiatrist – and also, a very dangerously different type of man… The mystery deepens, and gets quite feverishly lurid after that with echoes of Hitchcock, Verhoeven and even Cronenberg. Most critics have been delighted with Ozon’s “return to form”  but least one labelled it as “trash”. But the review added (accurately) – “delirious premium trash – for the right kind of moviegoer…” One thing for sure, the back-to-back sex scenes are certainly not for the prurient,  or those who have closed their minds to worldwide cultural differences. This is France. R18+ ★★★★ Trailer here

Redoubtable (Le Redoubtable)

When the revered darling of the French New Wave, 37 year-old Jean-Luc Godard (Louise Garel) beds 19 year-old actress, Anne (Stacy Martin, also in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac), he was at the height of his fame and popularity. In Hollywood today such an affair would be greeted with howls of outrage, especially as Garel plays the director as a bit of an arrogant jerk, prone to mansplaining. The power imbalance of their subsequent relationship (and short-lived marriage) is cheekily addressed and mocked in the direct to camera commentary that substitutes for dialogue in a lot of Michel Hazanavicius’ daring and insouciant imagining of one year in the legendary filmmaker’s life. That was 1968, when the whole world was in turmoil, and the streets of Paris were aflame with revolution. Godard had enthusiastically became a Maoist and tried to apply “revolutionary workers’ democracy” techniques to his filmmaking – with disastrous results. The film is a comedy, of sorts, insofar as any professional meltdown and mid-life crisis can be considered funny. In Hazanavicius’ audacious and playful hands, this one certainly is, though in another affront to #metoo and contemporary sensibilities, Anne herself seems to spend a great deal of the turbulent year they spent together completely starkers. In one hilarious scene the pair debate the prevalence of gratuitous nudity in movies – while both naked themselves. Hey, put away that hashtag – we’re in France. And it was 1968! CTC ★★★★1/2 Trailer here

Ava (Ava)

The captivating long shot that opens Ava, like so many scenes in Léa Mysius’ confident debut, is just stunning. A lone black dog, who we’ll later know as “Lupus” pads along a crowded beach past holidaying French families and bathers, intent on – something… Eventually he finds what he wants, a plate of chips perched on the stomach of a prone sunbather, 13 year-old Ava (astonishing newcomer Noée Abita). He wolfs them down, awakening her. Squinting into the light she makes out the outline of the black, wolf-like face. The dog, who turns up often at the most plot opportune times (but vastly unlikely in terms of regular canine behaviour!) and the colour black are in fact metaphors. For we soon learn Ava’s eyesight is failing fast, and that this summer will be her last before her whole world will turn to black. That may sound like a downer – a YA “disease of the week” tearjerker, though this film is anything but. For Ava, we soon learn, is a truculent headstrong girl – and a foolishly daring one. Her devastated mother (Laure Calamy) tries to help, though her only idea is a safe holiday romance with a nice teenage boy – not the reckless, wild and dangerous misadventure Ava embarks on with the owner of Lupus, 18 year-old gypsy (Juan Cano) who is in dire trouble with the law. This is a stylish, bravely ambitious and very joyous first film, though it does, like its young heroine, go off the rails towards the end. A nudity warning (there’s lots) might be needed. Only in France would underage sex (the lead actress is actually 17) be treated so nonchalantly. Just routine “coming of age,” apparently… MA15+  ★★★★ Trailer here

The Workshop (L’Atelier) 

Has it really been nearly a decade since Laurent Cantet stunned Festival-goers and critics alike with his Palme d’Or-winning docu-drama The Class? That 2008 film was set in a multi-ethnic school in Paris, while his latest triumph is down in the south at La Ciotat, an old port city near Marsailles that has seen better days. And this time he’s added a gripping thriller element to his old concerns – the economic and cultural tensions tearing the fabric of his country apart. Antoine (newcomer Matthieu Lucci) is taking part in a creative writing workshop run by successful crime novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs) – he’s smart (clearly the best writer in the group) and good-looking, but also a surly and provocative with troublesome right-wing views that soon get on everyone else in the multicultural group’s nerves. The violent undertones of the first piece he reads to class just stuns them into silence. Olivia tries to keep them focussed on their allotted task – writing a genre murder thriller that has ties to their town, but it also seems that her interest in her handsome alienated student may be more than just professional. A teasing cat-and-mouse game follows, with Antoine clearly alert to what is going on, leading to a tense stand-off in which the fiction the group has been constructing may turn into fact… The final scene, probably the film’s best – owes nothing to any genre-piece. It relies solely on the devastating power of words, and marks Cantet’s exciting new film as a Festival’s highpoint. M ★★★★★ Trailer here

BPM (Beats Per Minute) (120 Battements Par Minute)

The Square may have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, but Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) was by far and away the critics’ favourite. The drama ended up with the Grand Prix, the second most prestigious honour at the festival, and has since become France’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. It has also been greeted with such lavish praise wherever its been screened – it must be just fantastic! Disclaimer: I have not seen it, but if everyone else loves it so much, it just has to go on our Top 5. Besides, its director was also the co-writer of the film I did rate the highest – The Workshop (above)

The official synopsis reads: “The organization is ACT UP, and its members, many of them gay and HIV-positive, embrace their mission with a literal life-or-death urgency. Amid rallies, protests, fierce debates and ecstatic dance parties, the newcomer Nathan falls in love with Sean, the group’s radical firebrand, and their passion sparks against the shadow of mortality as the activists fight for a breakthrough. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, and The Unknown Girl breakout Adèle Haenel lead the cast. MA15+ Trailer and more info here

Reviews – Russell Edwards