The Classic French Film Festival 07.14.11-07.31.11

The festival kicks off, most appropriately, on Bastille Day with François Truffaut’s 1980 masterpiece The Last Metro.

 

 

Modern classics are the order of the day in the third annual Classic French Film Festival, presented by Cinema St. Louis in conjunction with Webster University. This year’s festival is a tribute to three icons of French cinema—Catherine Deneuve, François Truffaut, and Jacques Demy—and the films on offer range, chronologically, from Robert Bresson’s Diary of A Country Priest (1951) to Claude Chabrol’s Story of Woman (1988).

The festival kicks off, most appropriately, on Bastille Day with François Truffaut’s 1980 masterpiece The Last Metro (Le Dernier Metro; July 14, 7:30 pm) starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. Set in occupied Paris during World War II, The Last Metro chronicles the attempts of a Jewish theatre director (Heinz Bennet) to remain in hiding from the Nazis while his wife (Deneuve) keeps both him and his theatre company alive. She also finds time to have an affair with a fellow actor played by Depardieu. The film is a memory piece for Truffaut, who grew up in occupied Paris, and the title refers to the need for theatre performances to end in time for the audience to catch the last metro home so they would not violate the city’s curfew.

Deneuve and Truffaut are paired again in Mississippi Mermaid (La Sirène du Mississippi; July 15, 7:30 pm), a sexually-tinged thriller adapted from the Cornell Woolrich novel Waltz into Darkness (the same story was filmed in 2002 as Original Sin, starring Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie). Jean-Paul Belmondo (of Breathless fame) plays a factory owner on Réunion (an island in the Indian Ocean and an overseas department of France) whose mail-order bride (Deneuve) proves to be not the woman he was expecting. Betrayal, robbery and murder are all on the menu in this examination of the deadly powers of obsession and self-delusion.

Small Change (L’argent de Poche; July 16, 7:30 pm) is composed of a series of stories about the daily lives of French children in a small provincial town, portrayed primarily by non-professional actors. It’s one of Truffaut’s more personal and idiosyncratic films and captures, through fiction which approaches documentary realism, essential truths about childhood, as expressed by a director who had a particular sympathy and feeling for the rhythms of children’s lives.

Soft Skin (Le Peau Douce; July 17, 7:30 pm) stars Jean Desailly as a writer and magazine editor who, although already a family man, becomes involved with a much younger airline stewardess (Françoise Dorléac, sister of Catherine Deneuve). Although a critical and box-office failure at the time of original release (1964) Soft Skin has enjoyed more critical appreciation in retrospect while many have also noted how also closely the story parallels (shades of Woody Allen!) details of the director’s personal life.

One of the many charms of The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort; July 21, 7:30 pm) is that it’s a movie musical that knows that the golden age of movie musicals is past and yet insists on its right to persist in that genre. The story is set in the Atlantic port city of Rochefort in Southwestern France and involves the attempts of two sisters (sisters Deneuve and Dorléac) to escape their small-town existence and find true love. The Young Girls of Rochefort was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music and Score (by Michel Legrand) and also features choreography by Norman Maen, while Gene Kelly and George Chakiris also co-star.

Donkey Skin (Peau D’âne; July 22, 7:30 pm) is based on a fairy tale from Perrault about a princess (Catherine Deneuve) whose widowed father (Jean Marais) desires to marry her because she is the only woman as beautiful and virtuous as his deceased wife. The princess puts him off by demanding, on the advice of her fairy godmother the Lilac Fairy (Delphine Seyrig), a series of seemingly impossible gifts. The final gift is a magic donkey skin that allows her to flee to a neighboring kingdom where she labors as a scullery maid before enjoying a Cinderella-like moment of recognition from a handsome prince. Demy put his money on the screen with Donkey Skin and the location shooting and rich costume designs make it a delight for both children and adults.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg; July 23, 7:30 pm) is Demy’s masterpiece, combining a memorable musical score by Michel Legrand (even the dialogue is sung) with an amazing color sensibility to create a one-of-a-kind movie-going experience. This is the film that vaulted Catherine Deneuve to international stardom as she plays a lovestruck teenager whose mother owns an umbrella shop. Her boyfriend (Nino Castelnuouvo) is shipped off to fight in Algeria, Deneuve discovers she is pregnant, and she is offered the chance to make a marriage of convenience with a much older Parisian jeweler (Marc Michel). The careless abandon of young love, and the bittersweet longing for what might have been, have never been better expressed on screen.

The seminal New Wave film The Cousins (Les Cousins; July 24, 7:30 pm), directed by Claude Chabrol, won the Golden Bear at the 1959 Berlin International Film Festival. The story is deceptively simple, contrasting two cousins who share an apartment. Charles (Gerard Blain) is an innocent from the provinces and more than a bit of a square while Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy) is an urban decadent who seems to succeed, without effort, in everything he tries. They are competitors both for the affections of Florence (Juliette Mayniel) and in their law studies, a rivalry which escalates to produce a violent and unexpected outcome.

Catherine Deneuve does slapstick? That’s what you get with Le Sauvage (The Savage; July 28, 7:30 pm) in which Deneuve plays a young bride who skips out on her husband-to-be just before the wedding. Deneuve so outclasses her gangster groom and his tacky family that the biggest mystery for this film is in the backstory; how did these two ever get together in the first place? Never mind, the French are entitled to their silly films and this 1975 offering has goofiness aplenty, with comic villains, car chases, sinking ships and plenty of over-the-top fashion as well. Directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Le Sauvage also stars Yves Montand and Tony Roberts.

Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un Curé de Campagne; July 29, 7:30 pm) won the grand prize at the 1951 Venice International Film Festival and, if that’s not enough to convince you, is also one of the favorite films of both Andrei Tarkovsky and Martin Scorsese. Based on an award-winning novel by Georges Bernanos, the film regards with unflinching rigor the torturous journey of a young priest (Claude Laydu) beginning with his first assignment, to serve a rural village. Failing to connect with his parishioners and suffering from ill health, he experiences a crisis of faith which is all the more moving thanks to its austere portrayal by Bresson who famously demanded that his actors not "act" and demanded numerous takes until they had stripped all apparent artifice from their performance.

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1980 film Every Man for Himself (Sauve qui Peut (La Vie); July 30, 7:30 pm) marked his return to narrative film after the better part of a decade spent experimenting with video. Yet Every Man for Himself is not exactly a conventional film: the film’s two main storylines are connected to each other by only the thinnest of threads while Godard used all kinds of cinematic techniques to break up the viewing experience. One line of action involves the end of an affair between a filmmaker aptly named Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) and a writer named Denise (Nathalie Baye). The second involves a prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) who is interested in buying Paul and Denise’s former apartment. The most remarkable quality of Every Man for Himself is Godard’s unflagging visual sense and the film is full of images that will linger in your mind long after you’ve forgotten everything else about it.

Story of Woman (Une affaire de femmes; June 31, 7:30 pm) also stars Isabelle Huppert, this time as a woman who performs illegal abortions in France during World War II. Based on the story of a real person (Marie Latour), moral ambiguities abound in Chabrol’s 1988 film as Huppert’s trade allows her to support her family while saving countless French women from the embarrassment of bearing children fathered by the German occupiers. Yet abortion was against French law and Huppert’s character also flaunted her wealth and seemed to believe it made her invincible only to find that the male-dominated French legal system took a dim view of women breaking the law (or in another interpretation, of women showing up men). Today we can also see the French officials as collaborators, a fact that undermines (if not entirely eliminates) their moral authority, but of course that didn’t lessen the power they held at the time the film’s action takes place. | Sarah Boslaugh

Films in the Classic French Film Festival will be screened in Moore Auditorium, Webster Hall, 470 E. Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves. Admission is $10 for the general public, $8 for Cinema St. Louis & Alliance Française members. For more information, including directions and the complete Film Series calendar, visit www.webster.edu/filmseries

 

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