1 Mar 2017

French Film Festival preview

From Widescreen, 11:25 am on 1 March 2017

Dan Slevin previews the 11th annual French Film Festival which opens in Wellington tonight.

Dark Diamond is an intense revenge thriller set in the Antwerp diamond markets.

Dark Diamond is an intense revenge thriller set in the Antwerp diamond markets. Photo: French Film Festival

During the car rental wars of the 60s and 70s Hertz proudly proclaimed, “We’re No. 1”. For their main rival, Avis, “We’re No. 2” was never going to work so they came up with a slogan where they could win: “We try harder.” In the world of New Zealand film festivals, there has always been an undisputed champion, the all-time great, the world class New Zealand International Film Festival. It floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. Every arts organisation in New Zealand avoids competing with it because it sucks so money out of the creative economy in one enormous suck.

But, after 10 years on a much tinier scale, the Alliance Française French Film Festival can justifiably claim to be number two. The question for 2017 is, do they also “try harder”? This festival is bigger and goes deeper than any French Film Festival we have had before. Even with tiny resources, the ambition is palpable. New director Dorothée Basel has built on the work of her predecessors and constructed a thorough survey of the current French cinema, featuring many of the more commercial titles that don’t fit the bigger festival’s remit.

The festival was kind enough to let me see a few of this year’s line-up early, so I can make some recommendations.

150 milligrams / La fille de brest

The great Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen) proves to be a great deal more comfortable acting in French than she was acting alongside Tom Hanks in Inferno last year. She plays a doctor in the small northern town of Brest who suspects that the large amount of lung disease she is seeing is related to the highly-prescribed weight loss drug known as Mediator. As a woman and a ‘provincial’ she is not taken seriously by the government or the drug companies but her persistence eventually pays off.

This is a little cracker, perfectly paced with lots of little details of family and working life that – it seems to me – could only have come from a female director. Emmanuelle Bercot has two films in the festival and I’ll be queuing to watch the other one, Standing Tall from 2015, if it’s half as good as this.

Slack Bay

You have never seen a film quite like Slack Bay (aka Ma Loute), written and directed by sometime enfant-terrible Bruno Dumont. Back in 2003, I was bewildered by his existential drama Twentynine Palms and more recently he collaborated with Juliet Binoche on a portrait of Camille Claudel that I described at the time as “austere to a fault”. Binoche is here along with a parade of well-known French screen faces and some unknowns; the population of a small fishing village in Northern France. The toffs live on the hill and are so corrupted by in-breeding that they can barely function. Down at the bay, a fisherman and his son make a meagre living carrying travellers in their arms across the shallow estuary. An obese policeman is investigating a series of mysterious disappearances.

This could have been called “The Decline and Fall of the French Empire” (or even better “Eat the Rich” if that title hadn’t been used already). The festival programme calls this one “slapstick” but there’s a deep-seated misanthrope on offer here that’s quite hard to stomach.

A hint of the eccentricity on offer in Dumont’s Slack Bay.

A hint of the eccentricity on offer in Dumont’s Slack Bay. Photo: French Film Festival

Baden Baden

Rachel Lang’s Baden Baden was a hit at Berlin last year and has taken over a year to get here. One of several Belgian co-productions to make the selection, it’s the story of an aimless, wandering young woman, Ana, played by Salomé Richard, who finds herself back in her home town looking after her ageing grannie. When the old woman goes in to hospital, Ana decides, despite no skills, experience or aptitude, that she’ll renovate the apartment’s bathroom.

It’s a hook more than a story but the character studies on offer are well-observed and subtly presented. It’s nice to see the life of a young woman portrayed so honestly, even if the character of Ana can be frustratingly self-defeating at times.

Dark Diamond

A revenge thriller set around the Antwerp diamond markets, this is a film that you do not want to be late for. The opening scene is shocking and bloody and I was reminded that the phrase grand guignol was invented in France. The film never gets quite that shocking again but you always feel that it has the potential and the resulting tension carries you through.

Pier (Niels Schneider) is a young petty criminal and labourer. When his estranged father dies, he discovers the rest of his family – rich diamond merchants who had cheated his father out of his inheritance and his fingers years before. When he is offered a building job by his cousin, Pier decides to take advantage. He insinuates himself into the family, all the while with vengeance on his mind.

Of course, nothing is quite as simple as it seems and the film gets into quite a tangle before falling apart a bit in the final quarter, as if it didn’t really know how to resolve itself. Atmospheric and it pays its smaller characters plenty of respect.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Deneuve is almost unbearably pretty in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Deneuve is almost unbearably pretty in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Photo: French Film Festival

As well as the arthouse and the multiplex (that’s French for multiplex by the way), this festival has raided the archives and they are playing a noir thriller by Melville called Le Doulos and this famous but not-very-often-seen jazz musical that was one of the inspirations for La La Land. The young Deneuve is radiant, the cinematography is eye-popping in primary colours, the production is design is ravishing and the music is – ah, there you have it. For a musical, I like to have actual songs, preferably songs you can hum to yourself as you leave the theatre.

Michel Legrand is a legendary composer of film scores but on the evidence here he is not a songwriter. It’s all what they call in opera recitative, singing the talking bits of a script. Anyway, don’t worry too much about that – the visuals will carry you away.


The 2017 Alliance Française French Film Festival opens in Wellington on the 1st of March, followed by Auckland on the 2nd of March and then around the country to Nelson, Christchurch, Timaru, Arrowtown, Tauranga, Palmerston north, New Plymouth, Hamilton, Havelock North and Dunedin.

150 miligrams and Baden Baden also count as #4 and #5 of my #52filmsbywomen project.

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