Distribution may have slowed but French cinema production continued during the pandemic. Alliance Française French Film Festival director Karine Mauris even emerged from her locked-down apartment in Montmartre one night in 2020 to see what appeared to be Jewish people being rounded up on the streets of Paris.
It was the filming of a scene from Farewell, Mr Haffmann (starring Daniel Auteuil), about a Jewish man who in 1941 hands ownership of his store to an employee while he tries to follow his family and escape from the Nazis.
“When I arrived on the street it was very frightening – What happened? – because they came during the night,” Mauris says, laughing as she describes encountering the cast and crew of Farewell, Mr Haffmann, a highlight of this year’s French Film Festival.
“So, this year there are some films like this one, which were completed but [had their cinema release] postponed, and also last year the industry produced more than 250 movies.”
Films by women directors feature strongly in the program, including The Young Lovers, directed by Carine Tardieu and starring Fanny Ardant as a woman in love with a much younger man, and Petite Maman, from writer-director Céline Sciamma, whose Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a searing historic romance with two female leads and barely a man in sight. In this contemporary fable, two young girls meet in the woods and become close friends while sharing a fairytale bond.
Another highlight, Peaceful (De Son Vivant), directed by Emmanuelle Bercot, stars Cécile de France, Catherine Deneuve and the magnificent Benoît Magimel, who was awarded a César for his role as a fatally ill acting teacher still hoping for remission if not a cure. The teacher visits a specialist, played by real-life doctor Gabriel Sara, an enlightened oncologist who promises to never hide from his patients the truth. As his patient’s illness progresses, the doctor also nurtures and supports his family, which includes the son of a former lover played by Australia’s Melissa George.
“I saw this in Cannes, and the audience, we shared something together that was very strong during that movie,” Mauris says. “He works with the families to say, ‘How can you not be too sad for him? How can you help him?’ And he also works with the people who are working around the family, like the nurses.”
Gerard Depardieu, the man who can do no wrong in French eyes, is back as Maigret, the old-school, pipe-smoking detective from the 1950s novel by Georges Simenon. Do not expect any criticism from Mauris about Depardieu, 72, who has somehow weathered potentially career-ruining scandals during his long career.
“Oh, we love him – he is like a monster, you know, he is iconic and he is too much but he is full of humanity. We need this kind of character,” she says.
“We need artists; he is a real artist and sometimes you may not agree with him but he has been with us for such a long time.”
One of the pressures on this year’s program was the availability of films that distributors withheld until audiences in France were confident enough to return to the cinema. Mali Twist, a sad and gorgeous love story set in 1960s post-colonial Mali, was a late inclusion because it was uncertain where it would premiere, and when France would see it.
“It was quite difficult to negotiate because there was a very short vision around the world about what would happen,” Mauris says. “Some distributors would say, ‘No you cannot have this one because it is going to Cannes’. It was very, very complicated.”
Inspired by a photo director Robert Guédiguian saw in an exhibition, Mali Twist will be shown only at 20 sessions nationally, with one or two allocated to each state, and Mauris advises not to miss it.
“It was a revolutionary time, it was a Communist time, about a couple who just want to be free, and it’s so relevant today to what is happening in Mali now,” she says. “It is also a beautiful love story.”
Look for other gems, too, like Virginie Efira as the damaged beauty, wife and mother in Waiting for Bojangles, and Efira again in the psychological thriller Madeleine Collins. And for its rapturous landscapes and study in patience, there is The Velvet Queen, a documentary filmed high on the Tibetan plateau following nature photographer Vincent Munier in his search for the snow leopard.
The AFFF opens with classic French splendour, with the Australian premiere of Balzac’s Lost Illusions (Illusions Perdues), about a young and ambitious idealist seeking to make his name in Paris’s beau monde. Along not dissimilar lines is a remastered version of Purple Noon, the 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s crime thriller The Talented Mr Ripley, with Alain Delon the embodiment of danger as Tom Ripley, the friend who develops an unquenchable taste for wealth and glamour.
The Alliance Française French Film Festival runs from March 24 until April 26 at Palace Nova EastEnd and Prospect.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.