Your guide to the 2021 Alliance Française French Film Festival | Movie News

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The Alliance Française French Film Festival, now in its 32nd year, might be constrained by COVID-19. But the event, under new artistic director Karine Mauris, still offers a schedule of over 35 features, a mixture of festival-only screenings and previews of films that will be released in cinemas later this year. Here is a rundown of films to select from.

In Final Set, a veteran tennis player gives his all for one last chance to appear at Roland Garros; in Mandibles, two clueless friends think their fortunes are made when they find a giant fly in the boot of a car. Miss tells the story of Alex, who still holds on to his childhood dream of becoming Miss France; in Night Shift, Omar Sy, star of Netflix’s Lupin, is a police officer faced with an unsettling task and an emotional challenge. 

One of the festival highlights is Kaouther Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin, Tunisia’s entry for the best international feature film at the Academy Awards, which has already made it onto this year’s shortlist. It’s a story of art, politics and exploitation; its central character is a young Syrian, Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), whose life revolves around his future with his girlfriend, Abeer (Dea Liane). When a public declaration of love is misinterpreted, and circumstances force him to leave her and take refuge in another country, a celebrated artist, Jeffrey Godefroy (Koen de Bouw), offers him what appears at first to be a way out of his dilemma.

Godefroy turns Sam into a living canvas: the image tattooed on his back is a Schengen visa. Rather than a refugee, he is now a work of art, free to travel to Belgium – where Abeer now lives – but contractually obliged to make himself available for display in galleries that are showing the artist’s works.

At first, Sam enjoys being put up in a luxury hotel, and the life of a cultural treasure. We see him, clad in a silk dressing-gown, passing through the museum first thing in the morning, nodding to the works of art on the walls. He’s also able to make contact with Abeer. But he soon comes to realise the drawbacks and complexities of his new status as an object that can be exhibited or bought and sold. Yet he doesn’t want to be claimed by refugee advocates; they too, he suggests, are using him as a symbol, another kind of commodity. 

Ben Hania, inspired by a work from artist Wim Delvoye, who has a cameo in the film, makes her points deftly and playfully, with the aid of a rich, mercurial performance from Mahayni, who won a best actor award at Venice for the role.

There’s also a strong lead performance at the heart of Black Box, a thriller co-written and directed by Yann Gozlan. Pierre Niney (Yves Saint Laurent, Franz) plays the dogged, obsessive Mathieu, who works for a French civil aviation authority analysing audio data from the black boxes of crashed aircraft.

His single-mindedness – and a past error – put his standing at risk, even though his special talents are readily acknowledged. So when an airliner flying from Dubai inexplicably crashes, with the loss of more than 300 lives, he is not part of the team at first. It is only when his immediate boss suddenly goes missing that responsibility passes to Mathieu. 

Under pressure to produce a quick answer that fits a convenient media narrative, Mathieu starts to suspect that the investigation has been compromised, and that even more might be at stake than this one case. What’s more, he’s not sure if there’s anyone he can trust – even his wife (Lou de Laage), who works in the same field.

Tightly wound, stubborn, barely pausing to reflect on the danger he is facing, Mathieu continues his quest. Around him, Golzan creates a cold, deceptive world of screens, reflective surfaces and ubiquitous surveillance devices, coupled with an intense sound design that heightens the tension and sense of dislocation throughout.

As a young man, we learn, Mathieu dreamed of being a pilot. There are several very different films in the festival that also deal with the desire to take flight. There’s a documentary, How To Become An Astronaut, about France’s youngest astronaut, Thomas Pesquet, who made a brief appearance in Alice Winocour’s Proxima, screened at last year’s festival. And there’s Gagarine, a feature written and directed by Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh, a vivid and beguiling combination of the fantastic and the earthbound, of a sense of both documentary and dream. 

Gagarine was the name given to a Paris housing project built in the 1960s and named in honour of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. His 1963 visit, recorded in newsreel footage, opens the film. Liatard and Trouilh developed the feature in conjunction with former residents of Gagarine, during the time when the buildings were scheduled for demolition. 

The film’s central character, Youri (Alsény Bathily), a Black teenager, lives alone in an apartment, has developed a fierce attachment to the building, and to the notion of flight itself. As the residents leave ahead of the demolition, Youri stays put, creating within the building a kind of do-it-yourself haven that’s both a spaceship and a planet, involved in an act of resistance that feels impossible and practical at the same moment. 

Another feature, Skies of Lebanon (Sous le ciel d’Alice), written and directed by Chloe Mazlo, shares some of the same imaginative elasticity of Gagarine, although it has its own distinctive voice.  

Mazlo, inspired by the lives of her grandparents in Lebanon, tells her story in a stylised yet emotionally direct fashion. Alice (Alba Rohrwacher), a young Swiss visitor to Beirut in the 1950s, falls in love with Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), an astrophysicist who dreams of designing a rocket that will send the first Lebanese astronaut into space. At first, it’s an idyllic time for Alice in the new life she embraces, far from her home; gradually, as the years pass, political realities take a grim toll.

Mazlo started out making animated shorts and there’s a poetry and a delicacy in her approach to storytelling, including judicious use of animation and artifice. Yet this in no way undermines her capacity to show the chaos and destruction that becomes part of everyday life during the civil war of the 1970s in Lebanon.

A more conventional approach to history is apparent in De Gaulle, written and directed by Gabriel Le Bomin. This biopic focuses on a brief, highly significant period during World War II, in the middle of 1940, when France is defeated and de Gaulle (Lambert Wilson), an unknown and relatively junior general, seizes the moment. Opposed to signing an armistice with Germany, he takes a stand, delivering from London his famous speech that called for resistance. 

The film creates a sense of the personalities and political intrigue that played a part in this transforming episode, but Le Bomin is also at pains to portray his central figure as a devoted husband and loving father.  

Valerie Lemercier’s Aline takes a more expansive yet off-kilter approach to the biographical portrait. Her film is billed as being “freely inspired by the life of Celine Dion”, and its central character is called Aline Dieu. Yet the movie follows the trajectory of Dion’s life – from Quebec child performer, the youngest of a family of 14, to international superstar – with considerable fidelity. And it is regularly punctuated by faithful, evocative performances of Dion classics. 

This lightly fictionalised approach, according to writer-director Lemercier (Friday Night, The Visitors), gave her the creative freedom she felt she needed for the project. She plays Aline throughout, with the help of special effects to portray her as a five-year-old, and the voice of singer Victoria Sio to bring the carefully selected hits to life. It’s a playful, engaging work, made with a sense of warmth, an immaculate production design and an affectionate commitment to its subject.

The lineup also includes features from directors and actors who are festival perennials. Director Francois Ozon returns with Summer of 85 (Eté 85), a story of desire and loss that focuses on the relationship between two teenage boys, a tale of love and death narrated via flashbacks. It is based on Aidan Chambers’ 1982 YA novel, Dance On My Grave, a book Ozon read as a teenager.

And the ubiquitous Isabelle Huppert, in Jean-Paul Salome’s The Godmother (La Daronne), plays an Arabic-speaking interpreter for the Paris police who finds that her rackety upbringing and unconventional childhood gives her a certain sympathy for the people she’s meant to be helping the drug squad to bring to account. When her work brings her closer than she anticipates to those involved in an impending drug deal, she makes a split-second decision – and from that moment, she has thrown herself directly into the world of crime. 

Huppert explores her character’s metamorphosis with wry precision and a sense of adventure. The cast also includes Liliane Rovere as her mother: Rovere is well known to viewers of the much-loved French TV series Call My Agent! in which she appears as Arlette, the veteran agent accompanied everywhere by her dog. 

Another Call My Agent! star, Laure Calamy (who plays agency assistant Noémie) has the lead in Antoinette In The Cevennes, co-written and directed by Caroline Vignal. All of Calamy’s disarming comic gifts are at play in this tale of a young woman who decides to follow her married lover when he and his family take a walking tour in the mountains. 

To her chagrin, she has to spend most of her time in the company of a recalcitrant donkey, but her sense of adventure sustains her, even during the most awkward and uncomfortable moments. Devotees of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 classic, The Green Ray (also known as Summer), will note the presence of its star, Marie Riviere, as a fellow voyager who provides a rare voice of encouragement for Antoinette on her journey.

Alliance Française French Film Festival opens in Sydney on 2 March, and soon afterwards in other states. See the website for more tickets and to purchase tickets.


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