Wednesday, July 2, 2014

2014 Sacramento French Film Festival

I had planned on seeing several films at the 2014 Sacramento French Film Festival (SFFF) but the World Cup and Kenji Mizoguchi got in the way.  I watched two World Cup matches at the New Parkway.  I saw Germany vs. Ghana on June 21 and Brazil vs. Chile on June 28.  If not for those matches, I would have had more time to spend in Sacramento.  Both matches were well attended at the New Parkway.

As for Mizoguchi, I am referring to the current retrospective at the PFA.  I was particularly keen on seeing SFFF's Inside (with Béatrice Dalle) at 11:45 PM on June 28 but it conflicted with The 47 Ronin at the PFA.  I might have been able to get from Berkeley to Sacramento in time for the 11:45 showtime but I was exhausted after having woken up before 7 AM that day to get to the New Parkway in time for the Brazil-Chile match.

By the way, I have come to enjoy Sweet Bar Bakery in Oakland when I visit the New Parkway.  I like the coffee there.  Sweet Bar is a half block from the New Parkway at 24th and Broadway.

I was only able to spend one afternoon/evening at SFFF.  On June 22, I saw three feature films at the Crest Theater.

Attila Marcel starring Guillaume Gouix, Anne Le Ny, Bernadette Lafont & Hélène Vincent; directed by Sylvain Chomet; French with subtitles; (2013)
Camille Claudel 1915 starring Juliette Binoche; directed by Bruno Dumont; French with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook
Age of Panic starring Laetitia Dosch & Vincent Macaigne; directed by Justine Triet; French with subtitles; (2013)

Each feature was preceded by a short film.

Office du Tourisme; directed by Benjamin Biolay; French with subtitles; (2014)
As It Used to Be; directed by Clément Gonzalez; (2013)
La Gagne starring Olivier Benard, Simon Ferrante; directed by Patrice Deboosere; French with subtitles; (2014)

Office du Tourisme preceded Attila MarcelAs It Used to Be preceded Camille Claudel 1915 and La Gagne preceded Age of Panic.

I was a little disappointed that so many of this year's selections had been or will soon get a theatrical distribution.  Among the films that I have already seen because they have been released are On My Way, Stranger by the Lake, Young & Beautiful and Chinese Puzzle.  In addition, Queen Margot played at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, Suzanne screened at the 2013 French Cinema Now and The Murderer Lives at Number 21 was part of a Henri-Georges Clouzot series at the PFA in 2012.  That made 7 films in the lineup which I had already seen.  In addition, Venus in Fur (directed by Roman Polanski) opens at the Landmark Theaters in the Bay Area this summer.

It was difficult for me to piece together a schedule which included World Cup matches, Mizoguchi films, the drive time to and from Sacramento and French films which I had not seen.  The festival ran from June 20 to 22 and June 27 to 29 at the Crest Theater in Downtown Sacramento. 


In the SFFF program guide, Attila Marcel was described it as continuing "to display his [director Sylvain Chomet's] fascination with the Two Jacques: Tati and Demy."  I saw more Demy than Tati but agree with the assessment.  Chomet's previous credits include The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist.

Paul Marcel (Guillaume Gouix) is a former piano prodigy.  Now, he is a 30something mute who lives with his spinster aunts Annie (Bernadette Lafont) and Anna (Hélène Vincent).  The two sisters run a dance studio where Paul accompanies the class.  Paul is traumatized by the death of his mother & father  (the eponymous Attila Marcel) when he was a baby although he cannot recall the incident.  Paul has partial memories of his father (portrayed by Gouix in flashback scenes) beating his mother and blames his father for his parents' deaths.

Paul's life would probably remain in this peculiar stasis except he encounter Madame Proust (Anne Le Ny), the eccentric downstairs neighbor who lives in a what appears to be an illegal unit between floors.  Mme. Proust serves him some "herbal tea" which puts Paul in an catatonic state but also stirs long repressed memories of his parents.

Desperate to learn what happened to his parents, Paul repeatedly returns to take tea with Mme. Proust (who reminded me quite a bit of Olympia Dukakis' Anna Madrigal from Tales of City).  As he regains memories, Paul's odd behavior raises concerns in his aunts.

The film reaches its conclusion when Mme. Proust is diagnosed with incurable cancer and Paul finally recalls the deaths of his parents.  His parents were performance artists and the beating his father laid on his mother was part of the act.  Not only that - he and his parents lived in the apartment Mme. Proust now occupies.  The pièce de résistance is when Paul recalls his parents' deaths...from being crushed by a piano falling through the ceiling...which was being played by his aunts...and is the same piano he practices on while at home.

These plot coincidences, cinematography and wardrobe colors reminded me a lot of Jacques Demy's films.  Attila Marcel was a first rate homage to Demy (and Tati) but the film was strangely anachronistic.   Dreamlike and farcical, the film left me wanting a little bit more.  Chomet's film felt derivative and hewed too close to the techniques of the Two Jacques.  Ultimately, I think it lacked the bittersweet tone that made Demy's and Tati's films so memorable.  I would have preferred a little less farce and a little more pathos in Attila Marcel.


Camille Claudel 1915 was an extremely difficult film to watch.  The film is based on the real events of Camille Claudel's life which SFFF Executive Director Cécile Mouette Downs said were well known in France.

Camille Claudel was sculptor Auguste Rodin's assistant, muse, protégé and lover.  Claudel and Rodin continued their volatile personal and professional relationship for nearly 15 years.  Before and after the split from Rodin, Claudel was a renowned sculptor.  However, in the early 20th century, Claudel began to exhibit increasing signs of mental illness.  Soon after her father died in 1913, Claudel was "voluntarily" committed to a psychiatric hospital.

For the next 30 years until her death, Claudel lived in asylums despite doctors' recommendations that she be released into the care of her family.  Claudel's brother Paul visit her periodically over the years.  Her sister Louise visited her once while her mother did not visit at all before passing in 1929.

I knew none of this prior to watching the film.  During Downs introduction of the film, I stepped out of the auditorium to get something to drink.  When I returned, the movie was starting (why did it take 5+ minutes to heat a hot dog?).  I'm not sure if knowing all this would have changed my viewing experience.

As the title alludes, the film picks up Camille Claudel's (Juliette Binoche) life story in 1915.  Set  at Montdevergues Asylum near Avignon, Claudel is the most lucid of the patients.  While watching the film, I was amazed at the performances of the actors playing the other patients.  It turns out the film was shot at an actual mental asylum and the patients were portrayed by actual patients.  This lends a reality to the film which is harrowing.  In particular, there is one woman who can only be described as snaggletoothed whose appearance and behavior are gut wrenching.  I've never dealt with mentally unstable people (except on the streets of San Francisco) but there is something about losing one's faculties that terrifies me.  I found Camille Claudel 1915 to be harrowing.

Supplementing the cinéma vérité aspects of the film is a tremendous performance by Juliette Binoche.  Despondent and resentful about her situation, Claudel has no choice but to endure.  Unable to find privacy and embarrassed by the indignities she must suffer, Claudel is in no man's land.  Clearly not at the same condition as her fellow inmates but nonetheless restricted by most of the same rules, Claudel is truly in despair.  Binoche gets to flex her acting muscles in the role.

The film follows Claudel in the days leading up to a visit by her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent).  Excited by the prospect of finding a sympathetic figure in her brother and possibly released into his care, Claudel highly anticipates the meeting.  Much of the film focuses on the days leading up to Paul's arrival.  When he does arrive, we see a man whose devotion to Catholicism borders on fanatical.  In the final, heartbreaking scene, Paul rejects his sister's plea for removal from Montdevergues.  His motivations remain vague although Camille's unconventional life seems to have offended his religious sensibilities.  That's interesting because I learned later that Rodin was not actually married during his affair with Camille while Paul had a long-term affair and child by a married woman.

Camille Claudel 1915 was an exhausting experience...much like Claudel's life in the asylum.  The film's portrayal of Claudel was ambiguous.  Although she was clearly in better shape than the others, she did suffer from bouts of paranoia and in real-life, her behavior prior to institutionalization was more erratic.  The film repeatedly whipsawed my empathy towards Claudel.

An uncomfortable film to watch should not be confused with a film lacking merit.  Camille Claudel 1915 is a very powerful film and the images will last in my memory for a long time.


It had been my intention to only see two films on the Sunday I went to Sacramento.  I wanted to eat dinner at Petra Greek on 16th St. but did not realize it was not open on Sundays.  I turned around and got back to the Crest just in time to for the 8:15 PM start of Age of Panic.

Downs cited Age of Panic as an example of the New New Wave of French Cinema, a term I was previously unfamiliar with.  I'm still unclear on what constitutes the New New Wave but Age of Panic reminded me a little of Mumblecore.  Set on the specific date of May 6, 2012, the film integrates the French Presidential Election (held on May 6) with film's plot.  All the characters are portrayed by actors with the same name.  Laetitia Dosch is a television news reporter who has been assigned to cover the François Hollande election day rallies.  She hires a first-time babysitter (a chef by training) to look after her two young children.  She warns him not to allow the children's father Vincent (Macaigne) in the apartment.  Their divorce was acrimonious.  Actually, I'm not sure if they were ever married but their child-sharing arrangement has been contentious.

Of course, Vincent shows up at Laetitia's apartment and demands to see the kids and of course, Marc (the babysitter) allows him into the house.  This begins a long day played out in front of the election, the election results and election celebrations.  What would have happened to the plot if Hollande had lost?  I doubt anything would have changed within the film.

Unscripted, director Justine Triet give free rein to Dosch & Macaigne to spew their character's vitriol and display their character flaws.  At times it was repetitive but Vincent's character is slightly unhinged.  Dosch and especially Macaigne run with the roles.  They are too deeply resentful people who were likely deeply in the love once upon a time.

The films peters out at the end when Vincent, his law student cum attorney, Laetitia and her new boyfriend meet late at night in an awkward but highly amusing encounter.  Triet didn't seem to know how to end the scene or the film or if she did, she was giving directions to her actors.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Age of Panic.  It is the third film starring Vincent Macaigne which I've seen in less than a year.


Office du Tourisme is a delightful short film directed by actor Benjamin Biolay (Bachelor Days Are Over).  Paired with Attila MarcelOffice du Tourisme was the more Demyesque of the two.  It is a 15 minute musical about a young woman recently arrived in Paris who finds love unexpectedly with another woman only to have their amorous evening interrupted by a homophobic taxi driver (Biolay).  Whereas Attila felt derivative, Biolay took Demy's template and applied it to a modern situation in an innovative way.  Office du Tourisme was my favorite film of the ones I saw at SFFF this year.

As It Used to Be was an English language film set in South Africa.  Set in a future where university instruction is completely web based, a professor must deal with the disruptive effects of actually having a student in the classroom.  Simplistic and predictable, I wasn't very impressed.

La Gagne tells the story of an elaborate scam where a successful businessman and homeless mendicant slowly reveal themselves to be different than what first impressions would indicate.  It wasn't bad although I predicted the ending several minutes in advance.

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