Monday, July 6, 2015

2015 Sacramento French Film Festival

I saw 11 films at the 2015 Sacramento French Film Festival (SFFF).  That's a personal record for me.  I guess that is appropriate since SFFF screened 18 feature length films (a record too).  I actually went up to Sacramento for two weekends.  Typically, I only go up for one weekend.  I spent a total of three days at the festival.  I drove up and back on June 21.  I drove up again on June 27, spent the night and watched a full day of films on June 28.

All films screened at the Crest Theater.

That Man from Rio starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Françoise Dorléac & Jean Servais; directed by Philippe de Broca; French with subtitles; (1964)
Love At First Fight starring Adèle Haenel & Kévin Azaïs; directed by Tomas Cailley; French with subtitles; (2014)
The Chef's Wife starring Karin Viard, Emmanuelle Devos & Roschdy Zem; directed by Anne Le Ny; French with subtitles; (2014)
Party Girl starring Angélique Litzenburger & Joseph Bour; directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger & Samuel Theis; French with subtitles; (2014)
In the Courtyard starring Catherine Deneuve & Gustave Kervern; directed by Pierre Salvadori; French with subtitles; (2014) - Official Facebook
Girlhood starring Karidja Touré; with  Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh & Mariétou Touré; directed by Céline Sciamma; French with subtitles; (2014)
The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq starring Michel Houellebecq; directed by Guillaume Nicloux; French with subtitles; (2014)
Beauty and the Devil starring Michel Simon & Gérard Philipe; directed by René Clair; French with subtitles; (1950)
Number One Fan starring Sandrine Kiberlain & Laurent Lafitte; directed by Jeanne Henry; French with subtitles; (2014)
Hippocrates starring Vincent Lacoste & Reda Kateb; directed by Thomas Lilti; French with subtitles; (2014)
Timbuktu starring Ibrahim Ahmed; directed by Abderrahmane Sissako; French, Arabic, Bambara  , English & Songhay with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website

Hippocrates has an alternate and longer title of Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor.

This year's festival seemed to have a number of films which have screened at Bay Area festivals & venues.  In addition to the 11 films I watched, I skipped two which I had already seen:  Gemma Bovery (2015 Cinequest) and The New Girlfriend (2015 San Francisco International Film Festival).

I easily could have seen at least four more films at previous film festivals in the Bay Area.

Love at First Fight and Girlhood were screened at the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now series in November 2014.  Timbuktu screened at the 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival in October.  Jacky in the Kingdom of Women screened at the 2015 IndieFest in February.  Some of the other films may have screened at Bay Area festivals too but I can't remember them.

Each feature film was preceded by a short film at SFFF so that means I saw 11 short films.

Une bonne affaire; directed by Laurent Ardoint & Stéphane Duprat; French with subtitles; (2014)
Foudroyés; directed by Bibo Bergeron;  French with subtitles; (2015)
Qui de nous deux?; directed by Benjamin Bouhana; French with subtitles; (2014)
J'ai pas envie qu'on se quitte maintenant; directed by Joachim Cohen; French with subtitles; (2013)
La Tête de l'emploi; directed by Wilfried Méance; French with subtitles; (2014)
Coach; directed by Ben Adler; (2014)
L'Ascenseur; directed by Agnès Doolaeghe; French with subtitles; (2014)
Une odeur de pique-nique; directed by Luc Serrano; French with subtitles; (2014)
Jumble Up!; directed by Léo Karman; French with subtitles; (2015)
L'Enfer me meant; directed by Gérald Portenart; French with subtitles; (2014)
Sous tes doigts; animated; directed by Marie-Christine Courtès; French with subtitles; (2014)

The order I listed the short films corresponds to the listing of the feature films.

Jumble Up! & Sous tes doigts had minimal perhaps even zero dialog so "French with subtitles" may not be accurate.  Coach had English language dialog.


The area around the Crest Theater is bereft of places to eat on the weekends.  SFFF schedules about 20 minutes between screenings so there isn't much time to go anywhere.  I was looking forward to dining at Empress Tavern which will be in the basement of the Crest Theater although accessible from a separate entrance.  The restaurant seems to have been on the verge of opening for the past six months.  It was not open as of June 28.

I stayed at the Hyatt on the night of June 27.  The people in the room next to me got in around 2:30 AM (after the bars close) and made a racket.  I couldn't get to sleep until 4 AM.  I dozed on and off for the first film of June 28 (Beauty and the Beast).  The Midtown area of Sacramento is really popular now.  Maybe it always has been but I noticed it more on the evening of June 27 when I looked for a place to eat.  There were a lot of people club hopping.


The lineup at SFFF was pretty strong this year.  I'm not sure I can pick a favorite this year.  Among my favorites are Party Girl, Girlhood, Number One Fan & Hippocrates.

Party Girl is an interesting film but when you realize that the co-writer and co-director of the film is the son of the lead "actress" and that the story is semi-autobiographical of her life, the film becomes a brutal piece of cinéma vérité at the most intimate of levels.

The eponymous party girl is sixtysomething Angelique Litzenburger (played by Angelique Litzenburger), who is essentially a bargirl or B-girl working in a strip club.  Portrayed as manipulative drunk and dressed in garish clothes and makeup.  Her character is truly grotesque and during portions of the film I wondered if Angelique was being portrayed by a male actor in drag.

Not surprisingly, Angelique doesn't get a lot of business.  She goes to the house of Michel (Joseph Bour) one of former regulars (or most likely her only) to find out why he doesn't come to the club anymore.  Michel says that he began to feel uncomfortable with their relationship.  He didn't like the feeling that he had to pay for her friendship and proposes that they see each other outside the club.  She has her reservations since she appears to view Michel as a source of steady income instead of a potential boyfriend.  Seeing that she has to do something in order to get Michel back to the club, she agrees to see him outside the club.

Their first date ends with them back at the club with Michel buying champagne and Angelique almost triumphant as she shows her co-workers that she can still reel one in.  However, Michel doesn't waste anytime and after bringing Angelique to meet some of his friends, he quickly proposes marriage.

Now you would think that a woman with Angelique's prospects would jump at the chance to escape her life with a retired miner with his own house & steady pension.  Instead, she tentatively goes along with the engagement...half-heartedly at each step in the process.

First, she introduces Michel to her two children who live in the same town.  Then she informs her eldest son in Paris with whom she seems to desire a codependency.  Finally she informs her youngest child, a daughter who lives far away with a foster family.  Just that brief description of her family hints at a turbulent past which has torn the family apart.

Despite all the warning signs that marrying the hooker/stripper/B-girl isn't the wisest choice, Michel barrels ahead.  On the evening before her wedding, Angelique confides to her eldest son Samuel Theis (portrayed by co-director Samuel Theis) that she doesn't love Michel.  Her son reminds her of her circumstances and advises her to give the marriage her full effort.  I won't give away the ending but will say it is consistent with Angelique's behavior throughout the film.

I wonder what the circumstances are of the real-life Angelique Litzenburger.  She plays herself and her four children play themselves but Michel is played by Joseph Bour.  Litzenburger is not a professional actress but she gives a strong performance.  Again, I wonder if she was performing or recreating parts of her life.  It takes some courage though to portray oneself as Litzenburger does.

The title implies that Angelique is a fun-loving but dysfunctional woman.  I viewed hers part of the demimonde (I've always wanted to use that word in a sentence).  Her lifestyle is as grotesque as her appearance.  Viewed from that perspective, I find the title bitterly ironic which makes for a more compelling film in my opinion.


Girlhood seems as though its title could be play on word - girl 'hood.  Covering ground that seems more appropriate for South Central LA or the East End of London, Girlhood follows the formative period of a teenage girl's life.  Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a 16 year old girl living in a poor Paris housing project or banlieue.  I wonder about some of the stylistic choices made by director Céline Sciamma.  The film opens with Marieme and a group of girls playing football; not soccer but American football with pads, helmets, etc.  That seems an odd choice of sporting events.  I'm not aware of organized, female, tackle football in the US much less a Paris suburb.  Anyway, this opening scene serves to set the baseline for Marieme's innocence.

As the film progresses, the virginal, underachieving, solitary Marieme comes under the influence of a trio of girls who are looking for a 4th to round out their crew.  The leader is Lady (Assa Sylla) with Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) & Fily (Marietou Touré) filling out the gang.  Rechristened "Vic" (short of victory), Marieme quickly bonds to the girls.  It's not surprising given her hardworking mother is frequently absent and her older brother is physically abusive.  Relatively glamorous and tight-knit, the trio doesn't need to coax Marieme very much to assume her street persona of Vic.

Again, the environment doesn't quite ring true.  The girls are treated as an autonomous group rather than an adjunct to a male gang.  Despite being attractive, they guard their chastity like a Victorian Age maiden.  Their major form of partying involves renting a room at a hotel, dressing up in evening clothes, getting drunk & sleeping four to a bed...almost like a slumber party.

Despite these seemingly childish flourishes, the girls have real issues to deal with.  Lady has to face down a rival gang leader in a fight.  After she is beat, her position as leader of the foursome becomes tenuous.  Bemoaning the loss of street cred that has befell the foursome due to Lady's defeat, Vic decides to take on the rival who beat Lady.  After her victory, Vic's position within the foursome vastly improves as well as on the street and with her older brother.

Like Icarus, Vic soars a too close to the sun.  She loses her virginity to the guy she has been crushing on for year.  Her brother finds out and beats her up.  She gets involved with a real street criminal and start delivering drugs.  She intimidates her mother's supervisor into not offering her a job so she can have her nights free to hang with her homies.

I guess I should add that Vic, Lady, et al. are black which probably has the same stereotype in France as the US.  In fact, almost everyone in the film is black.  Vic lives in an insulated (or shunned) world.  I wondered what Marieme could have become under different circumstances which is part of the point of the film.  The film portrays the plight of a Vic as a tragedy although Vic is far from being blameless in the choices she makes.  Marieme/Vic is a complex character and Karidja Touré delivers a complex performances that highlights the nuances and contradictory aspects of the character.  Although the political and socioeconomic commentary can be inferred from the film, director Céline Sciamma does not directly comment on it.  Instead, she focuses the attention on the existential concerns of Marieme.

Girlhood was a tremendous film.  I quickly empathized with Marieme and was thoroughly drawn into her story.  The obvious comparison would be to American films such as Menace II Society or Boyz in the Hood.  Girlhood has a distinct voice; partly due to the gender of the protagonist and partly due to the different culture.  However, there was definitely parallels.  I highly recommend the film.


Number One Fan is a contrived film but I notice the French can make highly entertaining films from contrived circumstances whereas Americans can take the same circumstances and make a hash out of it.

Sandrine Kiberlain plays Muriel, a 40something, divorced mother who works at a nail salon, is prone to outlandish stories and is the number one fan Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte), a popular French singer.  She goes to so many of his concerts that the security personnel know her and even allow her backstage if there aren't too many VIPs at the performance.  

The relationship between Lacroix & Muriel is not initially observed but it would appear to be one where Lacroix alternately ignores her and looks upon her with a polite acknowledgement.  Lacroix has more pressing issues at home.  His wife/live-in girlfriend is deeply unhappy with their relationship.  When she acts out during a friendly poker game, Lacroix confronts her afterwards.  They argue, she attacks him and he pushes her off of him which results in a heavy object falling off of a shelf.  The blow kills her and in a move right out of 1940s film noir, Lacroix decides to cover up the death instead of calling the police/ambulance.  The reasons are not explained but can be surmised.  Their previous argument could cast suspicion about the accidental nature of the death.  Regardless, the negative publicity would hurt his career.

Unsure of how to go about disposing of the body, Lacroix does the only logical thing (given his choice):  he enlists Muriel to help dispose of the body.  At this point in the film, I had a weird sense of disbelief and appreciation for the audacity of this particular plot device.  On the one hand, would you enlist a relative stranger into a criminal conspiracy of such magnitude?  You have to be supremely self-confident that you can control such a person and Lacroix has that confidence and Muriel appears to be the type of person who can be manipulated by her idol.  Part of the fun of this film is watching these assumptions fall apart and the relationship between Lacroix & Muriel evolve as the cover-up progresses.

Muriel is given specific instructions.  First, transfer the wrapped bundle from Lacroix's car trunk to her car's trunk.  Do not open the bundle.  Drive to Switzerland and give Lacroix's sister a letter.  Do not read the letter.  Lacroix's sister will take Muriel's car for a short period of time while Muriel waits at her house.  Upon her return, Muriel will drive her car back to Paris.  What can be simpler?

In films, nothing can ever be simple.  When Muriel arrives at the border crossing, she observes the immigration officers checking the trunks of cars crossing into Switzerland.  Suspecting the wrapped package in the trunk is something she doesn't want to be found by law enforcement, she turns around and drives to her mother's house which is in the opposite direction.

When Lacroix later checks in with Muriel, she lies to him and says everything went fine.  Lacroix's plan is predicated on the body never being found.  His sister owns a veterinary clinic with a crematory.  Lacroix believes his trusted sister has turned the body into ash so you can imagine his surprise when the police inform him that they have found the body buried in a shallow grave far from the Swiss border.  The police also have a lead.  They have been looking at the logs of his internet fan site.  They notice that Muriel is a frequent visitor and that Muriel grew up in the region where the body was found and that her mother still lives there.  The police ask Lacroix if he knows Muriel.

Lacroix is now panicked.  The police are now one step away from solving the crime.  To throw off the scent, Lacroix surreptitiously visits Muriel at her apartment.  He plants one of his wife's rings in the apartment.  When police find the ring, Muriel becomes the prime suspect.  It appears as though the case is closed.  However, Muriel is tougher than she appears.  Doubly so since the discovery of the ring leaves no doubt that Lacroix is trying to frame her for the crime.  She denies owning the ring and notes that it is a common ring that was sold in mass quantities.  

The cover-up is helped by the two police investigators (Olivia Côte & Pascal Demolon).  The two are dating but have recently broken up due to Côte's character being a "nymphomaniac."  Trying to reconcile while working a murder investigation puts them under a lot stress which leads to slipshod moments in the investigation.

Number One Fan is a dark comedy and feels a lot like a Hitchcock film.  Director Jeanne Henry adroitly mixes suspense and humor throughout the film.  Kiberlain who was nominated for a César Award for her performance shows a lot of acting range as the mousy Muriel transforms into a strong woman.  The perverse part is that the transformation results from Muriel's trial by fire during police interrogation.

It takes a certain type of person to be able to find humor in a murder investigation or to appreciate the finer points of a criminal conspiracy (albeit cinematic).  I am such a person and if the reader is too, he or she will greatly enjoy Number One Fan.


Hippocrates feels familiar.  It's about an idealist but naive young doctor who learns that medicine is a business and can be a tough one at that.  Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste) is an intern at a Paris hospital.  I don't know much about the French health care system but the hospital Benjamin works at seems to be a private one; perhaps affiliated with a medical university.  The cocksure Benjamin is quickly humbled by his lack of experience.  He becomes friends with Abdel (Reda Kateb), an experienced Algerian doctor whose credentials are recognized in France.  Abdel is forced to take a position as an intern but is clearly more experienced (and more mature) than the other interns at the hospital.

Benjamin & Abdel are a study in contrasts.  Benjamin's choice of medicine seem to have been largely the result of following his father into the field.  In fact, his father holds a senior post at the hospital.  Benjamin isn't prepared for the emotional toll his patients can have on him.  Abdel is more compassionate towards his patients and his motivation is clear.  He wants to be a fully credentialed doctor to get a better job and bring his wife and children over from Algeria.

Their careers are altered by a patient dubbed Tsunami by the hospital staff.  A repeat patient with mental issues and an alcohol addiction, Tsunami's admission in the hospital is treated as a non-event.  On his first night, Tsunami develops unusual abdominal pain and the on-call physician is Benjamin.  He orders an ECG...or was it an EKG?  Whatever test it was, the machine is broken so the test never gets performed.  That's unfortunate because Tsunami dies that night.

Abdel, who also treated Tsunami, quickly picks up on the significance of the lack of ECG test results.  After confronting Benjamin, Abdel lets the matter drop.  The hospital staff are circling the wagons around Benjamin since the broken test equipment would reflect badly on management.

Although Benjamin is initially shaken up by Tsunami's death, he quickly moves past it.  However, an elderly patient with terminal cancer is admitted and her lingering illness is impossible for Benjamin to ignore.  Myriam (Carole Franck) likely has terminal cancer but her continued treatment is too expensive so the hospital admits her into Benjamin's wing with the end goal of having Myriam become well enough to go home.  Benjamin and the rest of the staff immediately recognize the absurdity of the notion and see through the cold cost-cutting measure.

Abdel orders a morphine drip for Myriam but the measure is overruled by higher-ups because of the cost of having Myriam indefinitely taking up bed space is too high.  Cutting to the chase, eventually Abdel & Benjamin essentially perform physician assisted suicide.  The less experienced (but more connected) Benjamin gets a slap on the wrist whereas Abdel gets a censure which guarantees he will not be able to advance beyond intern level.

I would rate Hippocrates a notch below the previous three films I have written about because the ending was a little too saccharine for me.  The hospital staff in Hippocrates are frequently watching the American TV show House.  I enjoyed House as much as the next guy but I think the American influence leaked into the plotline of Hippocrates.  In short, the ending of Hippocrates was straight out of an American "feel good" movie.

Hippocrates was a bit derivative although I'm not able to identify the films it reminds me of.  "Young doctor learns lessons of life from the cruel realities at the hospital" is not a original plot description.  Director & co-screenwriter Thomas Lilti was a doctor before becoming a film director.  I think his familiarity with the subject matter infused the film with sense of authenticity which enhanced the film beyond the plot and actors' performances.


That Man from Rio, Love At First Fight, The Chef's Wife & Timbuktu were not quite as enjoyable or thought provoking but worthwhile nonetheless.

That Man from Rio - a rollicking action/adventure/comedy featuring Jean-Paul Belmondo as the hapless hero.  Françoise Dorléac is an archaeologist's daughter who is kidnapped and taken to Brazil.  Belmondo is her boyfriend who is on leave as a private in the Army.  He stows away to Rio save her.  Jean Servais is an archaeologist and friend to Dorléac's late father.  The three of them converge on an ancient secret which can unleash power beyond imagination.  I got the definite sense that Man from Rio inspired Lucas & Kaufman when the wrote the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Spielberg when he directed it.  The story is propelled by some great, pre-CGI action sequences, Dorléac's sexiness & Belmondo being Belmondo.

Love At First Fight - a romance masquerading underneath some youthful ennui.  Kévin Azaïs is an aimless young man who doesn't seem to know what he wants to do with his life.  He drifts along helping his brother at their late father's carpentry business.  The brothers get a job to build a pool-side gazebo at a residence.  At the home, Azaïs encounters Adèle Haenel, a young woman with anti-social tendencies and an ardent belief that a global collapse of civilization is near.  She has definite goal.  She wants to join an elite unit in the French Army to learn the survival skills which will be necessary when the apocalypse comes.  Smitten and with nothing better to do, Azaïs follows her to a summer training session sponsored by the Army.  To their mutual surprise, Azaïs turns out to be the better soldier.  Although a bit heavy handed on its use of imagery, characterizations and metaphors, Love At First Fight rises on the basis of the performances and chemistry of the two lead actors (Azaïs & Haenel)

The Chef's Wife - a screwball comedy about two women who are dissatisfied with their lives.  Karin Viard is a job placement specialist who helps unemployed people get jobs.   Emmanuelle Devos is the chef's wife who also functions as the restaurant manager.  On a whim, Devos stops in Viard's office looking to change careers.  Thus their lives become entwined.  Viard becomes infatuated with Devos' husband (Roschdy Zem) and for self-serving purposes encourages Devos' desires of starting a business and divorcing her husband.  Viard's character comes off badly at times but the laughs are frequent enough to recommend the film.

Timbuktu - before the film started, Professor Kevin Elstob gave an introduction.  Elstob gave an introduction before all or most of the films I saw at the festival.  He also moderated a discussion group after each film.  Before Timbuktu, Elstob launched into a very long talk about the recent history of Mali (where Timbuktu is).  I was largely unaware of the events which have unfolded in Mali.  The short version is that Muslim fundamentalists have seized control over parts of the country and imposed sharia law.  Death by stoning & other forms of execution are not uncommon for offenses which would not be considered a crime in Western civilization.  There are a few parallel plots but the main one concerns a cattle rancher who confronts a fisherman who killed one of his cows.  They struggle, a gun goes off and the sentence is all but predetermined.  I'm not sure if an al-Qaeda offshoot can be portrayed impartially.  The Muslim fundamentalist come off pretty badly in the film which was pretty much my opinion before the film.  The film is definitely a sad commentary on life in Mali/Timbuktu but I didn't need a film to tell me that life under strictly enforced sharia law is miserable.  Cinematically, the film is a bit too measured in its pacing for my tastes.  Still it's hard not to be moved by the deplorable conditions under which the people in the film live.


My least favorite films were In the Courtyard  & The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq.

In the Courtyard  was a long slog of a discourse on mental illness as both Catherine Deneuve as the apartment coop board member & Gustave Kervern as the apartment building's concierge exhibit signs of depression & mental illness.  I'm certainly not opposed to dark films but this film left me disinterested.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq - Houellebecq is a well known novelist & political pundit in France.  During the leadup to his novel's release in 2011, Houellebecq went missing for several weeks.  The exact reason for his disappearance remains unclear.  The film is (presumably) a fictional recounting of the period where he is missing.  According to the film, Houellebecq was abducted by a bodybuilder and some other working class men.  The reason for the kidnapping is unclear or at least lost upon me.  Houellebecq portrays himself as an unassuming man who is nonplussed by his captivity, even gently criticizing his captors for their choice of reading matter or food preparation.  Like avante garde performance art, the film is all over the map and Houellebecq only has one gear - vaguely distinerested and chain smoking.  Maybe if I was French or in the right mood, the film would have held my interest but on a Saturday night after driving to Sacto, watching two films, exercising for an hour and not eating dinner, I became bored with the film.  I didn't fall asleep but there were extended stretches where I wasn't reading the subtitles.


I have to Beauty and the Devil an incomplete.  After being kept awake until 4 AM and then forcing a workout session in, I couldn't keep my eyes awake for Beauty and the Devil.  I slept through most of it.  In fact, I slept so much that I was amazed afterwards.  When I fall asleep during a film, usually I am aware that I am sleeping at various points throughout the film.  I try to rouse myself; sometimes I am successful; sometimes I am not.  For Beauty and the Devil, I fell asleep at the beginning and the next thing I know, the audience was clapping as the ending credit rolled.  It was as deep a sleep as I have had in bed.


Of the short films, my favorites were:

Qui de nous deux? was about a couple on their first date who go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying the bill as they alternating paying for items.

Coach - the story of an English teenager and his father who travel to Paris to see a soccer match.  When their car breaks down they get a ride with coach bus filled with Engish soccer hooligans.

L'Ascenseur - a trippy story about a man who switches lives with one of his neighbors while riding an elevator.

Sous tes doigts - an animated film about a three generation of women who immigrate from French Indochina to France.  I was amazed at how much plot the director packed into 13 minutes with no dialog.  You see the Vietnamese woman being seduced by the French colonial official, their bi-racial child being born, her escape to France, their internment in a refugee camp, etc.  


SFFF has announced their second annual mini fall festival.  It will be a one day event on Saturday, November 14 at the Crest.

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