It would be easy to think that cinema as we know it was invented in Hollywood, but France was really the place where it all began and, over the years, that country has continued to be at the forefront of both film innovation and film production. Not surprisingly, the French love to watch films and in 2011 it was the third biggest film market in the world both in terms of admissions (after the United States and India) and revenues (after the United States and Japan). I suspect it now ranks #4 with the rise of China in recent years but it’s still impressive. The French love their film festivals too. Paris hosts 190 such events each year, which is more than in Toronto, London and New York combined. Given all this, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the Hong Kong French Film Festival is older than the Hong Kong International Film Festival. This year is the festival’s 45th edition and it’s showing no signs of aging. Forty-eight films are on view this year, including some classics and shorts.
Here is my take on three of the feature films:
Anyone who has ever researched their family tree has probably given thought to how their ancestors went about their daily lives. In the case of my family, I imagine that it was always grey and cloudy outside; never sunny and warm. Meals – dinner AND breakfast – consisted of flanken (beef short rib) and a boiled potato. The men in my lineage were either tailors or soap makers; the women were all homemakers. Of course, there were children – lots of children – and some of them died way too young either slowly from disease or quickly from ethnic cleansing. My ancestors’ voices are mute, save for the odd pearl of wisdom that somehow got passed down from generation to generation and across the Atlantic. In its place, there’s a klezmer soundtrack. No one ever smiles and even during celebrations no one is ever happy.
That’s what the film, ETERNITY (ÉTERNITÉ), is about. The story follows three generations of a French family, from the late 1800s up to the present day. Along the way, babies are born, some of the children grow up and get married while others die far too young, adults also die and the cycle repeats. Here, too, there is little dialogue because no one remembers what these people talked about back then. Instead, there’s a soundtrack of classical music by Debussy, Bach and Liszt, among others. Unlike my family, this family is quite well off financially, living in a beautiful country estate in the south of France where it’s always late summer or early fall. Everyone is bathed in sunshine and their clothes are always immaculately clean.
Valentine (Audrey Tautou, AMELIE FROM MONTMARTRE) is the matriarch of this privileged family but even her story begins with us learning that she was the youngest of five children, two of whom died as infants. When she is 20, we’re told by the film’s narrator, she marries Jules (Arieh Worthalter), a seemingly nice guy who just sits around all day playing his guitar. In short order, Valentine is pumping out baby after baby, and although the couple lose a few early on, life is good. Fortune changes for the couple with the war (World War I perhaps?) though, and Valentine’s family is soon decimated. But Valentine soldiers on. One son, Henri (Belgian actor, Jérémie Renier) grows up and marries his childhood sweetheart, Mathilde (Mélanie Laurent, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), and it’s not long before she, too, is pumping out baby after baby. Alas, their lives are not all aglow either as they suffer from the loss of some of their offspring too. Fortunately, they find both strength and solace in the company of their best friends and housemates Gabrielle (Bérénice Bejo, THE ARTIST) and Charles (Pierre Deladonchamps) whose lives are on a similar trajectory. Mathilde and Gabrielle are as close as sisters, though they are first cousins. Through tragedy and circumstance, their two families unite to become part of Valentine’s ever-growing clan.
On paper, ETERNITY sounds like a great story but, sadly, this is one dull film that seems to last an eternity. After nearly two hours, we know very little about this family other than that they’re rich, they never argue and they’re blissfully happy except for when they’re in mourning. The story is based on a French novel, L’Élégance des veuves (“The Elegance of Widows”) by Alice Ferney, which was published in 1995. Ferney is a rather divisive figure, espousing traditional Catholic views on marriage and birth control. On the surface, it would seem somewhat curious the Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung (Oscar nominee THE SCENT OF THE GREEN PAPAYA) would choose this book for his first French-language feature, but in an interview he gave to “Film Talk” a few months back, he said that as his own family is very small and their own stories have been lost forever, he appreciated Ferney’s fictional recounting of one family’s history.
Fans of director Terrence Malick’s more recent works might enjoy this film because it’s shot beautifully. If you’re looking for drama and action though, look elsewhere.
Director Tran Anh Hung will be in attendance for the screening on November 29th.
THE TOGETHER PROJECT (L’EFFET AQUATIQUE)
Crane operator Samir (Samir Guesmi) notices Agathe (Florence Loiret Caille) in a bar in the Paris suburb of Montreuil and for him it’s love at first sight. When he learns that she is an instructor at a neighbourhood pool, he enrolls as her student claiming that he never learned how to swim. He proves to be a quick study – too quick, when he dives into the deep end to save a drowning woman. Agathe hates liars and she drops Samir as her student. But Samir doesn’t give up easily. When he learns that Agathe has gone to a conference in Iceland, he follows her there, posing as a delegate from another country. Can Agathe find it in her heart to forgive Samir before he moves on?
It’s not often that we see films from Iceland so right there is a good reason to watch this quirky romcom. Sure, it would be easy to argue that Samir is a bit of a stalker but he seems earnest enough. He’s also about twice as tall as Agathe, as warm and approachable as she is ice cold, and the contrast makes for some amusing scenes. But things really get going when the location shifts to Iceland. Alternating mayors Anna (Didda Jónsdóttir) and Frosti (Frosti Runólfsson) are as free-spirited one would expect from people who live on the remote island. Although it’s vague how they both know Agathe, they serve as her life coaches, telling her that life is too short to be so strong-willed. Samir, meanwhile, is making friends from around the world, including another delegate who is more than willing to jump into the hot spring pool with him. A road trip across the barren landscape caps off this charming take on a traditional theme.
THE TOGETHER PROJECT won the SACD Prize at the Director’s Fortnight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is also the final film of Icelandic-French co-director/screenwriter, Solveig Anspach, who passed away last year due to breast cancer.
NIGHT SONG (MOBILE ÉTOILE)
Hannah Hermann (Géraldine Pailhas) and Daniel Dussault (Luc Picard) are a couple in their mid-40s, living in Montreal. (She is French; he is Canadian.) Along with their violin-playing teenage son, David (real-life teenage composer/violinist Alexandre Sheasby), and a few friends, they perform little-known, late 19th century French-Jewish liturgical music to appreciative audiences around town. But life isn’t easy for the group known as Les Cantiques (“The Canticles”). One of their singers is moving overseas, government grant money is slow in coming and they lose their rehearsal space. Though they find a more than apt replacement mezzosoprano in the young and rebellious Abigail (Éléonore Lagacé), it’s Hannah’s former music professor, Samuel (Paul Kunigis), who throws things into a spin when he insists that the piece of music that he rediscovered can only be sung in the way it used to be sung more than a hundred years ago. Abigail, however, sees beauty in the piece and wants to sing it her way. The clash divides not only the group but husband and wife as well.
This is a unique premise, and the music and singing are nice to listen to but, unfortunately, together they don’t add up to something that makes for gripping viewing. Artists with money problems and the conflict between those who insist on artistic purity versus those who like to interpret are subjects that are simply not exciting to watch. The film is directed by French-Israeli Raphaël Nadjari, who has seen previous success with such Israeli hits as AVANIM (“Stones”) and TEHILLIM (“Psalms”), but even those films move at a snail’s pace and are not to everyone’s taste.
While the performances in this film are all good – Lagacé’s real-life mother, Canadian soprano Natalie Choquette sings for Pailhas – and it’s interesting to listen to and learn about this obscure musical genre, it doesn’t succeed in the end. NIGHT SONG is only for the most serious of music lovers or French cinephiles.
This trailer doesn’t have subtitles but you should be able to figure out what’s going on.
The 45th edition of the Hong Kong French Film Festival opens on November 23rd and runs to December 14th. For more information, please visit their website at www.hkfrenchfilmfestival.com.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:40.)
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