Of the approximately 230 feature films theatrically released in France each year, the majority are formulaic comedies. Among the others, a fair amount, probably more than anywhere else on this planet, could be defined as “auteur films,” since one can identify a certain originality in the filmmaking: the attempt by the director, whether any viewer likes it or not, to propose a personal vision of cinema, and of the world seen with it. These films include the internationally recognized cinema artists of various generations and styles, from Agnès Varda to Mia Hansen-Løve, from Assayas to Dumont or Depardon, Kechiche to Desplechin or Philibert, Jacquot and Carax to Claire Denis or Bonello, etc. These films are, properly enough, well-seen and well-known abroad, thanks to festivals, sales agents, and organizations like Unifrance and Institut Français that support their visibility. This important stream of what could be called the “mainstream auteur French cinema” also includes younger or less prestigious directors who nevertheless enjoy the support of international distribution. But as it happens—and this is good news—there is more.
There is a constant flow of newcomers revitalizing French cinema with their originality. Whether they make what we usually call “documentary” or “fiction,” they often question this distinction as well as that between filmmaking, art, activism or essay. Their breathtaking creativity is a little-known treasure in France, where these films are rarely noticed by the industry, the awards and the mainstream media, and even less noticed outside of French borders. This program introduces nine of these singular gems.
They offer wonderful experiences to viewers with enough curiosity, as well as pointing to new directions that more conventional films will later embrace. Most of them are first or second efforts, and all of them were released in France between January 1st 2015 and June 30th 2016. They have been chosen among an even-larger list of potential representatives of this spirit of innovation, originality, and attention to the realities and imaginary of our times, a spirit exemplified by extremely various means. And of course, it is the diversity of these means that is to be underlined here. – Jean-Michel Frodon
This series has been curated by critic and programmer Jean-Michel Frodon with support from the Harvard Film Archive.
Introduction and program notes by Jean-Michel Frodon, with assistance from David Pendleton.
Presented in collaboration with the Institut Français, Unifrance and the Consulate of France in Boston.
Special thanks: Mathieu Fournet, Amélie Garin-Davet—Film, TV & New Media Department, Cultural Services of the French Embassy; Adeline Monzier—Unifrance; Emmanuelle Marchand—the French Consulate of Boston.
Directed by Alain Guiraudie. With Damien Bonnard, India Hair, Raphaël Thiéry
France 2016, DCP, color, 100 min. French with English subtitles
On the verge of becoming a leading figure of the new generation of French auteur cinema, Alain Guiraudie remains a complete maverick. Deeply rooted in the landscapes of his origins in southwestern France as well as in a body of legends where Middle Age knights-errant, working-class heroes and gay icons meet, Guiraudie here shapes his preoccupations into a tale wherein cycles of birth and death, desire and creativity take startling forms. Guiraudie shines as an unpredictable storyteller whose main tools are not words but bodies—young men, young women, very old men, babies, animals—all of them watched with a vibrant attention, in their nudity, their fragility, their strength and their magic powers. Rester vertical tells a story, but what it really does is invoke a cosmos, where nature and physical desire, the fear of death and the impulse to transgress interrelate as in a lively and mysterious biotope. Print courtesy Strand Releasing.
Directed by Pascale Breton. With Valérie Dréville, Kaou Langoët, Elina Löwensohn
France 2015, DCP, color, 148 min. French with English subtitles
This tale of a year in the lives of a professor and a student takes place at a university in Brittany—between two generations, between the dreams of youth and various adult trajectories. It takes place between what we see and what we fail (or refuse) to see, what we’re willing to give up as we age, and what we cannot do without. It’s very realistic, yet deeply dreamlike—sometimes nightmarish. With impressive assurance in the directing and the storytelling of her second feature, Pascale Breton combines coming-of-age chronicle and fairytale to subtly question the way we manage to live together or do not: as couples, as friends, as community, but also together with our memories, and with our fantasies. Print courtesy Zadig Productions.
Directed by Joris Lachaise
France/Senegal 2014, DCP, color, 90 min. French and Wolof with English subtitles
This film takes its place within the fertile genre of documentaries dedicated to madness. But it transforms that genre because of its location, which is a Senegalese asylum near Dakar. Joris Lachaise, who is also cameraman and editor, takes advantage of the complexity of a situation that lies at the intersection of what we name madness and what can only be termed misery, of different local religions and beliefs, including what we call “science.” Acknowledging this complexity, Lachaise pays respectful attention to everyone: inmates and doctors, priests and nurses. Lachaise uses a rare and powerful tool to approach the intersections of all these dimensions—where they interfere, support or oppose each other—a tool that cannot be defined otherwise than by the word “beauty.” This visual intensity takes up the challenge of accepting and questioning the abyss of the human psyche, together with all those who are involved—including us, watching. Print courtesy Institut Français.
Directed by Clément Cogitore. With Jérémie Renier, Swann Arlaud, Marc Robert
France/Belgium 2015, DCP, color, 100 min. French and Persian with English subtitles
This is a war movie—a real one. This is a ghost story—a real one. This is an artist’s film— a real one. Telling the story of a squad of French soldiers in one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan during the recent war, the acclaimed young video artist and photographer Clément Cogitore manages to merge heterogeneous ideas of cinema into an incredibly convincing, mesmerizing and sometimes frightening work. The enemy attacks, sporadically; but more alarmingly, soldiers are vanishing without a trace. The landscape is a splendor, possibly a lethal splendor. Old legends and new weapons, men of combat and men of faith, traditional peasants and over-equipped Westerners have to share a common world, a world it cannot be said that any of them fully understands.
Directed by Antoine Barraud. With Bertrand Bonello, Nicolas Maury, Charlotte Rampling
France 2014, DCP, color, 127 min. French with English subtitles
So strange and so funny, this mysterious encounter between a director (played by filmmaker Bertrand Bonello) and an art historian (Jeanne Balibar). He intends to make a film about monstrosity in painting; with seduction and irony, she guides him towards her own monstrosity, as well as to the discovery of extraordinary canvases, some of them very famous and others not at all. Or is it his monstrosity, as a man, as an artist, as a would-be demiurge who is revealed in this elegant labyrinth of references, desire and betrayal? The second feature by multifaceted artist Antoine Barraud seems to dance with a smile into the heart of the dangerous enigmas of image making and image belief.
Directed by Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard
France 2014, DCP, color, 106 min. French with English subtitles
The “game” here is not Renoir’s set of conventions and hypocrisies, but something much more workaday: the series of steps that young jobseekers are supposed to learn in order to find work. As the documentary follows four such job candidates and those who train them, a much richer story emerges. The need to find work, the learning of the codes of expected behavior, the employers’ demand for a level of submission far beyond the technical necessities of the job: all of this outlines the social and mental landscape in which the young precariat lives today. Rules of the Game is about acting in real life, acting (and possibly refusing the part) for the young jobseekers, but also for the trainers. The film is also about the already thoroughly conventionalized signs of rebellion that may be used by anyone who wants to escape from the rules. And it is about the expectation that we, spectators, have for the players of this game. This seemingly quite simple documentary progressively unfolds the various layers of preconception, the sometimes funny, but more often dramatic, play at work in the social game.
Directed by Jean-Gabriel Périot
France/Switzerland/Germany 2015, DCP, color & b/w, 93 min. German and French with English subtitles
They were young and they wanted to change the world. They were revolutionaries, so they became… filmmakers. In the early 1960s in Germany, those who would become the leaders of the Rote Armee Fraktion (the Red Army Faction) included filmmaking as part of their activism. Fifty years later, the documentary maker and film essayist Jean-Gabriel Périot draws from this historical context a stimulating essay film using archival footage to cast a different light on the 60s youth uprisings in Europe. With a contemporary critical spirit and a stimulating mix of subtlety, tenderness, humor, and, yes, hope, the film discusses the relationship between the artist's work with images and the activist's impetus to transform society.
Directed by Eugène Green. With Fabrizio Rongione, Christelle Prot Landman, Ludovico Succio
France/italy 2014, DCP, color, 100 min. French and Italian with English subtitles
The only—sort of—veteran in this list is a baroque artist born in a powerful country, on the western side of the Atlantic, that he refuses to name and, of course, to visit. Eugène Green explores the resources of classical art and knowledge, confronting very old practices with a contemporary world full of charming people of various ages, as well as various languages: visual, musical, spoken. From Paris to a Swiss lake and, finally, Italy, he takes his viewers on a road trip inspired by a love affair with architecture, but which is in fact an inquiry about beauty, wisdom and dignity. Believe it or not, this is done with, and can be done only with, an incredibly inventive sense of humor that lightens the shadows of the churches built by Borromini, as well as the love and friendship among the strictly designed but very sensual characters whose original way of speaking to each other speaks to us.
Directed by Damien Manivel. With Rémi Taffanel, Léonore Fernandes, Enzo Vassallo
France 2015, DCP, color 71 min. French with English subtitles
The young poet of the title is of course the main character, a teenager who experiences the highs and lows of love while trying to find traces of a major French bard, Paul Valéry. Here in the city of Sète by the Mediterranean Sea, where Agnès Varda shot her first film (La Pointe courte) sixty years ago, Valéry lies in his grave; meanwhile, a very attractive local girl jumps and smiles and jokes and drinks. The boy, tall and pale and shy, has a long road in front of him that includes both the girl and the grave, and maybe more. But the poet is also filmmaker Damien Manivel himself, a poet who believes in the magic powers of the simplest and most considerate idea of cinema, which is that light and movement, bodies and space, recorded with care and affection, are more than enough to make you smile and think, to make you shiver with the breath of the art of filmmaking.