The Film Society of MSP’s second annual Lumières Françaises Film Festival begins this Thursday. Lumières Françaises is a week-long festival highlighting the brightest talent in French independent cinema, presented at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre.
The Stake got to watch a few films early, and to aid your festival experience, we’ve reviewed and rated four of the fest offerings below, including the opening night movie, Swagger.
Early in Swagger, a young girl speaks to the camera about her desire to become an architect. To accomplish her dream, her mother says, she must do well in school, and earn a scholarship and work in summer camps in order to pay for college. One reason she wants to become an architect is that she has perspective to bring. She says: “Architects, those that live in the big cities, don’t know what it’s like to live in the projects.” This girl is Naïla Hanafi, one of the remarkable subjects of Olivier Babinet’s documentary on the lives of teenagers in the projects of Aulnay-sous-Bois.
Aulnay-sous-Bois is a Paris suburb described by the impeccably dressed Régis Marvin Merveille N’Kissi Moggzi as the “France’s Afghanistan,” and “a place where you can get shot at any time because everyone has guns.”
Babinet’s film places Aulnay-sous-Bois at its center, and he circles the city with eleven middle/high school students who live in it. Most of the kids are immigrants or first generation French. Native-French citizens, we are told, have long since fled Aulnay-sous-Bois, leaving the place to the poor and immigrant communities that make up projects around the world.
But teenagers are resourceful, and strong, and fierce, and the lives we see in Swagger, represent a much broader characterization of Aulnay-sous-Bois than the kind of copy that usually accompanies discussions of life in the projects. There is hardship and sadness. One girl says she cannot remember her childhood, has never had friends, and describes herself as “more of a ghost” than a person. She won’t look up at the camera, and doesn’t say her name during the film’s opening roll call.
But there is light, too. Régis Marvin Merveille N’Kissi Moggzi, on the other hand, is all smiles, laughs, and joy. He takes pride in fashion and looking smart, and enjoys spending time with the gossiping housewives who live on his block. “I’m not a housewife,” he says, “but they’re fun to talk to.”
Surrounding the interview portions of the film, Babinet shoots his film with stylized film techniques. There are long takes, slow-motion pans, helicopter shots, zooms. Babinet seems to grasp that these kids’ stories are, like all kids, emotionally dramatic, complicated, and heavy. Life in Aulnay-sous-Bois is the same. The effect of Babinet’s stylistic approach adds to the sense of familiarity and oddness: a documentary that feels like a stylized drama; projects that stand for a city and a world. The result of this mixture is intoxicating, and brings a young-adult fiction feeling to Swagger, appropriate given the bigness of teenage life on display.
Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturama” begins with a group of young people sitting in the Paris metro. They exchange wordless glances, then disperse—dumping burner phones in waste bins, scattering through the city, delivering mysterious packages. They’re terrorists, and their perambulations will end in a coordinated attack of the kind that have become far too common in French headlines—but a propulsive thriller this film isn’t. The almost wordless opening sequence, which lasts nearly an hour, is tense but also disorienting and obtuse, the camera following these urgent twenty-somethings on a mission the audience doesn’t yet understand, but which we suspect will end in violence. Brief flashbacks show the characters’ growing discontentment with French society but don’t fully illuminate their motivations for becoming domestic terrorists, much less explain how young people of such different social strata came to be together in the first place. The film’s concerns lie elsewhere.
It’s when the radicals come back together after the attack to hole up in a swank department store for the night that Nocturama finds its legs, and its central irony: the consumerism these young people so despise nonetheless contains the only true happiness they’re able to recognize. What follows is a long night of decadence and rising tension as they dance, feast, and wait for news of their attack from the outside world. Bonello initially called his film “Paris est une fête,” the French title of Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” and indeed these characters are a new Parisian Lost Generation—personifications of the end of history. As a character asks near the film’s beginning: “What’s after decadence? Rebirth. And when rebirth is death?”
Nocturama is a thrilling and provocative meditation on youth and alienation in the 21st century.–Andrew DeYoung
The Girl Without Hands is adapted by Sebastien Laudenbach from a lesser known German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm for GKIDS. It is strange territory for GKIDS. What Laudenbach does with his film is daring. He hand painted the entire film by himself. Every frame is a moving watercolor painting. I don’t know if I’m the first to say this about Laudenbach’s film, but, I am not certain the hand painting works very well on a story-to-visual level. This is not to say it is not a worthwhile film to view! It is one of the first of its kind and for that, it deserves attention.
The fairy tale itself features a miller who is offered wealth by the devil if he gives the devil everything that stands directly behind his mill. The miller assumes that all that stands behind his mill is his orchard but, alas, his daughter stands behind the mill as well. What follows is Laudenbach’s hour and a half interpretation of the events that take place in the rather brief fairy tale. The miller’s daughter remains sinless and so the devil is unable to take her, ultimately.
For years, GKIDS has consistently put out the best in international animated cinema. Their films are consistently creative and captivating. Mostly, I love that the films released by GKIDS do not shy away from the more serious matters of life and death, joy and sadness, etc. This is the first time, in recent memory, that I have viewed a GKIDS film and been disappointed. That being said, The Girl Without Hands is a pretty original meditation on the human condition as it involves sin, greed, and that oh so lofty and intangible concept of purity.
The Girl Without Hands at Cannes, was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the César Awards, and won both the Jury Prize and the award for Best French Film at the Annecy Animation Festival.–Joey Armstrong
Accomplished French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier took a note from Martin Scorsese’s playbook when he made his deeply personal film My Journey Through French Cinema. The documentary is not about his own film career but, rather, about the films that have influenced his career. Tavernier, much like Scorsese, is a proud cinephile and that makes this film a true joy to experience for all you cinephiles out there, myself included!
At a whopping three hours and ten minutes running time, Tavernier’s film takes dedication. If you don’t know French, your eyes will be glued to the screen for the entire film, watching the subtitles go by. Even as a dedicated cinephile I found myself drifting from time to time. Tavernier’s film is not a description of French cinema, per se, but is more of a love letter to the French cinema that inspired and shaped his own filmmaking and his philosophy of life. This film is more like Joel Allen Schroeder’s delightful Dear Mr. Watterson if Scorsese and Truffaut had co-directed that film.
The first hour of the film is devoted entirely to Jacques Becker and his films, which introduced Tavernier to an entirely new way of viewing films. He follows up his obsession with Becker with Jean Renoir and then actor Jean Gabin. Of course Godard and Melville make appearances. It is fascinating to listen as Tavernier pours out his heart about these giants of French film and how they deeply impacted his life on almost a spiritual level.
This film, unfortunately, despite all of the love and hard work Tavernier poured into it, is not for most viewers. It is not just a niche film. It is a niche film within a niche. It isn’t for people who know and/or love French cinema! It is for folks who know early French cinema really well and are crazy about it. Unfortunately, films that are THAT niche don’t have wide audiences. Maybe like Lars von Trier, Tavernier did not make this film for others, but for himself.