The online festival, ‘My French Film Festival’, is on offer again via Unifrance and various streaming platforms. You can sign up on this website. There are 12 features plus 19 short films on offer over a period of 28 days. In some territories the films are free to watch but in the UK I’m paying £7.14 for the features (the shorts are free). My first film is an 83 minute mystery film deemed suitable for any audience, though that is a French classification. It would probably be 12A in the UK.
Les fauves begins with teenagers ‘making out’ in cars in a clearing when the sounds of a predatory animal growling are heard. The cars are all started up and they drive away. After the credits we find ourselves on a campsite somewhere by a river in the Dordogne. Laura and her cousin Anne are staking out a cabin on the campsite. When the family leave the cabin, the cousins break in and steal some cash which they spend in the camp’s café while flirting with two guys. Later we learn that there is a ‘rural myth’ that the campsite is threatened by a ‘big cat’, possibly a leopard, that the previous summer killed a man. These kinds of myths are quite common in the UK and I guess are likely to be even more familiar in France, a much bigger land mass with more remote regions. As a reviewer has pointed out there are also a couple of ‘big cat’ horror stories associated with the producer Val Lewton at RKO in the early 1940s. Cat People (1942) starring the French actor Simone Simon and The Leopard Man (1943) are actually quite different films but they both use the idea of a big cat prowling around people. Given the interest of French cinephilia in this kind of Hollywood ‘B’ picture material, it is possible that they have inspired a film like this. (But when I checked the Press Pack, the director’s comments revealed that he only thought of Cat People later on when he was shooting the film – and then he mentioned the Paul Schrader film.
Laura is a typical curious teenager. She determines to find out what is creating the fear in the campsite. Laura is played by Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp and as might be expected she is an attractive young woman when she smiles – but she spends much of her time with a sullen teenage scowl. Director Vincent Mariette and his co-writer Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq make Laura the central character by involving her in up to five separate ‘investigations’, four of which are directly concerned with the possibility of a predator in the forest. These will implicate her in the mystery of a young man who goes missing after Laura was the last person to see him one night. A female police officer questions Laura about her relationship with the young man and Laura’s cousin is still in touch with the young man’s friend. Laura also stalks a man on the site who she recognises as writer ‘Paul Baltimore’ and who might himself be investigating the possibility of a predator in the woods. She gets closer to Paul and she also engages with another young man, a worker at the site who takes his rifle to the woods, hoping to find and kill the ‘beast’. Finally someone is stealing Laura’s underwear. It’s probably Anne’s brother.
The film is a mere 83 minutes long and it could work as a ‘B’ picture – if cinemas still programmed double bills. But it needs more coherence as a narrative. It’s not a bad idea for a story but the script seems undeveloped and the narrative just seems to fizzle out. I’m assuming that the intention is to explore Laura’s ‘self-discovery’ and one of her investigations seems to make more of an emotional impact on her than the others. The director confirms this but he suggests a great deal of psychological motivation that didn’t make much sense to me – he also namedrops several other references that didn’t add much to my understanding of what he was trying to achieve. There is a tradition of films like this, arguably going back to Cat People and with a more modern cycle associated with Ginger Snaps (Canada 2000). But Les fauves (which I translate as ‘Wild Beasts’) doesn’t come close to the excitement of either of these earlier films. The cast features two established actors, Laurent Lafitte and Camille Cottin. I’m not sure what they expected from the script but they seem wasted on this material. I suspect that the film would have been more enjoyable if the setting had been used for a teen genre picture that followed a more conventional narrative.
This wasn’t a great start to my festival viewing in 2020 but I suspect that things will get better soon! Here’s the French trailer:
The second of my two archive screenings featuring films with female editors was this 1982 feature by Gaston Kaboré. The editor in question is Andrée Davanture, the French woman who founded a company called Atria in Paris in 1953. After working with several well-known French directors, she later worked with some of the most significant francophone African directors including Souleymane Cissé from Mali, Safi Faye from Senegal and Gaston Kaboré among others (see this website). Beautifully restored by Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Wênd Kûuni was projected in Academy (1:1.37) in stunning colour with especially good lighting and grading to produce a range of dark skin tones.
Wênd Kûuni is one of the first of what Manthia Diawara termed ‘return to the source’ films. The earliest Sub-Saharan African films had tended to take a neo-realist approach to contemporary life in the newly established independent francophone states of West Africa. Later this became a more sophisticated historical approach analysing the process of colonisation in the films of Sembène Ousmane, Med Hondo and others. The return to source was an attempt to present African stories from pre-colonial times and to try to find a new aesthetic for a distinctively African cinema. Some directors also saw this approach as a way of avoiding censorship in the difficult days of neo-colonialist rule by new authoritarian leaders.
Kaboré’s film is set during the period of the Mossi kingdoms which lasted for hundreds of years before the French imperialist forces arrived in the Upper Volta region in 1896. (Upper Volta became Burkina Faso in 1984 after the film was released.) The film begins with a woman being told that her husband is missing and she is worried about how she and her son will cope. A transition then moves the story on and a pedlar is riding his donkey through the bush. Hearing a sound, he investigates and finds a boy clearly ailing and exhausted beneath a ragged cloth. He decides to take the boy with him to the next village he intends to visit and there the boy is taken in by a weaver who accepts him into his family – he has a wife and a little girl. The weaver decides to name the boy ‘God’s gift’.
Wend Kuuni recovers after he is fed and watered but he refuses to speak. As he recovers he becomes the family’s shoat (sheep?goats?) herder. Eventually comes the moment when a dispute in the village (concerning the role and behaviour of women) escalates so that Wend Kuuni is himself shocked back into speech. The plotline of the narrative does not contain many dramatic moments but it more than makes up for this with an observation of daily life in the village. I enjoyed the film very much. Following Keith’s comments on Osaka Elegy, I don’t know whether it was a film or digital print but it looked good. Several years after the film’s production in 1995, Gaston Kaboré made the following comment as part of celebrations for the centenary of cinema:
A society daily subjected to foreign images eventually loses its identity and its capacity to forge its own destiny.
The development of Africa implies among other things the production of its own images.
The last film I saw at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be the best: it had me weeping. Are films that make you so sad that you cry the antithesis of escapism or do they (hopefully) make us feel better about our own lives and so escaping to a worse place makes us feel better? In System Crasher we are taken into the world of Benni (played with astonishing brilliance by Hannah Zengel), a traumatised nine-year-old that even the seemingly robust German social services system cannot contain. Aristotle argued that the purpose of narratives was catharsis: the audience is purged of emotion and so feels satisfied. System Crasher just left me feeling sad but, importantly, empathetic to people with mental health problems and those that try to help them. Watching a wide range of films aids empathy for others, something that our divided times lacks in many instances.
Writer-director Nora Fingscheidt has produced a gripping narrative that sees social workers trying to do their best for Benni; though there is an implicit critique of the use of drugs. Interestingly, the Variety review sees this criticism as divisive and presumably in America there is more belief in pharmacological solutions? There is a moment, early in the film, when Micha (Albrecht Schuch) takes Benni under his wing and they spend three weeks in the woods. I’m sure in an American retelling this sort-of Walden would lead to a resolution; we are in Europe and such sentimentality is thankfully absent from this film. Incidentally, Variety‘s jibe about the film not really blaming anyone, even Benni’s mum, is wide of the mark for there is a heartbreaking scene when the social worker breaks down because of the mother’s uselessness. That said, Fingscheidt does not go for designating anyone as evil; that would be too simplistic. My partner trained as a therapist and worked with disturbed children; she confirmed the utter authenticity of the portrayal of traumatised youngsters. If the film was set in the UK, no doubt, the cuts to social services by the Tory government would have also formed an impediment to helping these children.
If I have one quibble, it’s with the final freeze frame which didn’t, for me, sum up the film; that said, it opens in the UK next week and I strongly recommend it.
The only film I was disappointed by at the festival was Synonyms (Synonymes, France-Israel-Germany, 2019) where a self-indulgent male gets into various situations in Paris. At first it seemed as if it was going to be a critique of Israel, but co-writer and director Nadav Lapid eschews politics, as far as I could tell, and the film becomes a mush where everything disappoints the protagonist.
This is an impressive feature film debut from director Nick Roland and writer Joe Murtagh (based on a Colin Barrett story of the same name). It features a low level gang in the west of Ireland who blight the lives of all they touch, including themselves. It is the not-very-bright protagonist, Arm (brilliantly played by Cosmo Jarvis who was in Lady Macbeth, UK, 2016), with whom we are invited to sympathise with the most despite the violence he metes out at the beginning of the film. Just before this he voiceovers, a technique not used in the rest of the film, that we shouldn’t think that men of violence like to be violent. It is an unnecessary statement because it soon becomes clear that that’s what the film’s about; in addition, Jarvis’ ‘hard man’ stare clearly conceals a deep vulnerability.
Arm is an ex-boxer who leaves the ring after killing a man during a bout and is recruited by the nascent leader of the Dever family, superbly played by Barry Keoghan, as his enforcer. There’s something of an Iago about Keoghan’s character, whispering into Arm’s ear about how his ex-partner is trying to blackmail him for money for his autistic son. You can almost see the conflict boiling beneath Arm’s battered face as he struggles with his loyalties. In the way it is pronounced, the ‘Dever family’ sounds like the ‘Devil family’ and the moniker is not far wrong.
Cinematographyer Piers McGrail manages to drain the stunning landscapes of western Ireland of their grandeur, giving a suitably gritty look that is far from the tourist ‘Kerrygold’ imagery. Most of the people, too, who populate the film are miles away from the whimsical friendliness of the Emerald Isle. Instead we see desperate people in desperate circumstances. There is some hope, though, through the mother of Arm’s child, played by Niamh Algar, who is striving to do the best for her difficult son; and Anthony Welsh has a small role as a BAME student from the north of England researching the use of horses in therapy and he punctures the insularity of the narrative world. Maybe in the original story the horses are more central; here they are peripheral.
It’s an impressive film that, although offering a sort of redemption, avoids any sentimentality in its ending. I’m looking forward to this talented crews’ next offerings. It’s due for release in the UK next March.