Every year there are two film festivals I make a point of seeing: the French Film Festival, and the International.
The Odyssey / L’Odyssée
The Odyssey begins with the truth wrapped in a lie; a young man is bringing a Catalina into land when disaster strikes, crashing into the sea. A old man awakes, calling the a name of his son, but the only son one present is the one who lived. The film cuts to a family driving to a rural home, years before.
The young man who died is Philippe Cousteau; this much is true, but in reality, he did not die by drowning in a sea-plane crash, but as the result of a propeller coming loose and hitting him. The film, while ostensibly about his father, Jaques, is at least as much a love letter to Philippe as a study of the life of his father. And a beautiful film it is, too; visually the colour palette renders my memories of 70s film and TV; the re-creations of the Couteaus’ visits to the Antarctic, their first dives, their underwater sea habitats… all magnificent.
And the film is fascinating; my memories of Cousteau are of his later years, the environmentalist roaming the seas, and that bloody John Denver song. This starts closer to the beginning; his early business success in partnership with the inventor of modern SCUBA apparatus, a career in oil exploration, and then his obsession with living undersea, the domes and plans for permanent habitats.
Meanwhile the film portrays his weaknesses: not just his obsession for undersea living - for which the film, primarily driven by the memories of and biography by of one of his children, characterises as a conquest, a contempt for the ecosystem itself - but his numerous mistresses and the neglect of his wife and indifferent parenting.
A fight between father, already under tremendous pressure as the challenges of maintaining his vision of the conquest of the seas proves commercially impractical, and son is portrayed as the catalyst for Cousteau’s own change of heart. Philipe is shown as having hewn his own, brilliant path in the fledgling world of conservation, and bringing his father back to a truer understanding of their shared love of the seas. As they begin to work together, exposing the precarious state of sea life, travelling to places never before filmed, and effecting a detente of sorts with Simone Cousteau (sympathetically portrayed as a sailor and explorer in her own right), we see the tragedy from the start of the film strike.
The film glosses entirely over some aspects of Cousteau’s later life; in particular, his remarriage, second family, and the bitter, ongoing feuds between his much younger second wife and the rest of the family over the Cousteau legacy.
This is, nonetheless, a remarkable biopic, with the colours carefully graded to match my memories of the 70s TV series and films Cousteau appeared in, perfectly acted, and utterly compelling.
Penny Pincher! / Radin!
A film in three acts; in the first, we establish Dany Boon’s character; listening to his parents argue in the womb over money, he heeds his mother’s fervent wish that he never become a spendthrift like his father. Naturally, in the manner of many a Boon character, he overdoes things magnificently.
I didn’t find this as hysterically funny as, say, Superchondriac; that’s partly because it simply isn’t as good a comedy, but more importantly, it didn’t sit as comfortably for me as other Boon movies; it’s a movie of three acts, and the first - the setup - decribes how Boon’s character ended up as a stingy obsessive; it’s funny in the mode of other Boon films.
It’s the second act, though, I find it rough going: Boon’s hitherto unknown daughter (the result of using an expired budget condoms) appears, having been told her father is obsessed with sending money to an orphanage he sponsors in Mexico. It is inevitable that his daughter convinces everyone in his life that this secret is the real man; it is equally moving inexorably towards the crushing inevtiability of the complete destruction of her belief in him. It’s well-written, well-acted, well-executed, and, for me, too painful to enjoy as it I watched it grind to that point.
The third act is the redemption portion. And, as with the rest of the movie, it’s well done, but… I just didn’t enjoy it enough. I felt too much empathy for the daughter to really relax into the humour of it.
Ogres / Les ogres
This film is a great deal cleverer than me; it hangs it’s slice-of-live exploration of a travelling theatre troupe around their performance of Chekov’s The Bear, intercutting scenese from the performance with the scenes of their lives. If I knew more about Chekov, I imagine it would seem even more clever.
- The look on the childrens’ faces as they watch the care their grandmother takes to teach the children of strangers, a care we never see any of the adults of the troupe show to their own children.
- The director is the daughter of the actor who both plays the head of the troupe and arranged the play; morover, the daughter in the film is another daughter in reality. I can only imagine how much of the film is therapy.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg / Les parapluies de Cherbourg
One of the great classics of French cinema, Maire and I went to see this musical. Sung clearly and perfectly pronounced, it didn’t tax my French at all, and the colours and setting are breathtaking. Surprisingly it’s a full musical, in the mode of an opera, entirely sung, rather than a mix of prose and lyrics.
One thing did take me aback: it tends to be summarised as a tragic film, with young lovers seperated by the machinations of the mother of Catherine Deneuve’s character, who forces her to marry another man; the film, however, is a more complex emotional landscape than that - Deneuve’s Geneviève is a 16 year old determined to marry her first boyfriend, a 20 year old mechanic. Her mother, a widow who is struggling against declining circumstances, is concerned for her daughter’s future; she matchmakes forcefully, but does not force her daughter to marry Roland, a successful businessman.
While the outcome is perhaps not Geneviève’s ideal - it is ambiguous - it is a choice she makes to secure her future; it is certainly a bittersweet film, but it is not the simple maternal villany one might otherwise be led to believe.
Julie and the Shoe Factory / Sur quel pied danser
If you’ve ever wanted to know what it would look like if Ken Loach and Baz Luhrmann got together to make a film, it seemed likely you’d die disappointed - but you need look no further. Sur quel pied danser is a film which blends song and dance numbers with the depressing reality of a young woman looking for something better than a McJob in a France where business leaders are as keen to outsource to China as any other western nation.