NZIFF Tranche 1

Another fine start to the Alliance Français French Film Festival. Last year I binged on perhaps two dozen movies and, really, it was far too many. This year I’ve paired back a bit, which will no doubt mean I miss some good ones, but equally will mean I’m not too overloaded to even think about them properly.

The only sour note is that, as last year, the change in director in 2017 seems to have largely trashed the children’s film selection. Historically a bit of a highlight, it’s become desperately mediocre.

La sens de la fête/C’est la vie

Opening night this year kicked off with jazz, noms from Louis Sargeant (albeit a bit less adventurous than last year’s effort), wine, and chit chat; in contrast to last year’s documentary, this year is a fine farce. La sens de la fête is directed by the same team responsible for the feel-good Intouchables. More a pure comedy, la fête is wonderfully funny: at it’s core, the backroom view of Max, a foul-tempered wedding planner, and his entourage attempting to run a lavish show at a 17th century chateau for a demanding client with, naturally, everything going wrong.

The timing, the punchlines, the mix of quick and slow-burning gags are well-executed, and in and of itself it would rate as a fine opening to the festival this year, but I particularly appreciated one other aspect of the film: to the degree it relies on stereotypes, it tends to delight in inverting or otherwise undercutting them. Yes, it plays some straight - the hostile, mutually contemptous relationship between the band leader and Max’s second in charge end, naturally in their getting together - but others it gleefully upends; Max himself is a man in late middle age, the bridezilla who makes his life hell is in fact the groom, and various other plot points which are set up do not follow an orthodox resolution, and the film is the far stronger for it. Very good fun, and I recommend it.

Chez Nous / This is our land

Chez Nous is a complete change of emotional pace; it’s as far from a comedy as can be. Depressing and frankly fucking terrifying, it is thinly based on contemporary politics; Pauline, a nurse in a small dwindling northern town, is shocked when a local doctor she respects suggests she run for mayor. He is, he claims, not of the left or right (Pauline’s father is a comitted unioninst and former Communist), but interested in solving the problems of ordinary people, the people Pauline sees day in and day out, the people whose problems Pauline understands and could perhaps offer more help to were she to become mayor; Pauline is apolitical, indifferent. She barely votes because, after all, “it doesn’t make any difference”.

While she’s thinking this over, an old flame, her first boyfriend from high school reconnects with her. She has been single for years, her ex-husband a worthless deadbeat. He hits it off with her kids, who adore him and appreciate his role in their life.

Sounds idyllic, right? An uplifting slice of life. Terrifying?

The boyfriend is involved in a violent, far-right ultranationalist group who beat up non-whites in the weekends, and begins to take her son out on paintball games with his neofacist mates. The doctor, an old mentor of his, turns out to be the fixer for a thinly-disguised allegory of Marine Le Pen. Pauline, tempted by the profession of non-ideological, practical solutions, attends a rally and is swept up by Agnès Dorgelle’s powerful charisma; agreeing to represent them. Initially the campaign starts well, but things quickly spiral downwards as Pauline’s mentors reveal they care little for her, as her boyfriend’s past comes out, and as the fractures that already existed in the community are exacerbated.

The film is superbly realised; it rarely falls into being hamfisted. It speaks to troubling problems; before being approached, Pauline struggles with a patient who can no longer see a local doctor because her “husband will not let her” since the only option is a man; a picnic at a friend’s house falls apart as some guests apply an openly racist lens to local crime problems, pivoting to question the essential Frenchness of newer arrivals - indirectly including other guests. The problems, the film says, are real; it is pointed only in spelling out the backgrounds of the would-be saviours.

Ultimately, though, it is thoroughly depressing: by the end, there is little hope of improvement; the status quo has, if anything, degenerated. The characters are further aliented from politics - which is, as the film notes, one of the causes of the whole mess in the first place.