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Rendez-vous With French Cinema 2009 Reviewed

The Film Society of Lincoln Center presented its annual "Rendezvous with French Cinema." French cinema produces enough interesting films yearly to justify an annual series, something that seems less likely to be true of, say, Spanish or even Italian cinema, both of which are also showcased in a yearly series at the Walter Reade.

The annual series devoted to French cinema stirred considerable interest several years ago when it was presented in collaboration with the flagship French journal, Cahiers du Cinèma. This relationship, having ended, changed the programming which took on a more aggressively commercial cast--an outcome which would be unobjectionable if the commercial French cinema of today were aesthetically comparable, say, to the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s, which, unfortunately, has not been the case.

[photo above: “The Girl on the Train”}

 In previous years, there have been sometimes no more than three films by directors of international stature in a slate of at least a dozen films. Yet, needless to say, this series is probably the most consistently popular of the year at the Walter Reade. Past Rendez-Vous with French Cinema premieres have included Olivier Dahan’s Oscar-winning “La Vie en Rose,” Guillaume Canet’s “Tell No One,” Laurent Cantet’s “Heading South,” Christophe Honoré’s “Love Songs,” Cédric Klapisch’s “Paris,” Claude Lelouch’s “Roman de Gare,” Claude Miller’s “A Secret,” and Danielle Thompson’s “Avenue Montaigne.”
This year, however, that appeal should be well-deserved. To my amazement, the series boasted, by my count, new films by seven significant directors, including one world-class master, Claude Chabrol (who is having a North American premiere for "Bellamy" on March 12th).

Also within the series are new works by the following filmmakers:

Claire Denis, who, in recent years, has moved from strength to strength has a U.S. premiere (on March 13th) for "Five Shots of Rum" ("35 Rhums").

Agnès Varda, "the godmother of the New Wave", whose new film "The Beaches of Agnès" ("Les Plages d’Agnès" which is having its NY debut (on March 7th), is an autobiographical essay.

Costa-Gavras, whose work in more than one recent film has earned him a renewed interest by his shift to less ambitious material (or is it a less ambitious approach?) since his more political heyday in the '70s and '80s, will have a North American premiere (on March 9th) for "Eden Is West" ("Eden à l’ouest").

André Téchiné, who, at the very least, has consistently maintained a high level of craftsmanship within his prolific output, will see the world premiere of his social drama (on March 10th) “The Girl on the Train” ("La Fille du RER").

Jean-François Richet, who would be notable for his cinematically brilliant remake of "Assault on Precinct 13" alone, will have the U.S. premiere (on March 10th and 11th) of his ambitious two-part film, "Mesrine" Part 1 ("Mesrine, L’instinct de mort") and Part 2 ("Mesrine, L’ennemi public n° 1").

Benoît Jacquot, who has not ceased to produce challenging works in his, by now, long career is having a North American premiere for "Villa Amalia" (on March 13th).

Also of potential interest may be two films: "Versailles," a NY debut by first-time director Pierre Schoeller, the screenwriter of the excellent, "A Dreamlife of Angels" (March 6th); and "The Apprentice" (L’apprenti"), which received the Louis Delluc prize, is having a North American premiere (March 11th)—a film on the boundary of fiction and documentary by Samuel Collardey.

Considering that other New York venues with inferior projection capacities have presented extraordinary retrospectives of such major artists as Mikio Naruse, Manoël de Oliveira, Raoul Walsh, Luis Buñuel, Roberto Rossellini, and others, cinephiles have reason to disparage the current programming philosophy of the Film Society which appears to be more interested in pursuing fashionable trends than continuing to be the custodians of the great legacy of film art—something it has been throughout its history.

 Here follows are select reviews:

The Beaches of Agnès
directed by Agnès Varda
Varda's first feature predated "Le Beau Serge" by several years and this earned her the sobriquet, "godmother of the New Wave". Associated with the Left Bank of the Nouvelle Vague, she has pursued an experimental path with a sustained interest in the political. Her new autobiographical essay, "The Beaches of Agnès", pursues a mode of often whimsical free-association similar to that in several of her other documentaries. Here Varda playfully revisits the highlights of her life and career, interspersing clips from her films and other old footage. She traces the path from her childhood during the German occupation through her early filmmaking forays, her marriage to Jacques Demy, the birth of her two children, the death of her husband, up to the present. Varda, through her physical presence and her humorous commentary, is charming but one misseshere the depth and ambition of several of  films such as "Vagabond" or the breezy kineticism of "Cleo from 5 to 7" or the intellectual penetration of her fellow Left Bank essay-filmmaker, Chris Marker. "The Beaches of Agnès" is mostly (or entirely) shot on video and it is especially disappointing to see it transferred to 35-millimeter with a consequent degradation of image-texture.

The Apprentice
directed by Samuel Collardey
Collardey's film tells the story of a teenage boy sent to apprentice on a farm in the French provinces. The first-time director employs with sensitivity a quasi-neorealist approach to a pastoral setting, presumably working with (excellent) non-professional actors who memorably portray the heartbreak to be found within a cultural milieu where both quiet desperation and rustic beauty intersect to provide the frame for the moments of tenderness and boredom which punctuate these touching lives; this poignancy is, however, affirmatively balanced by humanistic intimations that this provincial world has escaped some of the ravages of the brutalizing spiritual corruption unfolding amidst a here-unseen urban modernity.

The film's texture seems compromised by either being shot in a video format or through recourse to a digital intermediate--one acutely feels the loss of sensuality which could have been secured by reliance on a direct deployment of the resources 35-millimeter; the thematic inflections of the landscape would have then been conveyed with stronger effect.

35 Shots of Rum
directed by Claire Denis
starring Alex Descas, Gregoire Colin
After assisting several notable filmmakers, such as Wim Wenders, Denis made her name with her promising, semi-autobiographical first feature, "Chocolat", introducing her abiding interest in Africa -- and in the European encounter with "otherness", generally. Since her first film, Denis has grown in stature as a director and has revealed herself as an exquisite formalist and sensualist with a highly refined mastery of film editing. "35 Shots of Rum" impressively continues Claire Denis's multicultural exploration of proletarian displacement, exploiting the presence of a brilliant cast headlined by stalwarts Alex Descas and Gregoire Colin. Descas is not so much an actor as an extraordinary presence, here playing a Parisian train driver whose relationship with his daughter subtly alters as the drama unfolds.

The extraordinary cinematographer Agnès Godard returns here as the camera-eye for Denis's exploratory style--the vehicle for an approach to narrative that seems to poeticize realism.

directed by Claude Chabrol
starring Gérard Depardieu
The legendary and prolific Chabrol ("Les bonnes femmes", "The Champagne Murders") has hewn most closely, among the Young Turks of the French New Wave, to the Hollywood genre film, having perfected a classical style which could accommodate his creative experimentalism. Chabrol has almost obsessively produced crime films and thrillers, thus engaging with his cinematic masters, Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. In "Bellamy", he pays homage also to author Georges Simenon in another tale of bourgeois disquiet. Here Chabrol employs the iconic actor Gérard Depardieu for an immensely subtle--and creative-- performance as a police inspector possessed by a cool curiosity.

The film is, unfortunately, also diminished by a reliance on video and would have been better presented in a video format. Chabrol, one of the greatest living filmmakers, remains a consummate craftsman.

Eden is West
directed by Costa-Gavras
starring Riccardo Scarmarcio
After a few underrated commercial films, director Costa-Gavras became famous for a series of leftist political films which, although aesthetically conservative and intellectually shallow, were distinguished by a modicum of craft, especially with regard to rhythmic editing. In "Eden is West", Costa-Gavras falls back upon a classical showmanship of fluid takes, gracefully brisk construction, and forward motion to present a socially conscious story of the travails of an illegal immigrant from an unknown country who through an arduous series of adventures steals into France in order to reach Paris.

The Italian actor, Riccardo Scarmarcio, sensitively conveys the constantly shifting vagaries of his character's anonymity, alienation, and distress. "Eden is West" is finally a triumph of style -- the film does not escape a certain impression of superficiality but one cannot but admire the energetic skill with which Costa-Gavras orchestrates the narrative.

directed by Jean-François Richet
starring Vincent Cassel, Gérard Depardieu
This remake of "Assault on Precinct 13" was one of the most exciting films of 2005. Richet has a definite affinity for the action genre and this ability serves him well in his ambitious, two-part historical film, "Mesrine", featuring a bravura performance by Vincent Cassel as the protagonist of the title. Mesrine became a notorious career criminal who, beginning as a local gangster, acquired quasi-political pretensions as a rebel against the French state itself.

The first half was especially satisfying but, in the second half, my impression was that Richet lost control of the material. Gérard Depardieu is outstanding in a character part.

Doclisboa's 6th Annual Blitz of Int'l Documentaries

"The Whole World Fits in Lisbon" is the rallying cry of Doclisboa's sixth annual blitz of international documentaries that rains down on the Portuguese capital October 16-26, 2008. Rousing words indeed for Lisbon audiences who, still hungover from Portugal's Age of Discovery, crave global stories that the inward-looking media tends to eschew.

And that's the big seduction of the country's sole festival dedicated to nonfiction films. In its short track record, Doclisboa has cultivated a public of moviegoers that flocks to its issue-heavy themes for entertainment and a way out of the sense of isolation that still pervades the nation nearly 35 years after the fall of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar.

In 2007, 33,000 people came out for their documentary fix — up 20,000 from a scant three years before — including many who took their annual vacation to do so.

Showcasing films with a political or socially conscious pulse is not only an audience builder, it's a Doclisboa strategy for enlightening decision makers and even for affecting change—and not just locally.

Last year head of direction and programming Sérgio Tréfaut seized on the EU Summit in Lisbon to alert European premiers to US torture practices in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, as exposed in Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side."

Though no such forum graces Lisbon this time around, Doclisboa 2008 continues its romance with newsworthy themes among its 150 titles and peppy program of panels, industry breakfasts and parties. Highlights include a retrospective of 11 Frederick Wiseman classics, with the eminence on hand to parry questions and teach a masterclass.

Also on offer is "Made in China," a section tracking the individual in Chinese society since 1994 as lensed by Zhang Yuang, Jia Zhang-Ke and Huang Wenhai, among other directors made in China. And a sidebar spotlights former Portuguese colony Mozambique, whose national film archives are currently being restored with the aid of Doclisboa parent Apordoc (The Portuguese Documentary Association).

As in previous editions, this year's festival hosts "Filmed Diaries and Portraits," "New Vision" and "International Competition" sections as well as a joust among Portuguese submissions. Three debut sections are "New Families/ New Identities," "Docs 4 Kids" and music-themed "Heart Beat," spanning Daniel Schmid's Il Baccio di Tosca and Scott Hicks's Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. Films that come with special buzz are Maradona by Kusturica, by Emir Kusturica; Standard Operating Procedure, by Errol Morris; Z32, by Avi Mograbi' Alex Gibney's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson; and Jogo de Cena, by Eduardo Coutinho, who also holds down a masterclass.

International contenders vie for three prizes: the City of Lisbon award for best feature documentary, a 15, 000 € bounty; the Odisseia award for first documentary, at 3,500 €; and the Johnnie Walker award for short documentary, which decants 3,000 €. Journalist Jonathan Rosenbaum, producer Joana Vicente and photographer Nan Golden are among the jurors deciding these fates. Of the four prizes in the Portuguese competition, Sony metes out 3,000 € plus an HD Camera to the winning first documentary.

With its de-insulating mission and thoughtfully curated slate—this year pared down from 1,300 submissions --Doclisboa enjoys bragging rights as a purveyor of media that matters.

As Tréfaut explained, this extends beyond immediate festivalgoers to include distributors seeking theatrical and TV product and news outlets considering grabby angles for what they deem tough-sell global stories. Whetting public and media appetites for the world beyond its borders is the festival's niche and passion. "Portugal is a country that is narcotized."

Its fervor to move past what Tréfaut calls a "provincial mentality" also applies to the film industry. The 11-day revelries in Culturgest, Londres Cinema and São Jorge Cinema include a seminar reassessing the Portuguese documentary tradition of profiling artists, which Tréfaut describes as an "Estates-General" to counsel on "the artist film plague…or how to finish for once and for all with biographies about non-fascinating topics."

As opposed to many other European countries, such as  France and Germany, where TV is the main documentary funder, Portugal defrays some 80% of a film's budget through the Portuguese Film Institute. However enviable, this cushy scene has its downside.

Said Tréfaut, "Nobody who makes a film is pressured by a producer, which is not necessarily a good thing--there's a lack of dialogue and a lack of producers, including line producers."

Then he added, "I'm not complaining about not having a dictatorship from TV, but often the films are not as good as they could be."

While Doclisboa celebrates those that are, champions of the artform like Tréfaut see the festival as a goad to a brighter and less isolated future of nonfiction filmmaking and watching in Portugal.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2008

You may know Karlovy Vary from the movies--its Grandhotel Pupp played a starring role in the Bond thriller Casino Royale--but the Czech spa town better known as Carlsbad produces its own film franchise, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. This July 4th the venerable festival raises the curtain on its 43rd sequel.
And the town is ready for its close-up. For eight days, 253 feature films from around the world will be screened amid some of Eastern Europe's most elegant spa hotels. Once the oases of royalty, these lovingly preserved manses still serve up therapeutic hot springs--a pleasure that, to today's EU passport-toting Czech, is a reminder of why some homegrown traditions must be protected at all costs.

All the more reason why the West Bohemian outpost two hours from Prague prizes its festival. Drawing thousands of industry types, film buffs and travelers questing for an Old World escape with modern distractions, the annual bash pumps enough krowns into Karlovy Vary's coffers to support its preservation habit.
Also preening their exteriors every fest are celebrities-Robert De Niro will stardust the opening night tribute gala and Saffron Burrows fronts Amy Redford's The Guitar-consigning to history's quaint dustbin Karlovy Vary IFF's 40 years of alternating with fellow traveler Moscow International Film Festival, until 1993. Again enter the Pupp, which that year joined with the Town of Karlovy Vary and the Ministry of Culture in creating a foundation tasked with producing the festival.  
Over the years the KVIFF has emerged as the leading showcase of Eastern European cinema. It has two main jousts: the Official Competition among international premieres, whose grand prize is the Crystal Globe ($20,000), and the celebrated East of the West section, where filmmakers from Europe's Orient contend for top honors. East of the West marks Karlovy Vary's strategic niche in the increasingly crammed world festival circuit, mirroring the Czech Republic's geopolitical perch between Central and Eastern Europe. Of Parents and Children, by Vladimír Michálek, represents the country in this segment.  
KVIFF was founded more than 60 years ago to showcase productions of the newly nationalized Czechoslovak film industry, and to this day its homegrown titles command a nurturing hand. "It's important to have an overview of film production in the domestic environment, and to have the will to help promote it," said KVIFF program director Eva Zaoralová. "Thanks to their screenings at Karlovy Vary, various Czech films have found their way into competition at other festivals or informative programs, or they've been purchased for distribution abroad."
While the festival prides itself on celebrating quality work regardless of national origin, it does its part for indigenous talent. Explained Zaoralová, "It's chiefly a case of including a Czech film in the main competition." Michaela Pavlatova's Night Owls and Petr Zelenka's Dostoevsky-inflected The Karamazovs are the Czech submissions vying in the Official Competition; Zelenka's Year of the Devil snared the Crystal Globe in 2002.
Ten movies grace the Czech Films 2007-2008 program, among which Jan Hřebejk's relationship dramedy, Teddy Bear, stands out for its tonal departure from the director's Oscar-nominated WWII remembrance, Divided We Fall. Václav Havel inspired two cinematic ruminations in this non-competitive section, one a documentary by Pavel Koutecký and Miroslav Janek (Citizen Havel) and the other, a seriocomedy by Jiří Vejdělek (Václav). Absurdist doesn't begin to describe the humor in this unlikely tale of mental disorder and clemency based on a true story involving the artsy Czech leader. And Alice Nellis is back with Little Girl Blue, having swept three Czech Lions (Best Czech Film) in 2007 for her previous foray into domestic tensions.

Also of Czech provenance, Jana Bokova's Bye Bye Shangai, Helena Trestikova's Rene and Juraj Lehotsky's Blind Loves are contenders in the documentary silo. This last aims to open viewers' eyes with its four love stories among the sight-impaired, while Bye Bye Shangai profiles several accomplished Czech émigrés and concludes that you really can't go home again in any meaningful way. The eponymous subject of Rene is the sometime imprisoned, sometime released criminal and writer Rene Plasil, set against a cascade of political events in and beyond the Czech Republic. The documentary competition gins the entries that exceed 30 minutes from those that don't, and gives both nonfiction formats a reprieve from oblivion.
Conquering obscurity is what a popular sidebar curated by Variety magazine is all about. Now in its eleventh edition, Variety Critics' Choice: Europe Now! is jointly sponsored withthe European Film Promotion (EFP). Seven of this year's ten works are debut features, with directors under 40 a recurring theme, inviting the broad observation that young talent is currently amok across Europe.
Some of the marquee-name entries at Karlovy Vary are bunched under the Open Eyes program. This whizz-worthy event reprises 13 films recently screened at Cannes. Gomorra, by Italian Matteo Garrone, took this year's Grand Prix on the Croisette, and it joins jury prizewinner Il Divo, another spiky political expose by way of Italy, in the Open Eyes lineup. So do Three Monkeys, which nabbed for Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan Best Director award, and Lorna's Silence, Best Screenplay laureate from the Dardenne brothers. The animated war documentary Waltz with Bashir comes to Open Eyes amid an extra measure of anticipation. Its Israeli director, Ari Folman, bagged KVIFF's Special Jury Prize in 1996 for the comedy Saint Clara, and he sits on the 43rd KVIFF Grand Jury.    
Heading up that Jury is émigré filmmaker Ivan Passer, whose credits range from Czech New Wave classics The Firemen's Ball and Loves of a Blond (which he co-wrote and assistant directed) to Hollywood release Cutter's Way (which he directed). Jurors include British actress Brenda Blethyn, US producer Ted Hope, Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege, Hungarian-born cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Czech actor/composer/musician Jan P. Muchow.
Beyond the whirr of screenings, parties and panels and the glam of stars and spas, Karlovy Vary once again opens for business-the business of  toasting international work while also boosting the Czech and other former Socialist bloc movie industries whose films are as challenging to fund as they are to distribute outside of national borders.

ZINEBI 50: Festival Of Nonfiction and Tapa-Sized Films

The Bilbao International Festival of Documentary and Short Film (ZINEBI) jubilates its 50th birthday November 23-29, 2008, making it one of the world’s oldest showcases of the seventh art. Who knew?

A mere hour from San Sebastián—home to Spain’s premier fest--this year’s juried meet in the heart of Basque country drew 2,849 contenders from 85 countries for its coveted Mikeldi Award. Eighty of these survived Selection Committee scrutiny, which includes the criterion that films and video productions come in at 45 minutes max. Twenty-six countries are represented in the final slate.

Read more: ZINEBI 50: Festival Of...

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