When people talk about “French cinema” (a blanket term about as meaningful as “independent films”), chances are they’re referring to the historical epics, romantic melodramas and highbrow comedies that tend to win Oscars, enjoy healthy runs in U.S. art-house theaters and are, by their very design, intended for international dissemination. These are the cinematic representations of France as it wants to be seen by the world, and as the world wants to see France. But there is another French cinema — a cinema of filmmakers like the fiery ’60s radical Philippe Garrel (Savage Innocence, Regular Lovers) and the neo-baroque fabler Eugene Green (Le Monde Vivant, Le Pont des Arts), who are championed by critics and festival audiences, but who remain relatively clandestine figures even on their home turf. And there is still another French cinema, of popular genre films made more or less exclusively for French audiences and in staunch defiance of Hollywood’s efforts to dominate the world with its homogeneous blockbusters.
Los Angeles’ annual City of Lights, City of Angels film week has always strived to bring these disparate strands of contemporary French moviemaking together under one roof — and, in the decade since its inception, has evolved from an ambitious experiment in cultural exchange into an invaluable survey of the margins and mainstream of le cinema français. So it’s little surprise that CoLCoA’s 10th-anniversary edition offers audiences everything from a brilliant documentary on terrorism (which I’ll get to in a moment) to the latest Francis Veber farce (which wasn’t available for press preview) to a film that has been hailed as the French answer to Top Gun (which will be discussed in these pages next week).
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All told, CoLCoA 2006 will manage to cram a whopping 18 feature films and 18 shorts into six days of programming, but if there’s a single movie that embodies the festival’s can-do, something-for-everyone spirit, it’s Danièle Thompson’s Orchestra Seats, a full-on charmer about a half-dozen characters crisscrossing each other’s lives in and around Paris’ theater district. Among them are a dying old man (Claude Brasseur) auctioning off his storied art collection, a world-class concert pianist (Albert Dupontel) whose life is booked up six years in advance, a soap actress (Valérie Lemercier) desperate to be taken seriously by a visiting American director (Sydney Pollack), and a longtime theatrical concierge (Dani) waxing nostalgic on the eve of her retirement — all of whom, somehow or other, end up passing through the orbit of Jessica (lissome Cécile de France), a wide-eyed young barmaid newly arrived from the provinces.
Thompson is drawn to lives in flux, and the obvious, but hardly trivial, point of her new film is that no matter who we are — has-been or never-was, superstar or up-and-comer — we’re always jockeying for a better seat in life’s orchestra instead of appreciating the view from the one we’ve already got. But Orchestra Seats is above all a glossy and glorious valentine to the City of Lights, which has rarely looked grander; and to Gilbert Becaud, whose lushly romantic chansons françaises dominate the soundtrack; and to the late, great Suzanne Flon, regal in her final screen appearance. (Elsewhere in the festival, another late star of the French screen, charismatic character actor Jacques Villeret, delivers one of his best performances, in the grim World War I–era drama Grey Souls.) Most of the light comedies populating this year’s CoLCoA lineup either suffer from terminal whimsy (see Housewarming, starring Carole Bouquet as a sort of Mrs. Blandings ill-advisedly building her dream apartment) or serve as further evidence of the decline of their makers (see How Much Do You Love Me?, directed by the once-great Bertrand Blier — or, on second thought, don’t). I do, however, feel a special fondness for Stéphane Brizé’s Not Here to Be Loved, which takes a dreadful-sounding premise — yet another one of those movies about two lonely souls who meet through (you guessed it) a dance class — and gives it unusual depth of feeling, thanks in no small part to actors Anne Consigny and Patrick Chesnais, who find the human pulse inside the clichés.
But as was the case last year (thanks to Raymond Depardon’s 10th District Court), the festival’s most extraordinary offering is a documentary. The latest work by the Tunisian-born director William Karel (The World According to Bush), My Dad Is Into Terrorism tells the story of Gilles Boulouque, the judge whose high-profile investigation of a series of terrorist bombings in Paris in the mid-1980s made him an overnight celebrity and marked the end of normal family life for Boulouque’s wife and children. Based on the memoir by Boulouque’s daughter, Clemence, Karel’s straightforward, unpretentious film recounts the judge’s devotion to his work, his ultimate undoing at the hands of the media (and possibly his own superiors) and Clemence’s attempt to reassemble her own life in the wake of her father’s 1990 suicide. Making use of generous home-movie footage and remarkable news archives (including an astonishing televised spat between then-President François Mitterrand and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac), My Dad Is Into Terrorism emerges a sober, shattering record of the collateral damage of an earlier War on Terror.?
CITY OF LIGHTS, CITY OF ANGELS | At Directors Guild of America | Monday, April 3, through Sunday, April 9 | www.colcoa.com