It is one of the paradoxes of contemporary French cinema, the director Olivier Assayas told me in a recent interview, that the French films likeliest to receive North American distribution (including many of his own) often fail to command more than a small art-house audience in France itself. Meanwhile, the country’s handful of homegrown blockbusters, including last year’s Les Bronzés 3 and the multiple entries in the long-running Astérix & Obélix series, rarely if ever cross the Atlantic. In 2007, only the Oscar-winning Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose was a bona fide hit on both continents, while that other French-language cause célèbre, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, was more popular in the States than it was in France. So the eyes of two film industries — theirs and ours — will be focused intently on the opening night of Los Angeles’ City of Lights, City of Angels French-film week, when the curtain goes up on the North American premiere of French comic Dany Boon’s runaway smash, Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis. (See related story.)

Courtesy of COLCOA

(Click to enlarge)

The Romance of Astrée and Céladon

Admittedly, Boon’s film will be playing to something of a partisan crowd, comprising the many local Francophiles and French expats who have come to make COLCOA an annual destination. Still, the broadly comic Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis is hardly typical film-festival fare, and its inclusion is evidence of COLCOA’s continuing effort to bring all walks of French cinema together under one roof — a fitting kickoff for a festival that will, in the course of seven days, transform the Directors Guild of America Theater on Sunset into a giant Parisian googolplex wherein one can travel from the art house to the grindhouse without ever leaving the building.

Unquestionably the most ambitious year in its 12-year existence, 2008 sees the COLCOA lineup swell to include a whopping 28 feature films (roughly 12 percent of all the movies produced in France in 2007), which is eight more than last year and more than twice the 11 films screened at COLCOA in 2003. That expansion has largely been the initiative of COLCOA’s director and chief programmer, François Truffart, and while bigger doesn’t always mean better, in this case the additional programming latitude has allowed Truffart to take the festival into previously uncharted waters — expanding the presence of documentaries, horror films and other genre fare.

I could nitpick, of course, and ask why three of the best French films of the past year — Nicholas Klotz’s meditative corporate thriller Heartbeat Detector; Serge Bozon’s formally audacious World War I musical La France; and Jacques Nolot’s film à clef Before I Forget — aren’t here, and why some others are. But no film festival is perfect, and at COLCOA 2008, the bon greatly outweighs the mauvais.

Writing about the festival last year, I had admiring words for Change of Address (Changement d’Adresse), the third feature by the 37-year-old actor-writer-director Emmanuel Mouret, who has been tagged by some critics as the most “Rohmerian” (as in French New Wave pioneer Eric) filmmaker of his generation, and who carries that potentially daunting burden gracefully with his witty, insightful portraits of hyperverbal, self-conscious young people falling in and out of love. So, it’s only natural that COLCOA has chosen to screen Mouret’s fourth film, Shall We Kiss? (Un Baiser S’il Vous Plaît), back-to-back with Rohmer’s latest — and reportedly last — feature, The Romance of Astrée and Céladon (Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon). Set some 16 centuries apart in time and made by directors who are more than 50 years apart in age, the two films are nevertheless of a piece in their gentle probing of the eternal mysteries of attraction.

In Rohmer’s film, adapted from a 17th-century novel by Honoré d’Urfé and set amid a community of fifth-century shepherds on France’s Forez Plain, the maiden Astrée (Stephanie Crayencour) spurns her lover Céladon (Andy Gillet) after catching a glimpse of him with another woman, only to spend the rest of the movie mourning her decision, and then Céladon, who she believes has drowned himself out of sorrow. In fact, he has merely drifted downstream, and been rescued by a nymph who has her own designs on the handsome shepherd. Some viewers, reportedly, have giggled at the storybook innocence of all this, as well as the farcical cross-dressing that ensues as Céladon attempts to reunite with his lady fair. But it is precisely Rohmer’s forced naiveté, his adolescent belief in true loves and unadulterated passions (even as he himself nears 90), that makes The Romance of Astrée & Céladon such a blissful pleasure.

The lovers in Shall We Kiss? likewise come to their pairings through generous amounts of destiny and happenstance. The movie begins in Nantes, where a chance encounter between a Parisian fabric designer (Julie Gayet) and a local art restorer (Michaël Cohen) leads to dinner, drinks and nearly to the titular meeting of the lips. But wait, the woman says — first, she must tell a cautionary tale about how a similarly innocent smooch created seismic shifts in the relationships of two other couples. That story then plays out in flashback, with the hangdog Mouret perfectly self-cast as a lovelorn schoolteacher who falls for his best female friend (Virginie Ledoyen), no matter that she’s happily married and he’s dating a beautiful stewardess (played by Change of Address’s ebulliently ditsy Frédérique Bel). I’ll say no more about how it all ends up, except that Mouret marries Rohmer’s visual lucidity and love of smart dialogue to the sort of screwball-comedy antics that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the films of Lubitsch or Hawks, and he does it all with a beguiling lightness of touch.

What Mouret and Rohmer make seem effortless, two other movies in the COLCOA lineup turn into heavily labored dross. Co-directors Bruno Dega and Jeanne Le Guillou’s Game of Four (Detrompez-Vous) is a stillborn bed-hopping romp about a gynecologist (Francois Cluzet) and a patient (Alice Taglioni) who discover their respective spouses (Mathilde Seigner and Roschdy Zem) are cheating on them with each other (oh, how novel) and set about enacting their revenge. Still, better it than Léa Fazer’s What If? (Notre Univers Impitoyable), which manages to do the Gwyneth Paltrow debacle Sliding Doors one worse in the Double Life of Veronique–for-dummies sweepstakes, here with the resourceful Taglioni wasted again as an upwardly mobile attorney whose life plays out along two planes of possibility. In one scenario, she gets promoted to partner at work; in the other, her boyfriend (Jocelyn Quivrin) gets the job instead. In both, success is equated with craven materialism and moral bankruptcy, and this odious battle of the sexes ends in a stalemate — especially for the audience.

In a reversal of the usual migration pattern, director Florent-Emilio Siri turned down additional Hollywood offers and returned to France after making his American debut with the underrated Bruce Willis thriller Hostage, and the decision has paid off handsomely. Where Hostage was a throwback to the unapologetically brutal film noir of Sam Fuller and André de Toth, Siri’s latest, the crackerjack Algerian war drama Intimate Enemies, recalls Fuller’s cut-and-run war pictures — movies like The Steel Helmet and Merrill’s Marauders, that put taut action scenes and masculine camaraderie ahead of ham-fisted politics. And yet, as the film’s idealistic French lieutenant (The Piano Teacher’s Benoit Magimel) attempts to flush a powerful FLN leader from his mountain hideout, the images of occupiers and insurgents battling against a rugged desert landscape take on an eerily familiar evening-news countenance.

Elsewhere in the COLCOA program, the actress Sandrine Bonnaire has made a heartfelt documentary, Her Name Is Sabine (Elle S’appelle Sabine), about the life of her autistic younger sister. In diarylike film and video footage shot by Bonnaire and other family members, we bear witness to Sabine’s gradual devolution from a precocious, pigtailed teenager with a gift for writing and music into a depressed, tantrum-prone woman of nearly 40, who has been misdiagnosed and institutionalized for much of her adult life. It’s tough going, but Bonnaire’s approach, both as a filmmaker and as a family member, is entirely unsentimental, never pushing us to see some nonexistent silver lining, never resorting to heart-tugging bathos. And so Her Name Is Sabine moves us all the more.

Finally, what to make of first-time writer-director Alfred Lot’s Melody’s Smile (improbably retitled from the French La Chambre des Morts), a sort of serial-killer smoothie that blends big chunks of The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter into its story of a Clarice-like detective (Mélanie Laurent) stalking a child-murderer who makes his victims up to look like a certain brand of toy doll? Things actually get much more complicated than that, but suffice it to say that this sometimes scary, astoundingly convoluted, often flat-out bonkers, but compulsively watchable, movie is easily the year’s best psycho-lesbian-taxidermy-kidnapping-homicide flick — and that’s got to count for something.

CITY OF LIGHTS, CITY OF ANGELS | Directors Guild of America | Mon.-Sun., April 14–20 |

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