In the 1960s, French New Wave directors’ provocative, groundbreaking films dominated the art houses and aided in the rebirth of American cinema the following decade. Since then, mostly devout cinephiles with access to a video store or boutique art theater have been able to keep up with the country’s movie offerings from luminary directors — from Agnès Varda, Olivier Assayas and Claire Denis to Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont and Agnès Jaoui.
But this entire time, French cinema has continued to reinvent itself, pushing its own boundaries — which, to be honest, were pretty far out there already. Take Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 twisty, inventive, rape-revenge drama Elle, which made a big splash stateside for being the kind of risky film you could only make in France. But what about the films that didn’t or don’t yet have an American distributor? How do we see these gems? For Angelenos, the opportunity to catch all of France’s best and brightest new stars is right here at the COLCOA Film Festival.
“As a programmer, my job is always exciting,” says François Truffart, the festival’s artistic director. “I’m always seeing so many new directors, because the French government decided to support these professionals. And when you’re in the seventh grade or eighth grade, French students learn how to write, direct and edit for cinema and television. In the United States, you learn in college.”
This is how the country has given us stellar, fully formed debut filmmakers like Julia Ducournau (Raw) and Alice Winocour (Mustang, Disorder); the former works in the horror genre, the latter in drama and action, because, as Truffart says, despite anyone’s preconceived notions of French cinema, “We don’t have just one audience for French films.”
Attendees can expect to see some diverse themes explored. The dystopian gladiator action film Ares from Jean-Patrick Benes tackles the dangers of a pharmaceuticals-obsessed world. Thomas Kruithof’s slow-burn thriller The Eavesdropper takes us back to the days of analog espionage. And the post-punk coming-of-age tale A Taste of Ink from Morgan Simon sees grief from an unlikely — and quite sexual and violent — angle (Raw fans: Ducournau consulted on the script for this one). But Truffart admits the films he screened while programming the festival often hit hard on one particular theme: the artist looking back on why s/he does what s/he does.
“When the world is not doing well, artists are questioning themselves about their role. What are they doing? Is it important to do this work in society? We’re in a period of time in Europe — and in the U.S. — when they want to cut budgets for cultural and artistic education,” Truffart says, the very education that has given us such talented filmmakers who’ve opened our eyes to the world. So Truffart selected a number of films addressing the topic of the artist as activist, such as Grand Corps Malade and Mehdi Idir’s Step by Step, a biographical comedy about musician Grand Corps Malade’s paralysis and road to recovery. The film boasts a cast of disabled people in key roles, something very few American films or series have yet to do.
This year also marks COLCOA’s 20th anniversary in Los Angeles, and the fest is changing with the times. Just as Cannes has included both Jane Campion’s and David Lynch’s TV series, COLCOA has invested in premiering both television and web series in separate competitions this year. Truffart says that within one year of opening, the two major TV production companies in France now have around 65 shows they’re producing, and all of these are of stunningly high quality. Think Les Revenants, the moody sci-fi drama Netflix poached from French TV.
“French producers put a lot of money in [their series] and want to do something at the same level as the cinema. They also want to compete with the amateur people on the web, and the production value of the six web series in competition is comparable to a feature film,” Truffart says.
The fest wants to appeal to the young folk, to convince the future adults that film is important and worth investing in. So Truffart’s bussing in some 3,000 students from around the L.A. area for the festival, in the hopes these kids will tell their parents and friends about these movies and get others excited.
“Every year, we see more people coming,” Truffart says with a note of pride in his voice. “It was 25,000 last year, our highest figure yet.” This year, he’s hoping to see another attendance spike from Angelenos interested in seeing how art can tackle the world’s ills. There’s no better way to see the future of film than from the country that created the medium.
COLCOA French Film Festival, Directors Guild Theater Complex, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; Mon., April 24-Tue., May 2. colcoa.org.