Third Annual Classic French Film Festival
Co-presented by Cinema St. Louis and Webster University Film Series
When: July 14-17, 21-24, and 28-31
Where: Winifred Moore Auditorium, Webster University’s Webster Hall, 470 E. Lockwood Ave.
How much: $10; $8 for students with valid and current photo ID, Cinema St. Louis members with valid membership cards, and Alliance Française members; free for Webster U. students with valid and current photo ID
More info:CSL main line 314-289-4150
Cinema St. Louis, the presenter of the annual Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), celebrates the city’s Gallic heritage and France’s cinematic legacy with its Third Annual Classic French Film Festival. This year, we’re delighted to collaborate with a new co-presenter, the Webster University Film Series.
In its first two editions, the fest featured a mix of the new and the old, but in 2011 we’ve opted to feature classic works exclusively. An extensive selection of the country’s vibrant contemporary cinema will screen as part of the French Film Sidebar at SLIFF, held from Nov. 10-20, but we’ve refocused (and renamed with the prefatory “Classic”) our annual event to pay tribute to France’s significant cinematic history.
In coming years, the Classic French Film Festival will not only range widely through the past – from the silents of Gance and Feyder through the glories of Renoir, Ophuls, and Cocteau to the bracing discoveries of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers – but also illuminate the present by featuring early works from the French directors and stars who continue to add to the country’s filmic legacy.
This year’s fest – which appropriately begins on Bastille Day – offers an intertwined tribute to a trio of French-cinema icons: Catherine Deneuve, Jacques Demy, and François Truffaut.
The still-luminous Deneuve – recently seen in François Ozon’s “Potiche” – is featured in a half-dozen films, including a comedic rarity (Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s “Call Me Savage”), a trio of key works by Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” and “Donkey Skin”), and a pair by Truffaut (“Mississippi Mermaid” and “The Last Metro”). Truffaut is further spotlighted with two recent reissues: the too-seldom-screened “Soft Skin” and the kid-film classic “Small Change.”
The festival also honors the prolific Claude Chabrol, a New Wave colleague of Truffaut’s who died last year. Chabrol is represented by “The Cousins,” a characteristic work from early in his career, and “Story of Women,” perhaps the high watermark of his middle period.
Finally, the festival presents recently restored prints from two highly influential masters of French film: Robert Bresson (“Diary of a Country Priest”) and Jean-Luc Godard (“Every Man for Himself”).
The Last Metro (Le dernier metro)
Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve star as members of a French theater company living under the German occupation during World War II. Against all odds – a Jewish theater manager in hiding; a leading man who’s in the Resistance; increasingly restrictive Nazi oversight – the troupe believes the show must go on. Equal parts romance, historical tragedy, and comedy, “The Last Metro” is Truffaut’s ultimate tribute to art overcoming adversity.
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody writes: “The film is, above all, a memory piece. Truffaut, a boy who ran free in the city during the war, evokes a pent-up hoard of first-hand experiences…. Truffaut balances his hopeful plot on a tightrope of coincidences and narrow escapes that horrifically suggest the abyss that engulfed so many men and women of the artistic and political underground.”
Mississippi Mermaid (La sirène du Mississipi)
Beauty is by no means rare on the lush, tropical Isle de Reunion. Yet when island resident and tobacco tycoon Louis Mahe (Jean Paul Belmondo) first meets Julie Rouselle (Catherine Deneuve), his mail-order fiancée, he’s completely enraptured by her radiance. But it soon becomes clear that Julie is hiding a dark secret. And when she disappears without a trace, Louis vows to stop at nothing to find her, a resolution that lures him into a tangled web of relentless obsession, uncontrollable passion, and ultimately cold-blooded murder.
The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr describes “Mississippi Mermaid” as “a film noir shot in dazzling color, a Hitchcock movie with the soul of a Jean Renoir drama. The latter is this movie’s dedicatee, and his humane vision of the animal that is man is very much in evidence. Yet all we see for a while are Hitch and crime novelist Cornell Woolrich, whose 1947 ‘Waltz Into Darkness’ serves as the film’s source.”
Small Change (L'argent de poche)
Filmed in Thiers in South Central France, each vignette of this episodic comedy/drama is seen from the point of view of a kid from two weeks to 14 years old. There is no real plot, just little scenes flowing together that deal with personal joys and pains of the children in a small town. Patrick (Georges Desmouceaux) discovers girls and helps care for his father; Sylvie (Sylvie Grizel) rebels against her parents; and Julien (Philippe Goldmann) comes from a painful home life. Although mostly focused on the perspectives of children, the film provides adults with some screen time to share their wisdom.
Calling “Small Change” a “magical film,” Roger Ebert notes that the director “recreates childhood, and yet he sees it objectively, too: He remembers not only the funny moments but the painful ones…. Truffaut has been over some of this ground before. His first feature, ‘The 400 Blows,’ told the painful story of a Paris adolescent caught between his warring parents and his own better nature. In ‘Small Change’ he returns to similar material in a sunnier mood.”
Soft Skin (La peau douce)
While traveling to Lisbon for a lecture, the famous middle-aged publisher and lecturer Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) has a one-night stand with the young Panair do Brasil stewardess Nicole (Françoise Dorleac, who also appears in “The Young Girls of Rochefort”). They start a love affair, traveling to Reims together, and Pierre hides from his unbalanced wife (Nelly Benedetti), trying to spare his daughter (Sabine Haudepin) from a separation.
“‘The Soft Skin,’ has never gotten much respect,” says the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, “even though many people (myself included) regard it as one of (Truffaut’s) best. Poorly received when it premiered at Cannes in 1964, the movie was deemed Truffaut’s bid for commercial success … and even as the end of the New Wave. Actually, ‘The Soft Skin’ naturalizes New Wave technique; its tonal shifts and disjunctive montage are relatively subtle. Opening with a moody blast of Georges Delerue’s score, the movie immediately establishes itself as a sort of domestic suspense film.”
The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort)
Delphine and Solange, played by real-life siblings Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, are two sisters living in Rochefort and longing for Paris. Delphine is a dancing teacher, and Solange composes and teaches the piano. Also mooning about Rochefort are Maxence (Jacques Perrin), a poet and painter who is doing his military service, and American Andy Miller (legendary MGM star Gene Kelly), a successful composer. All are looking for love, looking for each other, unaware that their ideal partner is very close. French stars Danielle Darrieux and Michel Piccoli round out the cast of once and future lovers.
Writing in Salon, critic Stephanie Zacharek says the film “delivers two purring hours of pleasure. As well as being a love story in itself, it’s a musical love letter to the idea of musicals, to the notion that people can suddenly be so overcome with their feelings that they burst into song on the street, or pirouette across a city square.” She observes that Demy and his collaborator, composer Michel Legrand, offer a “tribute to the splashy, big-scale musicals of the ’50s, particularly Vincente Minnelli extravaganzas like ‘An American in Paris’ and ‘The Band Wagon.’ They even enlisted Gene Kelly to play one of the romantic heroes.”
Donkey Skin (Peau d'âne)
Jacques Demy’s ode to the classic fairytale by 17th-century author Charles Perrault (“Cinderella”) comes to life with breathtaking brilliance. Catherine Deneuve stars as a Princess whose father, the King (Jean Marais), shockingly seeks her hand in marriage after promising his dying wife to only wed a woman more beautiful than she. Listening to her godmother, the Fairy of Lilacs (Delphine Seyrig), the frightened Princess flees to a neighboring farm and hides as a scullery maid, wearing the skin of her father’s prized donkey as a disguise. A visiting Prince passes by, and an unlikely romance is born.
“Demy's movie makes for an evocative globe-paperweight tableau of its place and time, and a concise demonstration of the disquietude inherent in classic fairy tales,” writes the Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson. “That the story involves the marriage-lust of a grieving king (Cocteau axiom Jean Marais) for his luscious daughter (Catherine Deneuve) is only the tale’s wacky Freudian nut; around them gallops a soft parade of costume-ball silliness, frog-spitting hags, blue-skinned servants, talking yellow roses, out-of-body rendezvous, and fastidious gownery.”
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg)
Jacques Demy’s haunting romantic musical is an enchanting, one-of-a-kind experience. With a dazzling candy-colored palette, the film is basically a movie operetta, with the characters singing all the dialogue to Michel Legrand’s lovely score. The story spans five years (1957-1962) in the life of Geneviéve (Catherine Deneuve, in the role that launched her to international stardom), the teenage daughter of a woman who owns a Cherbourg umbrella shop. After Geneviéve's boyfriend, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), is drafted and sent off to Algeria, she discovers she’s pregnant and complications ensue.
Reviewing the film in 2004 – 40 years after its original release – the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote: “‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ has stood the test of time as beautifully as Deneuve and seems likely to enchant future generations as fully as it has audiences over the past four decades.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe was similarly effusive in his praise: “‘Umbrellas’ never feels constricting or clumsy, thanks to Michel Legrand’s lilting, dynamic score, the movie’s vivid colors and an unforgettable love story. Once you settle into its special rhythms, it feels as normal as breathing. This adult fairy tale is as delicate and vibrant as its star, the young Catherine Deneuve.”
The Cousins (Les cousins)
In “The Cousins” – the first of several films that would win international awards for New Wave director Claude Chabrol – Charles (Gerard Blain) is the cousin from the provinces with “bourgeois” values. His steadfast determination unfortunately does not help him pass exams or, at first, succeed with women. Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy) is the urbane, rather debauched and decadent cousin who appears to conquer all. But appearances can be deceiving, as they discover when Charles falls for Paul’s friend Florence (Juliette Mayniel), and tragedy waits in the wings.
Citing “The Cousins” as one of the director’s “most striking successes,” the estimable film Web site Senses of Cinema notes: “For the first time in Chabrol’s work, ‘Les Cousins’ shifts it social locus away from the working class and into the bourgeoisie where it will remain for the rest of the director’s oeuvre. It is also important to note that this film marked the beginning of a long-term collaboration with the screenwriter Paul Gégauff, whose sense of cruelty and black humour come to the fore of this extraordinary tale of urban fatalism and decadent irony.”
Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne)
A new priest (Claude Laydu) arrives in the French country village of Ambricourt to attend to his first parish. The apathetic and hostile rural congregation rejects him immediately. Through his diary entries, the suffering young man relays a crisis of faith that threatens to drive him away from the village and from God. With his fourth film, Robert Bresson began to implement his stylistic philosophy as a filmmaker, stripping away inessential elements from his compositions, the dialogue, and the music, seeking a purity of image and sound.
David Kehr, writing in the Chicago Reader, calls “Diary of a County Priest a “spare, intense” film that represents “Robert Bresson at his greatest and most difficult, building a profound sense of a higher order through its relentless detailing of the cold, small facts of everyday life. A masterpiece, beyond question.” The New York Press’ Armond White asserts that “Bresson set a standard of moral and spiritual contemplation that few filmmakers have matched” and observes that “the visual beauty of ‘Country Priest’ is matched by its profundity.”
Every Man for Himself (Sauve qui peut (la vie))
This 1980 film, which found Jean-Luc Godard returning to cinema after working in video through the ’70s, is a complicated exploration of relations. A work that Godard considers his “second first film,” “Every Man for Himself” charts the intertwined lives of three characters: Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), a filmmaker whose marriage is on the rocks; his ex-girlfriend, Denise Rimbaud (Nathalie Baye), who wants to escape to the country; and Isabelle Rivière (Isabelle Huppert), a prostitute who sells her body to lead a free life.
Benjamin Strong in L Magazine writes: “Thirty years later, ‘Every Man for Himself’ – a dark but cheeky, slightly surreal sexual comedy of manners about the existential chasm separating men and women – still causes the heart to leap.” Observing that the film “bristles with energy,” the New Yorker’s Richard Brody concludes: “Profanity, perversity, humiliation, frustration and violence erupt in luminous tableaux, painterly landscapes, and crisp Swiss city views that glow with the textual finesse of sunlight and available light and sing the artistic inspirations and psychic freedoms of modern Europe.”
Story of Women (Une affaire de femmes)
Acclaimed director Claude Chabrol offers this compelling true story of working-class housewife Marie (Isabelle Huppert), who performs illegal abortions in France during World War II, evading the Nazis and betraying those she loves. Brought to life by Chabrol on actual locations, “Story of Women” is an honest, original, and utterly absorbing film, which won Huppert the award as Best Actress at the 1988 Venice Film Festival.
The New York Times’ Janet Maslin describes the film as “icily haunting, beautifully delineated” and says it offers Huppert “one of her best roles.” She writes that Chabrol “makes a triumphant return to the kind of emblematic crime story that has long attracted him, in films as different as ‘Violette’ (1978) and ‘Le Boucher’ (1971).”
Le sauvage (Call Me Savage)
In this romantic adventure comedy from French writer/director Jean-Paul Rappeneau (“Cyrano de Bergerac,” “The Horseman on the Roof”), Catherine Deneuve stars as Nelly, a young French bride who gets cold feet and flees the altar, with her irate Italian groom (Luigi Vannucchi) in hot pursuit. While she is on the run in Venezuela, Nelly carries with her a priceless stolen painting and meets Martin (Yves Montand), a financially and personally troubled middle-aged French perfume-maker who is fleeing both his marriage and his failing business. Finding themselves in need of each other's assistance, the pair forms an unlikely bond. The 2011 Cannes Film Festival selected “Call Me Savage” as one of its Cannes Classics presentations.