Besides being the birthplace of cinema, providing the second-most influential national body of work in the world (after America), and producing a novelty act that became an internationally-acclaimed film hit (The Artist, duh), you might be wondering as you contemplate mise en scene and montage what France has done for the movies…lately.
Actually, for Santa Barbara International Film Fest’s new senior programmer Michael Albright, the real problem was narrowing down the field of French accomplishment. “This whole thing sort of evolved,” said Albright, who is also in the final phases of earning hid PhD in film studies at UCSB. “It developed as we were looking at films beginning in fall, there were so many French films coming in that we decided to narrow it down to first films.” In other words, the field was so rich that Albright and fest artistic director Roger Durling decided to just do what film festivals are supposed to do: show us what is breathtakingly new.
Beside many striking works, they found fascinating connectivities inside the films. For instance, said Albright: “The very beautiful actress Adele Heanel is featured in Heat Wave and Iris in Bloom. Valerie Donzelli direct and stars in Declaration of War and makes a cameo appearance in Iris in Bloom and Christa Theret is in both Mike and Twiggy.” But that’s not all that binds the films together, according to Albright, who notes a freshness to the cinematic approach that matches very well with the movies’ avid interest in youth. There’s also a lot of pregnancy, baby anxieties, and unrequited love in them too.
Yet Albright isn’t insisting that these linked films signal some new New Wave is at hand. “I would not go as far as to say that though I admit there are some parallels.”
Most like the French films of the 1960s from Truffaut, Godard, and company, however, the films exhibit a nice duality. They reflect on a very human scale which youth implies, some deal with social issues; but more often reflect emotionally-charged situations. Iris in Bloom richly illustrates the story of an alienated, precocious 16-year-old girl who meets a 40-year-old photographer; The Giants is a darker francophone Mark Twain tale following teens abandoned by their parents and; Mike is about a boy who loves fast cars and hates work — yet somehow remains irresistible; Twiggy, presents an almost stunningly enigmatic portrait of a beautiful pregnant young woman with help available and nothing but indifference in her heart.
Most of them also feel like movies, not just social documents — what Godard regarded as healthy self-possession of movies obsessed with their own movie-ness. So, we get a film like the brilliant, difficult Declaration of War about a couple self-consciously named Romeo and Juliet who have a child they learn has brain cancer. Deeply sorrowful, yet the characters sometimes break into song, and passages are linked with almost psychedelic interludes of microscopic cellular photography. It’s touching and exhilarating.
Though it’s his first year on the job, Albright knows that it’s his rare luck to have so many great movies that they could afford to mix and match themes, motifs, and players to maybe make bigger patterns apparent. “One of the things I like is making mix tapes for people,” laughed Albright. “This was like putting a big mix tape together.”