We proud and finicky Santa Barbarans, unreasonably particular about the way our fair city is portrayed by Hollywood interlopers, had plenty to grouse about when the film It’s Complicated came out in 2009. In Nancy Meyers’s fictionalized Santa Barbara, a Christmas tree lot decamped in De la Guerra Plaza, and Steve Martin’s character invited his pal to the local “French film festival.” “C’est what?” the perturbed among us moviegoers wondered. Did they start a French film festival and fail to notify the press and public? Call the filmic/civic accuracy police.
Of course, had the film come out in the past couple of years, we might not have flinched, thanks to the birth and continuing growth of The Wave Film Festival. The Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s growing series of mini-festivals at the now SBIFF-run Riviera Theatre, of which the French cinema model returns for the third time, also included the Pan-Asian Wave fest earlier this year.
Invariably, the mother-ship SBIFF event in late January/early February includes at least a smattering of French films in its mix each year, and one of the “best of the fest” in 2016 was the French film Mustang, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. But the 11 new and new-ish French films assembled for this Wave gives a necessarily more singular and focused take, culturally and linguistically (in terms of language and cinematic style).
SBIFF programmer Mickey Duzdevich has been in charge of the gradually expanding set of Wave festivals, and he admits that “there is so much great French content, it makes it hard to choose. Whitney Murdy, one of our programmers, and myself watch hours of French cinema, and we look for the best that span from June 2015 to June 2016. When we are programming for the main festival, we will make note of any French films we might have seen that we would like to hold for the Wave.”
In all, the upcoming Wave palette of films offers a concentrated, diverse overview of French cinema of recent vintage, a seemingly calmer and more complacent milieu compared to the glory days of the ’50s through the ’70s, when giants like Truffaut, Godard, Bresson, Malle, and others walked the earth and ruled the art house. Duzdevich asserts that “it is a wonderful period for French films. Their film industry is always growing, yet they still focus on the original ideas and storytelling. Currently, most of the cinema out of France is focusing on youth and coming-of-age stories, which will shine through at this year’s Wave.”
One familiar director is Michel Gondry, who staked his claim as a kindly creative firebrand with such head-scratching pleasures as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Green Hornet, and the cardboard-centric surrealism of The Science of Sleep. You won’t find many things bizarre in Microbe and Gasoline (Microbe et gasoil), but quirky charm and sympathy for the power of youthful idealism informs this sweet, offbeat tale of teenaged life with two bonding misfits: a “hopeless romantic and a grease monkey,” says Theo, nicknamed “Gasoil” for his inventor’s tinkering instinct that sends the pair on a road trip.
Director Tommy Weber’s tale of wayward youth, Sleepless Night in Paris (Quand je ne dors pas), takes aim at a twenty-something in search of self, as told through a funny and sad series of things happening one night, roaming around Paris. More self-consciously stylish and nodding to the influence of Truffaut/Godard (even with the Jean-Pierre Leaud-like protagonist, beautifully played by Aurélien Gabrielli), the film is moodily shot in black-and-white and favors close-ups, right up through a stunning, extended final close-up of our mercurial, tousle-haired hero waxing hopeful and bewildered about his future, breaking into song as if the ripest response to existence.
Coming-of-age merges with sexual-orientation awakening, the alienation of “otherness,” and other issues in the tellingly named Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans), from veteran director André (Wild Reeds [Les roseaux sauvages]) Téchiné (whose oeuvre does extend back through the Truffaut-Godard era). Beyond the festival theme of youth, the film The Great Game (Le grand jeu) is a talky, knotty thriller in which political intrigues, radical leftists, and assorted skullduggery and betrayals swirl around the idea expressed in the statement “today, we live and die at the crossroads of many a mystery.”
These are a few of the good reasons to wend your way up to the Riviera to catch the next Wave. Who knows, you might see local boy Steve Martin there.
SBIFF’s The Wave runs Monday-Sunday, July 11-17, at the Riviera Theatre (2044 Alameda Padre Serra). For more information, see sbiff.org.