‘Pacification’ | Credit: Courtesy Cannes Film Festival

A fond cultural memory from the Before Times will be rekindled when the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s (SBIFF) French edition of its mid-year “The Wave Film Festival” happily descends on the Riviera Theatre, from July 14 (Bastille Day) through July 20. What began almost a decade ago, with separate short festival events focusing on cinema from specific countries, is finally picking up where it left off, when COVID restrictions intruded on best-laid plans three years ago.

Stewart Short, the curator and organizer of the mini-festival, explains, “The Wave has always been an audience favorite in previous years, so, with the Riviera open again, and with audience sizes reaching a point that allows us to bring back programming like this, we are thrilled to bring The Wave back to the Riviera this summer.”

During the SBIFF’s main festival early in the year, the international purview always ushers in at least token representation from the cinema of France — often featuring some comic-relief French froth. But the French Wave Festival offers a more intensive overview of contemporary French cinema.

Short is a relative newcomer to the SBIFF mothership, starting as a UCSB intern in 2020, hired as Operations & Print Traffic Coordinator in 2022, and assuming programming duties this year. His first major project was the French mini-festival. He says, “Programming The Wave was a pleasant opportunity to sit down and take in the French film industry’s best all at once. With films like these not always getting particularly wide releases here in the U.S., The Wave is a perfect opportunity for audiences to do the same.”

“The main idea in putting together this lineup was to put together a snapshot of the past year in French cinema, with films that showcase French filmmaking talents and provide a glimpse at various elements of contemporary French culture through the lens of cinema,” says Short.

“These are films that have made splashes at major film festivals, films that have received some of the highest accolades in the French film industry, and films that have resonated with audiences wherever they’ve played. They explore a variety of subject matters through a number of distinct perspectives with unique cinematic intrigue, so it’s a great opportunity for cinephiles and Francophiles to dive into contemporary French cinema.”

Having seen three of the festival’s 11 entries on its roster, I can vouch for the impressive caliber and stylistic diversity of this year’s programming menu.

The Night of the 12th, directed by Dominik Moll and winner of several César Awards — including Best Film and Best Director — is a refreshingly unique variation on the homicide investigation, whodunit theme, but the obsessive narrative carrot isn’t so much an explicit whodunit, but the circuitous and truth-eluding process of the investigation, and the toil it takes on the police forces on the case. Based on a true and grisly story from the ones-that-got-away file of murder cases, the film both syncs up with the murder-case genre and steers said genre into alleyways of existential ambiguity.

‘The Passengers of the Night’ | Credit: Nord-ouest Films

Meanwhile, ambiguity has its own languid field day in writer-director Albert Serra’s luminous, long, and hypnotic Pacifiction, a critically acclaimed film with an awards list including Best Actor César for lead Benoît Magimel and Best Cinematography for Artur Tort’s seductive visual scheme. This hazy yet alluring study of strained French/Tahitian relations, centered around Magimel’s suave role as a “high commissioner” and pleasure-dome keeper, enticingly lounges its way through a tale with brewing tensions — including a looming prospect of French nuclear testing in this island paradise. But Serra keeps a loose and naturalistic style and pacing in check. The result is much less a taut thriller than an inventive and impressionistic arthouse-suitable one. Echoes of John Cassettes’ slow-brew thrillers Saint Jack and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie come to mind.

On the sweeter, more agreeably sentimental side of the French cinema spectrum, is the Charlotte Gainsbourg–starring film The Passengers of the Night, director Mikhaël Hers’s saga about a divorced single mother finding her way in the world. As life and her assuredness progress, she becomes a beacon of strength for her children and others, adding substance abuse-addled friends and lovers to her care, as she moves along the path toward a peaceable happy ending.

All told, the future looks bright for the “off-season” child of our major film festival. As Short notes, “Now that audiences have reached a healthy enough size that allows us to bring back this sort of programming, The Wave will be a regular affair.”

For info and tickets, see sbiffriviera.com/wave


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