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Summer of French Cinema 2015 at Picturehouses

Paul Ridd, London Cinemas and Acquisitions Coordinator at Picturehouse Cinemas, discusses Summer of French Cinema; our new seasonal programming strand dedicated to the best in contemporary cinema from across the channel.

Every January, uniFrance – something akin to a French BFI – holds a three-day event in the heart of Paris called Rendez-Vous With French Cinema. It’s an opportunity for film distributors from around the world to network with French sales agents and check out promos, trailers and scripts. But what’s most unusual and exciting about the event – aside from the opportunity to hang out in the most beautiful city in the world, in the country where cinema was invented – is that it has a screening programme that lies somewhere on the border between ultra art house and ultra commercial. It’s a snapshot of contemporary French cinema, and one can expect to step out of an auteur piece about the exquisite pain of being alive straight into a Dany Boon comedy.

We’ve been supporting uniFrance for some years with a programme in London under the banner Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, featuring films from the Paris selection. But this is the first year the programme has ventured further afield as a Summer Of French Cinema, complete with Q&As and a parallel video-on-demand strand that expands the line-up.

The six films in the programme can be thought of in pairs. Based on a real incident, Cédric Kahn’s Wild Life is a lyrical, emotional film in which Mathieu Kassovitz plays a man who abducted his sons to live as roaming wanderers in the French countryside for over a decade. This effortlessly real and moving story of ordinary people in desperate circumstances is primarily about fatherhood, and is all the more powerful for its simplicity. Alix Delaporte’s The Last Hammer Blow, on the other hand, focuses on motherhood. A son comes to terms with the imminent death of his mother, while forming a bond with an older male music teacher and possible father figure. Beautifully lensed and acted, the film is a similarly small gem of simple French naturalism, its address straightforward and evocative.

In a lighter mode, Patrice Leconte’s uproarious comedy of manners Do Not Disturb finds Christian Clavier’s pompous Michel desperate to listen to a new record he has bought, but constantly interrupted by various intrusions from his wife, the neighbours, a vagrant son and others. Shot through with a sense of mischief, it falls into similarly acerbic territory to Yasmina Reza’s Carnage, filmed by Roman Polanski in 2011. In a slightly darker register is Xavier Beauvois’s black comedy The Price Of Fame. This film draws inspiration from the real-life case of two hard-up conmen who plotted to steal the remains of Charlie Chaplin and hold them to ransom in the 1970s. As with Do Not Disturb, much of the humour derives from a uniquely Gallic cringe of embarrassment, but there’s a hint of melancholy too as the clueless friends fail to make good on their heist.

Pierre Courrège’s political comedy The Statesman has distinct parallels with the British TV show The Thick Of It in its cynical portrait of a grossly inept politician. A barely veiled caricature of Nicolas Sarkozy and his entourage, its foul-mouthed cronies, PR folk and rival politicians are all hungry for power and seemingly devoid of genuine political conviction. A sharp and funny satire on modern French politics, the film nevertheless hints at a vague sense of despair that also drives the final title in our selection. Brigitte Sy’s Astragal is a riveting character study based on Albertine Sarrazin’s novel of the same name. Set in the late 1950s, it follows a young woman (Leila Bekhti) who escapes from a juvenile prison and then falls desperately in love with a conman (Reda Kateb), following him into a life of petty crime. Shot in exquisite black and white and acted with a painful intensity by its young cast, Sy’s film is reminiscent of the very best in French poetic realism. It’s perhaps the most accomplished film in the selection, and certainly the most formally daring.

The Summer Of French Cinema in association with uniFrance screens from 13 July to 3 August, at the Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge; Exeter Picturehouse; the Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford; City Screen, York; Picturehouse at National Media Museum, Bradford; and Picturehouse at FACT, Liverpool. Check the cinemas’ websites for listings.

The parallel video-on-demand channel can be found at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/discover/FrenchFilmFestivalUK

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