Reviews by Saoirse Mulvihill
This year’s pandemic has taken a lot away from many people, and so seeing endeavours put into preserving some ounce of normality is as encouraging as it is heart-warming. For the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to virtually attend screenings from this year’s French Film Festival with the IFI, one of these culturally-conservative efforts. Though the experience of the simulated occasion is very different from the original (the technical difficulties and lack of atmosphere to be expected), the amount of time and effort that goes into protective projects like these is not to be taken for granted. As a result, I was thoroughly grateful to partake in this one-of-a-kind film festival experience.
The Big Hit
The Big Hit (Emmanuel Courcol, 2020) was the first of six films in the IFI’S 2020 French Film Festival I attended virtually, an undeniably solid start. Although the online festival format is strange, The Big Hit has proven that the viewing experience of a formidable film will persevere even under these bizarre circumstances.
Loosely based on a true story, the film depicts the experience of five prisoners whose folly of aimlessly waiting to be released from prison inspires a dead-end actor to direct them in a production of Samuel Beckett’s En Attendant Godot. Throughout the runtime the cast are consistently dynamic, bouncing off one another in a spectacle that’s equally as convincing as it is hilarious. Unfortunately, the storyline still struggles in the same vein many other ‘d’après une histoire vraie’ films do. When trying to find the balance between a strong narrative structure whilst adapting the real events accurately, the plot occasionally feels less calculatedly-driven as it does haphazardly-dragged.
In spite of this, the story itself is nothing short of utterly captivating and poignant. One can’t help but feel the impact of these events on the inmates’ lives. Almost going against what Beckett himself seemed to believe, this mere folly of passing time in the prisoners’ absurd existences is as hopeful and meaningful as Vladimir and Estragon would’ve ever wished Godot himself to have been.
The second viewing of 2020’s virtual IFI French Film Festival was Lola (Laurent Micheli, 2019). Unfortunately, this screening weathered heavier hardship due to the online format than its predecessor. The audio was constantly falling out of sync, no amount of time would be enough for the film to buffer more than two minutes ahead and so the viewing was burdened with constant breaks, refreshing, and pausing.
Although by no means a perfect film or screening, the story of young transitioning Lola (big-ups for hiring openly trans actress, Mya Bollaers) struggling to share the grief of losing her mother with her estranged father (Benoît Magimel) is delivered with such brutal honesty – not to mention respect to the subject matter- it’s almost impossible not to like. Lola is uncompromising in its sense of identity. It knew what it wanted to be, say and capture in its runtime, and this was made clear from the very first shot. Lola, both the film and protagonist, are vibrant, colourful, and troubled. The neon-grit, 80’s aesthetic achieved by the almost polaroid visuals are sure to capture the attention of its target audience, and I’m all for it.
The film may or may not resemble an hour-long indie music video, but the subtext is an incredibly important one to have in contemporary cinematic conversation – and yeah, the ending did make me cry. Deal with it.
The Woman Who Dared
This film threw me. Throughout its runtime, I was perpetually torn between loving and hating it; unable to tell whether it was an early piece of feminist art encouraging women to dare to dream, or a cautionary tale against letting women out of the kitchen.
Taking place during the German occupancy of France, The Woman Who Dared (Jean Grémillon, 1944) tells the true story of a family struggling to maintain their careful, calculated lifestyle against their adventurous aspirations at heart. In particular, we see the mother and wife (Madeleine Renaud) fighting desperately to keep her family’s passions at bay, in an effort to hold their financially and domestically secure household together.
At the end of the day, this is a tale of the importance of taking risks, being bold and fighting back against the status quo. Haunted by the imagery of the local orphans – walking through the town, donned in all black – this progressive piece of cinema wishes to confuse and derail its audience, before leading them to a satisfyingly liberal conclusion. Although dated, with the plot taking chaotic leaps in time sporadically and without warning, the film is an interesting watch for those curious about the foundations of feminism in cinema – at least, in French cinema.
Night Shift (Anne Fontaine, 2020) was the film I was most excited about reviewing, and thus far the one to disappoint me the most.
It is by no means a terrible movie; telling the story of three French cops tasked with escorting a refugee to the airport for his deportation, it is extraordinarily intense for a film where astonishingly little actually happens on screen. I was particularly excited to see actor Omar Sy again after falling in love with his performance in Les Intouchables (Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, 2011). This excitement slowly dwindled, however, until finally the story’s inciting incident occurred exactly halfway through the entire runtime.
I was therefore unsurprised to discover as the credits began to roll, I could not recount a single character’s name. Upon googling it, I discovered that not only had very few of them been given even a surname, but Sy’s didn’t have one at all. On top of that, none of the characters seemed to have any real personality, merely reacting to their surroundings before a dramatic climax that could have easily been prevented had they only acted sooner. Call that character development, but those normally consist of an arc – not a deathly-straight line with a blundering bump at its end.
The lone documentary on this list, The Nest (Michel Leclerc, 2020) tells the story of Yvonne and Roger Hagnauer (also known as Seagull and Penguin, respectively); a feminist, pacifist, anarchist and syndicalist couple who protected and raised over 500 orphans from World War II in their school, Maison de Sèvres.
According to the documentary, all of the children who grew up there together remained lifelong friends even after leaving ‘the nest’. Thus, director Michel Leclerc (as the son of one of those children) equally grew up knowing them and their story well, too.
It is a very personal piece of cinema, as the topic is very personal to the documentarian and its subjects alike. This comes across completely transparently to the viewer – I occasionally found its informal presentation quite jarring – but it works for the creation that it is. Personally, I struggled to feel as impacted by the experiences discussed because of said informality (probably due to a subconscious suspicion surrounding Leclerc’s predisposed perspective), yet even then I could never deny how extraordinary the story of Yvonne and Roger Hagnauer truly is. They saved hundreds of young lives, and probably deserve as much regard as Oskar Schindler for it.
Calamity (Rémi Chayé, 2020) was the final film from the festival for me, and I was thrilled to finish on such a high note! Illustrated, directed and written by Rémi Chayé, who also had a hand in 2009’s The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore), there is an undeniable sense of a single, coherent vision for the picture, which is ultimately executed (almost) seamlessly.
From the very beginning, I knew that even if I didn’t enjoy this Odyssey of the Wild West’s frontierswoman Calamity Jane’s formative years, I’d still have a beautiful soundtrack to add to my Spotify playlists. Thankfully, the film’s storyline, characters, and above all art style were equally as distinct, dynamic, and memorable as the twangy tunes played alongside them.
I really can’t stress enough how stunning the art is. Although there were one or two issues with the animation (the dog Pik’s right ear was left detached from his head on more than one occasion) this doesn’t detract from the overall experience. The incredibly French ‘féministe-rebelle’ subtext is a little on the nose at times, which can be irksome for an adult audience, but is easily forgiven once one remembers the target audience was primarily children. Altogether, Calamity is nothing short of a vibrant and vivid viewing for all ages.
The IFI French Film Festival ran from November 11th- 22nd.