Vive le cinema!

Lambert Wilson as General Charles de Gaulle.
Lambert Wilson as General Charles de Gaulle.
The French Film Festival is back. Tom McKinlay gets some pointers from Alliance Francaise president Kim Cousins.

"I am from a family where the 18th of June is the most important day, ever," says Kim Cousins.

She then says something that sounds like the wind in the trees, or a stream in the hills. It is less language than poetry on the air, because it is in French.

It’s a short phrase and when bookended by the clumsy clunking of English consonants sounds like a spell.

The phrase is "L’Appel du 18 juin", words that should probably remain in the language originally intended. But in English it’s "The Appeal of 18 June".

L’Appel was a broadcast made by Charles de Gaulle to the French people as their country fell to Adolf Hitler’s divisions. For the French it has a resonance equal to, likely exceeding, any of Winston Churchill’s stirring utterances, and is regarded as the beginning of the heroic French Resistance.

It features in the French Film Festival film De Gaulle, screening in Dunedin from next week.

Stephen Dillane (left) and Ciaran Hinds in The Man in the Hat.
Stephen Dillane (left) and Ciaran Hinds in The Man in the Hat.
Cousins, a French-born University of Otago researcher and president of the Dunedin branch of Alliance Francaise, knows something about all this beyond the history her countryfolk are raised with. Cousins’ grandfather, Yves Rey-Herme, wrote the book. Or at least one of them, Memoires de guerre: de Gaulle ecrivain.

Isabelle Huppert as The Godmother.
Isabelle Huppert as The Godmother.
De Gaulle’s speech came as Marshal Philippe Petain was agreeing an armistice with Germany and establishing the collaborationist Vichy regime. It’s now commonly regarded as an infamous capitulation, but Cousins says it was more complicated than that.

Petain was then a national hero, known as the Lion of Verdun for his leadership during the darkest days of World War 1.

"There was a large part of the population that really thought that Petain’s decisions, at least initially, were probably in the best interests of France," she says of the armistice.

France had seen much of the slaughter of that earlier war, those memories still fresh.

And indeed the film captures much of that nuance.

Cousins likes the look of this year’s festival line-up, a good range, good variety.

It moves from the serious biopic of De Gaulle to the whimsical The Man in the Hat, a largely dialogue-free tour through the beautiful French countryside, featuring the mournfully asymmetrical features of Irishman Ciaran Hinds, looking more Gallic than ever, despite driving an Italian car.

Juliette Binoche in How to Be a Good Wife.
Juliette Binoche in How to Be a Good Wife.
"That’s probably one that would appeal to people who aren’t necessarily into French cinema," Cousins says.

But for those who are into French cinema, Cousins suggests putting a ring around The Godmother (La Daronne).

Gregory Gadebois in Delicious, a film of food and revolution, not necessarily in that order.
Gregory Gadebois in Delicious, a film of food and revolution, not necessarily in that order.
"It has one of the most well known French actors, Isabelle Huppert," she says, making another spell of the actor’s name.

"To me it looks like it is probably quite French."

That’s down largely to Huppert who, touching 70, inhabits an ageless grace and style.

"She has that French beauty and allure that people associate with French women," confirms Cousins.

In The Godmother she’s a police interpreter turned drug lord.

Aline charts the life of Celine Dion. It is billed as a comedy.
Aline charts the life of Celine Dion. It is billed as a comedy.
For the classicists, there’s Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave gem from 1960 Breathless (in French A bout de souffle), starring Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo, restored for the big screen.

"Jean-Paul Belmondo is the guy that everybody’s grandmothers were enamoured with," Cousins recalls.

It’s a fair bet that many grandfathers - and some grandmothers - felt similarly about Seberg. Among other things, the United States-born Seberg was a Black Panther supporter, for which she was targeted by the FBI.

It would not be a French Film Festival without Juliette Binoche, and she duly appears in How to Be a Good Wife, a film set in the 1960s about a failing finishing school for young women.

Cousins entertains the idea of taking her 11-year-old daughter. Just for a laugh.

Not everything in the festival originates from the Continent; Aline, a biopic based on Celine Dion’s life, is an French-Canadian effort. It features songs by the Quebecoise nightingale and is billed as a comedy.

Another from the wider Francophone world is Skies of Lebanon, which takes a look at life during the Lebanese Civil War.

The wider Francophone world is in focus in Skies of Lebanon.
The wider Francophone world is in focus in Skies of Lebanon.
Opening night is Antoinette in the Cevennes, a funny and feel-good film set in the hills, that stars Laure Calamy of Netflix comedy Call My Agent. But also, again, the French countryside.

"The Cevennes is near Provence and all of that."

It’s Cousins’ own neck of the woods.

It is summer and cicadas and olives, she says.

There is food, of course, in particular the film Delicious (Delicieux), which is promoted as the festival’s "centrepiece".

It is set just before the French Revolution, and concerns the country’s very first restaurant.

The festival

The French Film Festival runs from June 24-July 7 at Rialto.


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