Good Gaul: French Film Festival UK 2012
More often than not, national festivals serve to briefly focus attention on countries under-represented within the film industry at large. They offer cinema goers the opportunity to revisit exhumed classics and to sample fresh new works unlikely to receive extensive distribution deals on foreign shores. Not so French Film Festival UK. Having given birth to cinema in the late 19th century, France has continued to assert a strong influence on the medium and is certainly no industry underdog.
Following the Lumiere brothers' seminal 50 second shot of a Train Pulling Into a Station, Gallic cinema gave us early auteurs, such as the three Jeans (Renoir, Cocteau and Vigo), whose impact reverberates to this day; mid-20th century, the exuberance of the New Wave (Godard, Truffaut, Rivette et al.) has influenced multiple generations of independent filmmakers and, latterly, a string of unassuming box office juggernauts have shown that mainstream acceptance is possible without compromise. In particular, silent throwback The Artist and this year's Untouchable, a paraplegic buddy movie, have proven phenomenally popular with English-speaking audiences and opened the door for other European imports. With Untouchable recently becoming the country's most commercially successful film of all time, the French Film Festival enters its 20th year on a note of triumph.
In a bid to compound France's current status as a reliable hitmaker, the Festival will kick off with premier screenings of Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia on consecutive nights in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. A £50m extravaganza buoyed by the star power of frequent collaborators Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, the picture is being touted an unabashed celebration of the country's commercial prospects and will undoubtedly recoup at the international box office.
A reminder that France has always been prone to bold gestures, an immaculate restoration of Georges Méliès' visionary sci-fi short A Trip to the Moon comes as a nod to the country's cinematic heritage. The Extraordinary Voyage, an accompanying documentary on the 110-year-old classic's rebirth, meanwhile, should prove an illuminating highlight of the month long event, with writer/director Eric Lange on hand to offer additional insight.
Sandwiched between these audacious efforts, the remainder of the Festival's programme straddles the line between the sophisticated mainstream confections that Francophone cinema churns out so effortlessly and the art house offerings for which it receives the most acclaim. Animated features Patrice Leconte's Burtonesque musical The Suicide Shop and the already acclaimed Ernest and Celestine are perhaps most likely to register as audience favourites, their warmth, wit and inventiveness on par with the work of Sylvain Chomet.
Other prospects include Francoit Pirot's debut Mobile Home, a stationary road movie with all the makings of an off-beat classic, and Sophie Lellouche's Woody Allen homage Paris–Manhattan, the screenplay of which must have impressed the great man enough for him to agree to a cameo appearance. Headwinds, the second directorial feature from actor-turned-director Jalil Lespert, is a taut mystery featuring a turn from Audrey Tautou that looks set to build on the promise of his previous 24 Measures, while Pierre Schoeller's politically charged The Minister is already starting to turn heads.
The inaugural Quebec Cinema Showcase will further broaden the festival's horizons, while this year's major retrospective focusses on the work of Belgian maverick Chantal Akerman, whose best known work Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is an experimental, feminist milestone. Curated by Edinburgh University's Marion Schmid, the nine films selected are a diverse bunch that touch upon ascetic formalism, Lubitschian comedy and quirky documentary. 1983's On Tour With Pina Bausch, in particular, is a must see for anyone who enjoyed Wim Wenders' recent study of the dance choreographer. Akerman herself will be present in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London for screenings of her latest offering, Almayer's Folly. A loose and lyrical adaptation of Joseph Conrad's early novel, the film counts as yet another addition to a vibrant and personal body of work.