After our own films, French cinema appears
to be the most popular in the United States - or at least in
this city. From July 10 through July 14 (ending, appropriately,
on Bastille Day) BAMcinematek will present "New French Connection,"
a selection of the latest crop of French films that have yet
to find U.S. distributors.
There are a number of means by which French films try to find distribution in the United States, their largest foreign market. Producers make deals even before films are finished for some of the better-known directors. But more likely, they’ll present their films in festivals and markets. The Cannes festival is, of course, the largest and most likely target. If you can’t get your film into one of the sections of the festival itself, you can always have market screenings of your movie, where the actual buying and selling of film rights takes place.
But even using these kinds of venues doesn’t always work - at least not right away - so institutions like the BAMcinematek organize mini-festivals. And who knows? Perhaps these films could finally find distribution and then be shown throughout the country.
The slate at BAM is a small one - just five works - which makes it possible to see every film. One might think that films that haven’t found a distributor for a wide release would be first features, say, or films by unknowns. But the five filmmakers represented in this series have many films under their collective belt.
Philippe Garrel, who attained cult status a few years back, has trouble finding distributors, so his films ("The Birth of Love" and "The Inner Scar" among them) aren’t widely known. However, his work is visually crisp and intellectually rigorous, and at BAM you can see his 2001 film "Wild Innocence."
In this film, Francois, a young director who is suffering from the drug overdose death of his wife, decides to make an anti-drug film as a memorial to her, and also as a way of working out his own grief. But first he has to get financing, and the struggle is as difficult as one might expect. Finally, after running into an odd producer, he cuts a deal. Ironically he has to move heroin for this guy in order to make his anti-drug film. And his actresses don’t help matters by snorting the stuff in between takes.
It’s a serious film, and very accessible. Shot in pristine black-and-white by Jean-Luc Godard’s main director of photography, Raoul Coutard, the film is reminiscent of the original French New Wave, without being derivative. Characters deconstruct love and relationships in a recognizable way, and drug issues aren’t dealt with in a black-and-white manner. This film was shown in the market section of last month’s Cannes festival, but so far no U.S. distributors have shown interest.
Also shown in the market was Jean-Francois Stevenin’s "Mischka." This is a 2002 film, but it couldn’t be shown in any of the official sections of the festival because it had previously screened in the Rotterdam Film Festival, and the major festivals in Europe (Cannes, Berlin, Venice, etc.) are very strict about premiering work.
"Mischka" is an older-generation road movie. When Mischka, a difficult old guy, is accidentally left behind at a highway rest stop by his family, he manages to take his own journey with a ragtag group of travelers. These include a rock ’n’ roller, a runaway and a male nurse who’s left his salad days behind. While they seem a disparate group - surprise, surprise - they all bond and become a new sort of family. While it has its humorous side as well as its sweet side, "Mischka" is predictable and borders on cliche with its slate of stock characters.
Two films shown last year in the main competition in Cannes can finally be seen here. Catherine Corsini ("The New Eve") crafted a thinking person’s psychological thriller in "Replay" ("La Repetition"). Two women, Nathalie (played by the always stunning Emmanuelle Beart) and Louise (Pascale Bussieres) are best friends, but Louise’s affections come dangerously close to obsession.
After she tries to kill herself in a jealous rage, they have no contact for 10 years - until they meet accidentally. Now Louise’s love for her former friend has definitely crossed the line, and mind games become the main currency. It’s not a scary film, but an emotionally tense one. What makes it so intriguing is the psychological and emotional dependency of Beart’s character, which allows the manipulations to occur - and not just by Louise. Here, as in Garrel’s film, there are recognizable characters, which allow us to insert ourselves there and let the film get a real hold on our senses.
Cedric Kahn’s ("Too Much Happiness," "L’ennui") film "Roberto Succo" is another example of a film that was selected for the competition in Cannes in 2001 but has yet to find a distributor. This is a classic policier, the true story of a very unstable Italian criminal who went on a crime spree in France for no apparent reason in the 1980s. The title character is played by Stefano Cassetti, a non-professional, and he gives a chilling performance. While it’s hard to understand why he commits these crimes - which include robbery, kidnapping and murder - Kahn presents Succo in a very straightforward manner, and he also follows the police investigators on the case in the same fashion. The film moves from cops to crook again and again until they meet in a climax that’s emotional for the police as well as their prey.
Finally, Marion Vernoux ("Nobody Loves Me") is represented with a charming story of crossed paths, and lives that are connected in unexpected ways. "A Hell of a Day" ("Reines d’un Jour") assembles a large cast of not too happy urbanites: there’s the photographer pregnant from a one-night stand at a wedding, and the groom who’s the father, whose sister is unfulfilled in her marriage and is trying to have an affair with a club owner whose wife has had a fender bender with the photographer - well, it goes on and on. Each story line is witty, and each could stand on its own. But it’s the intricate balance of lives intersecting that makes the film such a treat. And performances by the likes of Jane Birkin and Serge Lopez only add to the enjoyment. This could be your only chance to see it, as well as all the others, if distribution deals continue to elude these talented French directors.
"New French Connection," a series of new French films, will be shown at BAMcinematek (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place) from July 10-July 14. Admission is $9, $6 seniors and students with a valid ID (Monday Thursday, except holidays). For screening dates and times, call (718) 636-4100.