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French Language Cinema Week in Los Angeles

Robin Menken: As part of the annual Global Francophone month, Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles, Théâtre Raymond Kabbaz, in partnership with TV5Monde and the consulates of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and Quebec Government Office presents five francophone movies, all shown In French with English subtitles.
Baden Baden

Baden Baden

As part of the annual Global Francophone month (celebrated each year in March) Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles, Théâtre Raymond Kabbaz, in partnership with TV5Monde and the consulates of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and Quebec Government Office (with the participation of Senegal's Honorary Consul in Los Angeles) presents five francophone movies, all shown In French with English subtitles.

On Saturday March 18, 2017, The Canadian Consulate presented a screening of C.R.A.Z.Y, the landmark coming-of-age feature by director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club). Set in the 70's, starring charismatic Marc-André Grondin as Zachary Beaulie and Michel Côté as his father, the charming film put coming out of the closet center stage before Hollywood seriously tackled the subject. The warm. character-rich film, layered with observation and interesting stylistic touches is more about coming of age than coming out of the closet and is one of the best films evoking the seventies I can think of. A MUST SEE CLASSIC.

On Sunday, March 19, the Belgian Consulate presented BADEN BADEN. Rachel Lang's first feature "Baden Baden" is a surprisingly winning character study of a temporarily aimless 20-something girl.

A bold opening shot from the front seat shows chauffeur Ana (Salomé Richard), driving in agitating circles, clearly lost, as her film star passenger talks in the back seat. Its a metaphor for slacker Ana's woes, trapped between girlhood and adulthood.

Unable to find the location or get the female star to the set in time, she is the bane of the production. Driven to tears by her boss, expected in London by the production, she takes a runner with the rented Porsche and returns home to Strasbourg to visits her grannie (Kate Moran), ex boyfriend Boris (Olivier Chantreau) and best pal Simon (Swann Arlaud). Simon's advise tells us more about Ana than she does.

Ana offers to take her gran to Baden Baden, but a bad fall lands granny in hospital. With her parents away, Ana's her gran's support system, and, almost as an act of contrition, she begins a clumsy D.I.Y. project of remodeling the old gal's bathroom, aiding by the apparently love-lorn hardware clerk Gregoire (Lazare Gousseau).

Uneventful and episodic, Lang's film is dotted with wry observations. We come to know, and like, the lanky Ana, who's trying to make sense of her mid-twenties. Offering a glimpse at the disconnectedness of the twenties, before adult life asserts its demands, the film prompts us to recall the timeless quality of that provisional period in our own lives.

In her close-cropped hair androgynous shorts and tees, Ana seems reluctant to step into woman's shoes. It's a tough character to make likeable but Salomé Richard summons layers of mournful innocent will power to create a memorable protagonist. I'm still thinking about her.

Fiona Braillon's seductive cinematography abetted by Sophie Vercruysse liminal editing and Wim Coryn's music choices help weave the singular atmosphere or a film with a fresh and distinctly female flavor.

Global Francophone month

Wulu

On Monday March 20 we were treated to the French- Senagalese thriller WULU, at a screening hosted by Mame Toucouleur Mbaye, Honorary Consul of Senegal.

Marseille-born French-Malian director Daouda Coulibaly’s energetic “Wùlu" examines career choices for 20-year-old bus driver Ladji (Ibrahim Koma), who rejects emigrating to Europe, preferring to make his way in Bomako.

Set against the period leading up to Mali’s 2012 coup d’état (and coincidently a military coup in Guinea) Coulibaly's brisk thriller takes Ladji on a career course from savvy street bus driver bus (he knows every trick to get a full bus on the road quickly and turn over more customers) to a ruthless, yet uncommitted international drug runner, in bed with international dealers, corrupt government officials and Al-Qaeda.

Onscreen for all of the movie, Paris-born Ibrahim Koma (playing in French and in Bambara), makes moody, handsome Ladji a protagonist we're rooting for no matter what missteps he takes.

Malian pop singer Inna Modja plays Ladji's older sister Aminata, a prostitute then expensive party girl, who lives with him in his ascent from city shack to custom villa. Mariame N’Diaye plays his high class, Western- educated girlfriend Assitan, the daughter of a corrupt general.

Coulibaly's genre film uses a familiar structure (like Brian de Palma's "Scarface") to examine Mali's tragic recent history, while working on it's own for audience members who prefer their thrills context-free.

French D.P. Milon's (“The Class”, "Heading South") bright and beautifully composed cinematography adds gravitas.

The 2012 Mali Civil War, a battle between the quasi- nomadic Tuaregs and local (and foreign Islamists) for control of Northern Mali took place during a military coup and the collapse of the national government.

In the end credits we learn that Al Queda's over-running of Timbuktu was financed in good part by drug money

On Tuesday March 21st, The French Consulate presented LES MALHEURS DE SOPHIE preceeded by the winsome short animation Le petit casserole d'Anatole (Anatole's Little Saucepan),

Les Malheurs De Sophie-French auteur Christophe Honoré ('Love Songs", “The Beloved”), adapts the first and second book of beloved 19th century French children's' classic; "The Fleurville Trilogy', written by the Countess De Segur.

Honoré is a children's author as well, which explains his fondness for the original material.(The books have spawned animated and TV series, prior films, stage productions even a comic book.)

Honoré's production walks a line between classic and post modern. Music by Honoré’s frequent composer Alex Beaupain teeters between a classical score and modern songs sung by the child actors. His often hand-held images, usually set a child's eye view, contemporize his square Academy ratio compositions, beautifully shot by D.P. André Chemetoff ("The Beach", "The Ninth Gate").

Honoré moves the story back from the 1860-1870s to the Napoloanic directore period when the Russian-born Countess de Segur (another Sophie) was a child.

Exquisite production values by designer Florian Sanson and lived-in but elegant costumes by Belgian costumer Pascaline Chavanne (a frequent Honoré and Ozub collaborator), call to mind the familiar Kate Greenway illustrations many of us grew up with.

Spunky, ever curious five-year-old Sophie (effervescent non-pro Caroline Grant) upsets the world around her with her daily explorations of how things work.

Momentarily contrite, when called to task by her exhausted mother Madame de Rean (Golshifteh Farahani), her playmates, or the host of servants that care for her family in their beautiful chateau, she is a force of nature; a decade older and she would be the France's first female scientist.

Farahani ("Exodis") is luminous as the fragile, shy, forgiving mother, considered an arriviste by her husband's family and friends.

Monsieur de Rean, Sophie's absentee father, has a beautiful doll delivered. Servant Baptistin (Jean-Charles Clichet) breaks the fourth wall to predict that before the day is over, the new doll will have surely lost her head

Sophie's well-behaved playmates ooh and ah, but within a day, she's dumped the doll under a fountain, pushed in her wax eyes and melted off her feet. (perhaps she's protesting Papa's busy absence in her life?)

With her next gift, a pen knife, Sophie carves up her mother's prize gold fish to serve them to her dolls and served a tea party of chalk (for sugar) and dogs bowl water to her live-inb cousin Paul (Tristan Farge) and her dutiful posse of galpals, Camille (Céleste Carrale) and Madeleine (Justine Morin), the well-behaved daughters of loyal neighbor Madame de Fleurville (Anais Demoustier).

Alas, as the title suggests, the halcyon childhood afternoons, enlivened by amateur theatricals and lovely meals are soon to end. Monsieur de Rean (Robert Cantarella) intends to take his household to America to visit his newly inherited New World holdings.

Madame de Rean is desperate to stay behind. She confides to Madame de Fleurville that she had a premonition, a nightmare that they will drown during the crossing. As illustration, In a charming Magical Realist moment, a maritime painting comes life during a threatening nighttime storm.

Time passes at the Chateau. We learn that Sophie's mother perished at sea, that cousin Paul also vanished and that Sophie's father remarried, only to pass away, leaving Sophie in the care of her older, exacting stepmother Madame Fichini (Muriel Robin).

The servants await the arrival of widowed Madame Fichini, who has decided to reopen the Chateau.

Muriel Robin plays the evil stepmother with gusto. The boldly charicatured villainess signals the film's change in tone. Madame Fichini upsets the house by redecorating, burning all the delicate decor that made the Chateau Madame de Rean's idyllic refuge.

Servant's and neighbors alike cringe as poor Sophie is tormented by her stepmother. A believer of "spare the rod and spoil the child", whip-wielding Fichini is quick to blame and punish.

Fichini prefers ugly servants who will always remain loyal and dependent. The gentle, child-friendly servant Joseph (David Prat) is suspect in Fichini's eyes, "handsome men cannot be trusted", she warns, contemplating firing any young, comely servants in her employ.

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Sophie is rescued by tender Madame de Fleurville, who convinces Madame Fichini that she would love to keep Sophie, and, as she narrates, she raises her as one of her own daughter. (She's the second child Madame de Fleurville rescues in the film).

A cast of non-professional child actors keeps the childish pranks and reasoning fresh.

Scripted by Gilles Taurand ("Wild Reeds", "Farewell, My Queen" and Ursula Meier’s "Sister"), occasionally embellished by animated animal characters and infrequent anachronistic songs (reminiscent of Seventies after school specials and kid's films), Honoré's live action feature manages, through all this window dressing), to capture the spirit of endless summer afternoons and the creative boredom of childhood in a way I've never seen on screen.

The Quebecois Dellegation presented LA PASSION D’AUGUSTINE on Wednesday 22nd. Swiss-Québécoise director Léa Pool beautiful, measured "The Passion of Augustine" is set in 1965, during Quebec Province's Quiet Revolution-the secularization of society, the creation of a welfare state and the eventual election of a pro-sovereignty provincial government in the 1976 election.

Mère Augustine (the incandescent Céline Bonnier) runs a prestigious girls’ boarding school in rural Quebec. The handsome school, set on the riverbank, is home to a dedicated group of musical Nuns and, for many years, a talented core of prize-winning musical students from every class of society.

Brilliant Mère Augustine (nee Simone) has guided her talented charges to countless wins in regional and national piano contests. Bonnier plays the good Mother Superior with banked fires and a secret life. One-time piano virtuoso and concert pianist, her school is the music school of choice for catholic schoolgirls, a school where the wealthiest parents pay for poorer girls to study music, burnishing her reputation in the region.

Alas, music schools, and indeed Parochial schools are now deemed unnecessary by the powers that be as Quebec introduces the public school system, and begins to close the religious school in the province.

Pressured by the liberalizing policies of 1962’s Vatican II council to update the traditional Catholic institutions The region’s new Mother General (Marie Tifo) goes gunning for music programs in the school, saving her particular ire for Mère Augustine.

In several scenes, she chastises the canny, defiant and self-willed Mère Augustine for immodesty; but Augustine will not be stopped, trying everything and every contact to keep her beloved Music School intact.

Mère Augustine's sister (Maude Guerin) asks her to care for her teenage daughter as she establishes herself in a new job.

Alice (Lysandre Ménard) arrives, all peace signs and mouthy rebellion. A piano prodigy who can improvise BacH as a jazz solo, her behavior challenges Mère Augustine's emotional growth. The arc of their relationship takes place against Augustine’s attempt to save her precious school.

Pool creates a memorable group of religious sisters, including the disciplinarian French teacher Soeur Lise (Diane Lavallée), who cannot accept the coming changes.

The scenes showing the sisters removing their habits, and appearing before their charges in secular uniform to sing mass, are particularly effective.

We've seen these sorts of institutional wrangles many times before onscreen, not to mention "let's put on a show" to save our institution, but Pool sidesteps the clichés and easy answers, allowing a slow build of her character's dilemma's to take center stage.

Strong character work, a subtle script and beautiful music make the film a memorable experience.

Global Francophone month

MA VIE DE COURGETTE (MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI)

On Thursday, March 23rd, the Swiss contributed two charming Oscar-nominated films::Claude Barras's MA VIE DE COURGETTE (MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI), based on the adult novel "Autobiographie d'une Courgette" by Gilles Paris.

The 2016 Swiss/French stop motion animated comedy-drama was screened in the Directors' Fortnight section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, picked up three Cesar Awards (Best Adapted Screenplay-Céline Sciamma, Best Animated Film-Claude Barras and Best Original Music-Sophie Hunger), won the European Film AwardsBest Animated Feature Film award and won both the Audience Award and Cristal Award for Best Feature at the 2016 Annecy International Animated Film Festival

The film, one of my favorite films of the year, was nominated both as the Swiss Foreign Oscar official entry, and in the Animated Feature catagory.

Adapted from the novel by Céline Sciamma, writer-director of three other coming of age films (“Girlhood”, “Tomboy” and “Water Lilies”) the film is the most emotional stop-motion feature I've ever seen.

When sensitive Icar (nicknamed Courgette), a boy whose drawings help him make sense of his troubling life, accidently kills his alcoholic mother, he winds up at a humanistic orphanage/school and meets a gang of kids and a lonely policeman, who restart his life.

Producer Robert Boner challenged Claude Barras to demonstrate how his low budget puppets could bring the dark coming of age novel to life. Barras created a audition trailer.

Inspired by jean Pierre Leaud's audition for Truffaut's 400 Blows (a Criterion extra) Barras developed an animated version of the audition of non-actor Gaspard Schlatter who voices the orphaned Courgette. (It plays after the final credits and is a heart warming, wry surprise.)

Saddled with a minuscule budget (US$8 million- laughable for animated feature these days), the Little Film That Could relies on an ingenious timesaving device of countless magnetic eyes, eyelids, noses and mouths, each with different expressions, allowing the animators, to "quick-change" the puppets' expressions for each stopped-motion shot.

The characters with their neotonous big heads reassemble so many Mr. Potato Heads, but they grab your heart and don't let go, pushed by the naturalistic performances of the kid actors. (Jokes about Potato heads abound.)

Barras also puts a lot of action off-screen, allowing long shots of his characters' reactions to emotionally carry the day. In one shot, the kids from the orphanage, on vacation at a ski resort, silently (and enviously) stare as a mother lovely zips the jacket of her little boy. Barras holds and holds the brilliant deadpan shot.

His creative minimalist manoeuvres give soul to an effecting drama dressed with deceptively gay colors and set in an amusing, stylized Tati-esque backdrop.

Little running jokes, like the poor little girl suddenly orphaned when her mother was picked up and deported to Africa, who runs to the orphanage's door anytime she hears a car, hoping her mother is coming back; and endearing touches, like the decor in Officer Raymond's home, tell volumes about Barras' ensemble of characters.

Barras rehearsed all the scenes with his non-pro kid actors, using their body language to drive the storyboard stage.

Barras also took a page from Aaardman's witty, deadpan stopped motion Children's TV Series, Creature Comforts, a series of zoo animals animated against a sound track of sociological man on the street interviews.

Sixtine Murat plays Camille, the object of Courgette's affection. Paulin Jaccoud plays Simon, the Orphanage's career vet, a savvy, sometimes angry bully who sneaks into the school's record to get the goods on his fellow orphans. Michel Vuillermoz plays the sentimental cop Raymond, who adopts Courgette and Camille.

The Swiss also presented Timo von Gunten's delightful short, La Femme et le TGV (The Woman and the Train), staring the ever enchanting Jane Birkin, and based on an endearing true story.

Twice a day, widowed provincial baker Elise (Birkin) hangs outside her window to wave Swiss flag at the conductor of the TGV as it makes its run on the tracks below her house.

Ever since her now estranged son Pierre was a boy, she (and in those days young Pierre) waved flags at the passing train. Keeping the ritual connects her to the sweet days when her son Pierre needed her and life was full.

Lonely and depressed, Elise has let her famous bakery slide, now baking enough goods for one faithful customer. These days, busy son Pierre (Mathieu Bisson) only visits her to urge her to sell the bakery and move to a retirement home.

Bust lively Elise won't accept warehousing. One day a letter arrives from Bruno (Gilles Tschud) the conductor. A charming platonic relationship develops until the train is rerouted.

Footage during the credit sequence footage shows footage of the real "Elise" and "Bruno" on whom the story is based.

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Robin Menken