Opinions vary on the contemporary American film industry, but one thing doesn’t seem to: its domination by men. Although Hollywood is always on the lookout for the next irresistible ingénue, behind the camera women such as Kathryn Bigelow long have been a statistical minority. By contrast, the next French Film Festival — in its 21st season at the Byrd Theatre from March 21-24 — indicates that women filmmakers are flourishing in France.
Festival co-founder Peter Kirkpatrick acknowledges in an email that women directors “are more and more present in French filmmaking, not only as directors but as cinematographers and producers as well.” He cites as a forebear Alice Guy (1873-1968), noted as the first female film director. But France has produced many prominent female filmmakers and writers throughout its cinematic history, including Jacqueline Audry, Agnès Varda and Marguerite Duras, who wrote Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” This year’s festival seems especially attuned to female filmmakers.
The French Film Festival draws supporters and patrons from across the United States and abroad. Its screenings of contemporary French films are hand-picked by founders Kirkpatrick and his wife, Françoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick, who make several trips to France each year to select the films and schedule the numerous guest speakers.
The films include feature-length narrative and documentaries along with shorts and children’s films — material for the most part otherwise absent from U.S. movie screens. In addition to screenings, the festival offers a variety of discussions, classes and other special events.
The festival opens with a concise conference on Bertrand Tavernier, whose famed filmography includes the 1950s-set jazz elegy “Round Midnight” (1986). That first day closes with “Renoir,” director Gilles Bourdos’ strikingly visual exploration of the relationship between painter Pierre-August Renoir and his budding filmmaker son, Jean. From there the festival explores a varied set of contemporary French cinema. Following are more of the highlights, including romantic comedies and stirring dramas — with an encouraging number from women.
“Bienvenue Parmi Nous” — Director Jean Becker’s film centers on the meeting of a depressed, 60-ish painter (Patrick Chesnais) and a teenage runaway (Jeanne Lambert) in rural France, offering picturesque scenery along with heartwarming life lessons.
“Assistance Mortelle” — Raoul Peck’s documentary follows all the billions of dollars in aid that went to Haiti after the country’s devastating earthquake in January 2010, to see how much went to common Haitians, still largely living in squalor. Peck will present and discuss the film.
“Sport de Filles” — Loosely translated as “Of Women and Horses,” Patricia Mazuy’s equestrian drama pits novice and veteran trainers (Bruno Ganz and Josiane Balasko star among a strong cast) in a battle of wills that will woo horse lovers. Mazuy and Balasko will be on hand to introduce and discuss the film.
“Phono Cinema Theatre” — This special program, offered in partnership with the Cinémathèque Française, provides a trip back in time through a restoration of one of the earliest experiments in sound filmmaking. Originally exhibited at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, the Phono Cinema Theatre explored the possibilities of sound film by manually syncing short films with recordings on early phonograph technology, including vocal artists and well-known dramatic scenes set to music. Like many early sound processes, it couldn’t overcome all obstacles (including amplification) necessary to supplant silent film presentation, but it’s a fascinating attempt that showcases many of the top performers of the day, including Sarah Bernhardt.
“La Cerise Sur le Gâteau” — Director Laura Morante’s romantic comedy explores androphobia, centering on a woman (Morante) whose friends suspect has the somewhat suspect condition: an inability to be happy with a boyfriend.
“Du Vent Dans Mes Mollets” — Carine Tardieu works behind and in front of the camera along with Agnès Jaoui and Isabella Rossellini in a story about a 9-year-old girl with parent problems.
“Main Dans la Main” — Called an “eclectic opus” by the Hollywood Reporter, actress and director Valérie Donzelli’s “Hand in Hand” should attract musical and dance lovers with its comic-romance-dance-drama approach to two dancers who meet and literally become attached at the hip through magical realism.
“Thérèse Desqueyroux” — Audrey Tautou stars in this period film adapted from a French classic, playing a proto-feminist the Hollywood Reporter describes as “married alive” to a chauvinistic bourgeois landowner. The late director Claude Miller wraps the appealing Tautou in solid storytelling and stately period detail, and the film helps wrap the festival, with a discussion by Miller’s widow, Annie, followed by the final screening: Matthieu Delaporte’s “Le Prénom,” a comedy about a new father who insists on naming his son Adolf.
For a complete daily schedule, tickets and other information, visit frenchfilmfestival.us.