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Highlights at This Year’s French Film Festival 

click to enlarge The big get at this year’s French Film Festival: “Au revoir là-haut”

The big get at this year’s French Film Festival: “Au revoir là-haut”

A film festival is a little like a wedding, as both foster fleeting communities that burn brightly at great speed. You can meet someone in line for a film screening and speak with them for five minutes and feel as if you've known them for a year.

Such lines will soon flourish around the Byrd Theatre again as Richmond prepares for its 26th annual French Film Festival. From March 22 to 25, artists and cinema patrons from around the world will be in Carytown, seeing and presenting 17 feature films as well as 10 shorts that are largely unavailable in the United States. The event offers a reliable bounty of riches that is artistic as well as social.

This year's festival promises to showcase the glamour and prestige of mainstream French filmmaking, as well as the spontaneous, often more-interesting projects on the nitty-gritty margins.

The festival's big "get" this year is "Au revoir là-haut," Albert Dupontel's Cesar Award-winning story of a war crime, perpetrated on the eve of the First-World-War-ending armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, that haunts several French soldiers who enmesh themselves in a variety of audacious post-war schemes.

Dupontel plays Albert, whose life is saved in the battlefield by Edouard (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Albert's suffocating in the soil of a trench, inhaling a dead horse's final breath, when Edouard pulls Albert up to safety only to lose his own jaw in an explosion.

Albert and Edouard become conspirators in a scam to sell fake war memorials, which Edouard masterminds from behind a series of lurid masks. Edouard suggests the Phantom of the Opera, as well as the woman from Georges Franju's classic French horror film, "Eyes Without a Face."

In its mixture of whimsy, romance and horror, "Au revoir là-haut" occasionally suggests another recent award winner: Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water." Perhaps something is in the air. As politics grow increasingly precarious both domestically and abroad, audiences and filmmakers may find themselves attracted more to films that offer a mixture of the sweet — for relief — and the sour, for giving them a glance, nevertheless, at the reality of emotional dislocation.

The leads are fine, if a bit too whimsical, though Niels Arestrup and Mélanie Thierry provide sterling support as folks caught in the periphery of Albert and Edouard's manipulations. Thierry also turns up at the French Film Festival this year in "La Danseuse," Stéphanie Di Giusto's biography of the influential dancer and choreographer Loie Fuller, who's played by the singer and songwriter Soko.

click to enlarge “La Danseuse” offers a biography of dancer and choreographer Loie Fuller, played by singer and songwriter Soko.
  • “La Danseuse” offers a biography of dancer and choreographer Loie Fuller, played by singer and songwriter Soko.

"La Danseuse" is overflowing with significant, mostly French talent, with a cast that also includes Gaspard Ulliel, Lily-Rose Depp and Denis Ménochet. As Gabrielle, who becomes Fuller's manager and confidante, Thierry gently anchors the film, providing it with a figurative bass line that accommodates eccentric riffing from the other performers.

Meanwhile, Soko is all over the place — in a good way. She displays some of the raw charisma of musicians who've moonlit for cinema, such as David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth." Soko viscerally renders Fuller's amazing physical virtuosity and the toil it took on her body. As Fuller's patron and potential lover, Ulliel radiates yearning that's somehow both sleazy and dashing. He and Soko have considerable chemistry.

I was able to see "Au revoir là-haut" and "La Danseuse" ahead of the French Film Festival. For every other film, however, I will be in line with you.

click to enlarge “Rock’n Roll”
  • “Rock’n Roll”

I'm looking forward to seeing "Rock'n Roll," which stars modern French cinema royalty, Marion Cotillard and Guillaume Canet, who're married in real life. Directed by Canet — who made the propulsive sleeper hit, "Tell No One," several years ago — "Rock'n Roll" is a fictionalization of Cotillard and Canet's life together, following him as he grows insecure over his potential creative stasis as a comfortable and well-regarded artist with a gorgeous and iconic wife. To have such problems. …

"Un Français nommé Gabin" also looks promising, as it's a documentary concerned with Jean Gabin, a great film star and actor who's overdue for discovery among millennial film aficionados. With his swift and burly physical poetry, Gabin suggested something like the European equivalent of Spencer Tracy. This film will hopefully prove to be as stirring and passionate as another recent celebration of French film history, Bertrand Tavernier's "A Journey through French Cinema," which played at the French Film Festival last year.

The documentary "A voix haute," about an oration competition, also caught my attention. And a short film, "Bug," sounds like a fitting stalker allegory for the age of "Black Mirror." As always, there is an embarrassment of riches to sort at the French Film Festival.

Thankfully, many cafes near the Byrd serve coffee. S

The French Film Festival runs at the Byrd Theatre from March 23 to March 25th. For a complete listing, visit frenchfilmfestival.us.

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