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The largest French Film Festival opens the eyes of both French filmmakers and American audiences.

The breadth and impact of the festival, however, goes far beyond the films and offers a rare opportunity for directors, actors and audience members. First-time director and festival attendee Serge Frydman, whose film "Mon Ange," starring French actress (and Mrs. Johnny Depp) Vanessa Paradis, will premiere at the festival, is intrigued by the opportunity to get a different cultural perspective. "It's very interesting to show [a film] to other people than French people," explains Frydman in a recent phone interview, "because they catch something else in a different way."

Scott DuPre Mills, director of the VCU International Student Film Festival, is committing the festival to celluloid in a documentary he has been piecing together over the last few years. As Mills describes it, the festival's uniqueness tends to get lost in translation.

"Probably a lot of people don't realize actors that are coming here are on the level of Harrison Ford in France," he says. "In Richmond, people come to the festival because they know they will see great films."

The festival intrigues filmmakers who feel a symbiotic relationship between French and American cinema. As Frydman explains, "We have a big industry [in France] and some people were very famous, but that was years ago. Now it is the reverse — your directors now have taken things from nouvelle vague [French new wave]. You took from us, but now we have to learn from you. Like tennis, something comes one way and then it comes back."

Through his interviews for the documentary, Mills discovered that he was capturing not just a day in the life of a film festival, but something much deeper.

"What it became is more of a love story. The love of French cinema, not just the passion [festival founders] Peter and Françoise [Kirkpatrick] have," says Mills, "but the enthusiasm of the actors and directors that come to the festival and the audience — from college students to senior citizens — who have an appetite for something different than the average Hollywood film."

With or without the support of Hollywood honchos and studios, the independent spirit of the festival provides something unique for both attendees and audience members. "That's why there is such buzz in France," Mills explains. "Usually, [the actors and directors] are too busy in France working on films, and when they come here, they get to chill out and meet each other." S

What's Happening at the Festival

Unlike other festivals that concentrate more on star-spotting and parties, the VCU French Film Festival is loyal to the essence of film. This year's festival offers 10 North American premieres, including "Le Promeneur du Champ du Mars" — a film about the end of former French President François Mitterand's life, which won a César (the French equivalent to an Oscar) — and "De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté" — a film about a young man struggling in the world of real estate who attempts to become a concert pianist. Overall, the films run the gamut from comedies to dramas.

Award-winning director and screenwriter Bertrand Tavernier, a former critic for film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, the bible of French film criticism and theory, leads the delegation of actors and directors. He will present a master class to go along with cinematographer Pierre-William Glen, a pioneer of the Steadicam who has worked with the likes of François Truffaut. The delegation will also include the French ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, and Gov. Tim Kaine. The guest most likely to turn heads on Cary Street is actor and director LeVar Burton, better known as Geordi La Forge on "Star Trek" and host of "Reading Rainbow." In a chance meeting that seems to be the norm for the festival, Burton found out about the festival when he met its founders Peter and Françoise Kirkpatrick at a symposium in France last year. S

The festival takes place March 31-April 2 at the Byrd Theatre. Tickets are $10 and passes are $75. For more information visit www.frenchfilm.vcu.edu or call 827-3456.

A Few Films at the Festival

"Ze Film" — A film within a film in the vein of "Living in Oblivion," this modern-day Romeo and Juliet tale is set in the housing projects of the industrial Parisian suburb of Bobigny. Three friends — Goran, Karim and Didier — in the spirit of cinema verité, make a film with the help of their neighbors after Didier "borrows" a truck full of equipment from a film set. "Ze Film," the third film by director Guy Jacques, cleverly captures the inventiveness of youth and the necessity of keeping a dream alive. There is a great performance by Miki Manojlovic as Goran's dad. The film touches on class and cultural issues in this comedy-of-errors love story. (Not Rated) 105 min. ***— S.O.

"Mon Ange" ("My Angel") — When prostitute Colette (Vanessa Paradis) answers a phone call intended for someone else, she reluctantly agrees to deliver a little boy she's never met to his mother. Billy (Nicholas Rottiers) turns out to be older than advertised, not a little boy but a teenager on the verge of manhood, and when his mother fails to materialize, he becomes Colette's responsibility. Equal parts road movie, romance and coming-of-age story (for both characters), "Mon Ange" boasts two captivating lead performances and an Elvis Presley-led soundtrack. First-time director Serge Frydman delivers a beautifully photographed, bittersweet and humorous study of Colette and Billy's indefinable relationship as they slowly come to rely on each other. (PG) 94 mins. ****

— Daryl Grove

"Jaurès: naissance d'un géant" ("Jaurès: birth of a giant") — The best biopics don't follow their subjects from cradle to grave but capture their defining moments instead. Writer/director Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe focuses on the event that transformed Jean Jaurès from a moderate Republican intellectual into a legend of international socialism. In 1892 the miners of Carmaux rebelled after the socialist mayor elected from their ranks was dismissed by a capitalist, monarchist mine owner. Jaurès (Philippe Torreton) intercedes as mediator to avoid bloodshed, but slowly and convincingly grows into his role as defender of the oppressed. The numerous rousing speeches should render "Jaurès" tiresome, but Verhaeghe's pacing gives the story an irresistible momentum while Torreton holds the screen with an intelligent and impassioned performance. (G) 100 mins. **** — D.G.

"De battre, mon coeur s'est arête" ("The Beat That My Heart Skipped") — Winner of five Cesar awards including Best French Film, this story follows Tom (Romain Duris) as he attempts to remove himself from the violent world of real estate enforcement to become a concert pianist. Such an unusual premise may sound more Lifetime movie than award winner, but the struggle between opposing sides of Tom's nature —good vs. evil, art vs. brutality—is masterfully wrought. Much as in "The Sopranos" an unlikable character gains our sympathy because he's trying to better himself no matter the cost. The dark scenes of Tom forcefully removing squatters contrast starkly with the softer scenes of him practicing piano, but the passions and frustrations that inform his personality are present in both worlds. (Not Rated) 107 mins. ***** — S.O.


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