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Welcome To The First Chicago French Film Festival

by Erik Childress & Peter Sobczynski

This weekend in the Windy City of Big Shoulders and the great Music Box Theatre introduces its very first Chicago French Film Festival. Eight films over three days, moviegoers can purchase single tickets for $10 each or get a full festival pass for only $40. Peter Sobczynski and myself have seen a number of the films and we are here to tell you all about them.

Friday, July 22

Cute is the best way to describe Jean-Pierre Améris' film. So, goodnight everybody. Seriously though, the film is cute. Maybe a bit too cute for its own good. But if you are going to be making the haul through all seven films in this weekend festival, maybe this is not the worst place to start. Just do not expect much. In the spirit of meet-cute romantic comedies inspired by the pleasures of chocolate in exotic locales, Romantics Anonymous introduces us to Angélique (Isabelle Carré) and Jean-René (Benoît Poelvoorde). Neither are good in dealing with people. She folds when challenged with simple questions. He folds in general contact with the fairer sex. Angélique is a wiz in the chocolate factory though. At least she used to when she worked behind-the-scenes as a "hermit" so as not to deal with anyone but the kindly owner. When he passed, she moved on. Now she works in Jean-René's failing candy shop and you may be able to put it together from there. Do hurry though as the film runs just over 70 minutes and never really develops enough steam to make this a lasting effort. Carré and Poelvoorde are nice and cute in their scenes together, but just as it seems it's going to make some concessions in its second act, it is already over. Consider this an after-dinner or pillow mint given to you as you check-in and sit down rather than a true dessert. (7:45 PM)

If Point Blank feels awfully familiar to you, then congratulations. You have unlocked the "I've seen a couple action thrillers sticker" on GetGlue or GoMiso or whatever tracking device you have signed into. Gilles Lellouche's Samuel could certainly have used something to track down where his wife is being held as he is chased all over Paris. Poor guy was just a nurse who did his job, saving the life of a patient (Roschdy Zem) who came in shot and now was almost snuffed out by someone looking to finish the job. As a result his pregnant wife (Elena Anaya) is prego-napped by a cohort of the patient, citing harmful things will be done unless Samuel can get him out of the hospital and away from police. Point Blank begins with the efficiency of what we hope is going to be a solid B-picture and certainly amps up the energy in fits and starts over the course of its truncated 80 minutes. But it takes a certain kind of energy to excuse the lack of originality that coats the entire effort and bleeds into those bridge moments between the action where everything (and I do mean, everything) is explained to such an anti-climactic degree that nothing is left to discover for ourselves in the second half of the film. Point Blank wants to be a breed of Taken, though not as breathless and exciting, and another French import, Tell No One, though not as twisty and deliriously intricate. The latter film, you might recall, also featured an average bloke seeking out the mystery behind his missing wife. It may have even perhaps been an influence on the film, Anything For Her, which was remade by Paul Haggis into last year's The Next Three Days with Russell Crowe as an average bloke desperately trying to break his presumed innocent wife out of prison. The scenario for Anything For Her is credited to one Fred Cavayé, the writer/director of Point Blank. As 80-minute thrillers go, it doesn't go on long enough for one to call it a complete waste of time. The action scenes are well-designed, right down to a wacky, out-of-control police station. But the resolution feels unsatisfyingly flat and a tacked-on epilogue does not help matters much. (10:00 PM)

Saturday, July 23

The latest film from director Romain Goupil stars Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi and tells the story of a woman in 2067 looking back on her present-day childhood when she was a Chechen immigrant in Paris whose classmates banded together in an effort to help her avoid being deported. Not previewed in advance of the festival, the film is said to offer a serious condemnation of the policies of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, especially in regards to immigration--this is especially interesting when you consider that his sister-in-law, actress Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi, is one of its stars. (2:30 PM)

In this twisty and clever thriller from the late Alain Corneau (and already scheduled for an English-language remake with Brian DePalma in the director's chair), Kristin Scott Thomas plays the exceptionally nasty head of the French branch of a multinational corporation and Ludivine Sagnier is the second-in-command whose brilliant ideas and ambitions are constantly being thwarted by her superior in the never-ending battle to climb the corporate ladder. When the boss finally pushes things a little too far by humiliating her subordinate in an exceptionally nasty and cruel manner, it inspires an elaborate and intricate revenge plot, the details of which I wouldn't dream of even hinting at here except to notice that even students of the genre will find themselves wondering just how the story is going to resolve itself in a satisfactory manner without cheating. (FYI: It does.) Although this film doesn't really have anything profound to say about anything, it is an eminently efficient entertainment anchored by strong performances by Thomas, whose character could inspire a sequel to "Horrible Bosses" all by herself, and Sagnier, whose ability to switch in a heartbeat between tender vulnerability and steel-eyed determination is put to effective use here. (5:30 PM)

The centerpiece of the festival is Joann Sfar's examination of the life and work of Serge Gainsbourg, who rose from a childhood spent as a Jewish kid living in Nazi-occupied Paris with self-esteem issues regarding his droopy looks to become one of France's most popular singer-songwriters and the lover of some of the most legendary beauties of his time, including singer Juliette Greco, actress Jane Birkin and the one and only Brigitte Bardot. Those expecting a straightforward biopic along the lines of "La Vie en Rose" or "Walk the Line" will be surprised to discover that Sfar, apparently forbidden by Gainsbourg's family from delving too deeply into the more controversial aspects of his life (sorry kids but nothing about the infamous "Lemon Incest" song that he recorded with daughter Charlotte, now a highly regarded actress and singer in her own right), has instead chosen a more surrealistic approach to the material in which he is followed throughout his life by a giant puppet-like figure inspired by an anti-semitic drawing he saw as a child meant to serve as a sort of alter-ego. It sounds ridiculous but it somehow works and Eric Elmosnino is quite convincing in the lead role. Of course, even if you can't quite swallow the concept, it is still two hours chock-full of inescapably catchy Europop classics to listen to and a bevy of beautiful women (with no less a figure, in more ways than one, than supermodel Laetitia Casta filling in the role of Bardot) to look at--somehow, I suspect Gainsbourg (who passed away in 1991) would approve. (8:30 PM)

Sunday, July 24

Between the class structure of The Hedgehog and the forthcoming racial dividing lines of The Help, this has certainly been a week of maid overload. Philippe Le Guay's The Women on the 6th Floor has a little touch of both and each side of that coin contains less charm and sincerity than the aforementioned titles. Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) is a well-off investment banker who fires his longtime help after having enough of her lip and inability to follow a simple breakfast order. Wanting to mix it up a little, Jean-Louis and his bossy wife, Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) hire Spanish maid, Maria (Natalia Verbeke). She's easy on the eyes and knows how to boil an egg. But she lives amongst a gaggle of fellow maids in conditions far below Jean-Louis' standards and when he gets a whiff, he begins to open up and help them in everything from plumbing to domestic abuse. Is he doing it because he is loosening up, has a newfound interest in another culture, or cause he got a whiff of what Maria has underneath her maid outfit. LeGuay's film has the same problem identifying precisely what it wants to be; a light class comedy, a drama about turning to selflessness, or a May-December romance with the help. So it's a 25-ish age difference between Luchini and Kiberlain. Their biggest problem is the screenplay offers them no chance at chemistry aside from a little lust, jealousy and barely the faintest of suggestion that she is ever that interested in him. Over an hour in, the film would like to be some kind of reverse Ball of Fire, but none of it is remotely believable nor funny. Luchini is a big dud in the central role and Verbeke has a nice smile, but has nowhere to take it except the kitchen and upstairs. At least someone will be smiling somewhere during this film. (2:00 PM)

This unspeakably stupid saga of corporate intrigue begins when the billionaire head of a multi-national corporation is murdered (in one of the silliest assassinations in screen history), the future of his company is thrown into upheaval when it is discovered that he has a secret adopted son (Tomer Sisley) who stands to inherit control of the firm, though there are any number of people ranging from garden-variety thugs to corporate rivals to the requisite clothing-optional minx with constantly shifting loyalties (Melanie Thierry) doing their best to prevent that from happening. Between the clumsy plotting reminiscent of the kind of books that people only read on airplanes to keep their minds off of the crash potential, the preponderance of hoary cliches (even going so far as to include an unironic moment of slow clapping following a surprising public announcement) and a deeply unlikable central character (even more so thanks to the irritating performance by Sisley , who appears to be the tragic end result of a monstrous French plot to clone Bradley Cooper), this is preposterous junk from start to finish and the fact that it became a huge hit in its native land when it was released there in 2008 (it has already spawned a sequel, co-starring Sharon Stone) only goes to prove that the French can make so-called thrillers just as brainless and derivative as they do in the U.S . (4:30 PM)

In no way associated with porn star Ron Jeremy, I assure you, on the surface, Mona Achache's The Hedgehog appears to be headed for some kind of darkly comic examination of suicide. By an 11 year-old girl. Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) walks around her family's well-to-do household, video camera firmly in hand, tracing their every move and coming up with cinematic metaphors for her situation. In reality she is planning to end it all on her 12th birthday. Seemingly ready to join her, but more content with her lot in life is the building's janitor, Renée (Josiane Balasko). She puts her head down and does her work, not concerned at how anyone views her invisible-like appearance. That is until Kakuro Ozu (a terrific Togo Igawa) moves in, a friendly widower who not only takes a shine to Renée's casual literary references but obliges Paloma's intelligence in a way her family has never acknowledged. Seemingly to be just neighborly, Kakuro even invites Renée to dinner, which prompts her to get her first makeover in countless years. All of a sudden things are looking a lot sunnier around the building. Paloma finds a friend in Kakuro and a subject in Renée who allows her to film stories she tells about her life. After a start that suggests we're in for some wise-ass philosophical discussion about class structure and the growing pains of being ignored, The Hedgehog develops into a deeply charming and smile-worthy little film with Balasko drawing us in bit-by-bit as she opens up to Kakuro's more-than-casual advances. And if you leave with ten minutes left to spare, you will be able to hold onto those feelings. It is in these final moments that the story takes such a left field turn that it almost feels like a betrayal from God himself. Abrupt and unforgivable, The Hedgehog inevitably becomes what we hoped it would not and may actually turn its audience against one of the central characters simply for them finally learning a lesson at the expense of another's unhappiness. Best advice is to live this one in denial and know that - if you want the charmed memory of this film to remain - when you see a homeless man dancing, it is time to leave. (7:00 PM)

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originally posted: 07/22/11 05:29:57
last updated: 07/23/11 09:05:22
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