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The Second Annual Chicago French Film Festival (July 27-29)

by Erik Childress & Peter Sobczynski

The Music Box Theatre in Chicago for the second straight year have chosen a collection of French titles for everyone to take a gander at this weekend. We look at the nine films playing and offer some thoughts on whether you want to buy the full package or pick and choose.

FRIDAY, JULY 27

A BETTER LIFE
This year's festival kicks off with the latest work by Cedric Kahn ("L'Ennui," "Red Lights") and offers conclusive evidence that the current financial crisis is indeed a global problem. In this drama, a young couple happen upon a shuttered mansion and impulsively decide to purchase it as a location for their new restaurant--a dream that quickly becomes a nightmare thanks to shaky financing, predatory loans and frustrating levels of bureaucracy. This was unavailable for preview but while a new film by Kahn is always worth seeking out, my guess is that if you are looking for a movie that will help take your mind off the troubles of the world, this might not be the best of all possible choices. (Peter Sobczynski) (7:30 PM)

SLEEPLESS NIGHT
Frederic Jardin's film comes pre-packaged in a baggage of extravagant praise and the promise of an American remake. Unlike The Raid: Redemption from earlier this year though this is a film with only sporadic pleasures and the usual sense that we've been down this road before. The film kicks into truly high gear immediately as a pair of guys hijack another group of drug dealers on the streets, but are only partially successful. When the drug lord catches wind of this, he kidnaps the son of Vincent (Tomer Sisley), one of the jackers who also just happens to be a cop. The exchange of drugs-for-child is to take place at a busy nightclub that will become the rendezvous point for more villains and even some internal affairs officers looking to bust Vincent. The highly energetic claustrophobia of the club is supposed to add to the film's tension but quickly becomes just a vision of crowd control. As a cat-and-mouse tale, the situation feels more stretched out than progressing naturally through a lack of creative touches. There is an extraordinary fight in, where else, the kitchen. But even that, as great as it is, feels like the norm rather than the unique exception. Sleepless Night is more on the level of last year's average Point Blank than the wonderful insanity of either The Raid or the better example, Tell No One. However, that may be enough for some and is certainly a welcome respite from some of the drier French offerings this year. (Erik Childress) (9:50 PM)

SATURDAY, JULY 28

EXTRAORDINARY VOYAGE
Those who saw Martin Scorsese's delightful "Hugo" and came away from it with a renewed interest in the life and work of cinematic pioneer Georges Melies will definitely want to check out this hour-long documentary on the history of his most famous work, the 1902 short "A Trip to the Moon," and the decade-long effort to restore the original color version that was long thought to no longer exist. Concluding the program, of course, is that restored version of "A Trip to the Moon" that also includes a new score composed and performed by French pop duo Air. Combining the past, present and future of French cinema into one package, this film is essential viewing for serious students of film history. (Peter Sobczynski) (1:40 PM)

THE DAY I SAW YOUR HEART
Proof positive that deeply annoying and self-consciously quirky cinematic comedy-dramas are not a uniquely American phenomenon, this borderline unbearable piffle waste the considerable talents of Melanie Laurent and Michel Blanc on a story about a young woman with wacky commitment issues (she even refuses to give her name when ordering at Starbucks) and her troubled relationship with her father, a remarkably clueless clod who maintains secret friendships with many of her ex-boyfriends, has a delayed mid-life crisis when he much younger wife announces that she is pregnant and has a knack for saying and doing exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. Why anyone in their right mind would want to spend any amount of time with these deeply unlikable boobs and all their irritating little quirks (Laurent is a would-be artist who uses her paying gig as a lab technicians to pursue her artistic vision of X-raying everything from boyfriends to refrigerators) for more than a few minutes is beyond me but I have a sick and horrible feeling that this is going to wind up getting the English-language remake treatment at some point down the line. That said, no matter what the language, it still stinks. (Peter Sobczynski) (3:30 PM)

GUILTY
Also not screened in advance, this drama from Vincent Garenq recounts the true story of an ordinary man who is one day arrested with his wife and charged with pedophilia--a crime that neither one committed--and is then forced to spend years wading through the French judicial system in a never-ending effort to get out of prison, clear his name and be reunited with the family that he lost through no fault of his own. (Peter Sobczynski) (5:40 PM)

BELOVED
No, the centerpiece film of this year's festival is not a Gallic remake of the Oprah Winfrey craptacular. It is, in fact, a romantic drama from filmmaker Christophe Honore ("Love Songs," "Dans Paris") that begins in the late Sixties with a young shopgirl (Ludivine Sagnier) falling for a Czech doctor, only to lose him to infidelity and the Soviet invasion, and ends in contemporary times as she (now played by Catherine Deneuve) reunites with her one-time love (portrayed by celebrated director Milos Forman) while her now-grown daughter (Chiara Mastroianni) has her own misadventures of the heart. Oh yeah, the whole thing is also a musical as well, though one of the laid-back street variety of Godard's "A Woman is a Woman" and Honore's own "Love Songs." The mixture of froth and seriousness is admittedly interesting--though at 140 minute, it does eventually begin to wear a bit thin towards the end--and the added bonus of three of France's best and most beautiful actresses in the same film makes it one that is worth a look. (Peter Sobczynski) (8:00 PM)

SUNDAY, JULY 29

THE RABBI'S CAT
One can certainly say after a viewing of Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar's film is that there certainly hasn't been a more ambitious animated project in some time. The titular cat makes his home with Rabbi Sfar and his comely daughter with whom he loves to make his bed with - innocently but ever suggestively. After chowing down - on a parrot - the cat develops the ability to speak. Or, at least, his master and mistress can now understand him. What starts as a conversation and desire to be Bar-Mitzvahed becomes a mutual partnership for the rabbi to pass his own dictation. And this is all in the first 25 minutes. The remainder of the film becomes a pilgrimage with further characters in tow to find a community of African Jews and it's all a lot to process in a mere 80 minutes that packs in more information about its subject matter than films twice its length. Both a blessing and a curse, when the film does reach out to explore varying religious hypocrises in both amusing and shocking cultural behavior, it's fascinating. At the same time the film moves so quickly between segments that it's easy to struggle with whether or not we are watching a complete narrative or a randomly pieced-together comic strip. The animation is nicely done and the movie is as funny as it is on point in its best moments but then just kind of ends. You may not be entirely sure of what you just saw, but it is doubtful that you will entirely regret it. (Erik Childress) (2:00 PM)

17 GIRLS
If a film ever needed to reassure its audience that it was based on true events, it is Delphine & Muriel Coulin's 17 Girls. That doesn't make it feel any more realistic and probably actually lowers an audience's faith in humanity as well as filmmaking. The story, culled from a 2008 incident, revolves around the teenage Camille (Louise Grinberg) who has accidentally gotten pregnant. After about a scene-and-a-half of contemplation, she decides to keep the baby sparking an idea within her clique of lady pals. They will all get pregnant. This might seem like some show of solidarity to prevent the school from kicking her out or as some statement about women's rights. Nope. Just a bunch of underage twits who think this can help free them into some sort of parental utopia. This is subject matter that either needs to be played for full-on satire or towards the consequential nature of their decisions. The latter might feel like an after-school special, but it would be more honest than the flat middle-of-the-road approach that alternates the harshness of Larry Clark's Kids for scenes that could have been a sequel to Rebecca Black's Friday video. Worse, none of the girls have a shred of character or personality and fails to connect with either our sympathies or outrage. Throwing in one scene of circling the school faculty as they give us every side of the debate just doesn't cut it. As the film ends on the note that "nobody can stop a girl who dreams," it's a good thing that Sally Ride passed away never hearing this film's "heroine" utter those words. (Erik Childress) (4:30 PM)

38 WITNESSES
Speaking of turning a blind eye in numbers, Lucas Belvaux's film is also based on a real-life incident (the Kitty Genovese murder of 1964) - or, at least, the book that was inspired by it. A young woman is murdered in front of an apartment complex. When the police show up looking for answers, everyone reports to have seen and heard nothing. Except for Pierre (Yvan Attal) who does keep it to himself for a while until confessing the horror of what he saw to his sleeping wife (Sophie Quinton). After further contemplation and guilt, Pierre does go to the police sparking outrage from his neighbors who will soon be found out as liars. "What happens when the good people of Gotham do nothing?" It's an interesting inquisition for a film to take, but maybe another film. Belvaux doesn't so much explore the deeper complexities of burying one's head in the sand while the world crumbles around them as it merely tries to intensify the internal struggle through silence, long pauses and staring. We get denials (pause) then admissions (pause) then "how could you/who are you/why" bits of anger and facial contemplations. The film is neither a thriller nor a real mystery about the perpetrator but also never fully reaches out to exploit our own sense of outrage when we might read about such an incident in the news. 38 Witnesses is a flat, slow-moving exercise that makes the Seinfeld finale and its Good Samaritan law feel more dramatic than ever intended. (Erik Childress) (7:00 PM)

Tickets are $10 and available online or at the theatre box office. Save money with the All Festival Pass for $40 (a savings of $50).


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3408
originally posted: 07/27/12 05:38:28
last updated: 07/27/12 05:41:03
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