With support from the city of Paris and presided over by actress Charlotte Rampling, the Paris Cinema Festival is touted as a democratic and offbeat annual event that combines the retrospective and the prospective. With more than 100 films screening over the festival’s twelve days, there really is something for everyone, and at 5 euros per screening (or 30 euros for an unlimited entry pass), Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris, is right in declaring that Paris allows all generations to enjoy the seventh art. Taking place at cinemas spread over several of the city’s quarters, the program offers an international competition, a preview of new French films, as well as a range of retrospectives and homages to filmmakers and actors of note. Each year also sees a focus on the cinematic offerings of a particular country. After Brazil, Korea, Lebanon, the Philippines, Turkey and Japan, this year saw a focus on Mexico, with works from the past and present exploring myths and realities of the country, as depicted in short films, documentary and long form fiction. For those desiring late night entertainment, the Paris cinema program also kicks off with the annual “Nuit de Cinema” at the Forum des Images in the Les Halles area, incorporating previously unreleased erotic films into sub-programs with titles such as Roman Porno and Filipino Fever. Alongside all this, the Paris Project offers a series of workshops and networking opportunities for film professionals, with a particular focus on international coproduction. The combination of all these programs and events means that the festival stands out from the countless others that grace Paris year-round for firstly, the ambitious attempt to reach beyond cinephile audiences, and secondly, for gathering spectators alongside an array of filmmakers at various stages of their careers, in an open and accessible setting.

That said, on arriving at the festival base at the Bibliothèque MK2 cinemas on 2 July, I found it surprisingly quiet. With the festival following on from the annual “Fete du cinema”, a week that sees regular cinema prices reduced to €3 in all French cinemas, I couldn’t help but wonder if Parisians were perhaps a bit filmed out. Things did pick up as the week wore on, however, with packed sessions for the evening premieres in particular.

Rampling describes the festival as valuing “openness to the other and to the world”, which is particularly reflected in the eight films chosen for the International Competition. Selected from approximately 1100 entries, these feature films, many of which are debut efforts from young filmmaking teams from across the globe, compete for four awards, including the prize awarded by a Jury of five French film industry figures. It is notable that these jury members themselves represent a new generation of film practitioners, including director Mathieu Demy (son of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda) and actress Lubna Azabal (Incendies). Additional awards are presented by a panel of film students, bloggers and the festival audience.

The competition included winner of the Teddy award for Best documentary at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, the first feature-length project from New York-based experimental filmmaker and film curator, Marie Losier. This loosely structured documentary offers an insight into the life of industrial music pioneer and performance artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV), particularly focusing on his work with wife and collaborator, NYC art world figure Lady Jaye. Largely edited from the couple’s own archived video footage, the audience is offered intimate access into their lives at home and on the road, but for those unfamiliar with P-Orridge’s work, it may take some time to contextualise this charismatic figure and his/her journey as an artist rejecting gender divisions. Most interestingly, the film chronicles the couple’s Pandrogyne project, which involved sexual transformation through plastic surgery so that they could more closely resemble one another. Drawing on the ideas of William Burroughs, P-Orridge describes their goal of becoming one persona as a truly great expression of their love. Lady Jaye’s sudden and untimely death, as recounted towards the end of the documentary, leaves him devastated, having literally lost his other half.

A soundtrack of music from the 1960s onwards and voiceover narration by the artist himself provide an insight into P-Orridge’s difficult early life and influences, but this is a genuinely moving love story first and foremost. As such, it is somewhat problematic that Lady Jaye is largely missing from the film as a speaking participant. While the home movie style of the film’s footage and assembly draws upon the DIY aesthetic that one might associate with P-Orridge’s work as artist and musician, I found myself wishing that Losier had something more to offer.

Sur la planche (On a Plank), the first dramatic feature written and directed by former journalist and documentary maker Leila Kilani, came to the Paris Cinema Festival competition fresh from its screening at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. Set in Tangier (and shot before last year’s Moroccan riots), this film tells the story of Badia and Imane, two Moroccan girls of around twenty, who work in a shrimp- packing factory whilst dreaming of something more. Protagonist Badia spends her days attempting to scrub the smell of shrimp from the pores of her skin, while at night, she engages in acts of prostitution and petty larceny. The dazzling, yet still somehow grimy, white mise en scène of the shrimp factory is effectively contrasted with the dark shadows of night time transgression as the girls work their alternatively dull and dangerous trades.

When Badia and Imane form an alliance with two girls working in the nearby industrial park, the gang of four is soon in over their heads, leading to a devastating conclusion. Kilani explores themes of ambition and betrayal, with a set up that foreshadows a tragic ending. Badia is a sympathetic but doomed lead; a young girl trying so hard to transcend her humiliating circumstances, despite the odds stacked against her. A voiceover in which Badia expresses her need to keep moving is at times overbearing, somewhat distancing the audience from her plight, but the film nonetheless succeeds in making a powerful statement about the conditions of life in Tangier.

Also exploring youth and rebellion is Maryam Kershavarz’s Circumstance, winner of the 2011 Sundance audience award. Shot in Lebanon with an Iranian cast, this first feature centres on the struggles of a wealthy Iranian family in Tehran. Free spirited and sexually rebellious 16 year-old Atafeh is in love with her best friend Shireen. Together, the girls frequent underground bars, experiment with sex and drugs and dream of running away to Dubai. Favouring ambiguity, Kershavarz makes no effort to explain or rationalise their relationship, often placing the camera so that it glides in close-up along the girls’ skin in moments of sensual contact. When Atafeh’s ex-addict brother Mehran returns home, now obsessed with fundamental religious beliefs and a member of the morality police, his position of power is both a saving grace and a curse when Atafeh and Shireen are arrested for provocative behaviour. The more vulnerable Shireen is forced to marry Mehran and the girls’ bond is broken.

The theme of surveillance is presented quite literally through the inclusion of black and white security camera footage as the girls travel between home, school and their underground haunts. It is later revealed that the menacing Mehran is the watcher of this footage, with his videotaping later extending to scenes within the family home and bedroom. Meanwhile Atefah’s progressive parents are caught in the middle of their children’s problems. With snappy editing and a soundtrack that combines traditional music, western Karaoke favourites and American feminist pop, Kershavarz has created a powerful film that communicates the problems of oppression for girls coming of age in an Islamic Republic. Bright colours and textures work with the floating camera to capture sensuous and lyrical images that explore conflicting desires and ideologies.

Forty previews of new films (or classics on restored prints) also screened over the course of the festival. Among these was writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve’s third offering, Un amour de jeunesse (Goodbye First Love).As with her 2009 offering, Le père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children),Hansen-Løve has created a powerful and affecting drama that focuses on the emotional struggles of everyday life. Lola Creton gives a strong performance as the fragile Camille, an adolescent experiencing the pain of abandonment following the end of her first romance with 19 year-old Sullivan. Feeling unable to recover from the loss, Camille makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Eight years later, the couple rediscover themselves as adults and rekindle their romance.

Taking an adolescent point of view, Un amour de jeunesse avoids melodrama and manages to portray the struggles of Camille’s family members as they too experience her suffering. The film begins in an understated fashion, with a brief credit sequence playing over observational footage of Sullivan returning to her at home. Hansen-Løve’s touch is light as the camera follows her characters, creating emotional intensity without high drama. A great example is the sequence in which Camille swallows a bottle of painkillers before curling up on her bed. The next shot sees her parents visiting her in hospital some time later. A father tries to find the words to comfort his unhappy daughter, a directorial choice far more touching than any of the clichéd shots one could imagine revealing the discovery of her unconscious body. The soundtrack is energetic and with the exception of circular dissolves that recall the playful (and tragic) New Wave love stories of François Truffaut, editing transitions also move the story forward without fanfare. Hansen-Løve introduced the film to the Paris Cinema Festival with a poem recalling the joy and pain of her own first love, the feelings of which she has successfully distilled into this work. As with the director’s previous output, the film features exquisite natural landscapes, with a focus on the passing of time and what remains unsaid.

Being a big fan of the work of writer/director Dominik Moll, especially regarding the 2001 film Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien(Harry, He is Here to Help), I was particularly looking forward to catching the premiere of his latest feature. This higher budget film, Le Moine (The Monk),isbased on the once-censored 18th century gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis, and stars Vincent Cassel in the principal role. The plot concerns the violent downfall of respected Monk Ambrosio (Cassel) after succumbing to the temptation of Valerio (Deborah François), a devilish temptress posing as a student in the Spanish monastery. With his carnal desires awakened, Ambrosio becomes fixated on another woman, the chaste Antonia, whom he seduces with Valerio’s help. Meanwhile, a young nun is imprisoned for her crime of pregnancy, the result of another illicit romance, and needless to say, it all ends in tears.

Moll’s film is a visually stunning work, full of harsh landscapes and severe shadows. The visual effects that assist in the realisation of dream sequences are effective in adding to the heavy, transgressive atmosphere, and the mask that Valerio uses to hide her identity is truly terrifying. It is difficult to really engage with Ambrosio, however, as he becomes increasingly conflicted and irrational. His infatuation with Antonia soon overtakes the far more interesting plot elements that surround Valerio, and Moll seems uncertain in his balancing of these three figures. The film is also very slow paced, which I enjoyed in the set up, but found frustrating in the latter part of the film, as various plotlines failed to really hit their mark.

Derrière les murs (Behind the Walls),the first feature film written and directed by Julien Lacombe and Pascal Sid, is also the first French film shot in 3D. Set in Auvergne in 1922, this period thriller stars Lætitia Casta as Suzanne, a young Parisian novelist who moves to the country after the death of her daughter. Still grieving her loss, and lacking inspiration for her new book, Suzanne begins private lessons with a neighbour’s young orphan ward, Valentine. When she discovers a secret cave in the cellar of her country mansion and turns it into a workspace, the writing becomes easy. Visions and hallucinations soon plague her, however, and her young student disappears. As the suspicious local residents turn against her, Suzanne becomes increasingly isolated and unstable.

With the dark influence of writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Guy de Maupassant, the plot of Derrière les murs references several thrillers and fantasies of recent history – hidden underground rooms much like Pan’s Labyrinth, children’s voices emanating from an old well as in the Japanese thriller Dark Water, writer’s block, as per The Shining – but ultimately fails to deliver a climax that comes close to any of these films. The mention of a previous bout of serial killings also proves a red herring, and by the time the sad conclusion comes, it’s hard to feel too sorry for the unfortunate protagonist. The early revelation that Suzanne is medicating with a form of prescribed absinthe means that several moments of suspense are undermined by the high probability that any danger is a hallucinatory figment of her imagination. Lætitia Casta is nonetheless a strong presence on screen and the film’s strength is the rich 1920s production design. The provincial setting is magical in it’s own right and the 3D fails to add much interest. After a promising title sequence featuring multilayered fire beams buzzing around the screen, the only objects that were significantly thrust into the foreground were the English subtitles, which, from my view at the rear of the cinema, appeared to be hovering over the front rows of the audience. A strange choice for the first French foray into 3D indeed.

An eclectic program of retrospectives paid tribute to several important figures in modern cinema, including veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale, Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski and actress/ new director Isabella Rossellini. Gero Von Boehm’s 2010 documentary My Wide Life uses the metaphor of caterpillar turning into a butterfly to chart the rise of the daughter of one of the world’s most famous film couples. Starting her career as a model and TV journalist, Rossellini turned to acting in Vincente Minnelli’s 1976 film, A Matter Of Time, however, it was her complex performance as tormented nightclub singer Dorothy Valens in David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet, that bought her critical acclaim. Von Boehm combines footage from several of Rossellini’s projects with photographs and interviews, providing insight into her work and relationships. Rossellini remarks that she has always been interested in finding more complex representations of sexual relations, something that perhaps inspired her work as writer/co-director of Green Porno and Seduce Me(2008-10), a series of short clips that explore the mating rituals of sea creatures and land animals. These quirky educational pieces also take stock of environmental issues, reflecting the director’s interest in conservation.

Guy Maddin’s 2005 experimental short film My Dad is 100 Years Old attempts to explore the legacy of Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini, as seen through the eyes of his daughter. Playing the part of several of her father’s critics, Isabella Rossellini recalls his goals and frustrations as filmmaker, including that of producing films with moral representations of the subjects, before concluding that her father’s films are slowly being forgotten. Rossellini is upfront in declaring that, after two short marriages and other relationships, he remains the most important male figure in her life. Her pride and devotion was evident when introducing a restored print of Roberto Rossellini’s 1952 film La Macchina ammazzacattivi(The Machine That Kills Bad People) to the appreciative Paris Cinema Festival audience. Also screening as part of the retrospective was James Grey’s understated drama Two Lovers (2008) in which Rossellini plays a mother caring for her troubled and unpredictable adult son. Looking forward, Rossellini was also seen in the premier of Julie Gavras’ Late Bloomers, where she explores romance as an older woman, playing opposite William Hurt.

The Paris Project, “an industry-friendly launch pad for new projects and directors”, provides a platform for coproduction by selecting several feature projects at concept or postproduction stage for development during the festival. This practical strand aimed at film professionals is what sets the Paris Cinema Festival apart from the numerous other festival programs that grace the city over the summer, so I feel it appropriate to finish with a few observations in this area. Many of the filmmaking teams, particularly those with films screening in the Mexico focus, were present at the Bibliothèque cinema festival base, providing a real opportunity to network with people from around the world.

I attended a Paris Project seminar titled “Producing Independently Today: Let’s Be Inventive”, in which three producers involved in coproduction attempted to explain changes that have occurred in European and French markets over recent years, and to provide strategies for moving forward. Paris-based producer Jean des Forêts of the company Petite Films described the climate for production 10 years ago, when public money was abundant and Canal Plus invested in most films made. In terms of arthouse films and auteur projects, Forêts notes that it was easy to gather a budget at this time, and that promotion was almost a dirty word, something to be left to sales agents and distributors, rather than contemplated by the filmmakers themselves. Now the situation has reversed with film production driven by market interest, private investment being more important, and the packaging of all marketable aspects of a project as important as the raw material of the script. Forêts stressed the importance of feedback and involvement from sales agents and distributors at all stages of a project, as well as keeping costs down in all areas.

Producer Lucie Kalmar, formally of Wild Bunch and UGC International, referred to Charles Darwin’s quote that only those who adapt to change survive. Noting the current polarisation of film budgets in France, Kalmar remarked that high profile auteur films, such as Gasper Noe’s epic Enter the Void (part-funded by Wild Bunch), now present too high a risk for investors. She too stressed the need to keep budgets low, and after presenting contacts for a new generation of sales agents (sole operators and companies working in non-traditional areas) she directed the audience to a series of links to crowd-funding websites such as the American Kickstarter. It was telling that all of the producer panellists for this seminar had second jobs (from teaching to the real estate market), and that we were left with a case study of a film produced for US $80,000, on which few crew members, and certainly not the director or producers, received pay. I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member that left feeling somewhat depressed.

Many of the films screening at the festival are, however, great examples of filmmakers and subjects who have overcome adversity to tell their stories. The fact that works from the world’s emerging directors screen alongside screen classics and more commercial works, means that the Paris Cinema Festival really is an exciting mix that has something to offer every type of viewer.

Paris Cinema Festival
2-13 July, 2011
Festival website: http://www.pariscinema.org/

About The Author

Kath Dooley is a filmmaker and researcher who is currently completing a creative PhD exploring the work of contemporary French directors at Flinders University, South Australia.

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