Despite being the world’s biggest tourist destination, Paris still thrums with its own creative energy. Montmartre may now be the realm of cheesy portrait-painters rather than Impressionists and hordes of tourists may have replaced the Existentialists at the Café de Flore. But there’s still many a starving artist, writer and filmmaker eking out a living in the city of lights, even if they’re more likely to live in the grungy north-eastern corners of the city than the twentieth-century bohemian meccas of Montparnasse or Saint Germain-des-Prés. Despite its shiny surface, Paris still has a penchant for the avant-garde, and continues to be a haven for underground culture.
When it comes to cinema, the French capital has a split personality – for every silly French farce or dubbed Pixar mega-production, you can usually find an obscure and challenging piece of cinema on show. Despite its ever-growing collection of multiplexes, the city still has no shortage of small cinemas showcasing the weird and the wonderful of the film world. Yet in the months of November and December, as the days get darker and webs of ice creep across the pavements, Paris dons its black veil for two film events: the Festival du film fantastique (The International Festival of Fantastic Film) and the Festival des cinémas différents et expérimentaux (The Festival of Different and Experimental Cinemas).
The Festival du film fantastique
The Festival du film fantastique is only two years old, and still trying to decide exactly what it wants to be. Despite what the title suggests, the 2012 edition was less generically hybrid than you might expect, with the vast majority of films falling heavily into the horror genre. The competition was dominated by a number of slick psychological horror films, including the Spanish The Body (El Cuerpo, d. Oriol Paulo, winner of the Best Feature Film prize), the dark Peruvian offering The Cleaner (El Limpiador, d. Adrian Saba, Honourable Mention) and the Hollywood tale In Their Skin (d. Jeremy Power Regimbal). The latter, perhaps the most mainstream contemporary film on show, was a particular crowd favourite.
An imaginative take on the home invasion narrative, in the vein of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, In Their Skin is a grim, sophisticated film that explores the extreme limits and the perverse manifestations of desperation and envy. Retreating to their affluent holiday home in the woods following the death of their young daughter, Mary and Mark Hughes, along with their son Brendon, are approached by an overzealous neighbouring family. Yet as the Hughes are reluctantly drawn into social interaction with their intrusive neighbours, the once fawning Bobby, Jane and Jared quickly reveal themselves to be ruthless and methodical criminals, determined to seize everything the Hughes possess.
Selma Blair and Joshua Close are impressive as the grieving, fiercely protective parents with everything to lose. Yet the cast highlights are their destitute counterparts, James d’Arcy (Bobby) and Rachel Miner (Jane), fierce in their pursuit of the Hughes’ perfect lives. D’Arcy’s performance is bristling with barely-concealed madness, whereas Miner’s Jane doggedly follows her partner’s lead, all the while maintaining an aura of deluded innocence. The film is illustrative of the bleak, eerie vibe which characterised so many of the key films on show throughout the festival.
Yet while the higher-profile productions may have seemed all doom and gloom, the festival also maintained a sense of humour. Those inclined towards the tacky could catch such vulgar takings as the 1992 pulp favourite Candyman (d. Bernard Rose), the exploitation film montage Trailer War and the shamelessly bad horror-comedy, Stitches (d. Conor McMahon), starring the bizarrely-cast comedian Ross Noble as an evil clown out for revenge. A limited ‘80s retrospective also allowed for a showing of the severely dated and graphic Hellraiser films, which proved to be far from audience favourites.
One particularly admirable element of the festival was its substantial focus on short films. This too-often neglected format was a star element throughout the festival, with almost equal emphasis made on French and international shorts. As with feature films, the competition included a Best Short Film (in both French and international categories) as well as a Best Short Film as Voted by the Public prize. Highlights from the lineup included Daniel Zimbler’s Exit (winner of the Best International Short Film prize) and Karl Bouteiller’s much-lauded Nostalgic Z. The latter, a ficto-documentary set during a zombie invasion, follows a band of vigilante zombie killers who record their bloody mission on handheld cameras. Richard Rider is charismatic as a much-weathered Vietnam veteran and ex-heroin addict leading the killing spree with his bumbling sidekick Gary. The story is tongue-in-cheek, but the cinematography and special effects are impressive. Playing on both the mockumentary and zombie genres, Bouteiller has his finger on the pulse of the on-trend zombie craze.
Indeed, the undead dogged the competition, with Nostalgic Z sharing its subject matter with the Best Film as Voted by the Public, Citadel. The latter, a visceral offering from Irish filmmaker Ciaran Foy, was a festival highlight, with its eerie take on the post-apocalyptic infection narrative and a staggering performance from Aneurin Barnard in the role of a terror-stricken agoraphobic struggling to protect his infant daughter. In the film, Tommy, a young father traumatised by a sinister attack on his pregnant wife, is terrorised by a gang of twisted children who wish to kidnap his child. Aided by the unlikely team of a compassionate nurse and a renegade atheist priest, Tommy must confront his perverse aggressors, who have infested a dilapidated public housing estate in an abandoned ghetto. With a tiny cast of only four substantial characters, the film resounds with a stifling sense of claustrophobia and loneliness, amplified by Barnard’s portrayal of the mentally crippled and distraught Tommy. Citadel is divergent in style from Nostalgic Z, which doesn’t take itself nearly so seriously as Foy’s film, yet both are proof of the current penchant for representing the horrors of the post-apocalyptic, zombie-ridden urban wasteland.
Yet not all the Festival du film fantastique’s programming was as on-target as the main competition pieces. What could have been a promising element of the festival, the séance culte, proved to be disappointingly underdeveloped, with only two films screened under the cult banner. These included Peter Jackson’s first feature film, Bad Taste (1987) and the rarely screened Quatro mosche di velluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971), screened in 35mm format. The third instalment in Dario Argento’s Animal Trilogy, Four Flies is an obscure, psychedelic stalker film that rarely sees the light of day in Paris – let alone elsewhere – nowadays.
Both Bad Taste and Four Flies were compelling additions to the festival line up. However, a greater focus on a cult retrospective would have balanced out the festival’s emphasis on recent cinema and provided an all-important opportunity to revisit some of the quirkier and less accessible precursors to contemporary horror film. Clever programming of cult classics in future festivals (the 2012 edition was, after all, only the second year the festival had been run) would truly distinguish the Festival du film fantastique as a well-rounded glimpse into the world of le cinéma fantastique.
Held fittingly in the deep-red Lynchian surrounds of the Gaumont Opéra Capucines theatre, the Festival du film fantastique was an inquisitive and refreshing homage to horror. While the festival could do with expanding its scope (or changing its name), it provided a platform for serious examination of a genre that often falls below the radar when it comes to critical consideration.
The Festival des cinémas différents et expérimentaux
Several degrees further along the eccentricity scale, the Festival des cinémas différents et expérimentaux screened none of the glossy, higher-budget feature films that peppered the Festival du film fantastique. Instead, it centred on obscure, experimental screen works, ranging from narrative films to cinematic installation art, which would be a challenge to find anywhere else in Paris.
Now in its fourteenth year, the Festival des cinémas différents et expérimentaux has become a cult mainstay on the French cinematic calendar. Founded by a group of Parisian university students in 1998, the festival is run by the CollectifJeune Cinéma (Young Cinema Collective), or CJC, a film collective established in the ‘70s by a band of filmmakers, cinema students and cinephiles dedicated to the promotion of marginalised and avant-garde cinema from France and around the world. (1)
Of course, the festival is not the Collectif Jeune Cinéma’s only foray into endorsing the left-of-centre of the film world. In its early years, the organisation published regular editions of the journal Cinéma Différent,providing a rare intellectual platform for the discussion of marginalised film (although publication of the journal ceased in 1980). Throughout the year, the collective organises a series of small events showcasing experimental film in venues across the city. However the annual Festival des cinémas différents et expérimentaux remains the jewel in the Collectif Jeune Cinéma’s crown. Today, the festival is widely considered to be one of the world’s premier experimental film events.
Refreshingly, throughout the 2012 festival, human figures retreated to give way to experimentations with light, soundscapes and abstract imagery. The works on show, most of which comprised shorts shown in brief series, frequently challenged traditional conceptions of narrative and dialogue.
Music was at the forefront of many of the films, with Tom Chimiak’s Lights and Billy Roisz’s Zounk! in particular playing with the conventions of the music video. A psychedelic kaleidoscope set to monotonous dance music, the main characters of Chimiak’s short are precisely what the title suggests: an array of lights, from electric bulbs to stereo screens to lava lamps. If human bodies appear, they are merely silhouettes, serving as black canvasses on which light pulsates and dances. Roisz’s film follows in much the same vein, although his pared-back visuals are set to a much more jarring, spoken-word soundtrack. In each film, music finds its expression in synchronised plays on light and colour, illustrating in a remarkably simple way the powerful relationship between sound and image.
Similarly minimalist visuals characterise such mesmerising pieces as Dalibor Baric’s New Hippie Future. The Croatian filmmaker’s short features a series of dadaesque photographs, paper cut-outs and blocks of colour which rotate frenetically about the screen. New Hippie Future achieves what appeared to be a popular goal among many of the works on display: a blurring of the line between film and other media. Set to a soundtrack of abstract, droning strings and filmed in a clunky stop-motion style, Baric’s film recalls a Hannah Hoch collage come to life. Throughout the festival, such a bridging of the gap between film and art was a dominant theme.
The unpopulated cityscape was another common muse, with urban film portraits like Alexandre Larose’s geometric Portrait de la Place Ville Marie reducing Montréal’s bustling downtown square to a collection of abstract, alienated shapes. One of the most remarkable and haunting works on show, Théodora Barat’s Or Anything at all Except the Dark Pavement, also adopted the desolate urban environment as its primary focus. A rhythmic, hypnotising glimpse of a nocturnal street on the Franco-Belgian border, Barat’s film is composed of one long tracking shot, set to the lonely tune of a car motor. Through the prism of a fragmented window, the camera skims across deserted petrol stations, desolate houses and empty, blue-lit pavements.
With works gathered together from North America, Brazil, Russia, Iran and all across Europe, the Festival des cinémas différents et expérimentaux provided a rare and valuable glimpse into the state of contemporary experimental cinema around the world. Disappointingly, while the dominance of European works was understandable, there was an absence of films from Asia or Africa. Yet this is not to suggest that the festival neglected the culturally diverse in its programming. Alongside the main short-film collections, the festival also screened a Focus Est (Eastern Focus) series, affording a rare opportunity for marginal Eastern European cinema to take the spotlight in the West. The series included features from Russians Svetlana Baskova and the Cinefantom collective, Hungarians Igor and Ivan Buharov and the Armenian-Russian director Artur Aristakisyan.
In the French film world, the Festival du film fantastique and the Festival des cinémas différents et expérimentaux are small fry compared with the glittering extravaganza which takes place every May on the French Riviera. The glamour of the Cannes Film Festival is a far cry from these two relatively modest film events, the former a fledgling festival, the latter a patently left-of-centre one. Yet while the colourful Cannes may be the headlining film festival in France, in cinema as in fashion, Paris looks best in black.
Festival du film fantastique
16-25 November 2012
Festival website: www.pifff.fr
Festival des cinémas différents et expérimentaux
11-16 December 2012
Festival website: http://www.cjcinema.org/pages/festival_edition.php
- See an interview with CJC founder, the late Marcel Mazé, here : http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/keeping-experimental-and-“different-cinema”-alive-an-interview-with-marcel-maze/