Carytown transformed into a "petit France" March 27 to 29, as French flags lined the street and English and French speakers formed a queue around the block of the Byrd Theatre to attend the 17th annual French Film Festival, presented by Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond.
A delegation of 44 French actors, directors, producers and writers traveled to Richmond to speak on behalf of their work, said Peter Kirkpatrick, associate professor of French at VCU. Audience members came from across the world to take part in this event, which has now become the largest French film festival outside of France.
Kirkpatrick and his wife, Francoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick, professor of French at Richmond, have co-directed the festival every year, bringing films to Richmond from the country that invented cinema.
"Francoise and Peter are a great mix," said Olivier Delers, assistant professor of French at Richmond. "They are close to the community and they understand Richmond. They know what Richmond needs in terms of cultural events."
Ravaux-Kirkpatrick said she and her husband watched 180 films that year, most of which they were able to divide between each other and view during the Cannes Film Festival, an event similar to the U.S. Oscar's, but where patrons can watch new films, she said. If one of them liked a movie, she said, they would view it again together.
Kirkpatrick and Ravaux-Kirkpatrick chose films in various categories, including comedy, drama, shorts, animation and documentary. Thirty-nine interns, from Richmond, VCU and universities in France, made the festival proceed smoothly by being involved in programming, marketing, public relations and outreach.
"You don't ever stop moving," said Samuel Alpert, an intern from VCU. He and Yvonne Green, an intern from Richmond, said they were proud to see all their hard work come together that weekend.
The star of the weekend was Josiane Balasko, French actor, director, producer and writer, someone whose ubiquitous presence in French cinema has made her into a household name.
"She's someone I grew up with," Delers said. "She's like the Internet. You don't know what life is like without it if you've grown up with it."
Balasko appeared in five of the 12 feature films shown. "I would like to say there are a few French films that do not have Josiane Balasko in them," joked producer Frederic Brillion while speaking on behalf of his film "Musee Haut, Musee Bas."
"It's so great to be here in Richmond," said Balasko, dressed in jeans and a sweater. "For me, it's a holiday."
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Delers said Balasko could be compared to Meryl Streep, and a toned-down version of Whoopee Goldberg, because she has starred in a lot of comedies.
Ravaux-Kirkpatrick agreed that Balasko's celebrity in France could be compared to that of Meryl Streep in the United States. "She can interpret all kinds of roles," she said. "She is also socially active and in charge of a lot of causes. She speaks for those who are not often listened to."
Balasko climbed onto cinema's world stage when she wrote, directed and co-starred in the 1995 film "French Twist," a comedy about a lesbian who enters the lives of an unhappy suburban husband and wife, and turns their worlds upside down.
Films and Commentary:
Comedy films don't always culturally translate into laughs. What may be considered funny in French may not strike a chord with an American audience.
This was not the case with "L'Auberge Rouge," a film about a family that runs an inn where they murder travelers so they can steal from them. The film's director, Gerard Krawczyk, joked that the story was a precursor of thought about the economic crisis and regulation.
"It has been a very long time since I laughed like that," a viewer said. "It reminded me of Charlie Chaplain films."
"L'Auberge Rouge" was a remake of the 1951 version by Claude Autant-Lara, and the events were based on a true story that took place in Ardeche in 1833, when innkeepers murdered and robbed two patrons.
Most of the jokes poked fun at Catholicism, pointing at how people only choose to be pious when it serves their purposes. The film mixed scenes of reverence for the faith, with scenes showing the hypocrisy of the characters.
When audience members finished watching "L'Augerge Rouge," they wanted to know: did we laugh at all the right moments?
Director Gerard Krawczyk said he was amazed to see they did.
"There is a mix of tone in the film," Krawczyk said. "I think it was hardest for the actors, who had to be part of the drama of the story and acknowledge the humor that comes out of it."
"Deux Jours a Tuer"
Many French films seem to master the "twist" ending, or situational irony, where the viewer is brought to an ending he or she did not expect. "Deux Jours a Tuer" is no exception.
The film disguises itself as a piece about a 42-year-old man who has reached his mid-life crises. In a series of increasingly disturbing and shocking scenes, he manages to drive out the people in his life he cares about most, including his wife and children. In the span of one weekend, he leaves his home and job, pulling apart the life he built for himself.
In the last third of the movie, the visual imagery takes over, switching the viewer to a new understanding of the main character, where his behavior is explained through pictures rather than words. The ending leaves the viewer forgiving the main character for his mortifying actions, and reflecting about how he or she would act if placed in a similar situation.
"Deux Jours a Tuer" received three Cesar nominations -- an award that can be compared to the Oscars -- including Albert Dupontel for best actor, Pierre Vaneck for best supporting actor, and Jean Becker, Eric Assous, Jerome Beaujour and Francois d'Epenoux for best writing-adaptation.
"15 Ans et Demi"
The tension between teenagers and their parents is universal. In the comedy "15 Ans et Demi," the audience members roared as they watched Philippe Le Tallec and his daughter, Eglantine, argue about everything from her nasal piercing to what constitutes real Coca Cola.
After being absent from his daughter's life for 15 years because of his job placement in the United Sates, Le Tallec decides it is time for him to fulfill his parental role by moving back to France for three months and spending time with Eglantine. But she is preoccupied with the strains of becoming a young adult, so she seeks freedom from her father's rules, bargaining spending time together in exchange for being allowed to attend parties and concerts.
The film shows the generational gap between youth and parents, particularly how it is affected by the use of technology. Le Tallec takes a special course to understand "SMS texting," and to learn the correct language to use when he is trying to communicate with his daughter.
"L'Apres Midi de Monsieur Andesmas"
In direct contrast with "15 Ans et Demi," "L'Apres Midi de Monsieur Andesmas" is a story that reveals how a father's love for his daughter can overshadow any harmful actions she might commit. The father in the story is willing to give his daughter anything, and buys an expensive house for her in the south of France, where she can see the entire village.
"The last film was very funny," director Michelle Porte said. "My film is not so funny. But it is also a story of love between a father and his girl."
The movie, which takes place over the course of an afternoon, took four weeks to film, Porte said.
The only music in the movie comes from the town below, which the viewer only gets to visit for a few minutes. Most of the film takes place at the top of the mountain, where the father waits all afternoon for a builder who will help him plan constructing a veranda his daughter has requested. While the father is waiting, he has discussions with the daughter and wife of the man he is waiting for, the latter of whom tells him the frightening truth about his daughter.
"Cliente," the most controversial film, had the most packed audience.
The movie centers on Judith, a successful woman in her 50s who uses an online escort site a couple times per month. She soon meets an escort, Patrick, whom she begins to see regularly.
But Patrick is leading a double life. He is Patrick the gigolo to his clients, and Marco the husband and painter to his wife and family. As the story unfolds, viewers understand that Marco is involved in male prostitution only because he loves his wife and wants to provide for her.
Balasko directed the film, wrote a novel about it and wrote the screenplay adaptation. She also starred as supporting actress, as Judith's sister.
"When I first brought up this project," Balasko said, "I was asked whether it was autobiographical. I said, 'Not yet.'"
She and her husband, George Aguilar, appeared on stage to discuss the film. "We are playing the funny couple in the movie," Balasko said, "and I think it works." The couple sent a hopeful message in the film, showing that two people can find love and happiness where and when they do not expect it.
The overall message is about people coming to terms with their situations -- Judith understanding that she will never find love, and Marco understanding that he cannot escape his financial burdens.
"The movie is asking questions," Balasko said. "If I am 50, by myself and a woman, can I pay for sex? If I am a male, have problems with money and love my wife, can I whore for her? Will I ask my husband to whore for money?
"I have no moral judgment of my characters. They do what they do and I don't judge them. They are normal people. They are not heroes or villains."
Balasko specifically chose to write "Cliente" because she saw there were many stories written about female prostitutes, but that it was seen as unnatural for a woman to buy sex. "I wondered why it's always the silence for women," she said, "and I wanted to make a little noise."
Balasko was nominated for World Cinema Dramatic Competition for "Cliente" at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
"Musee Haut, Musee, Bas"
"Musee Haut, Musee, Bas" is a comedy that opens viewers into the art museum world, showing that the people viewing art are more interesting than the art itself. The film blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality, giving viewers a glimpse into people's lives, how their situations are related to and affected by art and how the type of art they like defines who they are.
Throughout "Musee Haut, Musee, Bas," the audience is left to guess whether the sequence of events is actually occurring. The film does not present a main character, but jumps from one group of characters to another.
"We make films to make people happy, and we hope that happens," producer Frederic Brillion said.
Before the film, Brillion told the audience to "bring out the little child that lives in you."
The audience's laughter showed that was happening, as the film told stories through visual imagery that transcended language and culture.
"I find fiction more real than reality," Brillion said. "I think you can find the reality of the world through fiction."
Brillion said his message about art was that it was primarily a scandal that had the ability to break through barriers. He chose to produce funny movies, he said, because laughing can be a means by which to break through barriers.
"Francoise Dolto, Le Desir de Vivre"
The showing of "Francoise Dolto, Le Desir de Vivre," the final film of the weekend, was its official premier in North America.
The film tells the story of Francoise Dolto, the doctor who invented psychoanalysis for children. Director and co-writer Serge Le Peron chooses to tell Dolto's story through the lives of two young boys who are troubled by their pasts, and who soon become close friends.
Taking place after World War II, the film highlights the struggle children had with trying to understand the suffering going on around them. It also highlights the difficulty Dolto and other women in the health care field had with being taken seriously by members of a male-dominated profession.
Dealing in reality rather than symbolism, the film seeks to honor Dolto's life rather than try to explain it, and brings the viewer with her as she discovers the troubles that haunt her patients.
The Byrd usually hosts spectators who pay $1.99 for a ticket to a film that recently left the box office, but that weekend audience members paid up to $95 for a festival pass. People without passes paid $12 per film, and discounted passes were given to students and professors.
The passes gave people the opportunity to mingle with delegation members at a reception on Saturday night, held at the VCU Scott house. This was the first year the University of Richmond partnered with VCU to present the festival. Next year, the reception will be held at Richmond's campus, Ravaux-Kirkpatrick said.
Though both French and American audience members seemed to enjoy the films, some of the directors said they would like French film to become more widely viewed in America.
Most people said the distribution of French films was the problem with American's lack of familiarity with French cinema. "American distributors don't buy a lot of French films," Ravaux-Kirkpatrick said.
She also noted that the culture gap between French and Americans may contribute to the problem, as some Americans tend to gravitate toward action films, while French films' purpose is to present art and leave viewers reflecting about life.
"Cinema is the seventh art, which is a huge burden on film makers," Delers said. "[The French] don't have the type of productions and subject matters that would connect well to American audiences.
"They are making art there, and [in the United States] it is the entertainment industry. If you are entertaining people, the goal is to make money."
Some French films are made to make money, he said, but usually the French will criticize movies that are made for entertainment. The French will say that an entertaining movie is not a good movie, because it tends to lack artistic value, he said.
But American independent films typically get critically acclaimed in France, he said.
In America, French movies such as "Amelie," have been popular. "It's part of that international, globalized media," Delers said, "like 'Slumdog Millionaire.' They are about visual identity and the type of story they are telling." The globalized audience he referred to was created by the force of American culture, he said.
Janette Hill from Washington, D.C., found out about the festival through French e-mail feeds she received, and was familiar with French culture because she had traveled to France a few times. "I think Americans are intimidated by anything French," she said.
"They think French culture is high brow, but I think the French really embrace Americans for the most part."
Americans were fearful they couldn't understand French films, she said, because they thought it may be too sophisticated.
"But things such as humor [in films], I think, transcend culture," she said.
Contact staff writer Kimberly Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org
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