Three COLCOA films view World War Two through the eyes of women and children

The unthinkable horrors and everyday nightmares on the home front during World War II are movingly depicted in three excellent new French films, which premiered at this year’s COLCOA French Film Festival: “The Innocents,” “Come What May” and “Fanny’s Journey.”

“The Innocents” is a shocking film set in 1945 Poland.

“The Innocents” is a shocking film set in 1945 Poland.

“The Innocents,” from director Anne Fontaine, received both the Audience Award and a Critics’ Special Mention. (Unlike 1961’s “The Innocents” – an adaptation of Henry James’ classic ghost story – by director Jack Clayton, starring Deborah Kerr, this film is based on fact.) Lou de Laâge stars as a French Red Cross doctor who comes to the aid of a Polish convent in 1945, after learning that several nuns have been raped by Russian soldiers. Fontaine’s graceful sweeping storytelling balances the shocking subject matter. She elicits memorable performances from the cast as she shows the nuns questioning their faith in varying degrees. Luminous cinematography and a somber score enhance the chilling mood.

“Come What May” won the festival’s Critics’ Award.

“Come What May” won the festival’s Critics’ Award.

In 1940, about 8 million French people left their homes as the invading German Panzers made their way through the Ardennes forest. “Come What May” tells the intimate story of a handful of villagers (August Diehl, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Alice Isaaz and Matthew Rhys) as they abandon their town to head for the coast, where they hope to be safe from the invasion. Director and co-writer Christian Carion based the film on his mother’s real-life recollections of fleeing the Nazis at age 14. Beautifully made and acted, the film also boasts a score from Oscar winner Ennio Morricone. “Come What May” won the festival’s Critics’ Award.

In “Fanny’s Journey,” Léonie Souchaud plays Fanny Ben Ami.

In “Fanny’s Journey,” Léonie Souchaud (center) plays Fanny Ben Ami.

In “Fanny’s Journey,” Léonie Souchaud plays Fanny Ben Ami, who in 1939, when she was 13, fended for herself and her younger sisters, after their father was arrested in Paris. The girls stay briefly in a refectory for Jewish children but when that is no longer safe, Fanny faces a fearsome duty: leading a group of children left on their own through Nazi-occupied Europe to the Swiss border.

Director and co-writer Lola Doillon (daughter of filmmaker Jacques Doillon) has made an exquisite-looking period film – both a tense thriller and tender coming-of-age story. She has carried on the family tradition of delivering effortlessly fresh and spontaneous performances from child actors. “Fanny’s Journey” is based on Ben Ami’s autobiography.

FNB writer Mike Wilmington called the film “an instant classic.”

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COLCOA announces festival winners

The Franco-American Cultural Fund today announced the winners of the COLCOA French Film Festival.

Anne Fontaine photo by uniFrance.

Anne Fontaine photo by uniFrance.

The Innocents,” directed by Anne Fontaine won the COLCOA Audience Award. The film will be released in the U.S. by Music Box Films.

Come What May” was awarded the Critics Award by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association jury.  The film was written and directed by Christian Carion. It will be released shortly in the U.S. by Cohen Media Group. “COLCOA proves it is the indispensable film festival for Los Angeles movie lovers,” said the jury in a statement. “It’s deeply satisfying to sink into a week of films of such originality, authenticity and substance.”

Made in France,” co-written and directed by Nicolas Boukhrief, won the Audience Special Prize while the Critics Special Prize went to The First, the Last, written and directed by Bouli Lanners.

Audience Special Mentions were given to “Un Plus Une,” co-written and directed by Claude Lelouch and to “I am a Soldier,” co-written and directed by Laurent Lariviere.

Critics Special Mentions went to “Fatima,” written and directed by Philippe Faucon and “The Innocents.”

The Best Documentary Award went to “Tomorrow,” co-written and co-directed by Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent.

The First Feature Award went to “Neither Heaven nor Earth,” co-written and directed by Clément Cogitore. The film will be released in the U.S. by Film Movement.

The Coming Soon Award, a prize given in association with KPCC 89.3, to a film with a U.S. distributor, went to animated feature “Long Way North.” The film will be released in the U.S. by Shout! Factory.

For the winners of Television and Shorts categories, please visit the COLCOA web site.

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‘Courted’ touts top acting, but its stories disappoint

In “Courted,” writer/director Christian Vincent transports us to the professional and private world of Michel Racine, a fussbudget French judge in the criminal courts. Racine is a memorable characterization, beautifully played by Fabrice Luchini, who received last year’s Best Actor prize at the Venice International Film Festival for this performance.

“Courted” (“L’Hermine” in French) had its West Coast premiere at the COLCOA French Film Festival in Los Angeles Wednesday night, the same night as its North American premiere at the Tribecca Film Festival in New York.

Courted posterThe movie, which almost instantly recalls Sidney Lumet’s courtroom classic, “Twelve Angry Men,” shows Racine presiding over a brutal murder case, in which a 7-month-old child has died. The child’s surly father (Victor Pontecorvo) is the defendant. As the mechanics of the trial unfold, we meet the lawyers, the jury and a key witness, the child’s mother (Candy Ming). The jurors are a chatty bunch and one of them tells the group she has heard through the grapevine that Racine is known around the courthouse for his arrogance.

But he’s also a human being with very human problems. Indeed, it’s a bit jarring to see Racine, at the end of the day, sans his regal ermine robe, ordering soup in the tacky hotel where he lives, a result of his pending divorce.

By coincidence, another juror (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an empathetic Danish-born doctor, has crossed paths with Racine in the past, and this connection plays out as a budding romance.

A novel premise, “Courted” has much to offer – it’s well written and well acted all around. Luchini removes Racine’s pompous, curmudgeonly veneer to reveal his wistful vulnerability. Knudsen shines as the woman who attracts him, a lonely divorced mom who has devoted herself to her kids and career.

Crisply shot and nicely paced, the film’s tonal changes between drama and romcom are gracefully handled. But, at the same time, this mix of genres creates some problems. While it’s fascinating to see the French judicial system at work, shown with some of the same engrossing detail as Lumet’s great films and Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order,” the trial scenes lack the crackling tension that would have completely hooked us voyeurs.

Similarly, there’s a shortage of subtle chemistry between Luchini and Knudsen – both are sympathetic but there is an awkward flatness between them that never lifts. Even if this is intentional, it’s hard to care much about this fledgling couple. There’s a pivotal moment in the trial that would seem to clinch their relationship and oddly that moment is glossed over, a small but significant flaw.

Also strangely lost in the shuffle is any authentic reaction or concern about an unusually dire and depressing murder case. The characters’ jaded detachment is puzzling.

The fact that veteran writer/director Christian Vincent’s point of view remains rigidly superficial limits the film – the merged storylines should pulse with riveting intensity on two fronts, but instead “Courted” retreats disappointingly into bland disengagement.

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Enchanté, Monsieur Sy … COLCOA opens with a deftly performed drama, ‘Monsieur Chocolat’

Omar Sy

Omar Sy

France’s hottest export right now just might be actor/writer/producer Omar Sy. His new film “Monsieur Chocolat,” was the opening selection at the City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) French Film Festival Monday night in Hollywood.

The 38-year-old, easy-on-the-eyes French actor attended the fest reception and stayed after the film for a Q&A with director Roschdy Zem.

Monsieur Chocolat” is based on a true story of two circus clowns – one black and one white – who change the dynamics of comic performance in turn-of-the-century France, clearly no small task, given society’s hard-wired and rampant racism, not to mention the hardscrabble and precarious life of on-the-road entertainers. James Thierrée co-stars.

Sy’s most famous film is 2011’s “The Intouchables,” where he played a streetwise caregiver to a wealthy quadriplegic (François Cluzet). Enormously popular in France, the movie became the best selling French film of all time, but was less well received in the U.S.

A gifted comic actor, Sy’s engaging performance is the highlight of this flick. Thierrée, too, is at the top of his game. In fact, these are two of the best actors in contemporary French cinema.

Enchanté, Monsieur Sy! Let’s hope he stays all nine days of this truly charming and delightful festival.

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COLCOA celebrates 20th anniversary with a superb lineup

The COLCOA French Film Festival turns 20 this year!

The Franco-American Cultural Fund’s City of Lights, City of Angels (COLCOA) French Film Festival, now in its 20th year, will run April 18-26 at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles.

COLCOA’s executive producer and artistic director François Truffart has announced that a record 70 films and television series will be shown at the fest. This includes four world premieres, seven international premieres, 19 North American or U.S. premieres, 17 West Coast premieres and 21 new shorts. Fest organizers say COLCOA is the world’s largest event dedicated to French films and television.

The festival will open on Monday, April 18, with the North American premiere of “Monsieur Chocolat,a biopic about the first French black clown, directed by Roschdy Zem, and starring Omar Sy. The fest will close with a romantic comedy called “Up for Love,” starring Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin and Virginie Efira.

COLCOA will celebrate the 11th anniversary of its Film Noir Series with a three-title series to run Friday night, kicking off with “A Decent Man,” a dark drama about a feckless dude (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who falls into a dire trap of dishonesty. Emmanuel Finkiel directed and co-wrote.

Kalinka film posterThe next film in the series is director and co-writer Vincent Garenq’s “Kalinka” (“Au nom de ma fille”), the story of a father’s  27-year fight for justice in the name of his murdered daughter, starring the always-magnificent Daniel Auteuil.

The final movie is “Fast Convoy,” which the fest calls a “slick, turbo-charged road thriller.” It was co-written and directed by Frédéric Schoendoerffer and stars Benoît Magimel.

All other series are back as well: COLCOA Shorts, Classics, and Documentaries as well as Happy Hour Talks, World Cinema Produced by France, the After 10 series and the French NeWave 2.0 series.

Bon anniversaire, COLCOA !

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French neo-noir takes the cake at this year’s COLCOA

The next time I visit Paris, I might not wander on the Left Bank. I might skip the visits to the Musée Rodin and the Petit Palais, and say no to making a little journey to Giverny. I could easily be talked into holing up at the Plaza Athénée (I am overdue for a visit), ordering room service and binge-watching superb French neo-noir and police-procedural gems. I found out at this year’s tremendous COLCOA film festival that French filmmakers can now claim the title of the hottest, most cutting-edge noiristas in the world.

“SK1” won the fest’s First Feature Award.

“SK1” won the fest’s First Feature Award.

How so? Well, “L’Affaire SK1,” a riveting depiction of an eight-year hunt for a serial killer nicknamed the Beast of the Bastille (based on real events), snared the fest’s First Feature Award. “SK1” was directed by Frédéric Tellier (who co-wrote the film with David Oelhoffen), and features Nathalie Baye as a public defender. “SPIRAL” Season 5 (think “The Wire”) received the TV Series Award.

Joining “SK1” in the Film Noir Series, now in its 10th year, was Oscar-winning actor Jean Dujardin’s new film (from director Cédric Jimenez) “The Connection,” which picks up where William Friedkin’s landmark thriller “The French Connection” left off. The final film in the noir series was “Next Time, I’ll Aim For the Heart,” a tense and haunting story, based on the real-life Oise Killer, a cold-blooded psycho on the loose in 1978 Paris, flawlessly portrayed by Guillaume Canet. The film was written and directed by Cédric Anger.

Anger was one of several writers on yet another gritty and twisted tale taken from real life, “In the Name of My Daughter,” which stars the one and only Catherine Deneuve, and was directed by the great André Téchiné. “Daughter” was somewhat disappointing, however, seeming to lose its way about midway through.

The COLCOA festival opened with “A Perfect Man.”

The COLCOA festival opened with “A Perfect Man.”

Perhaps my favorite part of the fest (other than hearing French accents and enjoying lovely receptions) were the revival screenings of “La Chienne” (1931, Jean Renoir) and “Two Men in Town” (1973, José Giovanni). Seriously, does it get much better than watching Alain Delon as a divinely handsome ex-con struggling to go straight and Jean Gabin as a world-weary but somehow regal cop, not to mention a brief appearance by Gérard Depardieu? No. It does not, especially when you know there is a chilly St-Germain cocktail waiting for you after the show.

The COLCOA festival opened with the North American premiere of “A Perfect Man,” a thoroughly enjoyable Hitchcockian thriller co-written and directed by Yann Gozlant. I heard some post-screening crabbing about the flick’s plausibility but I think the naysayers missed the point.

American neo-noir storytellers would do well to study these sleek, sharp, psychologically complex cinematic offerings.

Now, to make that reservation at Plaza Athénée …

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‘A Perfect Man’ is an ideal start to COLCOA film festival

Last night, the COLCOA French Film Festival kicked off with a lovely reception and a screening of “A Perfect Man,” directed and co-written by Yann Gozlan.

A Perfect Man posterIn the movie, Pierre Niney plays Mathieu Vasseur, a sensitive smart loner and struggling fiction writer. When he happens to find an unpublished manuscript written by a French soldier in the Algerian War (who is now deceased), Mathieu takes a gamble and sends it to a publisher. It’s an instant success and Mathieu’s once-dismal existence is transformed, bringing him money, acclaim and the love of Alice Fursac (Ana Girardot), a beautiful and brainy literature professor who hails from a prominent family.

But three years later, Mathieu’s lies catch up with him: he’s spent all his money and he’s made zero progress on a second book. Also bothering him: a blackmailer and a nosy friend of the Fursac family. As Mathieu gets more desperate to cover his tracks (à la Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley), he turns to increasingly dire methods to hang onto his pretty illusion.

As always, the COLCOA opening-night reception was delightful.

As always, the COLCOA opening-night reception was delightful.

Granted, there are several times where “A Perfect Man” might inspire head-shaking incredulity. But I found that easy to forgive because there is so much that’s highly entertaining about the film – Niney and Girardot are just right for their parts, not to mention the luscious cinematography, shocking twists, taut pacing and gorgeous locations.

Alfred Hitchcock had a name for viewers who quibbled with the likelihood of a suspense movie’s plot points occurring in real life: The Plausibles. In his view, these nitpickers were missing the point, which was to enjoy the story’s thrills, both narratively and visually.

Of course, there needs to be some semblance of reality as well as sophistication in terms of storytelling in order to gloss over pesky points of fact. And it’s a difficult balance to maintain – some films are so compelling that it’s easy to forgive even major errors, others we dismiss completely because we just can’t buy into the film’s reality.

In the case of “A Perfect Man,” ditch your Plausibles checklist and just have a good time.

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