(This article appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 28 February 2013 in a reduced version.)
Generations of film-goers have become used to French films with a distinctly artistic bent: the “nouvelle vague” – “new wave” – films became associated with a casual (some would say careless) approach to telling screen stories. In the late 1950s films of Truffaut, Chabrol and Goddard, we became accustomed to listen to “the white spaces” between the lines the actors spoke, in between puffs on their ever-present Gauloises. How unlike the “tell them everything” approach that Hollywood film has taken.
But times have changed. In fact many of this year’s selection of films at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival (from 5 March in Sydney; 6 March in Melbourne; later in other states) seem peculiarly, in fact almost adamantly, American in theme and approach. Of the films in the Festival with significant Jewish interest, three of them feel like American re-makes, and two of them actually are.
Modern American romantic film comedy has developed in a number of genres. Two of my favourites are the “I get to go back in time (usually high school) and fix the mistakes I made then”, and the “I leap forward in time, get a glimpse of my dystopic romantic future, and get to fix my mistakes”. Classic examples of the genre are “Peggy Sue Got Married” (back in time) and “The Family Man” (the future). (And how ironic is it that Nicholas Cage stars in both films? The role which Cage plays in iconic American films is definitely under-appreciated, and will be the subject of a separate post soon.)
In “Camille Rewinds”, French-Jewish Noemie Lvovsky directs, co-writes and stars as Camille, an unhappy, about-to-be divorced woman (think Kathleen Turner in “Peggy Sue Got Married”). At a New Year’s Eve party, she faints and travels back in time to her sixteen year-old high school past when she first met her husband. She magically slips into her past life, but this time knows the future consequences of her actions and tries hard to avoid them. It’s a light, romantic fantasy, marred only by Lvovsky’s casting herself as Camille: the somewhat rotund Lvovksy does not look anything close to sixteen, and she has cast two actors as her parents who look nothing like her distinctly Ashkenazic Jewish features.
Another Jewish actor – noted writer/director Mathieu Kassovitz – stars in “Another Woman’s Life”. In their twenties, young Marie (a delightful Juliette Binoche) meets and falls in love with Paul (Kassovitz), but wakes up to discover that she and Paul have been married for ten years. Worse yet, they are on the verge of divorce, both in relationships with other people. Like Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni in “The Family Man”, can Marie save her marriage – the one she cannot remember even having?
In “Happiness Never Comes Alone”, popular Moroccan-Jewish actor and comedian Gad Elmaleh plays a French-Jewish musician Sacha. He falls in love with Charlotte (played by a very radiant Sophie Marceau), a woman with two former husbands, three children and a busy professional life. Will these two lovers overcome their challenges and achieve a happy life together? Yet another truly American-style story of individuals triumphing over adversity, enlivened by the bursting energy that the two leads bring to the screen. Sacha’s grandmother has the best funny Jewish lines, with her first “is she Jewish?” question, and her telling Sacha to check Charlotte’s sons at night to see if they are circumcised.
Rounding out the films of related Jewish interest are an historic drama and a powerful documentary. The closing night film “Les Enfants du Paradis” is an epic made in Paris during the final years of the Nazi occupation: many view this classic as the best French film ever made. And in “The Invisibles”, gay French-Jewish documentarian Sebastien Lifshitz looks at homosexual men and women born during the period 1919 to 1939, a time when they were forced to become “invisible”.