Thursday, 12 April 2012

Six International Folk, Including an American: The 20th Anniversary of the French Film Festival

A little under two weeks ago, I joined Alejandro, Brendan, Christine, Ellen and Jeremy on a voyage to Virginia, leaving campus by 4am, for the 20th anniversary French Film Festival. Before 1pm (earlier than past Denison groups) we arrived in Richmond, the main street of which had been lined with the colours of France. Upon first sight, I knew this would be not only a voyage of film and French, but most certainly of food!

After a brief stop in West Virginia for breakfast at Bob Evans, where Brendan learned what a biscuit means in the context of breakfast and the blueberry pancakes took down Jeremy, I switched with Christine as driver and we continued on our merry, Franglais way to the hotel and eventually the Byrd Theatre. Since our rooms weren't yet ready, went into town to check out the theatre and grab a light, late lunch a few doors down at Capital Coffee & Desserts (Facebook page here). As many of the selections had been finished during the usual lunch hour, and because it was a Friday of Lent, I settled on a strata (pictured above). By definition, and as such recipes indicate, the food term "strata" (or more specifically breakfast strata) is made in reference to layers of an egg-soaked bread with center layers of typically meat and cheese. The strata is refrigerated overnight and then brought to room temperature in the morning (ergo, why it's great for breakfast, i.e., since you can make this in advance) and then baked like a casserole. Notably, this particular strata included a trio of asparagus, mushrooms and cheese (I want to say mozzarella, but I'm not sure as I can't seem to find my original notes).

Following our quick visit, we returned to the hotel and awaited for our rooms. When we were finally able to get into the wonderfully furnished rooms, I crashed for a quick nap. After we all found revitalisation in one form or another, we met up in the lobby and headed back into town to Can Can Brasserie for dinner. Dressed with a modernised Parisian feel of 1900's France, Can Can eventually become a staple of our experience in Richmond. I began my particular meal with a glass of Riesling to pair with the Port Poached Apple Salad. Topped by a beautifully sweet poached apple, apple slices were also incorporated into the salad base of mixed greens and baby arugula. Also essential to this mix were a mix of nuts and brandy-soaked raisins which added textural contrast to that of the apple and greens, as well as apple cider vinegar and white cheddar to balance out the overall sweetness of the dish.

For my main course, I had Can Can's Rosemary Basted Rock Fish which was cooked perfectly. The fillets' tender, flaky interior was by no means overpowering and allowed for the crispy skin to shine. This all sat atop wonderfully cooked asparagus, mushrooms baby bok choy and baby fennel, all of which were layered atop a warm white asparagus almond broth. (I should point out if you hadn't already  noticed that I had earlier in the day also had asparagus, mushrooms and cheese.) But the best part of this dish, hands-down, were the delicate quenelles of herb dumplings. Though I don't have photos of everyone else's main dishes, I would like to note in particular Jeremy and Ellen's twinned choice of Roasted Quail Stuffed with Herbs & Almonds which include creamed spinach and crispy sweet breads with honey carrots and fennel, bacon, and a red wine tarragon butter, and Christine's Grilled Hanger Steak which was served with her much-desired potatoes gratinée encircled by a Bordelaise sauce.

And with all things good in the world, you know (or should know) that I try to save room (or rather, make room) for dessert. Shown above, my Chocolate Caramel Crème Brûlée had a wonderful scoop of chocolate peanut butter ice cream (which I could eat all on its own and be happy) that sat on top of a chocolate meringue, all three components of which were accompanied on the plate by a banana rum caramel sauce. Indeed each component was wonderful on its own, but all together it was near perfection. As much as I tried, however, the dessert got me in the end. In Jeremy and Ellen's case, they finished up their duplicate Goat Cheese Crème Caramel which was layered atop a walnut cake and served with raspberry balsamic ice cream and a balsamic caramel sauce. As for Christine, she ended her meal with a large cappuccino, while Alejandro went for the Fleur de Sel Chocolate Cake (served with dark stout ice cream, chocolate vanilla sauce, and a chocolate chip sablée) and Brendan ordered the Crispy Apple Pie (served with vanilla ice cream, apple caramel, and spicy pecans).

After this memorable dinner, we made our way to the Byrd Theatre for two wonderful films which kicked off our group experience of the festival quite well. What's especially great about the festival is that most of the films are introduced by someone intimately tied to the film, and then followed by a brief Q&A session between that/those individual/s. I would also like to give mad props at this point to Dr. Peter S. Kirkpatrick and Dr. Françoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick, the directors and founders of the French Film Festival which since its inception has gained notoriety in France. Every summer, the Kirkpatrick's go to the Cannes Film Festival and from there they select the films to be shown in the States. (What's more, the same folks in charge of screening the films in Cannes are the same ones brought in to screen the films in Richmond.) As the above video translates, actor Serge Renko says that "In France, when you go to see a movie you don't have the opportunity to meet the filmmaker but, here [at the Festival], being all together for 3 days creates bonds and immediate connections, that is very enjoyable." Now, to be fair, we don't typically get a chance to experience this in the States and so to realise "star power" from the non-French point of view is equally meaningful. What is also amazing to behold is the speed and accuracy of Dr. Kirkpatrick's translation skills (and which may even be evident in my photos as he scribbles away on his yellow legal pad).

For our first film, we were joined by actor Philippe Torreton and French director and screenwriter Vincent Garenq (nominated for Césars for best actor in a leading role and best writing (adapted screenplay), respectively) who introduced Présumé Coupable. A truly emotional story, Philippe translates an unbearable sense of emotion and feeling of what the principal character Alain Mérécaux went through. From an anthropological, and more so ethnographic, lens I truly appreciated learning about this one man's difficult story. The greater difficulty, however, was setting Alain's story within the context of him being among 13 other innocently convicted individuals. As the program's English synopsis aptly recounts "this is the appalling story of an innocent man's descent into hell as he faces an incredibly unfair and inhuman judicial system - the story of his life and relatives, crushed by one of the most heinous miscarriages of justice of our time." Though I don't intend to give away the end of the film, I will say that I concluded the film with very mixed emotion, including anger, happiness and relief. While I highly recommend this film (and indeed all the films), I especially find this film to be potentially eye-opening to anyone interested in becoming a lawyer, as well as for those interested in translating books to film. Parental guidance. Running time 1h42.

Selected for its specific emphasis on the role of photography direction, our second film was La Conquête directed by Xavier Durringer. With brilliant casting (especially of Denis Podalydès and Bernard Le Coq as Sarkozy and Chirac, respectively, and both of whom are nominated for 2012 Césars for best actor in a leading role and best actor in a supporting role) and a flurry of French cultural and political nuances, this film recounts then Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy's "unstoppable ascent to power, riddled [as the program synopsis tells us] with in-party backstabbing, outbursts, and sarcastic confrontations." Indeed, La Conquête does its best to incite intrigue and drama, all the while making me question for whom I should most feel sorry. And especially given the crisp, macro/micro direction of photography (one could, and many have, argue this is equivalent to cinematography) by Gilles Porte, this film would be well-suited to film majors, as well as anyone interested in political science (more specifically relative to French politics and elections). In addition, there exists some bright French humor (defined as you well) which meshes well with the soundtrack that especially emphasizes the aforementioned undercurrent of sarcasm throughout the film. Parental guidance. Running time 1h45.

After a wonderful night's rest (though I could've easily slept longer), Alejandro and I joined Christine for breakfast. Joined later by the others, we got into the van and tried to make our way to the theatre in time for La Clé des Champs. However, we faced the formidable challenge of navigating past the Saturday marathon runners; we were inevitably delayed long enough to forgo the film and so we turned our attention to For the Love of Chocolate as our first stop for the day. Filled throughout the shop with boxes and packages of worldwide chocolate and candies, For the Love of Chocolate truly lives up to its name (keep clicking after this photo for a few more shots from within this chocolate mecca of sorts). From this stope, Brendan tried fudge for the first time, Ellen also purchased a pomegranate cream-filled bonbon, Christine found chocolate for her classes, Jeremy found chocolate tasting bars, I picked up one of my favourite chocolate treats (dark chocolate-dipped candied orange peels), and Alejandro mastered the art of resistance. Oh, and I can't forget to mention the debate of a tomato's essential building blocks began here.

From For the Love of Chocolate, we made our way to The Eatery, an eclectic Chinese restaurant that appears to be a staple of Carytown. A veritable clash of culinary cultures that somehow found peace made their way to this local hot spot, I purchased (admittedly) one of the best turkey bacon sandwiches I've ever had. Jeremy and Alejandro got the same noodle dish (of which Alejandro somehow took down), if I remember correctly both Brendan and Christine bought burgers and Ellen finally got her pizza. And the tomato discussion continued. To wrap up this experience, Christine shared with us some tasting chocolates for dessert.

Back in the theatre, we caught the tail end of the Q&A period by La Clé des Champs's directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, and then settled in just in time for clearly one of the best films shown throughout the entire festival, Poupoupidou. Unfortunately due to a family situation, actress Sophie Quinton was unable to join us, but it was nevertheless her who graced this year's festival poster. In a style strangely akin to The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, this film was especially interesting to me from the start given it's regional base in the snowy landscape of Franche-Comté, from where Christine originally hails. As if this weren't enough, take a read at the first two sentences of the program's English synopsis: "Rousseau is a bestselling crime novelist from Paris, troubled by a persistant writer's block. Candice Lecoeur is a local beauty gracing the famous Belle de Jura cheese packaging, who, following a hypnosis session, has gotten it into her head that she might be the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe." With eerily (set in the context of having seen Présumé Coupable) recurring themes of suicide and cover-ups on the part of the law, it's particularly interesting that director Gérald Hustache-Mathieu claims that for him "the movie is closer to comedy." Forced or subtle, the comedic elements of this film are perhaps more so caught in the moment of catching the audience off guard; and full of blatant and blanketed symbolism, the movie unforcibly demands one's full attention whether it's from the setting, the storyline, or the actors themselves. Though not nominated for a César award like many of the other films shown at this year's festival, the Poupoupidou cast is not unfamiliar with the claimed French equivalent of the Academy Awards: in 2003, lead actor Jean-Paul Rouve won his César award for most promising actor in Monsieur Batignole (2002); lead actress Sophie Quinton was César- nominated in 2004 for most promising actress in Qui a Tué Bambi ? (2003); and this year, for his role in Jimmy Rivière (2011), supporting actor Guillaume Gouix was nominated for most promising actor. This film should be especially intriguing to novelists, the Franch-Comtois, independent cinema aficionados, and anyone familiar with mid-20th century American history, Mature audience. Running time 1h42.

Our fourth film seemed to make a quick 180 as we transitioned from frustration and concern over someone who died to frustration and concern (and for some, lack of either) for those who could potentially die and could potentially be saved. Introduced by Philippe Torreton (who has a smaller role in this film compared to Présumé Coupable), L'Ordre et la Morale (César nominated for best writing (adapted screenplay)) challenges the ethical questions of war and the extent to which dialogue serves as the response to conflict. As is the case with most of the French films we saw throughout the festival, this one is informed by very real events. Taking place on Ouvéa Island in 1988, L'Ordre et la Morale ends with an update and many more questions facing the people of New Caledonia. Intriguing especially for anyone interested in ethics, warfare and dialogue, as well as immigration, ethnicity and inner politics, I should note that L'Ordre et la Morale is rather slow to get into at first, and by the end there's very little ambiguity if you're either on the side of not liking this one or of finding it worthwhile to have watched. Stepping back, the English synopsis is entirely correct in ending off its description of the film as "a violent, important and troubling epic that marks the return of Matthieu Kassovitz both in front of and behind the camera." Parental Guidance. Running time 2h16.

At the conclusion of L'Ordre et la Morale, the French delegation was presented to those in the audience. Though not an annual custom, but to mark the 20th anniversary of the festival, three special awards were presented to members of the delegation who had contributed (and who continue to contribute) to the cinematic community.

 A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)

Following the presentation, the audience was in for a real and very unexpected treat (though arguably one that may have been a bit too over-hyped...maybe). As it turned out, a member of La Cinémathèque Française had brought with him a project the group had been working on; previously screened one other time (at the LCF as part of an evening commemorating the film's director), the full length [11-12-ish minutes] Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoe (click here for a small snippet of the original) was screened to a live, translated narration and live organ accompaniment. Realised in 1903 by George Méliès, the 280 meters of Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoe contains 10 669 frames and has been undergoing painstakingly detailed restoration at La Cinémathèque Française, with each frame being re-coloured by hand. Also vital to The Invention of Hugo Cabaret by Brian Selznick, the pioneer that was George Méliès has more recently been reintroduced to audiences worldwide in the heavy movie-magic film Hugo.

After the conclusion of the film, the six of us headed over to the VCU Scott House for the official reception which included members of the French delegation. As you can see in the North shot above, La Conquête Director of Photography Gilles Porte joined us for our "red carpet" group shot. Heading inside, we were surrounded with local area appetizers, as well as the French actors and directors. Among the food I tasted was a Belgian potato specialty provided by Belle Vie European Bistro, as well as a cheeseburger slider and crab cake with an AMAZING spicy aioli from [I think] Millie's Diner. Throughout the gathering, we were all on alert for folks to sign our French Film Festival poster and of the few we were able to speak with, we were extremely fortunate to meet and speak (well, mainly by choice listen to Christine's conversation) with Philippe Torreton. (After our group photo, I got a solo shot with him, too; yeah, if there's one thing I didn't master by the end of the trip, it was the French smile.)

As it turned out, we had actually left the party a lot earlier than planned and so we went back to Can Can Brasserie for an evening coffee, as we were scheduled for another film for the night. As you can see above, I got a healthy helping of delicious mocha. And speaking of smiling from above, check out Jeremy and Ellen's progression from "American," to "Mexican," and then finally "French."

While we were at the official reception [of the French delegation], a special 20th anniversary free screening of Cyrano de Bergerac took place. As per the program, the screening was "in tribute to the 1st French Film Festival which programmed this worldwide blockbuster" and would be "in prsence of Jean-Paul Rappeneau, [the] first French director to have participated in the Festival 20 years ago." And alas, by the time we arrived from Can Can, we were able to catch the last half of Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Q&A. After his session, Hugh Laurie-esque look-alike Stéphane Freiss (and indeed so much so that he directed and acted in the short film It is Miracul'House which had also been screened earlier in the day; trailer here) was brought up to the stage to introduce the made-for-French-television movie Albert Camus. "Saved by love, but swept up by the absurd, the Camus we discover in this film is the private man, full of integrity and a disquieting humanity." Indeed, we are granted permission into Camus's life and struggles, but only after writer and director Laurent Jaoui had been given permission to produce such a film that would portray Camus in the angle he's portrayed here. The permissions to release the movie into DVD form have not been granted and so it seems a bit of digging around would need to be done in order to get access to this socio-politically charged story. From writers and literature majors to activists and anthropology/sociology majors, this film truly touches a wide audience and presents a portrait few have seen but of these have appreciated. Parental guidance. Running time 1h40.

As if we hadn't had enough of it by now (though I don't think that'd ever be possible), we returned yet again to Can Can Brasserie as Christine had to pick up some brioche she had ordered in advance. Since I had swapped sleep for breakfast, I purchased a surprising pain au chocolat, and by surprising I mean arguably the best chocolate croissant this side of the ocean, as defined most notably by my buttery fingers in the linked photo. From there we walked around before heading to the Byrd Theatre for our final two movies; I note this because a trio of colours caught my attention, foreshadowing indeed to my upcoming trip to NOLA.

Okay, so perhaps I'm just into the sappy movies (especially the ones that emphasize family and learning to let go and let live) or our sixth movie was just that good (or indeed, perhaps a combination of both), but Le Fils à Jo is my claimed favourite film of the entire festival from among the ones we saw. Produced at the tail-end of 2010, it seems to have just recently landed on this side of the Atlantic this year, and with mixed reviews on the part of both critics and audience members alike. Nevertheless, this was just one of two (the other being Présumé Coupable) for which the audience of which I was apart gave the film and its director a standing ovation. As Jeff Heinrich of The Gazette (3rd link) wrote: "The film critics tackled ex-rugby star Philippe Guillard’s directorial debut when it was released a year ago in France. Awkward, poorly edited, sexist, predictable, commonplace, boring – they called it everything in the book. I don’t have much of a problem with it. This low-budget film doesn’t pretend to be more than it is: a simple coming-of-age tale of a teenage boy and his dad and their love-hate relationship with tradition. In this case, the tradition is rugby, a sport that – until Clint Eastwood came along with Invictus – we don’t usually see depicted in cinema. That alone is refreshing." And before even having read Heinrich's review (actually, I only read this just now), and before the movie was actually screened, director, screenwriter and former rugby player Philippe Guillard presented to us his film in the same way. As I wrote in my Rotten Tomatoes audience review: "Presented at the Virginia French Film Festival as a "simple" movie, with a rather straightforward scenario and simple direction, Le Fils à Jo transcends the television screen for which it was originally made and finds itself belonging firmly on the silver screen. Indeed, simple but very much a story of the complexities of life which in it of itself is not all that simple." By the end of the screening, it was obvious that Philippe had emotional attachment to this film. At it's most basic, this was a family held together by rugby, his sport. And perhaps in the end I'm a fan of rugby films (Invictus is among my top three films). But even more so, the simplicity (one could say predictability) and awkwardness of this film, I think, resonates within each of us "common" folk. Life is awkward, and there are many moments when they're boring. In essence then, I wonder if those who have something bad to say about this film are offering the critique that this film doesn't transport us or whisk us away from our commonplace existence. I would argue in such a case that the film offers a glimpse not only into the world of rugby (which during the Q&A session Philippe responded to critiques of sexism and perceived homophobia) but the opportunity for dialogue, inclusive of the issues brought up in the film's critiques. In addition to this, I should note that one notion that was also brought up during the Q&A was that of centrality, an underlying theme that runs throughout the film starting with the initial script that would have placed the story in the theoretical center of France (the movie takes place in Tarn, located in southwestern France); another connection which more directly translates to the French gastronomy course I'm auditing is the importance of the pot au feu. Highly recommended for the athletes among and within us, as well as for a simple entrée into a not-so-simple life, Le Fils à Jo is certainly a film I can't wait to watch again. (In contrast to Camus, it is available on DVD and includes English subtitles. Also, I'll confirm here I still hadn't gotten the French smile down by this point in the weekend.) General audience. Running time 1h35.

From the arguably intellectually untaxing to the arguably intellectually taxing, our final film provided another 180 experience. For those interested in social justice, child welfare, law, and medicine, Toutes Nos Envies is just the film for you. A fusion of two stories, director and screenwriter Philippe Lioret presented his thought-provoking film which, as the program synopsis suggests, is set to remind us of "the urgent need to live life to the fullest." Though the means and the process for which this is translated are questionable, the acting is quite good (actress Marie Gillain is actually a 2012 César nominee for best actress in a leading role) and the joined story lines seem to work. In addition, I should note that the food in this film (though this isn't a film necessarily focused on it) acts as a catalyst or reason for dialogue, and indeed for carrying us from one scene to the next. And while our French gastronomy class has talked about the importance of taste, it's interesting how important both sight and smell are to this film. General audience. Running time 2h00.

And with this seventh film, we made our way back to the van and to Granville. All told, this was an experience unlike any other and I hope to one day return to Richmond to watch and to learn. Oh, before I sign off completely, I would like to mention that Ellen and I shared with Brendan an arguably "American" tradition when we stopped for dinner at Wendy's: French fries and Frosties. Maybe that's just us? For all of my photos, including the above poisson d'avril, click here.

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