11 January 2011

Working at FACT is a joy for even the most passive of film lovers – finish at 6pm, walk downstairs and half an hour later you can be laid back in one of our reclining seats squinting at subtitles or wondering if the season’s biggest blockbuster will live up to the hype. I set out to write this blog about the five best films I’ve seen at FACT this year. I was going to talk about The Social Network surpassing all expectations about being a cheesy Facebook film, and Alice in Wonderland being great but pondering why it was in 3D... However, being a complete and utter Francophile I realised that most of the greatest films I’ve seen at FACT this year have been French.

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 The Illusionist (L’Illusioniste) (2010)

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This was the most charming piece of cinema I have seen in a long time. A gentle animation lovingly reworked for 2010 based on a French 1950s script, it tells the story of an old fashioned magician trying to resurrect his dying trade as rock music and modern entertainment becomes more popular around him. On his travels he meets an unlikely fan in the shape of a young girl living in an isolated community in Scotland, who is convinced that he’s a real magician. She joins him on his journey, taking in the big cities and the bright lights she’s never seen before.

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Aside from the beautiful animation, my favourite part of the film was the relationship portrayed between the Illusionist and the young girl. It was reminiscent of the innocently platonic relationship that evolves between Charlotte and Bob Harris in Lost In Translation, no tension or subtext. Just friendship. The whole film reflected a whimsical nostalgia for all things old that have been eclipsed by shiny modernity, just like the way these days there’s something nicer about 35mm film than digital, or vinyl versus MP3. Lovely stuff.
 

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My Afternoons with Marguerite (2010)

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Keeping in with the charming theme, My Afternoons with Marguerite focuses on a bumbling country bumpkin with a heart of gold. Played by Gérard Depardieu (Jean de Florette), Germain is a laughing stock amongst his friends and cruel mother for his illiteracy and clumsiness. He finds solace during his afternoons in the park, where he counts the pigeons and names them individually. He meets Margeruite, a beguiling frail old lady with the same penchant for naming pigeons. He confides in her as their friendship grows over her love of books and his desire to read, and they rendezvous in the park each afternoon to read together.

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Another innocent story about unlikely friendship and village life set in the idyllic French countryside, it’s a joy to watch. Unexpected plot twists keep it from being sickeningly twee, and there are some sad moments… but all in all it’s very quaint, very watchable and trés Français!

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Breathless (A Bout de Soufflé) (1960)

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This is a must-see for anybody remotely interested in French cinema.  Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film is seen as one of the inaugural films of the French New Wave movement, or La Nouvelle Vague. Characterised by choppy jump cuts, strong narratives and deliberate techniques to remind the viewer that they’re most definitely watching a film and not real life – it’s about as slick, sexy and cool as French cinema gets. And that’s not even taking into consideration the tanned muscly Frenchman (Jean-Paul Belmondo) lying with his shirt off in the bed of elfin mod-waif Patricia (Jean Seberg) whilst trying to constantly seduce her with his surly banter.

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The plot follows a criminal whom fancies himself as a bit of a Humphrey Bogart (Belmondo), and after killing a policeman, asks his American girlfriend to hide him and take him away to Italy on the run. This film speaks for itself, and even though Seberg and her character are both American she manages to pull off the typically sexy stereotype of a 1960s Parisian sex kitten with her cropped pixie cut and flicked cat eyes. A definite must see.

Godard's classic film Pierrot Le Fou is screening tonight at FACT.

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A Town Called Panic (2010)

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Okay, so this one is Belgian but I’m still counting it. A Town Called Panic is possibly one of the silliest films I’ve seen for a long time.  In an excellent way, of course.

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From the wacky minds of the creators behind those ubiquitous Cravendale adverts, the film is an adaptation of the cult Belgian ‘puppetoon’ series of the same name.

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By the end of the film it seems completely normal that plastic figurines in the shape of a Cowboy, an Indian and a Horse should live together in a yellow house and use coffee pots with three spouts.  They live in a seemingly peaceful and harmonious rural village amongst the farmer, his wife, animals and a music school – until a wacky chain of events unfold and take the unlikely family through the centre of the Earth, a frozen Tundra and a parallel underwater universe. The animation is as manic as it is on the Cravendale adverts, and the characters’ dialogue twice as fast.  It’s a pace you soon get used to; as each bizarre event unfolds into something even stranger and leaves you slightly puzzled and curious for more.

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A Town Called Panic manages to perfectly balance gentle and whimsical with hilarious and eccentric. I hope this film is never dubbed, as the French language (usually associated with elegance and romance) spoken fast and with gusto was part of what made the film so irreverently funny.  A big fat thumbs up from me.

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Gainsbourg (2010)

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Last on the list is Joann Sfar’s biopic of musician Serge Gainsbourg, father of Charlotte and lover of a veritable assortment of French sirens including Jane Birkin, Juliette Gréco and Brigitte Bardot. The film explores his life through Nazi-occupied wartime Paris as a Jew, through his successful song-writing career and womanising tendencies to his death in 1991.

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The entire narrative is punctuated by his dark alter ego; an eerie caricature of everything he hates about himself from his sharp nose to his mental weaknesses, personified by a huge looming puppet. It had a tendency to border on the ridiculously theatrical which had me cringing a little, but it was easy to pick up what Sfar was trying to represent.

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If you think you don’t know Serge Gainsbourg’s music, you will definitely know Je T’aime, his sexy duet with lover Brigitte Bardot – and it’s hard not to enjoy the trademark Gainsbourg Gallic sixties jazz fusion that peppers the soundtrack. Bardot was apparently unhappy with Laetitia Casta’s inaccurate and overtly sexy portrayal of her in the film… watch it and judge for yourself!

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