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Fresh faces join icons of French cinema

Film festival hosts eclectic collection

Charlotte Gainsbourg stars as a widowed mother in Julie Bertuccelli’s “The Tree.’’ Charlotte Gainsbourg stars as a widowed mother in Julie Bertuccelli’s “The Tree.’’
By Loren King
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2011

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How lively is the 16th annual Boston French Film Festival? It features films from four icons of French cinema: Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, “Film Socialisme’’; a new print of François Truffaut’s “The Soft Skin,’’ from 1964; Gérard Depardieu in two films (“Mammuth’’ and “My Afternoons With Margueritte’’); and Isabelle Huppert (“Copacabana’’). An impressive collection, yet they’re often eclipsed by debut directors and lesser-known titles that offer a dazzling array of comedy, drama, and animation.

Starting at the Museum of Fine Arts on Thursday and running through July 24, the festival opens with “The Women on the Sixth Floor,’’ a weaving of love, politics, and class warfare, with echoes of Fellini and Almodovar, set in a once-grand Paris apartment building circa 1960. Fabrice Luchini plays the married, middle-class Jean-Louis, who becomes fascinated by the mostly Spanish maids quartered in the run-down upper floor of his tenement. He’s particularly enchanted by recent arrival Maria (Natalia Verbeke), who is hired by Jean-Louis’s haughty wife (Sandrine Kiberlain) after their longtime French housekeeper quits. Director Philippe Le Guay, who will discuss his film following Thursday’s screening, delivers a touching, humorous, and timely look at a middle-aged man’s dawning consciousness about class inequality and his attraction to the domestics’ earthiness and unpretentiousness.

From Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows’’ to Louis Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart’’ to Diane Kurys’s “Peppermint Soda,’’ few filmmakers have depicted coming of age quite like the French. Several films in this year’s festival provide rich and complex portraits of youth, without cliché. “The Hedgehog,’’ which writer-director Mona Achache loosely adapted from Muriel Barbery’s best-selling book “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,’’ features precocious, lonely Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), a bespectacled 11-year-old coping with the self-centered and disaffected adults around her. She decides she’s going to kill herself on her 12th birthday. With her father’s old movie camera, she begins to chronicle life in the upscale apartment building. Paloma slowly develops a bond with the prickly but highly literate building superintendent (veteran actress Josiane Balasko), a middle-aged woman who slowly awakens to Paloma’s friendship and to the affections of the courtly Japanese man (Togo Igawa) who moves into the building. Balasko will discuss the film following the screening, on July 23.

Achache handles potentially gloomy material with a light touch, but a darker study of youth can be found in Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Dear Prudence,’’ an unsparing portrait of a teenage girl (a stunning performance from Léa Seydoux) reeling from the death of her mother and the absence of her father and sister. Living alone, she falls in with a gang of motorcyclists who race one another in the dead of night. Flirting with danger and sex, Prudence tries desperately to belong. This year’s program features no fewer than eight female directors; perhaps one of the reasons for the many films about youthful alienation, loss, and longing.

But not so fast. Claude and Nathan Miller also handle the loss of a parent - in this case, a boy’s birth mother - with skill and sharp sensitivity in “I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive.’’ Based on real events, it’s about an adolescent, Thomas, who rebels against his adoptive parents and seeks out the birth mother, Julie (Sophie Cattani), who abandoned him when he was 5. The film jumps forward eight years, as Thomas (Vincent Rottiers), now a sullen garage mechanic estranged from his adoptive family, still yearns to understand Julie’s perceived betrayal. He finally makes contact with Julie, who is now raising another young son. A tense variation on a family life ensues, leading to a surprising, jolting twist.

French filmmaker Julie Bertuccelli’s haunting “The Tree’’ is one of the few festival films in English. It’s a French/Australian production set in the sumptuous Australian countryside. The compelling Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a young mother, Dawn, who, after her husband dies suddenly, must deal with the grief of her four children, particularly 8-year-old Simone (an amazing performance from Morgana Davies). Disarming and perceptive, Simone insists she hears her father whispering to her from up inside the massive fig tree in the yard. As Dawn tries to rebuild her life despite Simone’s defiance, the tree’s encroaching roots and branches threaten to swallow the property.

No less a first-rate film about an adolescent - and the pet she loves - is the sublime “A Cat in Paris,’’ a beautifully hand-drawn animated film about a cat that leads a double life. By day, Dino lives with mute, fatherless Sophie and her mother, a police detective. By night, Dino slinks into the shadows of the City of Light accompanying a dignified cat burglar who is pursued by gangsters. Soon young Sophie is drawn into a caper that culminates with a breathtaking chase across Paris rooftops. Rich with film references (“Reservoir Dogs’’ and “Goodfellas’’ among them), “A Cat in Paris’’ is a stylish celebration of storytelling featuring another memorable heroine.

Of course no French film festival would be complete without Depardieu, ever the charming pro in two films this year. Just as worthy of her iconic status is festival mainstay Huppert, who plays the free-spirited Babou in Marc Fitoussi’s comedy “Copacabana.’’ Huppert’s real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah, costars as Babou’s staid daughter, Esmeralda. Frustrated with Babou’s self-centered, irresponsible life, Esmeralda bans her mother from her impending wedding. Babou exiles herself to the port city of Ostend, Belgium, where she lands a job selling time shares. Her feisty personality lends itself to the unenviable task, but Babou’s obsession with helping a young homeless couple threatens the bit of stability she manages to scrape together. Along with Léa Seydoux, Chammah also stars in Louis Garrel’s delightful 44-minute film “Petit tailleur (Little Tailor),’’ which screens as part of a shorts package that includes Olivier Treiner’s “The Piano Tuner’’ and Stéphane Demoustier’s “Weekend.’’

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.

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