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Chicago French Film Festival 2016 Preview

The Music Box Theatre opens its 2016 Chicago French Film Festival with “The Brand New Testament,” a brash theological lark distributed in the U.S. by Music Box Films. Running July 22 through July 28, the sixth annual non-competitive showcase offers twelve titles, mostly dramas from 2015. 

Fest co-presenters are Alliance Francaise and the Consulate General of France in Chicago. The French embassy is also partnering with the Gene Siskel Film Center to present ten different features in the Young French Cinema 2016 series, July 1st through August 3rd. (For information on the Young French Cinema 2016 series, click here

The Brand New Testament” (July 22, 7:30pmJuly 25, 4:45pm) is an appealing France-Belgium-Luxembourg co-production that was Belgium’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards. Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael and his Belgian co-writer Thomas Gunzig set their upbeat satire of Christianity in Brussels. They confabulate revisionist gospels wherein the apostles come to number 18, same as on a hockey team, instead of the original 12, like a baseball line-up.

“God exists,” narrates ten-year-old Ea (Pili Groyne). “He lives in Brussels. He’s a bastard, he’s horrible to his wife and daughter.” God (Benoit Poelvoorde) is indeed an unkempt ill-tempered lout who drinks beer and watches sports on television. He berates his dutiful wife (Yolande Moreau ) who never speaks. She always sets a place at the kitchen table for their son J.C. He left long ago and got himself crucified. Incarnated in porcelain statute atop a wardrobe, he secretly speaks to Ea.

According to Ea, God was horribly bored so he sat down at his computer to create a world of creatures. “First, he made Brussels,” she explains. Along unpeopled streets wander newly created giraffes. They look lost. Chickens sit in a cinema and watch chicken movies. Soon we see a naked man there beholding a blank screen all by himself. He visits a vacant library where all the pages are blank. Then Eve enters. Let the begetting begin. Multitudes ensue.

“He set them against each other in his name,” continues Ea, skipping ahead in history. Here Van Dormael inserts clips of battle scenes from the old black-and-white films “Cabiria,” “The Sheik” and “Aleksandr Nevsky.” Intertitles proclaim: “For God!”… “For Allah!” … “For Baal!” God also programs life with thousands of Universal Annoyances.

Ev thinks he’s mean. She wants to fix things. She hacks into God’s desktop and pulls off a worldwide data dump into every smart phone on the planet. Crawling through the door of her mother’s washing machine, Ea emerges in a Brussels laundromat. The rest of the plot observes her finding six more apostles to compose the testament in the film’s title. Her quest occasions six love stories, including Catherine Deneuve’s character falling hard for a gorilla.

God chases after his daughter through the laundry portal. Only she can reboot his computer. French immigration authorities will deem God an illegal alien. With no papers, he’s deported to Uzbekistan, where he will work on an assembly line for washing machines. For eternity, no doubt.

Van Dormael displays an impish philosophy. His mise-en-scene yields endless surprises. Creation is rebooted by the Creator’s daughter and wife. Anti-patriarchal wit wins the day. Nonbelievers are embraced in the new world.

“The Brand New Testament” nods to laïcité, as France terms its secularist doctrine dating from the revolution and legislated since 1905. The thriller “Disorder” (July 23, 7:00pm) is more topical. Islamicist allusions occur throughout a tense and nuanced psychological study written and directed by Alice Winocour.

The original title of this France/ Belgium co-production is “Maryland,” the name of a regal villa of a Lebanese executive. Whalid (Percy Kemp) has highly sensitive, high-level connections in French politics. It’s election season. Overheard conversations yield veiled references: “If anything leaks about Qatar, the presidential elections are dead.”

A deal in trouble calls Whalid to Geneva for two days. For 900€ he hires Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts, “The Danish Girl” and “A Little Chaos”) to protect his wife Jessie (Diane Kruger) and their young son Ali (Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant) at the estate, plus chauffeuring them to the beach.

Vincent is a Special Forces soldier doing security gigs. “We’re protecting Arabs for a change,” cracks a comrade, referring to a prior job when the Minister of the Interior attended a soirée at Maryland. Violence is in the zeitgeist. An English-language television newscast reports on ten Chicagoans shot in Back of the Yards. Part of an onscreen graphic reads: “Days Without A Mass Shooting.”

Vincent brought back from Afghanistan severe headaches, blackouts and even hallucinations. He needs treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. His fitful sleeping and paranoid vigilance give him an edge in his temporary line of work.

The tattoo on his forearm reads “Chaos,” but what’s going on under Vincent’s skin is unseen. “Disorder” recalls “Augustine,” Winocur’s debut feature set in Salpetriere asylum for women in 1875. The Music Box screened this history-informed drama about the title patient and her physician in 2013. In her follow-up film, Winocour observes another pair of characters in an enclosed setting with inner and outer threats. [Click here for more information

Middle Eastern issues surface in Les Cowboys” (July 23, 12:30pm; July 28, 9:30pm). Director Thomas Bidegain starts at a 1994 festival where French fans of cowboy Americana gather. Families ride horsesreal ones and mechanical broncosand line dance to a local country & western band. There’s lassoing and barbecuing. The U.S. and the Confederate flags both wave. Bidegain will end at the 2011 version of this event, years after terrorist attacks in New York City, London and Madrid.

Plot symmetries are built into the bookend festivals. Screenwriters Laurent Abitbol and Noé Debré confront issues of French Muslims. National debate and cultural friction are powerfully expressed through one family. In the opening scene, after dancing the “Tennessee Waltz,” a rebellious 16-year-old French girl runs away with her jihadist boyfriend. In vain her father (François Damiens) searches Muslim enclaves in northern Europe. Years later her younger brother Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) will pick up her trail in Pakistan. One day he will marry Shahzana (Ellora Torchia) and take her to that same festival. Her headscarf is not tolerated by locals wearing ten-gallon cowboy hats.  

This Basque director reveals in his press notes that he imagined “Les Cowboys” as a hybrid of John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.” As a boy he watched westerns with an older brother who tipped him: “Just imagine the Indians are Basques.” In “Les Cowboys” French citizens who identify with American cowboys imagine Arabs are the Indians. In a stand-out supporting role, John C. Reilly plays a supporting character character iconically called The American. He carries a gun, rides a horse, and shares a peace-type pipe with Taliban-like figures. He rhapsodizes about the big sky country of frontier Pakistan. [Click here for more information

Two 14-year-old boys with unkind nicknames undertake a summer adventure in their illegal motorized vehicle disguised as shed. “Microbe & Gasoline” (July 23, 4:45pm; July 26, 9:30pm) draws liberally on childhood memories of director Michel Gondry. He was often mistaken as a girl in school, as is undersized Microbe (Ange Dargent). Audrey Tautou plays his mother with a certain realism, claims Gondry in an interview supplied by his distributor. Gasoline (Théophile Baquet) is a composite of various boys in Gondry’s past.

Do not look here for anything on par with either the tragic sci-fi romance “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) or “Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?” (2014) Gondry’s animated interview with Noam Chomsky. “Microbe & Gasoline” siphons some of the whimsy of his past dramas about immature oddballs, but when his co-stars are actually kids, and grounded ones at that, this auteur’s trope falters. [Click here for more information

Privileged teens two or three years older populate Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) (July 23, 9:15pm; July 27, 7:30pm)Writer/director Eva Husson casts Finnegan Oldfield from “Les Cowboys” as the parentally unsupervised host of after-school orgies shot on cell phones. Online videos go viral. Happily, for the hot body classmates, their new sexually transmitted diseases only go bacterial, not viral.

This is a tony evocation of a news story about high school kids who apparently posted their sex videos unprotected by prophylactics or passwords. The transient scandal was eclipsed in the national news cycle by fatal heat waves and fatal train derailments. Husson opens with a heavy quote from the late Swiss psychoanalyst C.J. Jung. In the end credits she dearly thanks Werner Herzog, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andrei Tarkovski, Gus Van Sant, Lars Von Trier, Wong Kar Wia and many others, as her skinny naked cast runs down a country road at night bathed in red light.

Husson catches their naive erotic logic in this exchange: “We all make each other feel good” “– We all have super-powers, y’know.” Dennis Cooper’s limpid take on California teen skin comes to mind. Other passages are unforgiving. One kid dimly reads aloud from her cell phone screen during mandatory syphilis testing at the local hospital: “Apparently lots of 19th century writers died of it. Baudelaire, Nitzsche, Van Gogh.”

It’s all so tacky, scolds one parent: “The orgies in themselves aren’t so shocking. You’re fucking, so what? But it’s so profoundly mediocre. Is that any way to relate to one another? … That’s what you call freedom? Some kids fight for revolution… Don’t you have anything better to do?” [Click here for more information]

Middle-aged men like that dad are the ones making messes of their own lives in a drama and two comedies in the festival. Freedom is at stake in “Down by Love” (6:45pmJuly 24th7:15pmJuly 26th) directed by Pierre Godeau and based on events at a Versailles prison. Anna (Adèle Exarchopoulos, “Blue is the Warmest Color”), apparently convicted for wielding a knife while on the reality TV show “Secret Story,” is the new prisoner that warden Jean (Guillaume Gallienne) loves, imprudently and unprofessionally. Sexy cell phone videos surface. It gets him some hard time. The real warden, Florent Gonçalves, co-wrote the book “Défense d’aimer" with Catherine Siguret, that is the basis for the screenplay credited to Godeau, Gonçalves and Siguret.
Paris, Love, Cut” (July 22, 10pm; July 27, 9:30pm) is lighter fare about a less interesting character. A film director named Arnaud is here played by Arnaud Viard in a comedy written and directed by Arnaud Viard. His character is having a hard time getting hard and getting his second feature made. The French title is “Arnaud Makes his Second Film.” So you already know how this ends, except for cutting an umbilical cord. 

The festival is also screening “News From Planet Mars,” (July 24, 9pmJuly 28, 7:15pm) a French-Belgian co-production by Dominik Moll (“Lemming,” “The Monk,” “With a Friend Like Harry.”) Unavailable for preview, this 2016 comedy comes with a tagline for its 49-year-old protagonist: “Philippe Mars is a reasonable man in an unreasonable world.”

Come What May” (July 24th, 4:15pmJuly 25th, 7pm) is the only period film this year. Director Christian Carion draws on the memories of his mother and millions of others displaced by the German offensive of May 10th, 1940. Ennio Morricine supplies the score for this harrowing yet heartening tale of a German communist on the run with his son. He is befriended by a Scot soldier and a French villager in a tale of valor and love in war-time. There’s a splendid reversal of fortune for a German director of a propaganda film.

The only animated work in the festival is Phantom Boy (2:45pm, July 23rd; 5:15pm, July 28th), yet another France/Belgium co-production. Co-directors Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli made in “A Cat in Paris” in 2010. Now the setting is New York City. 

All the power is out and under the control of a disfigured computer-hacking villain seeking a billion U.S. dollars. This sweet tale begins and ends with 11-year-old Leo reading a super-hero story to his little sister. The hero is a Leo-like boy with an out-of-the-body secret. Eyelid point-of-view shots frame a story-within-a-story with a detective adventure, medical victory and romance. Most memorable line: “If I was the bad guy in a comic book I would enjoy telling you the password to be entered on this computer. Except I am not that stupid.” But that you are, my dear bad guy, reveals the intrepid reporter voiced by Audrey Tautou.

The one documentary is another Music Box Films release: “Seasons” (2pm, July 24th; 5:15pm, July 26th). Co-directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, and composer Bruno Coulais earlier collaborated on “Oceans” (2009), with Pierce Brosnan narrating its U.S. release. Now they deliver a sentimental Eurocentric diorama on the birth of northern hemisphere forests 80,000 years ago, a long view of all the life forms therein. And then came the hominids. 

Critters are always exchanging looks thanks to cute editing of reaction and reverse shots. This narrative convention invents a storybook community of shared space interlaced by gazes of fauna. A sentient commons for all of Nature. The first human face is a wondrous onlooker, seemingly unseen by the other organisms. And the last human eyes we see are shown in the act of looking too, although less innocently than at first. 

My own viewing was distracted by wondering how the ten cinematographers achieved their prescient points-of-view. One camera is atop a chopped-down tree to chronicle its falling. What were the mechanics of those inter-cut tracking shots of a pack of snarling wolves chasing a herd of fleeing horses? “Seasons” wishes us to instead contemplate the proverbial bigger picture, the longue durée.

For the festival’s single retrospective view, there are three screenings of a 30th anniversary digital restoration of Andre Techine's 1986 film Scene of the Crime (12pm, July 24th; 9:30pm, July 25th; 5:30pm, July 27th).

The 2016 Chicago French Film Festival runs from July 22 - 28. Click here for more information.

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