Saturday, January 10, 2015

New French Shorts at the IFC Center

The original idea was to present a selection of French short films with prestigious festival credentials as warm up for the My French Film Festival. However, the mood is sure to drastically different from what anyone would have anticipated when UniFrance presents the third annual New French Shorts showcase at the IFC Center.

As the world reels from the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, cineastes can take particularly comfort from Amélie Harrault’s Kiki of Montparnasse (trailer here), because it represents everything we love about French culture and everything the Islamist killers would hate. Chronicling the life of a cultured and independent woman, it is elegant, artistic, and a bit racy. Alice Prin (a.k.a. Kiki) rose from humble beginnings to find fame as an artist’s model, torch singer, actress, and memoirist in the Parisian artists’ community of Montparnasse. It would be impossible to make a boring film about “the Queen of Montparnasse,” but Harrault’s short film is particularly inspired, altering the look of the animation to reflect the style of each successive artist Prin encounters, including Mondigliani and Man Ray.

Prin’s story is not all champagne and caviar, but it portrays Paris as we always want to think of the city. Bandine Lenoir’s The America of Womankind also offer a bit of sauciness (and Antoine Sahler’s fusiony trumpet gives the closing credits a nice kick), but it is more of a sketch than a narrative. While a teenaged girl and her boyfriend make the beast with two backs, her mother, grandmother, and aunts debate whether they interrupt them or embrace their sex-positive attitude. It is somewhat amusing but inconsequential.

However, two of the programmed films explore the grittier side of contemporary France. Clément Tréhin-Lalanne’s Aïssa is the lesser of the two, serving more as a statement than a film. A young Congolese immigrant is seeking amnesty protection, claiming to be a distressed minor. However, a coldly bureaucratic medical examination may very well disprove her claim. Essentially, Aïssa is a one note film, but the vulnerability of Manda Touré’s performance is still impressive. It is also notable how the television-like aspect ratio gives it the feel of Super-8 micro docs.

Jean-Bernard Marin’s The Runaway addresses similar themes, but it is a fully developed narrative. Lakdar is a tough talking social worker, but he really cares about his charges, even the self-destructive ones like Sabrina. Though his efforts, she has landed a service industry trainee position, which might convince the court to sentence her to probation rather than a prison stretch, if she presents herself in a thoughtful, contrite manner. Alas, that might be too much to ask. Unfortunately, she might drag down Lakdar with her, as well.

As Lakdar, Adel Bencherif is absolutely terrific delivering a tragic, street level performance akin to what you might see in early Scorsese. Runaway is hardly a lecturing multicultural guilt trip either, emphasizing the flawed reality of human nature. Like Sabrine, an inmate in a Washington state women’s prison is a difficult case to help in Laure de Clermont-Tornerre’s Rabbit. She had committed to care for a dwarf rabbit as part of a counseling program designing to develop responsibility, but she might sabotage herself instead. Frankly, Rabbit is a perfectly presentable film, but the stakes and intensity cannot compare to Runaway.

French-based Chinese filmmaker Hu Wei’s docu-essay Butter Lamp might sound conspicuously out of place, but visually, it is unusually distinctive, so why not stretch the selection parameters? As an itinerant photographer and his assistant snap portraits of hardscrabble Tibetan families in front of anachronistic fake backdrops, Hu offers a shrewd commentary on the conflict between traditional Tibetan culture and globalization. Deceptively simple, it is actually quite cleverly executed (NYFF review here).

Kiki of Montparnasse, The Runaway, and Butter Lamp are all excellent short films, under any circumstances. Of course, next week’s UniFrance showcase will be an opportunity to see them, as well as a time to express solidarity with the admirably iconoclastic Charlie Hebdo. Also recommended on strictly cinematic terms, the 2015 New French Shorts program screens this Wednesday (1/14) at the IFC Center.