Peep into the reel world of Charles Aznavour

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Charles Aznavour in the 2019 documentary “Aznavour by Charles”.

“I FILM, therefore I exist,” legendary chanteur Charles Aznavour once said of his favourite hobby.

It was not long before his death in 2018 that the great singer and film star, known as “The Frank Sinatra of France”, unveiled his private collection of reels and asked that it be shared with the world.

The result is the 2019 documentary “Aznavour by Charles”, directed by Marc di Domenico, in which Aznavour reveals through his own film footage his rise to fame and travels to places as far afield as Bolivia and his family’s native Armenia, his evolving family over three marriages and the detail of the ordinary people he watched. 

Aznavour is, post-mortem, di Domenico’s collaborator on this film, expressing a firm view that film and watching are closely linked.

“You are there behind my shoulder,” he says while filming men and women going about their business. 

He never glosses over his own dark side, frankly narrating how he abandoned his first wife and baby daughter to go to Canada.

Charles Aznavour.

The documentary also cuts in filmed performances of his most famous songs, including “Formidable” and his British hit, “She”, a terrific excuse for the 2020 Alliance Française French Film Festival to hook up with the Canberra International Music Festival for a special screening and gala night on March 17, where French embassy staffer and Canberra theatre identity, Jason Bensen, will perform some of Aznavour’s songs prior to the screening. 

This is the fourth and last edition as artistic director of the French Film Festival for Philippe Platel, cultural attaché to the French Embassy, a job which was relocated from Canberra to Sydney around the time of the Olympics.

“The film is not exactly a documentary but more an edited version of the films Charles Aznavour made with his camera, it’s more a collage of films, holiday movies.”

And as for that camera, he explains, it was a gift from the singer’s long-time flatmate Edith Piaf, whose second gift to him was the advice, which he took, to have a nose job. 

Piaf is also widely credited with having got Aznavour to develop his vocal style into his distinctive mixture of tenor and gravelly low register. 

Platel is keen to talk up the rest of the festival, the biggest film festival in Australia, this year featuring 49 contemporary and classic French films across many genres rom-coms, thrillers, animations, kids’ movies, farce and tragedy.

The opening night film will be “The Extraordinary”, a crowd-pleaser by renowned filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano that closed the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It’s about two men who train young people from underprivileged areas to be caregivers for autistic youth abandoned by the state system.

Alas, in this year’s selection Gerard Depardieu is conspicuous by his absence, although, Platel tells us, he very nearly made it in.

But not to worry, the equally luminous Catherine Deneuve appears in four films.

Easily the most famous of those is the 1970 movie, “Donkey Skin”, a wildly eccentric adaptation of a classic French fairy tale, with songs by Michel Legrand, where Deneuve plays a princess who must go into hiding as a scullery maid in order to fend off a really weird marriage proposal. It’s one of several films Platel believes are suitable for all the family.

La Deneuve also appears in the family reunion film, “Happy Birthday”, where she plays a 70-year-old matriarch.

But the ones that interest Platel most are the 1981 drama, “Hotel America”, where Deneuve plays a woman struggling with social and cultural shock as she marries a man from the working class, and a kind of parallel, “Farewell To The Night”, in which she plays an ordinary grandmother who discovers that her grandson and his girlfriend are signing up to fight for ISIS in Syria. Such films, he believes, challenge Deneuve as an actor grappling with a range of emotions.

On a lighter note, the festival is keen to connect with Canberra arts organisations through special events involving screenings, entertainment and drinks, so has arranged “Writers’ Night” on March 31, where “The Mystery of Henri Pick” will be screened. The film shows how a deceased pizza maker’s lost manuscript becomes a literary success. But an acerbic Parisian critic determines to prove Henri is not the author it’s a satire on the arts community, combined with mystery and great acting. Very French, very chic and very Canberran.

2020 Alliance Française French Film Festival, Palace Electric Cinemas, March 12-April 8, bookings and details of special events at palacecinemas.com.au

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