Emotion and love make for an ‘unusual’ festival

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Assad Ahmed and Gérard Depardieu in “Fahim, the Little Chess Prince”.

IT’S l’amour, toujours l’amour at the 32nd Alliance Française Film Festival and much of that love can be attributed to its new curator, Karine Mauris.

Mauris arrived in Australia in October as the cultural attachée to the French Embassy, and while her brief is to create a bridge between France and Australia through art, theatre, books and cinema, her first big job on landing here was to direct the biggest French film festival outside France.

She was supposed to land in August, but used the lockout time to start looking at French movies with an eye on what might appeal to Australian audiences – since 90 per cent of the audience don’t speak French.

Curator Karine Mauris… “I’m in love with the cinema.”

“Sharing things is one of my main aims and my first mission was to create a line-up of films. I asked myself what Australians would enjoy, what would make them laugh, cry or dream… I’ve seen more than 100 movies and selected 37,” Mauris says.

You might wonder about Mauris’ qualifications to judge what would appeal to us, but luckily l’amour has a part to play – her partner is Australian. 

She’s had a chance to speak to her predecessor, Philippe Platel, but Mauris is no novice, having previously headed up communications and marketing for the Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music (SACEM), France’s equivalent to our APRA AMCOS. She’s also run her own company as a producer of music, TV series and musical comedy.

“I’m in love with the cinema and came here ready to work on the festival,” Mauris says. 

“It’s a big challenge but I’m a very enthusiastic person so it’s a dream job.”

A still from “De Gaulle”.

She puts Australians’ fascination with France down partly to its food and partly to the films on the ABC and SBS, but also believes many are attracted to Europe because they’ve come from a European background. Then there’s the Aussie phenomenon of “the gap year”, when students aged 18, 19 or 20 head for Europe at the turning point of their lives.

So, what criteria did Mauris use in her selections, which include no less than nine world premieres?

“First of all, it was emotion, my own emotion,” she says, having cried the whole way through “Fahim, the Little Chess Prince”, the true story of a Bangladeshi refugee boy who became a national French chess champion. Gérard Depardieu plays his coach.

“L’amour, toujours l’amour,” she says, arguing that most of the films chosen involve love.

A love triangle features in “Love Affair”, comedy in “The Wedding Speech”, and tenderness in “Summer of 85”. Even in “De Gaulle”, Gabriel Le Bomin’s film about Charles de Gaulle set in 1940, there’s the matter of what happens to Yvonne, his wife, and three children – “there’s always a question of love”, Mauris asserts.

Emma Mackey and Romain Duris in “Eiffel”, 2021. Photo: Antonin Menichetti.

And in the opening night film “Eiffel”, where the government urges the reluctant Gustave Eiffel to design something spectacular for the 1889 Paris World Fair, it’s a case of cherchez la femme, when Eiffel crosses paths with a mysterious woman from his past – ”very inspiring, wonderful”, she says.

Not much love is evident, though, when superstar Isabelle Huppert returns to the festival in “The Godmother”, playing Patience Portefeux, a middle-aged police interpreter who becomes a wholesale narcotics trafficker.

A bit of gender-bending adds to the mix, with “Miss” introducing a boy Alexandre/a, who dreams of being Miss France while in complete contrast, the doco, “How to Become an Astronaut”, about French astronaut hero Thomas Pesquet, takes us into space.

In what Mauris sees as “a most unusual festival”, many choices reflect the Francophone diaspora, like the 2021 Tunisian Oscar entry “The Man Who Sold His Skin”, the French-Tunisian comedy “Arab Blues”, the depictions of civil war in Burundi in “Small Country: An African Childhood” and Beirut in the surreal “Skies of Lebanon”.

“There are no judgements in French cinema,” she says. 

“The editors and directors love the characters and treat them with a lot of tenderness, even when the main character is mad.”

2021 Alliance Française French Film Festival, Palace Electric Cinema, March 4-31, bookings and program at affrenchfilmfestival.org/canberra

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