For sixteen years now, CineFranco has brought Toronto area cinephiles and Francophiles together for a celebration of the finest French language films from Europe, Canada, and around the world that might never have been seen under regular circumstances. After a brief trip downtown last year, the festival returns to The Royal on College Street making for a more intimate and community based affair this time out. With almost 30 features screening from Friday, April 5th through Sunday the 14th, Dork Shelf divides it’s coverage of this year’s festival into two parts. Check out our coverage of the back half of the festival early next week, but here are six films we were able to look at from the first few days.
For a full list of films and information, please head over to the CineFranco website. All films subtitled in English.
Esimésac (Opening night film)
In his pseudo-sequel to his 2008 fantasy fairy tale Babine, director, and actor Luc Picard returns to the same quiet hamlet of Saint-Élie-de-Caxton in rural Quebec to tell a fable about a young boy trapped in the body of a man and his struggles to stay grounded and unburdened by ego amid the backdrop of the early 20th century railroad boom.
Our titular lad (Nicola-Frank Vachon) is actually only two years old, but looks like and speaks with the wisdom of a twenty-something year old man. He’s so selfless and strong that he doesn’t even have a shadow that can loom large over others. His family is dirt poor and the town rests almost entirely on a gravel pit where nothing can grow. His efforts to change the land put him in direct conflict with the town’s other strongman, a blacksmith whose shadow looks large and ominous who believes that helping to build a railroad to bring in tourists and travellers will be the key to the town’s survival rather than a more self reliant approach.
Picard (who also plays the same town drunk here that he played in Babine, but with a smaller presence) does a great job of telling an old-school dust bowl fairy tale. It’s fairly predictable stuff that builds to an unapologetically corny conclusion, but there’s never any aim here outside of being an obvious allegory and classically told storybook yarn. It’s just fine for what it is.
Screens: Friday, April 5th, 7:00pm
Small Blind (La mise à l’aveugle)
Denise (Micheline Bernard) has been forced into retirement from her job as CFO of a major Montreal corporation and has moved into her decidedly lower class former childhood stomping grounds to get as far away from her self-centred ex-husband as possible. She can’t let go of her job and her feelings towards it because her son now runs the company and has been giving her the cold shoulder and refusing to tell her what’s wrong. The only solace and distraction that she finds comes in the form of the drunkard gambler across the hall (Louis Sincennes) who introduces her to the world of high stakes poker.
Director Simon Galiero has made a film that’s both too compact for its own good and suffering from a wealth of character. Instead of making Denise a constant focal point – because she is interesting enough on her own right and Bernard is doing a wonderful job playing her as a bundle of neuroses and repressed feelings – Galiero unnecessarily layers a love triangle involving Sincennes and a third poker player (Mark Fournier) vying for the affections of a younger woman (Christine Beaulieu). It feels like something from a different film entirely, and since this is an 80 minute lark and not an epic ensemble piece it seems a bit scattershot. It might be worth a passing look for hardcore poker lovers or for Bernard’s performance, but it can’t bluff its way around its problems. An ending that curiously hedges its bets also feels like the work of a script that’s just sadly exhausted any and all ideas it had.
Screens: Saturday, April 6th, 8:50pm
Mains Armees (Armed Hands)
A riveting crime saga with a familial twist that Martin Scorsese would truly appreciate, Mains Armees concerns a veteran federal officer from the outskirts of Marseilles trying to track down a cache of assault rifles stolen from a Serbian NATO raid. The trail leads to a group of drug runners in Paris that’s being investigated by a semi-corrupt group of NARCs. The team includes the estranged daughter he essentially abandoned as a child and hasn’t spoken to in ages. She’s the only person in the department he can remotely trust, but when his case seems all but wrapped up, her half gets more dangerous the deeper she looks into the details.
Benefiting from two exemplary leading performances from Roschdy Zem and Leila Bekhti and an excellently paced and plotted script, director Pierre Jolivet does a masterful job in creating two characters at vastly different points in their lives both personally and professionally. While her father seems to have just gotten his life together to a point where he can care about others more than he does himself, his daughter is becoming more disillusioned than ever. He has become as straight of an arrow as he can be, but the person he should have been watching out for and protecting looks to be backsliding. Bekhti is great at being unsurprised that everyone around her is particularly suspicious, and it’s interesting to note how her unit is far more brutal in their tactics than her father’s decidedly more important job. It’s a smart, perceptive, and gritty thriller that’s probably the best film of the festival.
Screens: Sunday, April 7th, 1:00pm
Normally a thriller writer, Philippe Carrese very unwisely goes outside his comfort zone with this dreadful post-Tarantino knock off that mistakes snappy dialogue for character development and gimmicks for plotting.
Marc is an insurance broker who wants to have his wife whacked by a hitman because she’s screwing her piano teacher. He doesn’t have the money to hire one, so he moonlights for a crime boss as an accomplice and driver to a professional that begins to teach the older gentleman the ropes of living a criminal lifestyle.
Aside from Marc being a loathsome person and a complete dumbass that no one would ever want to see succeed despite him getting cheated on, Carrese makes the film around him so leaden and obvious that any and all dark humour gets sucked right out of the material. A latent sexist and homophobic streak doesn’t make things any better since Carrese seems to have mistaken transgression for substance. About half of the film is comprised of grating banter between the two leads that constantly goes in circles, never advancing the story more than an inch at a time. It’s almost from a mid-90s time capsule and that’s not a compliment. The plot ludicrously and very illogically is supposed to take place only over the course of two hours (as title cards keep reminding us) which make the story feel as lazy as the supposedly “realistic” dialogue. And just when it seems like things can’t get any worse, there comes the truly reprehensible ending that feels like someone laughing in your face at a joke that was never funny to begin with. This film is a mess.
Screens: Sunday, April 7th, 3:30pm
What the Day Owes the Night (Ce que le jour doit a la nuit)
This epic lengthened period melodrama produced in part for French television aims for being as overwrought and clichéd and possible almost from the second it starts, but at least it keeps the tone consistent.
Given up for adoption by his poor Algerian father, young Arab Younes (renamed to the more white-bread and acceptable moniker Jonas) lives with his more well off pharmacist uncle and his white French wife in 1939. Following some accusations made against his uncle, they move to an even wealthier and predominantly Spanish section of the country where they can hide, leading to Younes pining for both a beautiful young woman and her older, divorced mother throughout the 1950s.
Spanning decades somewhat unnecessarily, director Alexandre Arcady follows a linear timeline that’s easy to keep track of, but the narrative (based on Yasmina Khadra’s novel) can’t stay focused on any one topic for longer than ten minutes at a time. The period recreation feels faithful, and Fu’ad Ait Aattou does nicely at feeling constantly distanced from all his surroundings – never fitting in with any culture – but the emphasis on grandiose emotions runs afoul of the film’s coming of age story making it ring hollow and false at points.
Screens: Monday, April 8th, 6:30pm