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Sophie Marceau in Anthony Zimmer.Sophie Marceau in Anthony Zimmer.
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By Sacha Molitorisz
March 10, 2006
 
Monica Bellucci, Sophie Marceau, Gerard Depardieu ... the French
Film Festival has more big guns than Napoleon.

Globalisation is diluting the world's cultural differences. Hollywood, often cast as the big bad bully, retains a worryingly pervasive influence, so is French cinema still vital and unique?

Absolument, says French writer-director Anne Fontaine, whose pensive drama Entre Ses Mains (In His Hands) is in this year's French Film Festival.
"Something that is special maybe is the way we take care of human beings and examine the psychology of characters. It's not like the American cinema where it's always very simple, where there is only one colour or two. In France we're more able to show more complexity or ambiguity. It's more a cinema that can be ambiguous.
"Also, what makes French cinema different is that there are so many French directors who are women. And, of course, these directors have a way to tell the story, and to treat relationships."
This is the second Fontaine film to be included in the festival. Two years ago, her thriller Nathalie, starring Emmanuelle Beart as a Parisian escort, opened it. As far as stereotypes of French films go, Nathalie ticked several boxes: it was sexy, enigmatic, character-driven and co-starred Gerard Depardieu.
Entre Ses Mains is a different beast altogether. There's no Depardieu.
Further, it's set not in Paris or Provence, but in Lille, an industrial northern town that rarely features in French movies. But, yes, it too thrives on ambiguities and subtleties.
Entre Ses Mains is the contemplative story of Laurent, a troubled vet, and Claire, a repressed insurance agent. With a serial killer stalking Lille, Claire becomes strangely attracted to this brooding oddball, despite the hurt any liaison might cause her husband and daughter. The resulting drama is slow, unconventional, surprising and satisfying - a long way from Hollywood.
Chantal Girondin, the artistic director of the French Film Festival for the past four years, is obviously a Fontaine fan.
"She's talented, and every time she does something different," Girondin says. "She's got a way of seeing people, even in Nathalie, that's very personal."
Since its inception in 1989, the festival has blossomed from a Sydney event into a hit that last year sold 45,000 tickets nationally. In Sydney, admissions rose from 14,000 in 2003 to 19,400 in 2005.
The line-up for the 2006 festival is typically impressive. The headline act is Anthony Zimmer, a saucy thriller with Sophie Marceau that opened the festival two days ago and will have encore screenings tonight and next weekend.
The program includes: the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant (The Child), winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year; L'Enfer (Hell), starring Emmanuelle Beart and directed by Oscar-winner Danis Tanovic (No Man's Land); Lemming, starring Charlotte Rampling and Charlotte Gainsbourg; Francois Ozon's drama about mortality, Le Temps Qui Reste (Time to Leave); and the sexy coming-of-age drama Douches Froides (Cold Showers). There is also a session of French shorts.
Depardieu appears, too, in two features: opposite Monica Bellucci in Bertrand Blier's comedy Combien Tu M'Aimes? (How Much Do You Love Me?) and in Je Prefere Qu'on Reste Amis (Just Friends), a touching comedy about an unlikely pair of Parisian pals who tackle the dating scene. In all, it's an eclectic line-up ranging from mainstream to arthouse, conventional to surreal.
"This year in French cinema I was quite impressed by the number of newcomers," Girondin says.
One of her favourites is writer-director Diane Bertrand's L'Annulaire (The Ring Finger). Based on a Japanese novel and set on the industrial waterfront of Hamburg (again, not Paris or Provence), it's the story of the beautiful young Iris (Ukrainian newcomer Olga Kurylenko). After an accident in a factory, she takes a job with a taciturn scientist (Marc Barbe) who, in a crumbling mansion, preserves customers' belongings into "specimens".
With haunting music from Portishead's Beth Gibbons heightening the sexual tension, it's beautiful, slow and odd, an allegorical drama that's likely to polarise audiences.
Fontaine discovered the lead actress.
"I did some tests with her for Nathalie and I introduced her to the director, Diane Bertrand. She's really beautiful, like a Ukrainian Brigitte Bardot."
Girondin says that in 2006, French cinema remains notable for its subtlety, depth and well-drawn characters. And its successes are largely because France values its film industry so highly.
"In France we make 200 films a year," she says. "We have a system of taxation on cinema tickets that started after the Second World War, in which about 10 per cent of the ticket admission price is reinvested into production.
Even Hollywood films.
"In Australia, there is no such system, unfortunately. In France, cinema is considered an art - 'le septieme art'."
Unfortunately, says Fontaine, filmmaking in France is getting tougher. As the level of government protection and assistance is being reduced, established directors are struggling to get their projects off the ground.
"I think it's more difficult to make films now than five years ago," Fontaine says. "But when I see all the movies we do each year I still think we have really strong production here, and very sophisticated movies.
I think we are not doing so bad."

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