Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 14, 2006

France on film

Stanford movie series digs into the lives of immigrants and other issues facing France today

by Rebecca Wallace

Think of the hardscrabble French suburbs that are diverse with communities of immigrants. If your only image of them was formed by recent TV news reports, you'll probably visualize rioting and cars set ablaze.

If you've seen the 2003 film "L'Esquive (Games of Love and Chance)," though, you'll picture teens becoming actors, working with elegant, classic French language as they rehearse an 18th-century Marivaux play.

The film, directed by the Tunisian-born Abdel Kechiche, does show lives that are gritty — but lives that are about more than the recent protests against France's social conditions for immigrants.

The ethnically diverse band of teens goes through hook-ups and splits, clashes and aspirations in a movie that can feel like a documentary, said Cécile Alduy, assistant professor in the department of French and Italian at Stanford University. It's a snapshot of France today, and that's why she's showing it as part of the "From Script to Screen" French film series on campus on April 18 and 19 and May 9 and 11.

When Alduy started the series three years ago, she had no desire to show favorite old chestnuts. She wanted edgier creations dealing with timely, complex issues in France, and to deepen filmgoers' experiences by bringing in directors, critics and actors for dialogue that can buzz like a high-level literature class.

"I wanted to add the collective dimension, where you get to hear other people's reactions — not just see the film and go home," she said.

The Abdel Kechiche segment of the film series is a prime example, Alduy said. Besides the May 9 screening of "L'Esquive," the series will also include a May 11 showing of Kechiche's 2000 film "La Faute ř Voltaire (Poetical Refugee)," about a Tunisian immigrant in Paris struggling to get documents to stay in the country.

After "L'Esquive," a discussion will be led by critic Jean-Michel Frodon, editor of the international film journal "Cahiers du Cinema," about racism, poverty and other obstacles faced by immigrants, and how they're reflected in celluloid.

Alduy didn't realize how timely this topic would be when she chose the films for this year's series; last fall's riots hadn't yet happened. But Frodon believes the social unrest was foreseen in the films of Kechiche and others, and he'll talk about that on May 9, she said.

"Now in France there is a shattering of the concept of 'community.' That's new to France," Alduy said.

Also on May 11, actress Elodie Bouchez, who appears in "La Faute ř Voltaire," will speak after the screening.

Alduy, who is from Paris, understandably sees many compatriots at the film series. But all discussions are held in English and all films subtitled, and many non-French-speakers attend, she said.

"Around here, people are extremely curious and eager to get more from the outside world," she said. Last year, some 400 people came to each screening, she said.

That included Kris Kargo, who drove from Berkeley with her Francophile husband to catch Nicolas Philibert's documentary "átre et Avoir (To Be and To Have)."

"Not only is it rare to be able to see his films, but very interesting to hear the back story of the people in the film, the filming conditions, what the film's subjects thought of the finished product, etc.," she said. "The question-and-answer session was great, informal, free-wheeling and very well attended."

The series' April 18-19 events will likely be notably well-attended. Noted director Claire Denis will be present on both evenings for a discussion after screenings of her work.

On the first night, the 2004 film "L'Intrus (The Intruder)," based on a book by philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, will be shown after a short film about the philosopher called "Vers Nancy." April 19 brings a screening of the 1999 film "Beau Travail (Good Work)," inspired by Herman Melville's "Billy Budd."

Denis, a 57-year-old Paris native, came to prominence with her first film, "Chocolat," in 1988. "Chocolat," about a white French girl living with her family in Cameroon, pays heed to everyday details: the shock of an outdoor shower in the dusty heat, the shudder of the generator that keeps the remote house's lights on.

The film's languorous flow is peppered with postcard shots of the land, which is characteristic of Denis, Alduy says: "She is very attentive to pace, the colors, the framing of each image."

In "L'Intrus," Denis travels to territory even more remote from most people's experiences: she follows a man who "both literally and figuratively" gets a new heart, Alduy said. He receives a heart transplant and, while he is adjusting to the existential condition of having someone else's heart, he is also forging a new relationship with his family.

It's based on Nancy's autobiographical tale of receiving a transplant. In fact, Alduy had hoped to have Nancy at the film series, but his health wouldn't allow it, she said. He'll be there in spirit, though; Denis and Nancy have known each other for years, and she'll talk about Nancy the man as well as her film.

The other Denis film, "Beau Travail," is an unflinching look at French Foreign Legion troops training in the Gulf of Djibouti. The interplay among the men is intensified by jealousy and rivalry, giving the movie the sense of a Greek myth, Alduy said.

All through the film, the men are put through strenuous training exercises in the baking sun. Denis finds beauty even there, Alduy said: "She films them as though it's a dance."

What: "From Script to Screen," the third annual French film series at Stanford University, presented by the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages

Where: Cubberley Auditorium in the School of Education

When: Films begin at 6 p.m. on April 18 and 19 and May 9 and 11, followed by discussions in English.

Cost: Free

Info: Email mpulloa@stanford.edu or go to dlcl.stanford.edu.

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