Life’s grey areas focus of French film festival

Vincent Cassel in La Haine, the film that made his name and which is as provocative today as it was in 1995.

The Cork French Film Festival has established itself as one of the city’s most successful niche cultural events.

This year’s programme, on the theme of ‘noir et blanc’ (black and white), ran from Mar 3 — 10 at the Gate Cinema, the English Market, Ballymaloe Grainstore, the River Lee Hotel, St Fin Barre’s Cathedral and CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery.

The festival opened with Marcel Carne’s newly restored 1938 film, Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows), which stars Jean Gabin as an army deserter who hitches a ride to Le Havre.

Gabin’s character hopes to escape on a boat to Venezuela, but is detained by a rendezvous with a teenage girl, Nelly, and becomes embroiled in a feud between her guardian and the city’s lowlifes. The black-and-white film, with its fog and shadows, its intrigue, dark humour and violence, is noir, and remains one of the finest films penned by the poet, Jacques Prevert.

The French underworld provided the backdrop to a slew of other films in the programme.

Can there be honour among thieves? That was the question posed in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos, which featured criminals Faugel and Silien slugging it out in a world of double-crossing.

Jules Dassin might never have made his 1955 feature, Rififi, had he not been blacklisted in the McCarthy-era United States, where he had made such noir classics as The Naked City and Brute Force. As it happens, Rififi became Dassin’s masterpiece. The tale of a dying master-thief who plans one final heist still retains its hard-boiled charm.

There was also more contemporary fare in the programme.

The screening of the charming, multi-award-winning The Artist highlighted how great a debt its creators owed to the veteran director, Pierre Etaix, the guest artist at last year’s festival. Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, with its themes of racial tension and social disaffection, was just as provocative now as when it first propelled its young star, Vincent Cassel, to fame in 1995.

There were three cine-concerts in the programme: Scenes de Feerie, Fantomas and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Carl Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, starring Renee Falconetti as the French martyr, was an obvious highlight. Irene Buckley’s new score for the film premiered at last year’s festival, where it was performed at Triskel Christchurch. This year, it was performed — by Buckley, accompanied by organist James McVinnie and soprano Molly Lynch — at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral.

The setting was, if anything, more atmospheric again, with Dreyer’s dramatic images perfectly complemented by Buckley’s inventive and often daring composition.

The festival closed with Luc Besson’s first feature film, the post-apocalyptic Le Dernier Combat (1983). Besson, best-known for such films as Nikita, Leon and The Fifth Element, was very much in experimental mode when he directed Le Dernier Combat at the age of 24. There are shades of Mad Max in his account of a young man seeking food, shelter and companionship in a world where law and order have broken down, and communication is reduced to gestures and barbaric grunts.

Two exhibitions associated with the festival run throughout this month. ‘La Jetee’, a tribute to the photographer and filmmaker, Chris Marker, is at CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery until Mar 30. Julia Fabry’s ‘Engraving Cork’ is at Alliance Francaise de Cork until Apr 5.

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