All in the timing: French film festival gets Bastille Day relaunch

The Alliance Française Film Festival was originally scheduled to officially open on March 18, which happened to be the same day all non-essential gatherings were banned as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jul 13, 2020, updated Jul 13, 2020
Swann Arlaud and Maud Wyler in a scene from Erwan Le Duc's film The Bare Necessity, which is screening at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.

Swann Arlaud and Maud Wyler in a scene from Erwan Le Duc's film The Bare Necessity, which is screening at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.

But in a case of equally fortuitous timing, organisers have announced the festival will be relaunching tomorrow – which happens to be Bastille Day.

“Yeah, that’s symbolic, huh,” Luc Didon, director of Brisbane’s Alliance Française French language school said. “It was a great opportunity; the dates were matching so we couldn’t not take this opportunity to celebrate the French national day with French cinema.”

Alliance Française is presenting the festival in conjunction with Palace Cinemas, with 28 films screening at Palace’s Barracks and James Street cinemas in Brisbane between tomorrow and August 4.

“We’ve made a lot of efforts to not let all the work that was done by our artistic director, by all the filmmakers and by all our teams to organise it before the crisis,” Didon told InQueensland.

Didon said the festival, which is celebrating its 31st season this year and also hosting screenings in Byron Bay, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Canberra, has grown from inauspicious beginnings to become one of the world’s biggest annual celebrations of French cinema.

“We are the organisers for Queensland and Byron Bay for this festival and we’ve been the organisers for 30 years now.

“When we started, it was a very small festival, now it’s grown up and it’s the biggest French Film Festival outside of France.”

Didon said the festival’s artistic director Philippe Platel, “who also happens to be the cultural attache of the French Embassy” had curated an impressive line-up of 28 films to be screened this year, almost all of which will be Australian premieres.

“This year we were planning to have 45 films but we lost about 10 films during the crisis, when we had to stop the festival. We had to eliminate some of the things that are already either on [streaming video on demand services] or on the distributors network already in other cinema, so we restarted with 28 films.”

With the majority of mainstream cinema programming comprised heavily of classics and cult favourites due to the dearth of new releases this year, the French Film Festival also gives audiences a much-needed opportunity to watch films that have never screened in Australia.

“There’s no point having films in our festival if they if they were already on the [streaming] platforms, or the cinema network,” Didon said. “This festival is the showcase of French cinema in Australia I want to keep it like that, so that’s why we have 28 films.

“We are very happy that we are really starting the opening of all cinemas with this festival, we are the first festival that will take place after the COVID.”

Didon said having to cancel the opening night of the festival when Prime Minister Scott Morrison first announced the introduction of social restrictions in March “was a big trauma for us, and a big frustration”.

“It was cancelled as s soon as we started it – in fact we had not started it, we had only done a charity screening, which was on the ninth of March.”

The film shown at that charity screening, How to Be a Good Wife, starring Oscar-winning French actor Juliette Binoche, was due to feature on the opening night of the festival, and as Didon told InQueensland, “the film was a world premiere, which we were very proud of”.

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“It had not even been released in France – or in any other country – and we had it for our charity screening for the bushfire relief, then we had to cancel the festival, which means it was seen only by the people who came for that charity screening … but we have it now.”

Didon said Palace Cinemas had implemented a COVID-safe plan ahead of reopening earlier this month that strictly adhered to hygiene and social-distancing requirements.

“They have reduced their capacity to one-third of what it should be, so distancing will be will be respected in the cinemas. Our patrons must feel comfortable and secure, so it’s very important that we follow all that.”

He acknowledged many people may have presuppositions about what French cinema was but was confident many of the films being showcased this year would dispel their preconceived notions.

“There is a lot of diversity in French cinema,” he said. “So, we have action films, we have rom coms, we have adventure cinema and this year we have a lot of films addressing social issues like migration and communities and sexual orientation, so [French cinema] can also be serious, it’s not only romance.”

He singled out director Erwan de Luc’s The Bare Necessities, which he described as a “very, very quirky film”, as a particular highlight of this year’s festival.

“You spend two hours in a strange world and you emerge after these two hours as a different person,” he said of the comedic drama, which has earned favourable comparisons to Wes Anderson’s oeuvre in overseas reviews.

Despite audiences being spoilt for choice due to the rise of video on demand rentals and streaming services such as Netflix, Stan, Disney Plus and Amazon, Didon said the shared humanity audiences could experience at a cinema was something that couldn’t be replicated in a lounge room.

“The joint emotion of laughing at the same time, crying at the same time, being surprised at the same moment – that’s unique and you can feel it only in a cinema or in a theatre or a concert hall.

“Being with your family is great, of course, but being with a big hall with other people and sharing that emotion, that artistic emotion, is great. I’m really looking forward to going to cinemas, theatres, concerts again … we may have to wait a little bit more but we have been missing that.”

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