Three to see at LFF if you like... French films

Jonathan Romney recommends three hot tickets at the BFI London Film Festival: a film by an established director, a great debut and a wild card.

Jonathan Romney
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The new film from an established director…

Happy Birthday (Fête de famille)

What’s it about?

A family get together in the country to celebrate the birthday of matriarch Andréa (Catherine Deneuve). Son Vincent (played by writer-director Kahn himself) is keeping everything on an even keel, but his dysfunctional siblings – played by Vincent Macaigne and Emmanuelle Bercot – guarantee a less predictable outcome to the festivities.  

Who made it?

Cédric Kahn is one of the most adventurous and versatile of French mainstream directors. He made a considerable mark directing films with a distinct thriller element – notably Simenon adaptation Red Lights (2004) and real-life crime story Roberto Succo (2001) – but also scored strongly with psychodrama L’Ennui (1998), based on a Moravia novel, while recent work includes the LFF-included Wild Life (2014), about a man trying to live off the grid. 

What’s special about it?

Stories about complicated family relations are a staple in French cinema – especially if they take place in idyllic rural settings. Yes, but while Kahn’s film is very much in this tradition, making the most of its history, it nevertheless introduces its own mischievous twists. This ensemble comedy-drama features a superb cast: Deneuve’s excellence goes without saying, but there are also dazzling turns from filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot as prodigal daughter Claire, while Vincent Macaigne – an indispensable presence in current French cinema – plays an off-the-rails dork with his trademark panache. As the harassed older brother, director Kahn isn’t to be outdone, either.

See this if you like…

Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours (2008) or Non-Fiction (2018) (which also starred Macaigne); the work of Diane Kurys, Arnaud Desplechin and Bertrand Tavernier; not forgetting the great ensemble films of Jean Renoir.

The breakthrough…

Two of Us (Deux)

Two of Us (2019)

What’s it about?

The long-standing relationship between two women hits a crisis when one of them, Madeleine, has a stroke, and the other, Nina, has to confront the fact that no-one knows she’s not just Madeleine’s neighbour but her lover. Facing up to the challenges of secrecy and prejudice, Nina fights for the survival of the love that’s central to her life.

Who made it?

Padova-born writer-director Filippo Meneghetti graduated in anthropology and film directing and makes a powerful, confident feature debut here, after racking up a series of shorts both in Italy and France (La Bête (2018), Undici, Intruso (both 2012)) as well as Maistrac, a 2009 documentary about construction workers in the Veneto region.

What’s special about it?

Essentially a chamber piece, this is an insightful, deeply moving piece of psychological realism about the long-standing love between two older women and about the pressures they face because of one woman’s decision to keep her relationship, and her true sexual and emotional identity, secret from her family. Superbly crafted as narrative, and distinctively shot by Aurélien Marra, it features terrific performances from Martine Chevallier, and from someone whose presence will delight followers of German cinema: Barbara Sukowa, making the most of arguably her juiciest lead role outside her work with Margarethe von Trotta and R.W. Fassbinder.

See this if you like…

The films of Catherine Corsini (An Impossible Love (2018), Summertime (2015)); Marcelo Martinessi’s Paraguayan drama The Heiresses (2018).

The wild card…

The Girl with a Bracelet (La Fille au bracelet)

What’s it about?

A family and its certainties are thrown into disarray after 17-year-old Lise (Melissa Guers) is suspected of the fatal stabbing of her best friend. Suspicion, complex twists and the inexorable course of courtroom proceedings place Lise’s deepest secrets – and contemporary sexual and social mores – under a merciless spotlight.

Who made it?

This is the third feature from Stéphane Demoustier, who has some considerable form as a producer – notably of Guillaume Brac’s acclaimed 2011 mini-feature A World without Women. His own previous features are 2014’s 40-Love, with Olivier Gourmet and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, and last year’s Cléo & Paul, about two small children lost in Paris.

What’s special about it?

Demoustier reworks Gonzalo Tobal’s recent acclaimed Argentinian film The Accused (2018) and makes it distinctively French, and very much his own. A judicial drama in the tradition of Simenon and Henri-Georges Clouzot, it also has echoes of Camus’s The Outsider in that it’s not just a crime that’s being tried, but a whole attitude to the world. A fine cast includes Roschdy Zem and Chiara Mastroianni as Lise’s parents; the director’s sister Anaïs Demoustier (François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend (2014), and a Robert Guédiguian regular) as an implacable prosecutor; and Guers making a powerful impression as the young woman in the dock.

See this if you like…

The criminal dramas of Claude Chabrol (Violette Nozière (1978), La Cérémonie (1995), et al); Eva Husson’s Bang Gang (2015), a recent French drama on contemporary teenage mores; and, of course, The Accused itself.

The BFI London Film Festival Festival runs 2-13 October. Find out how to book tickets.

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