The French Film Festival has reached its 25th year. It’s a big, round number for a festival anniversary — perhaps a watermark signifying that a dream is attaining institutional permanency.
And given the political unease informing domestic and global culture, 2017 might be an ideal year for Richmond to be celebrating a milestone for the largest French film festival in America, running March 27 to April 2.
“Cinema breaks down, tears down walls, and keeps them from being built in the first place,” says the festival’s co-founder, Peter S. Kirkpatrick, a professor of French culture and film studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“The American experience is about that very freedom,” he says, “and what better way to celebrate that freedom than with the first film industry in the world.”
As always, the festival’s schedule suggests a flower that’s poised to open, revealing interconnected petals, with workshops and discussions setting the tone for the films to follow.
A series of all-day, free symposiums run March 27-29 at the University of Richmond’s Queally Hall. Dozens of French and American artists will hold interactive court on topics concerning modern cinema.
Monday’s overarching theme is viewer authorship and sovereignty, which includes a class led by filmmaker Gérard Krawczyk, in which participants are invited to submit their ideas for films by posting them on his Facebook page.
Tuesday’s classes revolve around the possibilities of new visual and cinematic experiences. Workshops will be occupied with analogue and digital technologies, virtual reality and cinema, and on-set pre-visualization or “previz,” a fusion of computer animation and storyboarding that’s often used for planning intricate action sequences. Among the lecturers will be the celebrated cinematographers Pierre-William Glenn and Christian Guillon, the latter of whom served as a special effects producer on Claire Denis’s brilliant “Trouble Every Day.”
Henry Selick, the celebrated director of “Coraline” and “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” will discuss “ancient and future technologies” and how he’s brought stop-motion into the 21st century.
Tuesday afternoon also will see a presentation concerned with the forgotten Magic Lantern, an optical instrument that prefaced cinema as we know it. This workshop will be completed by a Magic Lantern show Saturday night at the Byrd Theatre.
On Wednesday, the symposium’s focus will be on music in films, including workshops with directors Bertrand Tavernier and Jacques Perrin — who also have documentaries screening at the festival. There will be discussions with composers Bruno Coulais and Stéphane Lerouge, citing particularly innovative intersections between French cinema and music.
Of course, the highlight of the French Film Festival will always be the films. A few:
• Tavernier’s 190-minute “Voyage à travers le cinéma français,” screening Thursday evening at 6 at the Byrd, should be catnip for cinephiles. A Cannes Film Festival selection, Tavernier’s documentary is about the iconic film directors Jacques Becker, Marcel Carné, and Jean Renoir, as well as music in French cinema in the 1930s. Tavernier’s own work is intensely atmospheric (check out his disturbing 1981 crime film, “Coup de Torchon”), so his new production promises to offer unusual context and insight into the careers of essential artists. Martin Scorsese called Tavernier’s new picture a “very precious work.”
• As producer, director or both, Perrin has three documentaries playing throughout the festival: “Himalaya,” “Winged Migration” and “Seasons.” As the titles indicate, these films have explicit environmental themes, and use astonishing photography to nurture audiences’ concern for various habitats and empathy for the creatures that inhabit them. It will be a treat to see these pictorial delights on the Byrd’s screen.
• I’m eager to see Stéphanie Gillard’s “The Ride,” in which she follows young members of the Lakota Sioux tribe as they make their annual 300-mile journey through the South Dakota Badlands, reflecting on the legacy and history of their culture, and by extension the history of America. Gillard also will be on hand at the symposium, and the screening of her film, showing at 8 p.m. March 29 at the Byrd, will be accompanied by a question and answer session with her as well as members of the cast and the Eleven Native American tribes of Virginia.
• Lightening the mood a bit, but just a bit, there’s a screening of Selick’s “Coraline”at 6:05 p.m. Friday. It’s a visionary horror-film parable pitched subversively to children. This screening is followed by “Rock’n’Roll … Of Corse!” at 8:30 p.m., which features young musician Henry Padovani in the 1970s as he co-forms the legendary band, The Police. The screening will segue into a concert with Padovani in the Byrd — included with the film ticket.
The French Film Festival offers an embarrassment of riches this year even by its own standards — and that’s not including other fiction films, documentaries, shorts and presentations.
You’re encouraged to check out the full schedule and follow your fascinations. For its quarter-century birthday, the festival is a reminder that each of us is part of an epic global community, and that feels essentially nourishing. S
The French Film Festival runs in various locations from March 27 to April 2. For a complete listing, visit frenchfilmfestival.us.