Virginia Is for French Film Lovers

[3 May 2010]

By Renée Scolaro Mora

Editor’s note: A plot spoiler is included in the discussion of Soeur Sourire.

If you were asked which city annually hosts the largest French film festival in the U.S., it’s unlikely you’d answer Richmond, Virginia. Yet, for the past 18 years, it has done just that with incredible success.

Held in the 1,400-seat Byrd Theater and sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond, the Festival regularly screens films that do not yet have American distributors. The trendy Carytown neighborhood embraces the Festival, flying French tricolor banners from every lamppost, while its restaurants and shops cater to attendees with French-themed offerings (chocolate and lavender cupcake, anyone?).

The 18th Annual French Film Festival, running from 25-28 March, included presentations by 40 visiting French filmmakers and films on a range of subjects—about human and family relationships, immigration, gold mining, and the global economic crisis. It is, says Festival director Claude Miller, not designed for academics or cinèphiles, but rather, reaches out to “the curiosity of an unspecialized audience.”

It opened with a three-part Master’s Class on “3D Technology in Filmmaking,” facilitated by director Gérard Krawczyk and the President of the Commission Supérieure Technique (CST), Pierre-William Glenn. This session featured shorts from La Fémis film school in Paris and included a demonstration of the newest active 3D glasses, here used for the first time in the U.S.

Portrait de groupe avec enfants et motocyclettes

Portrait de groupe avec enfants et motocyclettes

Pierre-William Glenn presented one of his own films, Portrait de Groupe avec Enfants et Motocyclettes (Group Portrait with Kids and Motorcycles). Shot over a year, the documentary follows several families as their children participate in a motorcycle training school. These classes are no small investment, costing as much as €3,000 annually. But the risk is more than financial. Amazingly, the school starts children as young as five years old on mini-bikes, and they work their way up to serious speed: by 13 or 14, some kids will be racing in front of thousands of spectators at speeds of 200 kmh.

Not surprisingly, almost all the fathers rode motorcycles at one time (and some still do). While the film doesn’t suggest that these dads are living vicariously through their children, does say, “It’s a dream for a father and son.” Also unsurprising are the mothers who worry. They are supportive, even if they do flinch or outright turn away at moments. But, as one contestant’s mother puts it, “There’s no question of my own fear overriding her enjoyment.”

Segments focusing on Lucine Sanchez and Amèlie Demoulin reveal that, while girls are welcomed at the school, it remains a boys’ world. When asked if there has ever been a female motorcycling champion, the school’s director, Pierre Guyonnet laughs. “Women are lacking a sort of aggression. Lucine, for example, is technically perfect. But something is missing. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.” Amélie’s mother says her daughter is “not aggressive,” but sees this as a positive reflection of her character rather than a detriment costing her races: “She respects other people.” Lucine and Amélie offered the best insights on this issue during a Q&A after the screening. Now 13 and 16 years old (they were only 11 and 14 during filming), they are still racing. Lucine observed, “Girls are more concerned with technique. Boys only care about going fast.” Amélie was more specific: “We are more supple in our movements; we come out of turns cleaner. We are more focused.”

The biopic Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile) also takes up a girl’s story. In 1950s Brussels, Jeannine defies her family’s expectations to follow her own ambitions. Dropping out of art school and reacting to sexual pressures from her boyfriend and his best friend, Annie (Sandrine Blancke), she decides her calling is to missions work in Africa, where she hopes to influence young people. To that end, Jeannine runs away to join a Dominican convent.

As Sister Luc-Gabrièl, she remains conflicted. “I want to be free but also locked up,” she cries. Jeannine finds her niche when she sings her song “Dominique” (about the order’s patron saint) to a group of young girls visiting the convent, whereupon the church leadership sees she might be used to attract more young people to the faith. She records her song under the name “Soeur Sourire” to preserve her anonymity and quickly becomes an international sensation, performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and, in some countries, selling more records than Elvis Presley.

Soeur Sourire

Soeur Sourire

A struggle over rights to song’s proceeds begins when Jeannine leaves the church after all —and, incidentally, admits her feelings for Annie—Jeannine the regular girl in not as fascinating as a chart-topping nun. Her downward spiral quickly becomes Behind the Music material. While the villains are numerous and broadly drawn (parents, church representatives, music executives), Jeannine’s own artlessness seems her worst enemy. When she eventually finds moderate success, the film depicts her destroying it all with one astonishingly poor song choice when she performs “The Golden Pill,” a song she wrote advocating birth control. Her Catholic fans abandon her, which she somehow finds astonishing, and her singing career effectively ends, even as she and Annie try to forge a life together. This proves impossible, and the film closes with Jeannine and Annie putting their affairs in order and committing suicide together.
In the Q&A session after the film, Coninx said he thinks Jeannine killed herself “because of the love story, not only money. But history focuses on the money.” But this idea is completely lost in the film, which portrays the couple as finally happy, despite their obvious financial crisis (unemployed, no furniture or electricity, foreclosure notices, and a staggering heap of unpaid bills). As they label their personal effects for their survivors, there is nothing that indicates “the love story” is driving them to suicide.

This is not the first film to portray Sister Smile, the most famous version being 1966’s The Singing Nun starring Debbie Reynolds, which Deckers rejected as fiction. Coninx admits to some fictions in Soeur Sourire, most notably in the character of Françoise (Marie Kremer), an orphaned cousin whom Jeannine leaves behind when she runs off to the convent, after promising her they would always be together. The film closes with Francoise in Africa, fulfilling Jeannine’s and her childhood dreams. Coninx admits the cousin didn’t exist, but says that storyline amplified “the personal crisis, which is more relevant than strict fact to a director.”

Sans Rancune!

Sans Rancune!

Sans Rancune! (No Hard Feelings!), also set in 1950s Belgium, is much lighter fare. Laurent (Milan Mauger) has a habit of running away from boarding schools, apparently trying to sort out the loss of his father, a pilot who disappeared in an air raid in 1940. Things change for Laurent when he arrives at a school where the professors and students begin the year by exchanging apologies for future offenses: “No hard feelings,” they say as they introduce themselves. Not a very auspicious beginning. Laurent is soon taken under the wing of an unconventional literature professor nicknamed Vapeur (Thierry Lhermite), whom he comes to suspect is his father. Whether or not Vapeur is Laurent’s biological father, the professor acts as one, helping the boy navigate his way to maturity and purpose, mentoring him as a writer.

The most timely film of the Festival was En Terre Étrangère (On a Foreign Land). Directed by Christian Zerbib, the documentary looks at African immigrants in France sans papiers. The film begins in 2006, when a group of over 500 illegal immigrants, mostly African, were rounded up under the order of then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Two hundred ended up in a makeshift refugee camp in a school gymnasium at Cachan, outside of Paris, an incident that mobilized activists on both sides of the immigration debate.

En Terre

En Terre Étrangèr

En Terre Ètrangér interviews immigrants from countries including Mali, Senegal, and Cameroon, and one of these, Sedyou Togola from Mali, presented the film with Zerbib. The film follows Togola as he returns to Mali to visit his family, which he was unable to do when he was undocumented. It is a touching reunion, with Togola sitting next to his aging father and saying, “No son leaves his father for pleasure.”

His extended family—some 20 people—lives on the equivalent of €36 a month. Poverty drives African immigrants to France. One man in Senegal says he tried to make the crossing, but the person arranging it was arrested after he had collected the money from everyone. “I have nothing to give my wife and children for breakfast this morning,” he laments. He takes his point further, by arguing that for whites, the African’s poverty is acceptable: “Soon my son will be old enough that it will be wrong for him to sleep in the same room with me and my wife. It is dirty. You whites don’t live like that, but you are think it is fine if we do.”

While the film notes that European aid monies are poorly used (not supporting the development of infrastructure), it also considers what happens when immigrants do arrive in France. Fouad Boukenal eventually does receive temporary papers, but this after being in the country seven years illegally. He details the fear and anxiety that he faced daily, always wondering, “Will I find work today? Will I be sent back today?” That he is so obviously relieved and happy is bittersweet, given that he only received a one-year visa. Still, it will be a year free of the stress of being without papers.

The ongoing crisis has made world headlines occasionally, as with Sarkozy’s failed “Operation National Identity” and a proposed ban on burqas, or even neighboring Switzerland’s ban on minarets. As debates heat up over what it means to be French, Swiss, or American, for that matter, Togola’s dream of “no borders, no limits, no identity cards” seems foreign indeed.

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