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French film festival City of Lights, City of Angels kicks off Monday

April 13, 2012 |  7:00 am

My way jeremie renier
France’s film industry is still riding high after the success of “The Artist,” the first French production to win the best picture Oscar. (It also won director for Michel Hazanavicius and lead actor for Jean Dujardin.) The afterglow is being felt by organizers of the 16th annual City of Lights, City of Angels film festival, which opens Monday at the Directors Guild of America Theater for a week of French features and shorts.

“There are more agents contacting us,” said François Truffart, director and programmer for COL-COA. “They may want to discover the next Jean Dujardin or the next Michel Hazanavicius. The interest among professionals is bigger than before.”

There are 34 narrative and documentary features and 21 shorts in the festival, which continues at the DGA through April 23. Some 40% of the films in the program already have U.S. distributors, said Truffart. Exposure at the festival doesn’t necessarily mean a film will get a distributor, said Truffart, but “I would say in the last two years more films have been acquired by distributors.”

The festival will open with “My Way,” a musical biography of French singer Claude François, who wrote “Comme d’Habitude,” which Frank Sinatra made famous in America as “My Way.” Star Jérémie Renier and director Florent-Emilio Siri (“The Nest,” “Intimate Enemies”) will appear at the screening, its North American premiere.

François sold some 67 million records during his career and was about to embark for the U.S. when he accidentally electrocuted himself in 1978 at age 39. Like Michael Jackson, François never seemed to be satisfied with his appearance and took to plastic surgery.

“He tried to be very feminine with long hair and using makeup for his eyes,” said Siri, 47. “There are a lot of legends around Claude François and his sexuality because he started to become very feminine.”

“My Way” has not yet sold to a U.S. distributor, said Siri. Taking a cue from “The Artist,” he joked that he would be willing to “screen the movie without sound” if it could land him distribution in this country.

Being part of the festival is important for French filmmakers, “especially when you are looking for a U.S. distribution,” said Siri, whose previous films “A Minute of Silence” and “Intimate Enemies” played at COL-COA in 2008. (He also directed the 2005 Bruce Willis film “Hostage.”)

COL-COA will show two films from another festival veteran, Rémi Bezançon — the romantic comedy “A Happy Event” and his first animated film, “Zarafa,” inspired by the story of the first giraffe in France.

Bezançon, 41, said he believes there has been a renaissance of French film the last two years. “The years 2011-2012 have been really pivotal for us,” he said. “We really feel a complete change of generations. The classic famous French film directors started to leave room for the younger generation.”

Though American films dominate the international movie market, Bezançon said, “We have the feeling that all the great directors in America have become series directors [on TV] like on ‘Mad Men.’ On the other hand, the Hollywood cinema now seems to be all sequels and superhero films.”

A happy even col coa“A Happy Event,” based on a novel by Éliette Abécassis, is an unvarnished look at the difficulties of motherhood. Bezançon said he was drawn to the story because “it was very rare and honest without any taboo.... The actual birth of the child doesn’t compare to her idea of motherhood because she had this ideal vision that society puts out. Of course the reality has any more levels and layers to it.”

Bezançon (“The First Day of the Rest of Your Life”) said he wouldn’t have done the film if he had children. “I thought I would have tainted this film with my personal reality; that is the reason why I wanted to work with actors that did not have a child so they could not bring their personal experience to it.”

Bezançon felt he returned to his own childhood making “Zarafa,” which follows the adventures of Maki, a young Sudanese boy in the early 19th century who escapes from a slave trader, and a baby giraffe he befriends.

As with several recent Oscar-nominated French animated movies (such as “The Illusionist” and “A Cat in Paris”), the film is done in traditional 2-D animation form, “like the old Disney movies,” Bezançon said. “It was like going back to my childhood.”

For more information, visit colcoa.org

-- Susan King

Photos: (top) Jeremie Renier in "My Way." Credit: Anouchka de Williencourt/StudioCanal; (bottom) A scene from "A Happy Event."  Credit: Nicolas Schul.

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