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This year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Alliance Française Film Festival— a great opportunity to take a break from Hollywood films and see what foreign cinema has to offer. I’ve tried to watch an eclectic mix of films, but there’s echelons more on offer than what I’ve covered, so I highly encourage you to visit the festival’s website to see what appeals to you. These films are only in theatres until April 10, so be sure to check some out while you can!

 

High Life

 

High Life is the first English-language film from one of France’s most prominent directors—Claire Denis. We follow the Monte (Robert Pattinson) and fellow crew members on a radioactive spaceship heading towards a black hole to try mine its rotation energy, and hopefully be able to use it as a resource. On board is also the seductive Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a medical officer with her own agenda—sampling the male voyagers’ semen in order to impregnate embryos and find out if a child can be born in the confines of a radioactive space.

Information is doled out in a non-linear manner which comes off as confusing until you can eventually put all of the elements together in your head. Denis doesn’t disguise the fact this mission will be filled with torment, failure and misery. The crew’s suffering—just like the whole film—is bleak and oppressive. Denis doesn’t care about the limited attention span of modern audiences, delivering a meditative experience containing a myriad of compelling ideas and gorgeous imagery. I’m not sure how (or if) those ideas fully come together on first viewing, and I’m certain it’s a film which will require discussion and discourse to shed a light certain thematic beats and symbolic elements. Is that a bad thing? Not at all.

The film is laced with beautifully retro production and costume design which feels like it’s straight out of a ‘70s sci-fi film. It’s far more mellow and psychological in the vein of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris then it is something akin to the earth-shattering bombast and gigantic scope of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar. It’s filled with hypnotic imagery and a bleak atmosphere, thanks to Denis’ direction and Yorick Le Saux’s note-perfect cinematography.

Robert Pattinson delivers a fantastically tender and insular performance and Mia Goth continues to be a highlight in everything she’s in. Juliette Binoche is the scene-stealer as Dr. Dibs and gets one scene in particular where she gets to display all of her physicality as an actress. You’ll know if you see it!

If you want a conventional piece of sci-fi, this is not it. If you like bold ideas, entrancing visuals and bodily fluids, High Life has that in spades.

 

Knife+Heart

With Knife+Heart, you’ve got a pure Giallo throwback which contains slasher elements, mystery elements, and a bucket-full of camp and unashamed queerness.

The story follows gay porn director Anne Parèze (Vanessa Paradis) whose actors are being stabbed to death with a blade hidden inside a black dildo. While the police are extremely ineffective she decides to try and suss it out herself all between trying to still make great art and obsessively trying to win back her ex-girlfriend, Loïs (Kate Moran)—her editor. I assure you I didn’t just make that up on the spot.

It’s a film which throws a lot of aesthetic inspirations at the screen and is not ashamed of being completely in your face. It’s clear director Yann Gonzales has taken huge inspiration from Suspiria director Dario Argento, as well as Brian De Palma. A more modern inspiration would be Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive; Only God Forgives) as the film is coated in hazy blues and radiant hot pink neon colour tones.

I wish Gonzales leant into the slasher aspect ten percent more because I would’ve loved that little bit more craziness. I say if you’re going to go all out, go all out.

Vanessa Paradis really anchors the proceedings as Anne, portraying this character with a great deal of sympathy. She’s an extremely troubled character who suffers from alcoholism and is tortured by her passionate love for Loïs; Paradis brilliantly sells Anne’s desperation and vulnerability. It’s also great to see a character who is really passionate about her art. It’s clear Gonzales is transferring his passion through Anne’s character.

French electronic outfit M83—which is led by Yann Gonzales’s brother Anthony—provide the pumping disco-influenced soundtrack which collides perfectly with the film’s gorgeous visuals.

It’s kinky, provocative and loaded with erotic energy. It tries to do a lot of things at once and it’s not as truly insane as I wanted, but it’s gorgeously shot (with its celluloid grain ever-present), filled with passion—and is a fun homage to the Giallo genre as a whole.

 

Revenge

Revenge opens with Jen (Matilde Lutz) arriving at the secluded desert villa of her French lover Richard (Kevin Janssens), who is spending a few days away from his wife. Their alone time is interrupted by Richard’s slimy hunting friends Stan and Dimitri who show immediate liking towards Jen. After she is raped and then tossed off a cliff—being impaled in the process—a morbidly mangled and heavily-wounded Jen sets of on her path of… well, you know what.

In her debut feature, director Coralie Fargeat delivers a sensory overloaded and visceral experience. She brings a no holds barred approach to every part of the filmmaking process turning the whole film up to eleven. If you can’t tolerate gore and brutal imagery, don’t go anywhere near this film. I’m certain that would be the reaction Fargeat wants.

Considering there are so many Hollywood action films that feel monotonous, it’s so refreshing to see Fargeat go all-out in terms bombastic visual style. We have a high contrast colour palette with every shot aiming for maximum aesthetic impact. There’s a shot of an ant getting drenched by blood which exemplifies this quality perfectly, and is one of the most memorable shots in the whole film.

One element which Fargeat critiques heavily is the male gaze. Throughout the film, especially during the film’s first act, the camera lens tracks Jen, depicting her as an object for the male’s sexual desires, as though she’s prey waiting to be pounced on. We see Jen be sensual and provocative towards Richard and his guests. We see these men convince themselves that they are simply entitled to her because she’s presenting herself in a certain way.

Matilda Lutz nails every aspect of character, whether it be the more playful side in the first act, and the physical side once her character is on her path for revenge. Her character takes a huge turn, showing that once you’re placed in the mindset of survival, you change completely.

Revenge shows you that sometimes simplicity works. There’s no labyrinthine character motives or scheming, just plain revenge and survival. It doesn’t try and alter the well-worn subgenre, but takes its trappings and gives it a stylistic kick in the pants.

 

The Night Eats the World

There’s so many zombie movies that it can be hard to stay fresh. The Night Eats the World takes the premise of your typical loner put in the situation of a zombie apocalypse just like Shaun of the Dead, except with a far more sombre spin.

The film follows Sam (Anders Danielson Lie), who arrives at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment to collect things he left behind, frustrated to find out she and her new boyfriend are hosting a raucous party while he has to complete his menial task. Sam retreats to a back bedroom, then proceeding to pass out as the party continues. A horde of zombies descends on the fellow partygoers, leaving the apartment a blood-soaked mess with no-one left alive except Sam, who miraculously slept through and survived the whole ordeal.

He seems to be the only person left in the apartment building—and in Paris—who hasn’t been consumed by these zombies, and instead has to occupy himself on his own while he’s safe.

As an amateur musician, to occupy his time Sam plays music using household instruments. He also befriends a trapped zombie named Alfred (Dennis Lavant) who he casually converses with and vents to.

It’s interesting to watch Sam slowly become unhinged due to his lack of companionship. Director Dominique Rocher manages to stage some effectively tense sequences throughout, but the main focus is Sam and the gradual degradation of his mental state. Nor is it concerned with how the zombies came to exist, say 28 Days Later.

The Night Eats the World  may have worked slightly better as a 45-minute short, but Anders Danielson Lie’s performance is good enough for the film to be engaging even when it becomes repetitive.

 

Through the Fire

This emotional gut punch of a film follows Franck (Pierre Niney), a happily married firefighter and the father of twin baby girls. Soon after being promoted to be the leader of his fire crew, he is swept up by a powerful warehouse inferno that leaves him permanently disfigured.

It’s a familiar story of resilience, but its conviction in delivering harrowing, emotionally-charged moments hit especially hard. In his second feature, writer-director Frederic Tellier sets up an empathetic character, dedicated to his wife, children and the love of his job. It’s all the more devastating when we see his happiness stripped away from him in the terrible inferno.

Franck is covered in third degree burns and will forever be physically altered by the accident, undergoing over two-dozen surgeries and spending years in hospitalisation. It’s not the physical deformities that hurt the most, but the degradation of his formerly loving relationship with his wife Cecile, which falls apart, resulting in the connection to his twin daughters becoming almost non-existent.

The character of Franck has many heart-wrenching scenes. I can’t remember one more impactful than an outburst in a hospital, where his emotions override him. Tellier also doesn’t shy away from the terror of being caught in a powerful blaze, with the destructive sequence shot in an incredibly intense and horrifying fashion. He provides a very natural style of direction, following Franck’s life as something of a fly on the wall.

It doesn’t do anything revolutionary with its story, yet Pierre Niney is so brilliant at conveying Franck’s mental degradation and inner torment, that you can forget its old narrative. Niney brings the heart to a story which elevates it above a standard melodrama. Anais Demoustier is similarly great as Cecile, who always has to do a lot of emotional heavy lifting, and is a standout when she’s on screen with Niney in the film’s more tender moments.

Through the Fire may not break new narrative ground, but you’re likely to be swept up and empathise with Franck’s story nonetheless.

Session times for all these films as well as the many others at this year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival can be found here.