Catherine Deneuve singing (and, yes, twirling a wind-blown umbrella) on a Paris street is one of many sublime pleasures of the 17th Annual Boston French Film Festival running July 12-29 at the Museum of Fine Arts. This edition of the festival is particularly strong, not just for Deneuve’s meta moments in Christophe Honoré’s mournful musical “Beloved,” but also for a fine directorial debut by popular actor Daniel Auteuil and several dramas based on true events handled with a signature French mix of bravura and restraint.
Deneuve and her daughter (with actor Marcello Mastroianni), Chiara Mastroianni, star in writer-director Honoré’s follow-up to his 2007 offbeat but original musical, “Love Songs.” “Beloved” (“Les bien-aimés”) is a well-crafted but melancholy musical about ’60s-era Parisian shopgirl Madeline (played first by Ludivine Sagnier and later by Deneuve), who turns an occasional trick a la “Belle de Jour” to keep herself in expensive clothes and shoes. Madeline marries a smitten john, Czech doctor Jaronil (Rasha Bukvik), and moves briefly to Prague. Even after his philandering dooms the marriage, they continue to see one another over the years, with Czech-born filmmaker Milos Forman playing the older Jaronil. The film has the laudable audacity to show sensuality between a couple whose combined age is almost 150 years old. The longing for an elusive love is repeated by their daughter Vera (Mastroianni), whose on-again, off-again relationship with Clement (Honoré favorite Louis Garrel) is upended by her infatuation with a gay musician (Paul Schneider). “Beloved” spans more than 40 years from 1964 to 2007, from the era of free love to the age of AIDS and post 9/11 fear. Not exactly song and dance material, but Deneuve and Mastroianni evoke such cinematic nostalgia and create such a wistful mood that it takes the film to the realm of the magical. Screens July 28.
“The Well-Digger’s Daughter”
Marcel Pagnol wrote the novels “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring,” both made into films by Claude Berri that featured Daniel Auteuil. Auteuil has adapted another of Pagnol’s novels, “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” (“La fille du puisatier”), which Pagnol himself made into a movie in 1940, for his directorial debut. It’s a sumptuous fable set in the pre-World War I countryside, about a widowed laborer named Pascal (Auteuil) who cares for his six daughters with the help of the eldest, Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), who returned from Paris after her mother’s death. Hoping to keep Patricia in the provinces, Pascal pushes his friend Félipe (a winning performance from French comic actor Kad Merad) to woo Patricia, but she’s already fallen for Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), son of the local landowner and shopkeeper. Pascal’s love and honor is tested when Patricia reveals her pregnancy as Mazel is sent to the front. Auteuil nicely balances comedy and drama, and keeps the sentiment at bay in this engaging, old-fashioned epic about love, family, class, and friendship. Screens July 20.
“Présumé coupable,” as it is titled in France, is one of several dramas in the festival that offers a provocative take on actual events. Director Vincent Garenq gives this harrowing story a gritty documentary style as it chronicles the saga of Alain Marécaux, a respected bailiff, husband, and father who is accused, along with 16 others, of raping children in the small Normandy town of Outreau in 2001. “L’affaire d’Outreau” was a scandal that, according to the credits, is considered the most egregious miscarriage of justice in France since World War II. Philippe Torreton, one of France’s most heralded actors, gives a tour de force performance as the falsely accused Marécaux but not in the Oscar-gunning way that one would expect from a Hollywood version. As he battles a Kafkaesque system, endures the humiliations of prison, and watches his life fall apart, Torreton gives a performance that isn’t showy or sensational; he’s a naturalistic everyman caught in a nightmarish web of injustice. Noémie Lvovsky is also memorable as Marécaux’s wife, who is implicated in the accuser’s lies. Screens July 13 and 15.
Lvovsky turns up again as a nurse at a high school in a French port town on the coast of Brittany in “17 Girls” (“17 filles”). Writer-directors Delphine and Muriel Coulin, who are sisters, based their debut feature on the infamous “pregnancy pact” reported in Gloucester in 2008. The charismatic leader of a clique of girls, Camille (Louise Grinberg) turns her unplanned pregnancy into a mean girl’s version of Tom Sawyer’s fence painting. Peer pressure and teen angst convince the group that having babies will bond them for life. As the girls start getting themselves impregnated — boys are just vehicles in this fanciful girl-world — shots of the bleak province and the various girls isolated with their cellphones in their bedrooms don’t fully explain their adolescent malaise and pack mentality. Perhaps that’s the point: Adults, from Lvovsky’s exasperated nurse to Camille’s harried single mom, are ineffectual; they represent all that these girls are misguidedly rebelling against. Screens July 20 and 21.
“38 témoins” revisits the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1960s New York, during which none of her neighbors, despite her screams, called the police or tried to help. In Lucas Belvaux’s chilling update, set in a port city of modern-day France, the murder of a young woman outside an upscale apartment building triggers a police investigation, but 38 residents questioned claim not to have seen or heard a thing. A veteran crime reporter (Nicole Garcia, whose beautifully unbutchered middle-aged face reminds us that such a character would never exist in a Hollywood film) spurs one witness, Pierre (the terrific Yvan Attal), to come forward. Racked by guilt and shame, Pierre implicates others who must have heard the same desperate screams. Belvaux creates tension from moral dilemma and human frailty, aided by the cinematography of Pierre Gantelmi D’Ille, who creates an eerie setting from the city’s ships, docks, and fog. When the police reenact the crime, Belvaux shoots it from the point of view of the witnesses. It’s as chilling as anything in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Screens July 27 and July 28.
“L’exercice de l’État” isn’t based on an actual event but it might as well be. Pierre Schöeller’s film has the tone and look of a 1970s American drama as it subtly examines contemporary political power struggles, backroom deals, and the erosion of conscience in the French government. Minister for Transport Bertrand Saint-Jean (Olivier Gourmet) laments that politicians used to be treated with respect when unemployment was low. “Now they make fun of us, call us pathetic, puerile, grotesque . . . .” Saint-Jean oversees politically minded efforts to privatize rail stations despite citizen and union opposition. “Go after railways with swords drawn or it’s austerity for 10 years and we’ll all be out,” he presciently warns. With Shakespearean overtones and relevance to the current European and US political climates, “The Minister” is a dense, intelligent, dark drama that does for French politicians what “Margin Call” did for the Wall Street hucksters. Screens July 15.
“A Happy Event”
It’s not all sturm und drang at this year’s festival. The French penchant for comedy is represented by several films, including “A Happy Event” (“Un heureux événement”), a slick, smart dramedy for the “are you mom enough” zeitgeist. Writer-director Remi Bezancon’s portrayal of modern-day parental anxiety stars the likable Louise Bourgoin as Barbara, a philosophy scholar whose doctoral thesis and marriage to handsome but juvenile Nicolas (Pio Marmai) start to unravel after the birth of their first child. There are some sitcom-y touches: Barbara’s annoying mother-in-law, and her own mother (Josiane Balasko), a free-spirit who touts the benefits of being a mediocre mom. Nicholas’s transformation from video clerk slacker to corporate suit is not entirely convincing but much of the film is charming, clever, and inventive; in other words, the antithesis of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Screens July 14 and July 20.
Other highlights include the opening night feature “Farewell, My Queen” (“Les adieux à la reine”) about Marie Antoinette’s (Diane Kruger) final days. A discussion with director Benoît Jacquot follows the
July 12, 7:30 p.m. screening. The festival revisits François Truffaut’s “The Bride Wore Black” (“La mariée était en noir”), his conscious 1968 homage to Hitchcock starring the legendary Jeanne Moreau as a woman whose fiance is murdered by five men on their wedding day.
There are 20 features and four shorts screening in the 2012 program. For more information and showtimes, go to www.mfa.org/programs/film.