For many years, America has made a sport of wondering why the French are so healthy. They smoke like fiends, which explains the low rates of obesity. They drink wine like it's going out of style, which explains the low rates of heart disease. But what accounts for that robust vitality, that way they have of seeming so completely at ease in a messy, crowded and often monstrous world?
The answer is obvious. It's the cinema.
If there is anything the French seem to appreciate more than wine, cigarettes and a breezy contempt for unsophisticated Americans, it is the glorious, inexhaustible art of cinema. Case in point: French Cinema Now, by which the San Francisco Film Society imports ten French movies to the Clay Theatre for a multitude of rich emotional and intellectual experiences, spread out judiciously over five days.
Ten films may not seem like many, but they are expertly chosen. Honestly, there's not a single movie in this lot that's safe to toss into the category of "oh, well, if time is tight, it would be OK to skip that one." Not if you want to reap the full benefits of the French cinema experience, anyway.
Six In Paris, a 1965 Paris-valentine portmanteau from six distinguished directors of the French New Wave. The Class, a docudrama of a year in the life of suburban high school students from the brilliant, socially conscious and philosophically rigorous director Laurent Cantet. Welcome to the Sticks, a comedy of regionalist status anxiety, which most Americans, and denizens of the Bay Area in particular, surely can understand. Seriously, doctors should be recommending this stuff.
Now's a good time to get in on this sous-le-radar health craze if for no other reason than the onscreen ubiquity of the extraordinarily lively French actor Mathieu Amalric. He's the guy from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly who delivered pretty much an entire performance from one eyeball, and is no doubt perfectly cast as the villain, a nefarious business mogul, in the forthcoming James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.
He's also in three of the films in French Cinema Now. First, in the festival's opener, A Christmas Tale, Amalric plays a wayward son, carrying on. This movie is the latest from much-adored filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, who makes a compelling case that in fact the French are just like us. They have highly dramatic, absurdly comedic, almost catastrophically dysfunctional family reunions at Christmastime too. It's just that in their case, mom is Catherine Deneuve. (OK, yes, some are born into privilege.)
Desplechin obviously pays attention to the many wondrous nuances of life, people and movies, and so he uses Amalric often. In My Sex Life...or How I Got Into an Argument, an oh-it-is-so-exactly-like-that dramedy of grad-school life from 1996, the actor ably plays a neurotic assistant professor of philosophy.
Mais bien sur, Amalric plays well with other directors, too. In Actresses, he shines as a hot-headed and tyrannical theater director making life complicated for a melancholic middle-aged actress (director/co-writer/star Valeria Bruni Tedeschi).
And of course Amalric's is only one of the many engaging personalities with which to become acquainted through this short and potent fest. Of these there are so many, in fact, that the SFFS has wisely elected to make French Cinema Now an annual event. If nothing else, it may prove a great service to the American lifespan.
French Cinema Now runs October 8 through 12, 2008 at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco.For tickets andinformation, visit sffs.org.