UWM French film festival prompts cultural dialogue

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Fabienne Bullot knew she had found a city of kindred spirits when she left the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival screening of Earth. The visiting assistant professor of French at UWM had been pleased, shortly after her arrival in Milwaukee, to learn Milwaukee Film would be screening Ukrainian film director Alexander Dovzhenko’s silent Soviet-era film about the process of collectivism, with live musical accompaniment by postrock band Group of the Altos. But she was more pleased when the film received a thunderous standing ovation.

“I immediately thought, ‘This is a city of movie lovers,’” says Bullot. “It seems to me that the political, social, and economic history of the city is what makes it unique in the States. It is a very diverse, open, and lively city where film is right at home.”

Such recognition was critical to Bullot, a native Parisienne who is coordinating UWM’s Festival of Films in French. Now entering its 18th year, the festival offers 17 diverse films from France or French-speaking countries over a 10-day period: Feb. 6-Feb. 15. All films will be shown for free at UWM’s Union Theatre.

The film series, which looks at a variety of social issues, provides an opportunity for significant cultural and political discourse, says Bullot, who established the French Theater Workshop while at Smith College and is currently researching the history of French political cinema. Among the topics addressed are an increasingly multicultural France, women’s lives, the commemoration of World War I and LGBT issues. 

But while those issues are shared by only small groups of films, Bullot says there’s one thread all the films in the program have in common: “They all respond in a variety of ways to the question, ‘How can we represent reality?’”

Two of the films — The Night is Young and Tom at the Farm — are sponsored by the LGBT Film/Video Festival. Their inclusion demonstrates not only the festival’s diversity but also the cross-pollination among various departments at UWM in contributing to the festival’s content, Bullot says.

“(LGBT Film Festival director) Carl Bogner and I share the same passion for film and the same desire for freedom and discovery in film,” Bullot says. 

The Night is Young, featuring a young Juliette Binoche, is director Leos Carax’s second film. Filmed at the height of the AIDS crisis, it is the first French film to reference AIDS, in the form of a similar virus called STBO that affects the lead characters. 

“It became a cult classic because it is a poetic thriller that shunned the commercial aesthetic popular in 1980s cinema and is full of ‘quotes’ from other films that film buffs have had fun identifying,” Bullot says. 

Tom at the Farm is a more recent film by the young filmmaker Xavier Dolan and has never been screened in Milwaukee, although other works by Dolan — including Laurence Anyways — have been shown at the LGBT Film/Video Festival and Milwaukee Film Festival. It’s a psychological thriller about a gay man who visits the family of his deceased lover, unsure if they are aware of their late son’s sexual orientation. The film is set in a rural landscape very similar to Wisconsin, which hides brutal secrets. 

Among the festival’s other highlights are the films of director Jean-Pierre Thorn, whose works are rarely shown in the United States.

Pleasure to the People and 93 Beautiful Rebel, the two films being shown, stress multicultural themes in contemporary France and “the creativity and energy of French youth, whose spirit French society has persistently tried to break through its scorn,” Bullot says.

“Thorn’s films challenge the discourse of the powerful,” she adds. “These documentaries are nothing like the ones shown on television: There is no hidden camera, no voice-over by a Hollywood actor, no specialists next to potted plants talking about the world. Thorn’s camera watches and listens to people and spaces, their desires, their energy. It does justice to its subjects.”

Thorn himself will appear at the festival to introduce his films and participate in talkbacks after their screenings. The showing of 93 Beautiful Rebel, which chronicles France’s contemporary hip-hop culture, will also be accompanied by a live hip-hop dance featuring local Milwaukee groups, what Bullot says is a first for the festival.

Thorn also will travel to UW-Madison to screen his films and lead a master class, Bullot said. The director’s contemporary themes echo the recent terrorist killings of Charlie Hebdo journalists in France, she added.

“I spoke with (Thorn) on the phone after the terrorist attacks, and he said he had been in touch with many of the people who have appeared in his films and who are particularly concerned by the recent events,” Bullot said. “He will share their reactions and his own analysis of the situation as an activist filmmaker who has always fought the good fight with festival-goers.”

Social commentaries always play an important role in the festival, but there are also silent films, comedies, thrillers, a road movie and a film based on a comic book. There will also be a few “crowd-pleasers,” designed as a convenient bridge for those less familiar with French cinema.

“Festival fans will come in great numbers to see films with Catherine Deneuve, Josh Charles or Juliette Binoche, because they know these actors,” Bullot says. “But they will probably be surprised by the performances given by them and the tone of the comedy-dramas in which they appear.”

NOW SCREENING

UWM’s 18th annual Festival of Films in French will run Feb. 6-Feb. 15 at the UWM Union Theatre, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd. Screenings are free and open to the public, and a full schedule can be found at uwm.edu/french-film-schedule.