The Sacramento French Film Festival, always a fount of discovery, will spotlight two artists who were institutions in France but lesser known, if known at all, in the United States.
The 12th French Film Festival will open at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Crest Theatre with "Cloclo," a biopic of Claude François, the blond-mopped pop singer who sold tens of millions of records abroad but died, at age 39 in 1978, without cracking the American market.
And at 1:25 p.m. June 30, the festival will show a three-hour, non-musical version of "Les Misérables," starring the late Jean Gabin, France's biggest pre-World War II star. Gabin's movie career in France was prolific, although his time in Hollywood brief and unsuccessful.
François, nicknamed "Cloclo," co-wrote the original French-language version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way." But to remember him for that diminishes his achievements, said Cécile Mouette Downs, the French Film Festival's executive director said. So she's using the biopic's French title instead of its suggested international title, "My Way."
"He was always reinventing himself," Downs, who grew up in France, said of François. "He started with the Twist, and then moved to disco, and he became a businessman" with his own record label.
Downs, 47, said François never was out of the limelight during her childhood. He was loved by "little kids and grandmothers" alike, she said. "When I was 8, I was in love with him."
That was during his disco period in the 1970s. He first gained fame in the 1960s, with French-language covers of British and American hits.
It's tough to find an American equivalent to François, since the French hold different standards for their pop stars, sometimes embracing what might be considered corny or too Vegas-y here.
A '70s YouTube video of François performing a disco cover of the Four Seasons' "Oh What a Night" shows a clean-cut, trim man in a flashy suit working his moves along with body- suit-clad female backup dancers. (They were known as the Clodettes).
Donny Osmond comes to mind. But François is less eager, more assured, his voice grittier and deeper than one might expect.
François began his musical career as a teen playing resorts on the French Riviera perhaps a source of his great senses of style and showmanship.
Jérémie Renier, Belgian star of the Dardenne brothers' scruffy cinéma vérité films "La Promesse" and "L'Enfant," glams it up as François in "Cloclo." Renier was nominated for the best-actor Cesar, the French Oscar equivalent, for his performance.
François' death at a young age did not stem from the usual rock excesses. It was accidental, its circumstances speak to his personality traits, Downs said, and should not be revealed until "Cloclo" screens. Most French people know what happened, she said, but Americans at a "Cloclo" screening she attended were floored.
Gabin's roller-coaster career
There is no film biopic of "Les Misérables" actor Gabin at this year's festival, but there should be. His life was highly cinematic.
Born to French cabaret performers in 1904, Gabin sang and danced onstage himself before becoming France's No. 1 matinee idol. He left France in the 1940s for Hollywood during the German occupation but did not like it.
He returned to France and became a decorated member of Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces, then made dozens of French films in which he became the white-haired paternal figure.
He also dated Marlene Dietrich. But who didn't?
In the 1930s, Gabin worked for the greats, including Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir. Renoir's 1937 World War I film "La Grande Illusion," in which Gabin starred, ran for a year in American arthouse theaters of the day.
Gabin also won notice from Hollywood for his subtle work as a criminal in "Pépé le Moko," a 1937 gangster film set in the Kasbah of Algiers.
Unlike his explosive screen-gangster contemporary James Cagney, Gabin played it close to the emotional vest, drawing the audience to him.
"You are always sort of paying attention to (Gabin) because he is the calm in the middle of the storm," said Chuck Zigman, author of "World's Coolest Movie Star," a 2008 book (Allenwood Press, two volumes, $39.95 each) about Gabin.
Zigman will appear in a Q&A session June 30 after "Les Misérables."
"What makes (Gabin) interesting is that he is not reacting, but you can tell what he is thinking," Zigman said.
Gabin had his pick of scripts in France, playing "dark, tragic figures," Zigman said. But Hollywood saw him as a stereotypical romantic Frenchman. He resisted typecasting and earned a reputation as a difficult personality.
The two American films he did make, the 1942 noir "Moontide" and the 1944 war film "Impostor" (also known as "Strange Confession") did not connect with the public.
But they were good, Zigman said, especially "Moontide," in which Gabin played a California longshoreman hiding out with a suicidal woman played by Ida Lupino.
A remarkable number of Gabin's 95 films rate high in quality, Zigman said.
"He has the highest good-to-bad film ratio" of any actor, he said.
But most of Gabin's films did not make it to the United States because they were genre films. American studio bosses believed, probably with good reason, that fans of genre films were not fans of subtitles.
Gabin, who died in 1976 at age 72, might have hit the 100-film mark had his career not stalled once he returned from World War II.
"The French film industry wrote him off during the war" because he went to Hollywood, Zigman said. "He (went from) France's No. 1 box office star to kind of untouchable."
But just as dating the right celebrity can elevate one's profile today, Gabin's romance with Dietrich and their subsequent 1946 screen collaboration "Martin Roumagnac" put him back in play.
The romance fizzled and the film was not a hit, but Gabin kept making films. None was critically acclaimed until 1954's "Touchez Pas au Grisby," in which he played an older gangster.
Though he was just 50 at the time (to put things in perspective, that's Johnny Depp's current age), Gabin was transitioning into the patriarch roles he would play for the rest of his life. It helped that the one-time matinee idol had returned from the war with white hair.
"His looks changed so drastically over a couple of years," Zigman said. "But he made it work for him, playing these avuncular, paternal figures."
A slight exception is his Jean Valjean in "Les Misérables."
Victor Hugo's famous prisoner/do-gooder is never avuncular. And though Hugo's epic novel covers Valjean's life over an extended period, most directors go with younger, sexier actors, such as Hugh Jackman, and age them with makeup.
But Gabin's "Les Misérables," directed by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, is considered, among the many film adaptations, to be "one of the most faithful to Hugo's book," Zigman said.
Zigman's Gabin book, along with technology that has availed more foreign genre films to U.S. audiences, sparked a Gabin renaissance in the United States, with mini-Gabin festivals sprouting in arthouses and on cable television.
For the renewed interest in Gabin in the United States including Sacramento you can thank French grandparents.
"My grandfather was from France, and Gabin was his favorite actor," Zigman said of his initial interest in researching Gabin.
Downs said Gabin was her grandmother's favorite, as well. Her festival has scooped up Gabin films as they have become more available. Downs showed "Pépé le Moko" and the 1969 Gabin film "The Sicilian Clan" in 2010.
Downs was seeking a nonmusical "Les Misérables" for this year's festival to contrast with the 2012 Hollywood musical and the touring stage version that recently stopped in Sacramento.
"When I saw this one had Gabin in it, I had to show it," she said of the 1958 film.
12th SACRAMENTO FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL
What: Six days of French-language films with English subtitles
When: Friday-June 23 and June 28-30. Friday's opening-night party starts at 6 p.m. "Cloclo," a biopic of French pop star Claude François, starts at 8:30 p.m. The period drama "Thérèse Desqueyroux," in which "Amelie" star Audrey Tautou plays an heiress unhappy in a marriage arranged by her family, will close the festival at 7:45 p.m. June 30.
For a complete schedule, see Friday's Ticket section of The Bee or visit the festival website at www.sacramentofrenchfilmfestival.org.
Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento
Cost: Individual films: $11, or $10 for students, seniors and members of EFSac, Sacramento Jewish Film Festival, Alliance Française and Club Français. Opening-night party and reception: $50. Multifilm passes start at $35. Closing night: $16/$15 for seniors, students and club members.
Information: (916) 455-9390, (916) 442-7378.
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.