Complex comedy is king at the 13th Sacramento French Film Festival, running Friday through Sunday and next weekend at the Crest Theatre.
Comedic films at this year’s festival augment their funny-ha-ha moments with examinations of class differences and aging, and offer juicier roles for women than most American comedies do.
“Sometimes we have had comedies that are just silly and fun, but everything is really top quality” this year, French Film Festival executive and artistic director Cécile Mouette Downs said. “It is not just basic comedy.”
In the romantic comedy and festival opener “Not My Type” (8:30 Friday), upper-middle-class philosophy teacher and chronic over-thinker Clément (Loïc Corbery) dates working-class hair stylist Jennifer (Émilie Dequenne), whose thoughts do not seem to travel beyond her spirited karaoke performances and the American popcorn films she loves (especially those starring that other Jennifer – Aniston).
He’s a little bit Kantian and she’s culturally Kardashian, but things are not as simple as that. Dequenne, the Belgian actress who starred in the Dardenne brothers’ 1999 film “Rosetta,” gives her character a bubbly demeanor but also surprising depth.
Corbery plays Clément as not so much a snob as a man clearly out of his element geographically – the Parisian teacher has been transferred to Arras, which he considers a backwater – and emotionally. The academic appears mystified by the ability of Jennifer, a lifelong Arras townie, to captivate him.
“Obviously their cultural background is so different, but this is (addressed) in a very subtle way,” Downs said. Filmmaker Lucas Belvaux does not condescend to either character, she said.
Less subtle but still effective is the older-woman, younger-man story “Bright Days Ahead” (5:20 p.m. June 28 and 1 p.m. June 29). The film stars (babe alert!) Fanny Ardant as a married, just-retired dentist in her 60s who reluctantly enrolls in classes at a senior center but enthusiastically accepts the advances of the center’s computer instructor (Laurent Lafitte), who is in his late 30s.
He’s a player, but she does not care, because she’s clearly going through something, having suddenly been thrust into senior life by her retirement. The film does not make that life look bad – the students at the center are a fun, buoyant bunch – but this particular woman was not ready for it.
Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), the stage-director character in “Venus in Fur” (8:15 p.m. June 27), certainly did not anticipate the arrival of Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), an actress who shows up after hours for an audition. Vanda wants the part of a sexual dominant in a play based on a novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – the real-life author from whom the term “masochism” sprang – and judging from her black pleather, has gone Method.
Is it still a casting couch when the auditionee holds the power? “Venus in Fur,” directed by Roman Polanski from David Ives’ Broadway play, will answer this question. Maybe. The play-within-a-movie thing is labyrinthine even before you consider that Polanski hired his lookalike Amalric to play a director opposite Seigner, Polanski’s real-life wife.
Aiming most directly for the funny bone, among the festival’s comedic films, is “9-Month Stretch” (6:15 p.m. June 27 and 9:50 p.m. June 28), in which a judge (Sandrine Kiberlain) is surprised to find herself pregnant and more surprised the father is a criminal nicknamed “the eye gobbler” (Albert Dupontel, who also wrote and directed), since she does not recall their encounter.
“Stretch” comes closest “to that vein of (broad) comedy for which American cinema is known,” said Jane Berner, a member of the French Film Festival’s film selection committee. In other words, it’s more Will Ferrell or Farrelly brothers than typically French.
Yet “Stretch” was taken seriously enough by the César Awards – France’s Oscar equivalent – that in February, Kiberlain ( “Alias Betty”) picked up the prize for best actress, and Dupontel the one for original screenplay.
Audrey Tautou is not the star of “Chinese Puzzle” (3:15 p.m. June 29), a romantic comedy and part of director Cédric Klapisch’s breezy trilogy that includes “L’Auberge Espagnole” (2002) and “Russian Dolls” (2005). Romain Duris stars as French writer Xavier, now pushing 40 and living in New York. Tautou plays Martine, Xavier’s ex-girlfriend, and only one of the important women in his life. He has moved to New York because his estranged wife (Kelly Reilly) and children live there.
But Tautou is star of the French Film Festival audience’s heart. Though Dequenne, from “Not My Type,” might rival her for the title of this year’s festival sweetheart, the doe-eyed Tautou is long-running champ of the SFFF box office.
“If there is an Audrey Tautou film (available), we have to get it,” Downs said. “She is our lucky charm.”