This year’s Sacramento French Film Festival features the 2016 César Awards winners for best picture (“Fatima”), actress (Catherine Frot, “Marguerite”) and supporting actor (Benoit Magimel, “Standing Tall”).
The local festival’s lineup also traverses much of the nominee field for the Oscar-equivalent awards ceremony that took place in February in Paris.
It’s been this way since since 2002, when French native Cécile Mouette Downs, who landed in Sacramento because her American biologist husband’s job was here, decided to use her master’s in French cinema history and connections from a former job promoting French culture for the French embassy to spearhead a new Sacramento event.
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That first festival opened with the thriller/romance “Read My Lips” and unspooled six films over three days at the Tower Theatre.
The 15th iteration spans six days (June 17-19 and June 24-26), two theaters (the Crest and Esquire IMAX – the latter for three movies only, on June 19) and 20 feature-length films. It opens at 7 p.m. Friday, June 17, at the Crest with “Fatima,” a drama following a North African immigrant and cleaning woman’s (Soria Zeroual) quest to forge a better life in France.
Festival executive and artistic director Downs and fellow event organizers have helped build a new tribe of local cinephiles during the past 14 years by showing films that without the festival would never reach a big screen here.
Thus, Sacramentans would have been robbed of chances to see the finest works from a film industry that still values complex romantic dramas with mature characters, encourages actresses to direct (and become pop stars, if they can squeeze in the studio time) and doesn’t value the superhero movie above all else.
Local film fans have responded by filling seats. Downs said the French Film Festival expects to sell about 5,000 tickets this year.
“I think we remain popular because people trust us to show quality films,” Downs said. “There are a lot of people who come and they see one film or two one year, and they are like, ‘Next year, we are buying a pass.’ ”
SFFF devotees and newcomers alike can see, at the 15th festival, narrative films that are up to the moment in terms of how quickly they have arrived from France and in subject matter. “Fatima” is one of several festival offerings to tackle multicultural issues and/or the immigrant experience.
A topic of great sociopolitical relevance for decades in the wake of French colonialization of Arab countries, the discussion assumed new urgency last year, after the mass shooting in the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine offices that killed 11 people in January 2015, and the Paris attacks the following November that killed 140 people. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo killings, and the Islamic State for the Paris attacks.
Issues of multiculturalism are “what is on everyone’s mind” in France, Downs said. “It’s on my mind. How can you not be thinking about it?”
“Fatima,” and “Dheepan” (6:35 p.m. June 18, Crest), a drama from “Read My Lips” filmmaker Jacques Audiard about Sri Lankan refugees who fake being a family to get into France, represent more personal cinematic explorations of assimilation issues. Two others show political extremes. The late-night film “French Blood” (11:30 p.m. June 18, Crest) portrays a neo-Nazi skinhead. “Made in France” (4:25 p.m. June 25, Crest) depicts a home-grown group of jihadists planning an attack in France. Director/screenwriter Nicolas Boukhrief completed “Made” before the Charlie Hebdo and November Paris attacks. But it was never shown in French theaters, due to sensitivity regarding those incidents.
“He was prescient,” Downs said of Boukhrief. The French Film Festival programmed its lineup long before the Orlando, Fla., gay nightclub shootings last weekend – 49 were killed in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, by a man President Barack Obama called a “homegrown terrorist” – making its programming of “Made” also seem tragically prescient.
Downs said cultural-assimilation themes have been common the past several years because there are now generations of filmmakers and actors in France with roots in formerly colonized countries. They include Boukhrief, who is half Algerian, and Moroccan-born “Fatima” director Philippe Faucon. But “I have never seen as many of these films as I have in the past two years,” she said.
Not all are set in present day. “Come What May” (1:35 p.m. June 18, Crest) is a World War II period piece that tracks people who fled France in 1940, when the Germans invaded.
“So this is a story of French refugees,” Downs said. “It’s interesting that it happens to everybody. It just takes a war.”
Nor are the immigrant stories all dramas. In director Mohamed Hamidi’s “One Man and His Cow,” (4 p.m. June 19, Esquire) an Algerian farmer is over the moon after his prize cow is invited to compete in the Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris, sending farmer and heifer on a long journey by boat and then by foot.
Festival closer “Marguerite” (7 p.m. June 26, Crest), in which a woman pursues a singing career despite being off-key, holds comedic moments as well (though it’s more serious than the forthcoming Meryl Streep film “Florence Foster Jenkins,” which is based on the same determined real-life performer from which “Marguerite” was loosely drawn, looks to be from its trailer).
But in general, finding French comedies was not easy this year, Downs said. “There used to be years when there were so many,” she said.
A lack of comedies, specifically romantic, means no appearance by the Sacramento French Film Festival’s longtime mascot, Audrey Tautou, to mark its 15th edition.
“To be honest, I looked, but she hasn’t really been in anything,” Downs said of the “Amélie” star, whose films have been surefire hits at the festival.
“She is popular in France, but not as popular as she is in Sacramento,” Downs said. But the Sacramento audience will be fine, she said, “because we have Cécile de France.”
De France, who hails from Belgium, plays a teacher and women’s rights activist who falls for a farming couple’s daughter (pop star Izïa Higelin) in the sun-kissed early 1970s period lesbian romance “Summertime.” (9:10 p.m. June 18 and 1:30 p.m. June 19, Crest).
De France has appeared in many SFFF films over the years, including the late-night horror entry “High Tension” and Claude Miller’s “A Secret.” Though de France is not gamine (even when she had a pixie cut), Downs believes she’s a contender to usurp Tautou as Sacramento’s beloved.
For the more classic tastes, there’s Catherine Deneuve, who appears as a judge who believes she can help a young delinquent in “Standing Tall” (6 p.m. June 24 and 8:45 p.m. June 25, Crest). Emmanuelle Bercot directed “Standing” and co-stars in the riveting “My King,” (8:40 p.m. June 24, 1:40 p.m. June 25, Crest) in which her character engages in a bad romance with a charming restaurateur (Vincent Cassel).
A younger Cassel also will be on screen, as an ex-con who takes an office job beside a hearing-impaired executive assistant (Emmanuelle Devos) in the festival’s 15th-year reprise of “Read My Lips” (11 a.m. June 18, Crest).
Like Deneuve, Cassel has appeared in too many SFFF films to list in the festival program. When festivals reach 15, they hit an oeuevre-inclusiveness wall, Downs discovered.
“We can’t list all the (French Film Festival) films of all these people, because it is too many,” Downs said. “We have to choose a few.”
15th Sacramento French Film Festival
What: A six-day film festival, featuring 20 films, all of which carry English subtitles
When: Fridays-Sundays, June 17-19 and 24-26
Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., and Esquire IMAX Theatre (for three films June 19), 1211 K St., Sacramento
Cost: Individual tickets start at $11, passes at $33.
Information: www.sacramentofrenchfilmfestival.org; 916-455-9390