Five films that should not be missed at the 15th Sacramento French Film Festival, running June 17-19 and June 24-26. Films are listed in the order of when they screen.
“Fatima”: The festival opener is a quiet stunner. Fatima (Soria Zeroual), a North African Muslim immigrant, cleaning woman and single mother, does not speak French and struggles to understand the world in which her two daughters are growing up. Shunned by the North African women in her circle because they think she and her medical-student daughter (Zita Hanrot) have put on airs, and avoided by French women who look fearful of her head scarf, Fatima devotes herself to trying to guide her daughters to better lives than hers. Thank goodness – at least for those of us who have seen too many “Mildred Pierce”-esque dramas in which a sacrificing mother’s children are awful to her – the medical student at least appreciates her mother. 7 p.m. June 17, Crest.
“Read My Lips”: This 2001 film opened the first Sacramento French Film Festival in 2002, became director Jacques Audiard’s (“A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone,” “Dheepan”) calling card to an international audience and holds up beautifully. Emmanuelle Devos plays hearing-impaired, tightly coiled executive assistant Carla, who can read lips and read people, like the callous executives at her company who make fun of her looks. Hiring a just-sprung con (Vincent Cassel, tough and vulnerable at once) as her assistant empowers this woman in fascinating – if not always ethical – ways. Cassel and Devos share a powerful chemistry, and Audiard’s use of tight shots emphasizes the necessity of Carla being close to other people in order to hear as it heightens the sexual tension and overall stakes of what becomes a thriller storyline. 11 a.m. June 18, Crest.
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“Dheepan”: Audiard lends great visual immediacy to this tale of a Sri Lankan Tamil rebel fighter (a haunted-eyed Antonythasan Jesuthasan) who forms a makeshift family with two strangers from his refugee camp – a young woman and little girl – to help him escape government retribution and win asylum in France. Once there, he becomes caretaker for a suburban housing project where violence reigns once again, in the form of drug gangs. “Dheepan,” winner of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, becomes less interesting once it focuses on that new threat. But for about an hour, when the three strangers posing as a family become acquainted while also confronting a foreign environment, the film captivates as an unorthodox domestic drama. 6:35 p.m. June 18, Crest
“Summertime”: Director Catherine Corsini’s early 1970s lesbian romance involves Delphine (French pop star Izïa Higelin), a woman in her 20s who is new to the city when she meets and falls for the significantly older sophisticate Carole (Cécile de France). Similarities to the 2015 Oscar contender “Carol” are striking at first, but that Cate Blanchett film was bloodless compared with this passion- and sun-streaked ode to sexual and romantic discovery and second-wave feminism. De France, giving us “Eat Pray Love” Julia Roberts with her tanned skin and blond ringlets, with the addition of genuine oomph, plays a teacher and women’s rights advocate who thinks she loves her smart, activist boyfriend until she meets fresh-from-the-farm Delphine. When a family emergency sends Delphine home, Carole follows. Because she’s all in. So is de France’s performance, which is full of pain and wonder, as Carole tries to fathom her own ardor. 9:10 p.m. June 18 and 1:30 p.m. June 19, Crest.
“My King”: Emmanuelle Bercot (who directed “Standing Tall,” which is also in the festival) gives a complex performance that incorporates unbridled joy, emotional shell-shock and ingrained distrust during the course of her attorney character’s long, tumultuous and probably ill-advised romance with a witty, charming restaurateur (Cassel). Probably ill-advised because the masterful Cassel never reveals the exact degree of devotion his character feels in return. He’s as charming, elusive and irresistible to the viewer as he is to her. 8:40 p.m. June 24, 1:40 p.m. June 25, Crest.