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Review: Sydney French Film Festival

Love is in the air.

Palace Cinema’s held their annual French Film Festival this March, sponsored by the Alliance Francaise de Sydney language school. This year featured a diverse showcase of genres and styles, with films tackling LGBTQIA+ identity, racism, immigration, sexism, and more. The running theme of the 2021 festival seemed to be love —  whether in the title of the films themselves, the stories of characters and their love for one another, or even plastered on the wall of scenes in big neon lettering. From a vast pool of films, I got a chance to see five that from their plot summaries alone really excited me. These included The Man Who Sold His Skin, Summer of 85’, Love Affair(s), Little Girl, and Gagarine. They all present various depictions of the body: their tactility, relation to others, interaction in space. All of this is done to advocate for an overall message of love for our fellow human beings and to provide pathways to empathy to marginalised groups. 

Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania and nominated for Best International Feature at the 2021 Oscars, The Man Who Sold His Skin (TMWSHS, hereafter), tells the story of a Syrian refugee, Sam Ali, as he lends his body to an eccentric artist to be toured around Europe as a last-ditch effort to reunite with his lost love. The film features a stellar performance from its lead Yahya Mahayni, who won the Horizon’s Best Actor Award at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. The story keeps you on the edge of your seat with a plot that twists and turns and has surprises waiting around every corner. TMWSHS uses Sam’s body and the various artists poking, prodding, moving and selling of it to parallel human trafficking, and to satirise the art world’s dual empathy and distance to the horrors of our world. The extreme lengths Sam pushes his body, getting a large tattoo of an immigration pass on his back, evokes the extreme lengths refugees go to to migrate. One scene that stuck out, in particular, was when Sam is being sold in an art auction, a scene that ushers in connotations of the slave trade. 

Alongside this, I also watched acclaimed director François Ozon’s newest film, Summer of 85’, a freewheeling ride through a small town in 1980’s France, with it’s young protagonist falling for the suave charm of an older boy. This gay love story features a great soundtrack of classic hits, with one nightclub scene, in particular, utilising Rod Stewart’s song Sailing to great effect. While the plot can feel a little jumbled at points, with a rushed third act conflict that feels like it comes out of nowhere, Summer of 85’ is still a moving and electric time at the movie theatre. In a similar vein to TMWSHS, Summer of 85’ presents the interaction of bodies in space, composed of meetings being arranged by brief encounters and sudden coincidences, and intimate close-ups emphasising the tactility of every brush of skin against skin. These close-ups, particularly when the boys are bare naked, push the body’s boundaries into abstract territories, with the mounds of hips and the slopes of their broad shoulders becoming strange shapes in a complex arrangement of parts.

Echoing Summer of 85’s abstracting of the human form through close-up, Emmanuel Mouret’s Love Affair(s) is a comedic romp through the urban and the pastoral. Told in flashback, its two leads Daphne and Maxime (played by Camélia Jordana and Niels Schneider, respectively), regale a twisting a turning plot of parallel love affairs, with the film questioning the moral and ethical implications of monogamy and infidelity; asking us to see love after our ‘happily ever after’. The moving of bodies from one to another becomes like pieces moving across a chessboard, and the tactile nature of bodies is accentuated in an intimate montage halfway through the film where Maxime and his lover trace their fingertips along each other’s bare skin. Moving away from romantic love to more familial love and even selflove, Little Girl is a documentary about a transgender girl and her difficult journey to be recognised as her identifying gender by her school. Shot almost entirely in extreme close-up, Little Girl fully embodies Peng Liyuan’s assertion that “eyes are the windows to the soul.” The audience is emotionally moved and brought to tears by scenes of the eponymous child or her mother crying from the stress of the situation. The way the film frames these bodies in close proximity with us and cross cuts between these claustrophobic images forces us to create pathways of love and empathy for the documentary’s subjects.

Mirroring the other film’s relations of their subjects and their spaces, Gagarine is set in a housing project on its last legs, with a diverse cast of leads refusing to leave when the building is set for demolition. In the film, bodies are intrinsically tied to space, and the protagonist Youri’s interaction with the building makes up the majority of the film. The most stunning sequence sees him flying through Gagarine, which he refers to and views as his spaceship. His desire to transform the world around him into a science fiction epic evokes a deeper yearning to escape the stronghold and gravity of poverty that keeps him on the ground.

In this way, this year’s French Film Festival presented a powerful message of love through the film’s dissolving of the body and overemphasis of the tactility and abstract nature of skin. Following the tumultuous year that was 2020, with questions being raised around the world regarding how we all interact with each other as human bodies moving through space, these films couldn’t be more prevalent in our contextual milieu.