Women in Film at Denver Film Festival 42 – 3 Films You Need To Experience

Saint Frances, my favorite film at DFF42
Show Me What You Got – a sexy film reminiscent of Jules et Jim
The Truth (La Verité)

This year’s Denver Film Festival had a particularly robust Women + Film program. 14 films, including the film series Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema directed by Mark Cousins. Four of those films won awards at the festival–Song Without a Name, The Conductor, Scheme Birds, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. And though the Women Make Film series was uneven (Part One was a fascinating 3-hour tour w/hundreds of clips of women’s work to illustrate the first 7 of 40 topics of filmmaking & Part Three was a snooze fest with fewer extended clips), the rest of the selections showed the breadth of women’s films from documentaries to social justice to hilarious farce.

There was also a Women + Film luncheon featuring a discussion between Britta Erickson, DFF Festival Director and Svetlana Cvetko, writer/director/cinematographer and winner of the Grand Prix du Public in Films de Femmes in France. Cvetko has a long history with the Denver Film Festival. Starting as a photographer for the festival, her shorts and then documentaries screened at DFF. Her latest film, and first narrative feature, Show Me What You Got played after the luncheon. The beauty of this film, shot in evocative black and white, and the intimate portrayal of three talented young adults trying to find their place in the world is impressive. Sexy and tender, the relationships feel real and I was drawn into their embrace. Shot in LA, Italy and Paris with a multilingual cast and narrated in French, the actors become more beautiful the longer Cvetko’s camera lingers on them. The title doesn’t seem to represent the film and I didn’t feel it needed to be narrated in French yet I loved this film. I hope it will get distribution and receive the audience it deserves.

My favorite film at DFF42 is an award-winner from the Sundance Film Festival. Saint Frances is hilarious, rude, and incredibly astute. I described it as — if Brie Larson starred in a dramedy with the young actress (Quvenzhané Wallis) from Beasts of the Southern Wild and the plot was reminiscent of Obvious Child (director Gillian Robespierre with star Jenny Slate). Writer and star Kelly O’Sullivan has crafted a charming film about a young woman whose considerable talents have not yet resulted in a satisfying career or relationship. The young woman takes a position as a nanny and begins an affair with a younger man that results in a pregnancy. Her life and choices resonated with me on a deeply personal level.

Director Alex Thompson, who met O’Sullivan when making her sizzle reel, handles the material with finesse. Though there are a few under-developed characters, the central relationships are awkward and fraught and real. I love this quote from Thompson that refers to the surprisingly well-handled appearances of blood in the film. “The movie is all about the ways that women are made to feel ashamed of their bodies, their choices and inherent parts of womanhood,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s annoyed me that [menstrual blood] has never made its way believably on screen — even in TV commercials for tampons, the liquid is blue! Knowing that we would be tackling this subject matter in a realistic and authentic way, the only way to do that is show it the way it is. Saint Frances is a feminist film, and I wanted to approach it so that these inherent parts of womanhood would take place on screen, not off.” 25 New Faces of Independent Film 2019, Filmmaker Magazine

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Truth (La Verité). There had been little buzz about this film at other festivals even though it has such an amazing cast. After I was telling friends how much I loved the film, I heard the sad news about Catherine Deneauve having been in the hospital for a minor stroke. The Truth, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (last year’s Indie hit, Shoplifters) is very meta. It’s about a famous actress and her fraught relationship with her daughter, played by Juliette Binoche. The daughter has traveled with her daughter and her sitcom-actor husband (a nice turn by Ethan Hawk) to celebrate the publication of the famous mother’s biography. There’s a film within the film and both actresses give very nuanced performances. There’s even a woman acting as Deneave’s character’s mother in the film played by the wonderful Ludivine Sagnier. It’s a film about mothers and daughters, jealousy, memory and forgiveness. How a Korean director making his first English language (and French) film got so much right show a great talent. This film is a real delight. Take your mom!

Overall, a stellar year for women in film at the Denver Film Festival and a wonderful slate of films! The Truth (La Verité) has distribution with Wild Bunch so look for it an arthouse cinema near you. Saint Frances is still traveling the festival circuit (in Cork this week!) but it doesn’t look they’ve announced a distributor yet. Show Me What You Got is also still on the circuit and was being shopped at the American Film Market last weekend. Follow the films on social media for release dates.

“In The House”: in the company of Francois Ozon’s women

Francois Ozon has created a body of work that features some unique film worlds: the pastel-colored past of “Potiche”, the soap-opera world of singing actresses in “8 Women”, and many films where the real and imaginary walk hand-in-hand!  His films break the “fourth wall”, challenging the audience to accept the unexpected.  One of things audiences can expect: strong roles for women performed by some of the biggest names in French cinema.

In “Swimming Pool” and “Potiche”, the narrative is driven by Charlotte Rampling and Catherine Deneuve. Charlotte Rampling’s character re-discovers her sexuality while embroiled in a mystery involving a young woman (played by the luminous Ludvine Sagnier).  Catherine Deneuve’s character in “Potiche” takes over the family business, resolves a crisis, and discovers romance.  Both films feature women taking control of their lives and expressing their desires.

“In The House” continues that tradition with Kristin Scott-Thomas, the brilliant British actor who lives in France and speaks fluent French, and with Emmanuelle Seigner (“La Vie en Rose”). They, too, exist in the Ozon film universe of fractured realities. The film opens with the voice and view of a young voyeur, Claude, attempting to win the affections of a family.  Ernst Unhauer portrays Claude as an intelligent but troubled teen; yearning for a place within what he perceives as an idealized family.  He describes his classmate waiting for his parents after school.  His classmate is embraced by them and yet feels no shame in this public display.  Claude clearly desires this closeness but, at the same time, seems to want to destroy it.  He describes, with teenage arrogance, his classmate’s mother as “listlessly thumbing through House Beautiful magazines while lounging on the couch”.  Esther, (Emmanuelle Seigner), is set-up as the bored and passive suburban housewife…

As Claude’s Literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Lachine) reads his essay and becomes intrigued “by the scent of the suburban woman” — but also by his young student who shows some promise as a writer.  His wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott-Thomas), is immediately suspicious.  She sympathizes with the Mother, who is being objectified by both men, and senses an unhealthy fascination.  Her advice to discourage this willful young man in his writing goes unheeded.

Claude narrates, as his writing comes to life on the screen — but is it this his version of events, or is it reality?  He writes about this family, not as a class assignment, but as if he is obsessed by them.  Germain encourages him and then starts behaving in erratic and unprofessional ways in an attempt to facilitate the writing of the essays he’s becoming increasingly addicted to.  The essays always end with “To be continued…”  He becomes so enmeshed in Claude’s intrigues that he even appears in the scenes interacting with the teen, and with his object of desire, the passive Esther.

Both women are shown reacting to their husbands.  Jeanne runs a contemporary art gallery but she is in danger of losing her business and often asks Germain for advice. She is also losing the affection and physical attentions of Germain.  She even invites the couple–whom they’ve grown to feel an uncomfortable intimacy with through Claude’s writing– to appear in the flesh at a gallery opening!  Unaware of the earlier angry confrontation between Germain and Claude’s father, Jeanne is both disappointed and distraught when Germain flees the gallery.

Esther is also dealing with her husband’s erratic behavior.  He is losing his job and Esther is shocked to learn that he behaved unprofessionally – and that he has committed a crime.  Stepping out of her passive role, she forces Claude to see that his romantic view is a fantasy.  He is forced back to his role as an outsider; no longer the threatening interloper.  Esther moves from being the object of desire — and passive — to actively creating a new life for herself and her family.

“In The House” is an interesting film with strong performances by the entire cast.  The female leads start the film in passive roles, reacting to the men in their lives.  By the film’s conclusion, both women ACT to take control of their lives.  When a crucial event described (and filmed) is revealed to be a vengeful fantasy, Germain (and the audience), must confront the powerful thrall that Claude’s story has cast.  Is it all just fiction?  And what price must be paid when reality intrudes and the consequences must be faced?  The final scene reveals Germain and Claude, alone, watching other people’s lives unfold before them.  Stranded and abandoned, they are relegated to the sidelines.

Rating: 3 glasses of French Chablis