An Eiffel of cinema Française

Three local women with French connections organize their first-ever Sacramento French Film Festival. You can go see it this weekend.

The French filmfest’s organizers, left to right: Cécile Mouette, Connie Georgiu, Marie Gallo-Boles. “Adam Sandler, he is the postmodern Jerry Lewis, is he not?”

The French filmfest’s organizers, left to right: Cécile Mouette, Connie Georgiu, Marie Gallo-Boles. “Adam Sandler, he is the postmodern Jerry Lewis, is he not?”

Photo by Larry Dalton

Cécile Mouette relocated from New York to Sacramento last year, with her boyfriend welcoming her to town and an embryonic French film festival in her hip pocket. That latter event will become a reality this Bastille Day weekend, July 12 through 14, with the screening at the Tower Theatre of six feature films with content ranging from romantic comedy, urban melodrama and grisly cannibalism to hoodlums and sexually charged teens.

Mouette is a native Parisian and former press attaché for the Gallic equivalent of our Federal Communications Commission, who spent the three previous years working in the French Cultural Service Film Department. Her job was to promote French films throughout the United States. She is no longer on the payroll. She certainly should be.

The City of Lights native started carving out plans to stage a festival in the City of Trees even before first visiting her local beau 18 months ago. “I didn’t know what to do in Sacramento, so I just do what I know,” Mouette explains while sitting in an East Sacramento recording studio, before revealing the domino effect that helped launched the fest.

“I had a very good friend who went to a wedding in France,” she says. “She met this girl who was working at the consulate in Boston, and said she knew somebody who was working at the embassy in New York and now wants to move to Sacramento.” The girl from Boston knew someone who lives in Sacramento who knew somebody else in Sacramento, so Mouette, in a daisy chain of phone calls, soon made her West Coast connection.

Marie Gallo-Boles fielded Mouette’s Sacramento call. Her husband owns the recording studio in which she, Mouette and Connie Georgiu sit in a semi-circle of folding chairs. Gallo-Boles listens to Mouette describe the chronology, then jumps into the conversation: “ … and we went to the Esquire Grille, and the next thing I know we’re having coffee and we’re planning a French film festival.”

Those plans soon included the fund-raising efforts of Georgiu, a 12-year Sacramento resident. Georgiu and her husband retired from an automotive-electronics business in Chicago and she met Gallo-Boles through the Alliance Française de Sacramento, a year-old nonprofit group of 400 members that conducts French-language classes and promotes French culture through guest speakers and other events.

These three ladies form a complementary trinity of sorts: Mouette has the relevant experience and contacts, Belgian-born Gallo-Boles provides the energy and Georgiu provides the balance. Three different personalities, three different backgrounds, all dynamically focused onto the same task. As Gallo-Boles, who has worked fund-raisers for the Crocker, CARES and Loaves & Fishes, puts it: “Cécile’s the pro. Connie is always nice. I’m nice but … Connie is nice all the time. There is no but.”

Mouette estimated the festival required a nest egg of $10,000 to cover theatre and film rentals, printing, reception expenses, catering and miscellaneous expenses. Individuals, as well as businesses, contributed over $8,000; other businesses donated “in-kind”—services rather than money.

“I had a name in my head when we started the whole thing,” says Gallo-Boles. That person was restaurateur Reda Bellarbi, who owns Aïoli Bodega Española in Midtown. Bellarbi put Gallo-Boles in contact with filmmaker Mark Herzig, who liked the festival idea and gave a substantial check to kick off the fund-raising. Herzig also contributed invaluable photography, printer and graphic-designer contacts.

“When I explain to people how we were able to do this event,” says Gallo-Boles, “it’s just because we were lucky to have such professionals to help us.” So the ladies met two times a week to strategize and sent flurries of e-mails. The system seemed to gradually work. “I think we amazed ourselves more than anybody else,” she says.

“Maybe there was also the feeling,” adds Georgiu, “that three women were out there with little experience and we need to help them. They need more help than they know.”

Some potential sponsors showed interest, but needed more time to work the event into their budgets. With money gradually coming into the project, Mouette searched for films. The late start negated the import of films directly from France, so she contacted Unifrance, an association of French producers and film distributors with an office in New York.

The resulting lineup is an impressive array that eschews the action genre for stories driven more by character than special effects or gunplay. The films are about fate, coincidence, the unknown that lies in wait around the sharp corners of life, and the invisible threads that connect disparate individuals, tragedy and optimism.

Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips (Sur mes lèvres, 7:15 p.m. Friday) is part noir thriller, part social comedy and part love story in which the characters never make love. It’s about a partially deaf administrative assistant who is assigned to work with a maladjusted ex-convict. It won three 2002 Césars (the French Oscar equivalent, awarded by the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma): best actress, best screenplay and best sound. It will be preceded by Herzig’s Scherzo, a locally produced, 7-minute exploration of the interconnectedness of urban strangers.

Girls Can’t Swim (Les Filles ne savent pas nager, 1 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 p.m. Sunday) is a coming-of-age story by Anne-Sophie Birot that explores teenage sexuality and experimentation, and the role adults play in shaping kids’ lives. Two 15-year-old girls, best friends, who share their summer vacation, find their lives disrupted by a death in a family. They reunite, but the story continues to oscillate between being carefree and serious, alternately full of grief and wonder.

Laurent Firode’s Happenstance (Le Battement d’ailes du papillon, 3:40 p.m. Saturday and 6:15 p.m. Sunday) was originally released as The Beating of Butterfly Wings in reference to the theory of chaos in which the fluttering of butterflies in one part of the world can affect the weather in another. Fate, coincidence and the idea that even the smallest gesture or incident (here such as spilled heads of lettuce or a defecating bird) can make a difference in the world are the issues of an ensemble comedy featuring Amélie’s Audrey Tautou in a series of crisscrossing lives.

Robert Guediguian’s The Town Is Quiet (La Ville est Tranquille, 6:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday) is a social drama that feels like a John Sayles saga involving addiction and love. One man betrays his fellow striking dock workers to become a taxi driver. A woman who works in a fish market sells her body to support her daughter’s heroin habit. A married music teacher has an affair with a North African immigrant fresh from prison. It’s a seductive fresco of finely etched characters.

Band of Outsiders (Bande à part, 9:40 p.m. Saturday and 3:40 p.m. Sunday) is a 1964 comic noir from legendary Jean-Luc Godard, in which two self-conscious thugs attempt a robbery with disastrous results.

The ladies even stretched to include a midnight movie, Claire Denis’ controversial Trouble Every Day, which will be shown on Saturday at, well, midnight. “We are sort of feeling our way to see what works,” says Georgiu. “I think, for me, the decider was that Cécile said that many of these types of late-night screenings at the Crest had a good following and there was a market, and I thought well, why not try to enter that area too.”

“We wanted to make it a little more special, a little more daring,” says Mouette. “This woman, she eats her lover. She really eats him.”

The selected films include the frank and even nonchalant nudity for which French and other European films are known. When people take a bath, there’s more emphasis on naturalism than strategically placed bubble-bath foam or sensationalized money shots. And frontal nudity is certainly not a taboo. These elements of cinema—the adult handling of adult subject matter—run contrary to Hollywood convention.

“How can the people who rate movies tolerate so much violence on TV,” demands Gallo-Boles, “and then they see just a nipple or a breast, something that is part of your beautiful things of your body, and no, you cannot watch that because it is nudity. But you can see real carnage, the killing and blood, and that’s OK to be PG-13. That I don’t get. I still have a hard time to understand that philosophy of rating. Seeing a beautiful body completely naked, a man and a woman having sex, is perfectly normal. It’s not normal to see guns and killing just for the fun of the movie.”

The three ladies acknowledge that subtitles may be a tough sell to some American audiences, as are the social content and sometimes difficult form of some French films and the always provocative lack of a traditional Hollywood-type ending—something that leaves the film open to interpretation and leaves many audiences dissatisfied.

“It’s more work than if you watch an American movie,” says Mouette.

“It requires your involvement rather than just being a spectator,” Georgiu adds. “There’s also the background sound that is usually very natural in French films”—films in which silences are as or more important than musical notes.

As for the future, the three already are thinking about next year and beyond. “We have other directions we would like to see the festival expand,” Georgiu says, “to like perhaps some of the restaurants having themes of French food that weekend and we could get sponsorship in that direction. Maybe host some movie actors. It’s very difficult to create a three-day festival when you start from zero.”

“But next year we do better,” Mouette enthuses. “Now we know where to get the money.”