Cops et robbers

Michel Alexandre, a Parisian narcotics cop turned screenwriter, investigates the Sacramento French Film Festival

Providence added a very significant event to the deliberately orchestrated innovations of the fourth annual Sacramento French Film Festival. Cécile Mouette Downs, the festival’s amiable executive and artistic director, explained the serendipitous story on a sunny Sunday afternoon during an interview under a large umbrella in her downtown backyard. “I really wanted to show a movie from Maurice Pialat,” she began. “He is the one who directed Police, and he died very recently. He is a very great filmmaker, and the film is not very well-known in the States.”

Downs booked Police, a 1985 thriller in which Gérard Depardieu plays a cop manipulated by a femme fatale, as the foundation for the festival’s Classic Selection series and began building a crime-story motif. “Last year, we showed classic films from the 1960s only,” Downs said. “This year, we have one film from the ’40s, one from the ’50s, one from the ’80s and one from the ’90s.”

Bertrand Tavernier’s narcotics drama L.627 created quite a controversy in France when it was released in 1992. Touchez pas au Grisbi (Hands off the Loot) is a languid 1953 gem in which a suave gangster runs into trouble with other hoods after a huge heist. And in 1947’s Quai des Orfévres, director Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear) darkly dissects the social climate of postwar Paris when a jealous pianist and his wife are involved in murder.

This year’s festival also features new local and, for the first time, imported French short films in a program titled “De Paris à Sacramento” (“From Paris to Sacramento”). The program, created with collaboration from the New York French Short Film Festival and Rich Malmberg of Iron Mountain Films, will be screened in segments throughout the festival and in a group showing on Saturday, July 23. One of the short films selected for the screening was the man-wife-mistress comedy Midi A Sa Porte (The Grass is Always Greener) by French filmmaker Michel Alexandre. Always interested in knowing where his films are showing, Alexandre contacted Downs via e-mail.

“He gave me his biography,” said Downs. “He said, ‘Hi. You know I’m an ex-cop, and also I am a screenwriter, and I am the screenwriter of L.627.’ And while I was reading, I was like, ‘I can’t believe that!’” Downs gasped theatrically before continuing.

“I replied to him and said, ‘What a coincidence, because we are going to show not only Midi A Sa Porte, but also L.627!’ He said, ‘I always want to come if I can.’ And so he is coming,” she concluded.

Although the organizers of the Sacramento French Film Festival have intended to host guest filmmakers since the festival’s inception, Alexandre will be the first in the festival’s four-year history. Alexandre will fly in from Paris to present his films. A three-course prix fixe dinner in his honor is set for Thursday, July 21, at La Provence Restaurant and Terrace in Roseville. (Call (916) 789-2002 for reservations.)

SN&R found former crime-buster Alexandre between shoots on a French television police drama, where he acts as a technical consultant. During an e-mail interview, Alexandre recalled the days after the release of L.627 when both he and director Tavernier were chastised and grilled by press and politicians. As a screenwriter, Alexandre had used 13 years of police experience to develop a series of events and characters for the movie that nailed the reality of being on either side of the law. Tavernier declined to cast a recognizable “star” for the film after Alexandre emphasized that policemen such as he were not heroes, but just anonymous faces in a crowd.

“All the policemen of Paris, and France too, liked this movie,” Alexandre said. “It was the first movie to speak about the true life of a policeman. Often, when you enter a police office, you see the L.627 poster in the wall.”

But the film, whose title refers to the French criminal code pertaining to drug offenses, incensed those in power. Many government and police officials did not appreciate the film’s depiction of an ill-equipped police force and the rather ambiguous ethics, contradictions and frustrations that emanate from a war on drugs. “A big, polemical debate began between Tavernier, me and the interior minister,” said Alexandre. Many sequences in L.627 were shot with hidden cameras in a truck, and the police rankled both Alexandre and Tavernier by very publicly raiding those very streets the day after the film opened.

“The fight against drugs is like [trying] to empty a bath with a spoon,” said Alexandre. “The drug dealer is always here. But not in Paris. Now it is in the suburbs.” The job takes a heavy toll on the cops who are most often in the line of fire. In Alexandre’s experience working with a group of seven policemen, two committed suicide, and the wife of a third hung herself, all in just four years.

Alexandre has left the police force to move into film and TV full time, but he still misses the streets. As he stated passionately in his e-mail, “A policeman stays a policeman all his life!!!” He frequently requests to participate in ride-alongs in the cities he visits, and he reportedly will patrol Sacramento with a canine anti-drug unit. “It’s very interesting to compare the police in the world, in Japan, in Turkey, in Canada or USA,” he said. “In France, we copy a lot of things about police experiences.”

L.627 will play only once at the festival, at 1:45 p.m. on Saturday, July 23, on the Crest Theatre’s large screen. Single tickets can be purchased for $9, and a full festival pass runs $35-$60. For more highlights of the fourth annual Sacramento French Film Festival, check out the sidebar “More? Mais oui!”