My weekend is a French movie

The Sacramento French Film Festival opened last week, so I decided to spend the weekend immersed in French culture.

It started early Friday, when I received an unexpected dose of that most copious of French exports: virulent anti-Americanism! This was delivered in the form of the bewildered and bewildering World Cup referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali (a French republic!), who disallowed what should have been a go-ahead goal for the American team over Slovenia.

The subsequent furor obscured the fact that this was merely the cherry on top of a deluxe sundae of bad calls, as the World Cup rookie Coulibaly seemed confused and overstimulated for most of the match. Maybe we had it coming; America completely ignores “football” 116 months per decade, invents a superior game also called football and then started referring to “the world’s game” as soccer. That’s bound to piss off some asshole from Mali. But I digress.

This year’s Sacramento French Film Festival comes a month earlier than usual, and if the first weekend is any indication, it’s not one of its strongest lineups. I recalled that last year’s “8:30 p.m.” opening-night screening of Paris didn’t start until 10, so I skipped this year’s opener À L’Origine in favor of that other great American pastime: getting to bed early on a Friday night.

I returned the next morning for my first-ever viewing of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 Diva, a neon-noir thriller still considered one of the more startling debut films. It remains startling, a unique mash-up of opera worship, perverted romance, cop-movie clichés, emotional detachment and visual austerity. That said, Diva is no French masterpiece—the lead performances are icy and unmemorable, and despite a seminal nightmare-POV chase scene, the disaffected narrative dawdles too long.

Sacha Guitry’s proto-meta movie The Story of a Cheat was a similarly charming but compromised film, the biography of a crooked man besieged by fate. The film marries the authorial cinema of Dziga Vertov with the fizzy irreverence of 1930s comedy; it’s ahead of its time … and yet strikingly behind it, even compared to Guitry contemporaries such as Ernst Lubitsch or the Marx brothers.

Neither the “happy comedy” Please, Please Me! nor the “surreal comedy” Louise-Michel looked interesting, so I went home to watch Michel Hazanavicius’ 2006 French spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies instead.

Based on a French film series, OSS 117 is a James Bond-ian farce in the Austin Powers mold, and while its appeals are far from profound, there is a refreshing reliance on wit, slapstick and situational humor (not to mention the catcall-worthy beauty of female lead Bérénice Bejo), as opposed to the orgy of orifice-related gags that defines American comedy.

The 2009 sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio closes the festival this Sunday night, followed by a free champagne party. Next weekend’s lineup also includes a tribute to the great French actor Jean Gabin, with showings of Pépé le Moko and a Sunday morning breakfast with Gabin biographer Chuck Zigman preceding the 10:15 a.m. showing of 1969’s The Sicilian Clan.