Ooh-la-la deux!

Last year’s surprise summer hit, the Sacramento French Film Festival, returns—this time at the Crest Theatre, which is to say that Bill O’Reilly may hate the French, but apparently the locals don’t

Jean Dasté smokes a Gauloise with his belly button in <i>L’Atalante</i>.

Jean Dasté smokes a Gauloise with his belly button in L’Atalante.

Filmmaker and Sacramento resident Mark Herzig was absolutely right. “Every film festival should be so fortunate as to have a curator like Cécile Mouette,” he said.

The diminutive but dynamic event director, Mouette, with her co-chairs and fund-raisers Marie Gallo-Boles and Connie Georgiu, enriched the local cultural landscape last year with the Sacramento French Film Festival 2002. The trio returns this year, with a 2003 festival, a second celebration of Gallic cinema, July 11-13. The three-day program, which is at the Crest Theatre, takes several bold new risks while having all the same fingerprints of success as the one last year at the Tower Theatre.

Mouette and Gallo-Boles recently took time out for a chat in the lobby of a local recording studio owned by Gallo-Boles’ husband. Georgiu—who organized the opening Enotria Café & Wine Bar-catered cocktail reception, which will include goodie bags of perfume samples and coupons—was vacationing in France. During the past year, Mouette married and gave birth to a visibly cheerful boy. Mouette and Gallo-Boles sat on a loveseat in the studio and took turns holding the baby or spoon-feeding him a midday ration of yogurt, pureed squash and corn, as they sat talking about the festival.

Last year’s opening night came as a surprise: It sold out. “It really freaked me out!” Gallo-Boles said, summing up the reaction for the three novice festival organizers.

Raffa&#235;la Anderson (as Manu) gets jinky with a pistol in <i>Baise-moi.</i>

“The next day, a lady called me,” added Mouette, “and asked if we expected as many people today as yesterday. I said I didn’t know, and the woman said, ‘It was so great yesterday!’ And I said, ‘Oh, did you enjoy the movie?’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I couldn’t get in—but the atmosphere was so great!’”

The rest of the weekend was so busy that Gallo-Boles lost five pounds, as Sacramento gained what it is hoped will become a perennial event. In-kind and financial support continues to come from individual benefactors, such as Herzig and members of the nonprofit Alliance Française de Sacramento, along with such corporate sponsors as Enotria, Ernst & Young, La Provence Restaurant—set to open in Roseville later this year—and Signature Press.

This year, Mouette attempted to acquire some films directly from France that haven’t lined up distributors in this country yet, but the cost was prohibitive. It also was hard for her to find a promising comedy. So, Mouette, a native Parisian and former French Cultural Service Film Department employee, turned to her informal selection committee of friends and past associates from here to New York for assistance. The result was the assemblage of seven new, unreleased films and five classic films that once again cut across all genres.

Mouette decided to take a huge risk by scheduling a documentary for the opening night. The film may be a stranger to most American audiences, but it was a huge hit in France. Être et avoir (To Be and to Have) is an amazing, intimate 104 minutes of nonfiction. It conjures up the educational and emotional ups and downs of one year in a one-room rural schoolhouse, as a male teacher with a relentlessly calming voice nudges his students through reading, writing and arithmetic. The dozen kids range in age from 3 to 11. Director Nicolas Philibert brilliantly escorts us into their deeply resonant world of teacher-student and student-student relationships without the use of voiceovers or explanatory commentary, but rather pure trust in each individual moment to tell a story gradually.

Booking Belgian director Lucas Belvaux’s La Trilogy was also a risk. In the mode of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors (Blue, White and Red), characters and themes overlap in Belvaux’s ambitious trinity of fear, laughter and tears. The work includes the film noir Cavale (On the Run), the romantic comedy Un couple épatant (An Amazing Couple) and the melodrama Après la vie (After Life).

An unidentified future Frenchman demonstrates his knowledge of &#8220;gangsta&#8221; hand signals in <i>&#202;tre et avoir</i>.

Each film stands alone, and they add up to a unique virtual fourth film of discovery as the main characters in one film have minor roles in another and vice-versa. Belvaux’s intent was to show some of the complexity of life while retaining the simple pleasure of cinema as the films cross paths but do not intertwine. “There should be a sense of complicity among the spectators and those who made the film,” he was quoted in the film’s press materials as saying. “A sort of treasure hunt or a system of echoes.”

This year’s midnight movie goes way out on a limb. Baise-moi (Rape Me) arrives with a warning that it contains graphic violence and prolonged sex scenes of an extremely explicit nature. It’s a sort of hard-core Thelma and Louise about a rape victim and a prostitute who only feel alive when killing people, so they embark on a rage- and sex-saturated road trip. Porn actresses Karen Bach (a.k.a. Karen Lancaume) and Raffaëla Anderson star in this story, in which feminist and socio-political messages are splashed over a series of actual sex scenes. Directors Virginie Despentes and Coralie (sometimes credited as Coralie Trinh Thi) shot the 77-minute story on digital video.

Locally made but far less lurid, original digital videos are also added attractions this year. The group 23 Degrees, also known as the Sacramento Solstice-Equinox Film Sessions, was founded by Brian Clark as a result of conversations between local film and television professionals. It has established a noncommercial forum in which members screen films every four months on a prearranged theme or subject, such as “the truth” or genealogy. The group’s latest films about France and French culture will be shown continually in a lobby kiosk, and three or four of the films also will be put into rotation as shorts before certain films in the main theaters.

The other two new feature releases are Vendredi soir (Friday Night) and Betty Fisher et autres histoires (Alias Betty). The five classics are La Grande illusion, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (A Man Escaped), À bout de souffle (Breathless), Le Cercle rouge (The Red Circle), and L’Atalante.

Vendredi soir begins on the eve before Laure (Valérie Lemercier) is to move in with her boyfriend. A transit strike paralyzes the city, and she gets caught in a massive Parisian traffic jam. She agrees to give a stranded stranger (Vincent Lindon) a lift in a night of slowly burning, neon-lit intimacy. Clair Denis (Chocolat) directed this 90-minute rumination on unspoken inner desire.

Charles Le Clainche and Fran&#231;ois Leterrier look mighty suspicious in Un condamn&#233; &#224; mort s&#8217;est &#233;chapp&#233;.

Betty Fisher et autres histoires won several best-acting awards and the International Critics’ Award at the Montreal World Film Festival. Betty (Sandrine Kiberlain) is a young, single novelist whose son dies in an accident. Her mentally troubled mother tries to cheer her up by kidnapping a young boy whose barmaid mother’s morals are loose at best. Dramatic dominoes begin to topple as complications and coincidences abound. Director Claude Miller’s tale of extortion, desperation and askew benevolence runs 101 minutes.

Jean Renoir’s 1937 La Grande illusion is an anti-war story set during World War I. It follows three French prisoners (Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Marcel Dalio) through a German prisoner-of-war camp. This lean masterpiece about the hypocrisy of war and pacifism runs 117 minutes.

Robert Bresson’s 1956 drama Un condamné à mort s’est échappé is set in occupied France during wartime. It’s a 99-minute film about resistance and redemption that dramatizes the Sisyphean details of a condemned man’s plans and execution of escape, set to a Mozart soundtrack.

In À bout de soufflé (1960), a car thief (Jean-Paul Belmondo) kills a motorcycle cop and spends the next 24 hours hustling money for his escape in the streets of Paris. Director Jean-Luc Godard co-wrote Belmondo’s trademark role with François Truffaut. The soundtrack features the music of French jazz legend Martial Solal.

Le Cercle rouge is about two gangsters (Alain Delon and Gian-Maria Volonté) who plan a big heist. This new 140-minute print of Jean-Pierre Melville’s ultra-cool and soulful, fatalistic 1970 heist drama about honor, loyalty and fate is not to be missed.

Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante was re-cut by its distributor and released in Paris in September 1934, just three weeks before Vigo’s death at the age of 29. It has undergone several renovations since then. Jean, the captain of a river barge, marries a girl named Juliette from one of the villages along his route. The newlyweds travel down the river until Juliette soon becomes dissatisfied with conjugal life and sneaks off to see the sights of Paris. Jean drifts downstream in a state of misery as his wife wanders on the shore, while the audience wonders whether they will ever reunite and be happy. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman also shot On the Waterfront and The Pawnbroker.

Also new this year is an audience prize. Audiences will be asked to rate the films they attend, and the award will be announced at the closing-night screening of Le Cercle rouge.

Herzig, who lobbied hard for an increase in classic French films this year, and who is both a financial and creative contributor to the festival, would like to see the emergence of urban, Italian or Japanese film festivals in Sacramento, too. “If they could be curated as well as Cécile, Marie and Connie have done here,” he said, “we could be well on our way to having a new breath of life in this town.”