So many subtitles, such a hard sell

The Sacramento French Film Festival continues on Friday, June 27, through Sunday, June 29, at the Crest Theatre (1013 K Street). Showtime and ticket information is at

Are all French films like that?”

“Like what?”

“I don't know. Bad.”

No, that's not the transcript of an old Andrew Sarris-Pauline Kael dustup, just an informal exchange overheard on 10th Street after a Sunday-night screening of Justine Triet's Age of Panic, the last film to show on the first weekend of the Sacramento French Film Festival. Although the festival, now in its 13th year, is beloved to the point of venerability, the Gallic cinema of ennui, ambiguous endings and copious subtitles is still something of a hard sell.

Perhaps with an eye toward those dulled American tastes, executive and artistic director of the festival Cécile Downs and her programmers generally select their airiest cinematic fare for the Friday-night first course, and Lucas Belvaux's festival opener Not My Type was no exception. It's an opposites-attract, fish-out-of-water rom-com that could be refit for Jennifer Aniston with very few alterations, but at least it leaves more room for emotional honesty and cerebral intelligence than an English-language equivalent such as Words and Pictures.

The last 13 years have not exactly proven to be a historical high tide for French cinema, so through no fault of the festival, the daytime premieres on Saturday and Sunday were their usual mixed bag. Atilla Marcel, the first live-action feature from The Triplets of Belleville director Sylvain Chomet, was the best of the bunch, a colorful and eccentric semimusical grounded by the same dark whimsy that characterizes Chomet's animation.

Age of Panic performed a slightly less successful balancing act, taking a banal family drama and plunking it guerrilla-style into the chaos of the 2012 Paris election rallies. Medium Cool it is not, but the film had me in its grip until an almost sadistically protracted third act. Camille Claudel 1915, starring Juliette Binoche as the institutionalized sculptress, was the weekend’s only unqualified failure—the opening crawl informs us that it's based mostly on medical records, and what follows is just as dazzling as that premise suggests.

As expected, the selection of French classics offered most of the weekend's profound moments. Queen Margot was originally released here in a heavily edited, nearly unintelligible form (Harvey Weinstein, you're the best!), so the fully restored majesty of Patrice Chéreau's 1994 historical-kink epic was a revelation. Even better were the electric Kool-Aid colors and lilting perversity of Jacques Demy's Donkey Skin, a 1970 “children's fantasy” about a beautiful princess (Catherine Deneuve) compelled to marry her father.

However, the highlight of the weekend was a new release, Alain Guiraudie's quietly spellbinding Stranger by the Lake. This story of a young gay man inexorably drawn to the mustachioed cruiser he knows to be a killer is like Hitchcock distilled into his purest form. It was a transcendent cinematic experience, even though I watched it at home streaming on Netflix instead of falling asleep at the midnight screening. In my world, subtitles are a way of life, but staying up past 1 a.m. is still the hardest sell of all.