Cinemania showcases the best in French cinema

We preview some of the films screening at the 24th edition of Montreal’s French film festival, including new films by Romain Gavras and Olivier Assayas.

Vincent Macaigne in Non-Fiction

Cinemania first started out 24 years ago as a festival that allowed English-speaking movie audiences to see French films with subtitles. While these would generally have theatrical releases in the city, it would be one aimed solely at a French-speaking market. Though it seems that with the advent of streaming services and digital distribution in general, these concerns are less pressing for audiences, it doesn’t change the fact that the festival has carved out quite an enviable niche for itself in the festival landscape. Case in point: the festival starts today with the Quebec premiere of Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction, an unusual combination of sex farce à la française and rumination on the ongoing digitization of creative endeavours.

Guillaume Canet stars as! an editor who’s cheating on his actress wife (Juliette Binoche) with his secretary. What he doesn’t know is that his wife is also cheating on him with one of his clients, a needy and uncontrollably self-mythologizing novelist (Vincent Macaigne) who thinks he’s doing a bang-up job hiding all of it from his wife (Nora Hamzawi). All the while, the friends meet and pontificate about the way the world is passing them by — the way the things they like have fallen hopelessly out of style and how the things they’ve come to cherish have been rendered meaningless. It’s an unusual gamble that pays off for Assayas, who’s certainly not afraid to try things, but has rarely combined the two poles of his filmmaking in such a way.

Macaigne also stars in Dog, a dour satire by Samuel Benchetrit. He plays a dopey arts-supply store clerk who’s told by his wife (Vanessa Paradis) that she’s developed a life-threatening allergy to his presence. He moves out and, in an attempt to bond with his pre-teen son, purchases a dog that immediately gets run over by a bus. He’s on the hook to the pet store owner (Bouli Lanners) for 10 training lessons — but with no dog to train, Jacques himself becomes the dog. Pitch-black comedy, fascism analogy or Lanthimos-inspired exploration of cruelty: Dog is a little bit of all of those, and it certainly bears the weight of its ambitions. It’s an uncomfortable watch, propulsed by Macaigne’s committed performance as the almost supernaturally affable Jacques. (Macaigne will be in town to present both of the films in which he appears.)

Guillaume Canet, for his part, also stars in Paris Pigalle, a rollicking comedy set in the seedy underworld of Paris peepshows and the 1980s porn scene. He plays one of the two owners of a failing peepshow business alongside Gilles Lellouche, who brings his directorial effort (his first in nearly 15 years) Sink or Swim to the festival as well. A star-studded cast (which includes — who else — Guillaume Canet, Philippe Katerine, Benoît Poelvoorde and Virginie Efira) appears in this story of a depressed 40-something (Mathieu Amalric) who finds a new lease on life when he joins an amateur swim team.

Adèle Haenel in One Nation, One King

The guest of honour this year is Olivier Gourmet, who appears in no less than three films playing the festival. In Those Who Work, he plays a workaholic company man who’s fired with little notice, forcing him to keep up appearances to those around him. (Shades of Laurent Cantet’s incredible L’emploi du temps, no doubt.) He portrays Philippe d’Orleans, regent of France, in Marc Dugain’s period piece L’échange des princesses alongside Lambert Wilson and Igor van Dessel. Finally, he appears alongside Gaspar Ulliel and Adèle Haenel in the French Revolution-set drama One Nation, One King. The Cinémathèque is also programming a couple of his classics: the Dardenne Brothers’ The Son and Philippe Falardeau’s Congorama.

Ulliel also stars in To the Ends of the World, a WWII drama from idiosyncratic director Guillaume Nicloux. Nicloux’s previous works have included the very weird Depardieu vehicles The End and Valley of Love as well as the bonkers L’enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq, so I wouldn’t expect a straight historical drama. Ulliel pulls triple duty at the festival, also showing up in Eva, a psychosexual thriller from Benoît Jacquot that also stars Isabelle Huppert.

Mathieu Kassovitz will also be in town for the festival. The actor/director is giving a master class (which is, sadly, already sold out) and presenting Sparring, a meat-and-potatoes boxing drama in which he plays Steve Landry, an ageing, mediocre boxer who’s fast running out of options. Faced with a dwindling career and a family to feed, he decides to take a job as a sparring partner for a much younger, much stronger boxer (Souleymane M’Bane) with a reputation for working his sparring partners to the bone. Kassovitz is an extremely compelling performer, but this is the kind of rote underdog boxing stuff that we’ve seen before. I can’t fault filmmakers for being drawn to the poetry of the ageing boxer and his broken, useless body, but I also can’t really say that director Samuel Jouy finds too many unexplored avenues in there.

Joachim Lafosse is absolutely one of my favourites working today. While I have yet to see his newest film Keep Going, which is playing the festival, I have to imagine it keeps in the tradition of finely observed, tremendously depressing and trenchant dramas. Virginie Efira stars as a mother who brings her troubled delinquent son on a horseback “roadtrip” through the hills of Kyrgyzstan in order to save him from himself.  Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun was nominated for the Palme d’Or earlier this year. Her hotly-anticipated follow-up to Bang Gang stars Golshifteh Farahani (Paterson) as a member of an all-female platoon of resistance fighters who work towards liberating towns from ISIS.

Karim Leklou and Isabelle Adjani in The World is Yours

Romain Gavras is probably still best known for his work in music videos for Justice, M.I.A., Kanye & Jay-Z as well as commercials, despite making his feature debut with Our Day Will Come in 2010. His second film, which screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, certainly betrays a certain music video influence, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in The World Is Yours, a high-energy crime caper about a two-bit hustler (Karim Leklou) who only dreams of opening up a Mr. Freeze franchise in Algeria but instead finds himself tangled up in a nonsensical drug-dealing scheme involving his overly theatrical mother (Isabelle Adjani), her conspiracy-theory-addled ex (Vincent Cassel), two seperate dopes named Mohammed, a coked-out Scotsman (Sam Spruell) and the Scotsman’s pre-teen daughter (Gabby Rose).

There’s certainly a kind of self-evident logic to the pairing of director and material here. Gavras is prone to souped-up visuals and idiosyncratic music cues, which also happen to be very common in “crime doesn’t pay” comedies like this one. But The World Is Yours has a particularly askew and idiosyncratic sense of humour that’s more mirthful and silly than it is dark (the title’s a reference to Scarface, but the tone has more of a hopeful Coen vibe). It’s a tremendously likeable film from the get-go, bolstered by Leklou’s hangdog energy and some quality scenery-chewing from the supporting cast. ■

Cinemania runs from Nov 111. For scheduling and ticketing information, visit their website.