You can flashmob to Pharrell ‘til you’re blue in the face, but, in terms of things we do en masse nothing gets people gathering ‘round in the soothing glow of community like outdoors movie night. Even if it’s a subtitled movie.
That seems to be the wager made by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York, the city’s Parks Department and FACE foundation in presenting FILMS ON THE GREEN, a sensibly-curated selection of French films, some from recent times and others less so.
The idea (the program was launched six years ago), according to Antonin Baudry of the French Embassy with whom I spoke to for this article (Baudry is the Embassy’s cultural counselor), is to present French-made cinema to a mixed audience made up of anything from accomplished cinephiles to wet-behind-the-ear French-curious cats, and everything in between.
A theme meant to hold the selection together is devised every year, Baudry told me, and a short-list of films slowly comes into being after much back-and-forth conversations between the audiovisual department of the French Embassy, Parks and Recreation and the FACE people. There are challenges to this, however: the films have to appeal to a broad audience and nudity is verboten.
Past themes of the French festival have included “love story,” “a summer vacation,” “musicals,” and “literary adaptations.” If all this sounds mainstream and unchallenging, that’s because it is. But anyone who knows French cinema will have high expectations, anyway. Directors and producers from across the pond bear with a mysterious but wonderful combination of gravitas, geniality and randomness upon their craft, all features which define partly the French ethos of filmmaking. That’s what makes it so unpredictable and such an enriching experience.
The FILMS ON THE GREEN selection is carefully massaged, worked over and scrutinized all throughout the year (as the French would not say, “c’est un processus »). The films one curates should not vex, understandably. A good outdoorsy selection is supposed to be about community, friendship, discovery and entertainment—and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that (people who’d rather go see Brakhage at Film Forum are welcome to do so. They’ll get a headache, but they’ll do so in a generally air-conditioned room).
Baudry, all charm and intelligence, and the audiovisual department, work in close collaboration with his colleagues at Parks and FACE. A longtime fan of cinema he wrote his Master’s thesis about the cinema from Hong Kong. He took over as the Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy three years ago.
This year’s program, which launched on May 30th and will go until September 4th, is shown under the banner of MASCULIN/MASCULIN, the mysteriously doubled-up adjective of the title which leaves much to interpretation is a reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 “Masculin Féminin.” The films which were chosen for this year’s program hail from many different genres, from film noir to comedies and romance.
Not one to be very subtle, I fell right into the trap, musing out loud with Baudry that he and his counterparts at Parks and FACE must’ve intended to pay tribute to virile men, macho fellows who are set in their ways and call women “dames” and “broads” (if they were American). At least, that was my owninterpretation of MASCULIN/MASCULIN.
Baudry rushed to correct me, saying that in fact the theme is more nuanced, their aim being to show man in all his varied accoutrements. But indulge me, would you?
Lino Ventura, an actor who is defined by his gruff virility, alternated throughout his career between playing world-weary police detectives and veteran gangsters. He appears in 1963’s “Les Tontons flingueurs” (“Monsieur Gangster,” in the English; directed by Claude Lautner) which will be shown tonight.
Ventura, all scowl and gruffness, is the paradigm of male virility (he was a professional fighter before heeding the call of Saint Genesius). Could Ventura instill some gravitas in downtown New York’s stroller-pushing metrosexual establishment? He belongs to a hard past in which men sharpened their chainsaws and drove clunky Citroens that were devoid of power-steering.
Ventura, even though he’s part Italian, is the epitome of snobbism à la française, apparently. When he was offered a part in “Apocalypse Now,” “Encounters of the third kind” and William Friedkin’s “Wages of Fear,” he simply said, “non.”
1979’s ironic and delightfully vulgar “Buffet froid” was directed by Bertrand Blier, a director and actor who won an Academy Awards for Best Foreign film for his “Get out your handkerchiefs” (Blier appeared alongside Ventura in “Les tontons flingueurs”).
“Buffet froid,” a tremendous choice for this year’s program, can be unnverving at times. Blier rolls out a cold but funny tragicomedy about men out of the reassuring confines of an apartment in a modern residential tower.
Carole Bouquet, who held court at the Cannes Festival last month as part of this year’s jury, plays death itself (herself?). “Buffet” is a scient choice right out of the French canon (Blier’s other film “Les Valseuses” was listed as part of our One Hundred Years of Must-See Movies list (click here to access our list)
In comparing French to American cinema Baudry surmised that France’s seventh art is not as constrained by dogmas, the resulting films being less formatted. And he’s right. In fact, everything is now singularly different between here and France. The outlook is different and the films are better-suited to an adult and intelligent audience whereas studios have turned their focus entirely to the young adult set. But then, the bottom lines and financial pressures are not the same and American filmmaking industry as a whole depends on the continued solvency of the big studios.
Whereas independent cinema stateside has all but foundered and has been relegated to living once again in the shadow of the big studios, there’s been an effervescence of new works and new filmmakers riding high on European financing.
Every year France’s public film office, le CNC (Centre national de la Cinématographie) actually funds a number of foreign productions. “61 films last year,” Baudry told me.
Other films in this year’s program include “The Women on the sixth floor,” starring the incomparable Fabrice Luchini. An accomplished screen and theater actor, Luchini made soaring entertainment out of reading texts by the French essayist Philippe Murray and Barthes on stage. Most, if not all, shows are sold out.
In “Women” Luchini plays Jean-Louis, a bourgeois whiling the days of a comfortable middle class existence away until he has an encounter with someone who’ll reveal a new world to him (showing on June 20th in Tompkins Square Park).
Baudry did not give me any anecdotes, those neat yarns I normally like to end interviews with, but he did mention that people come to him after the screenings and tell him that they’ve discovered French cinema thanks to FILMS ON THE GREEN, which he found gratifying.
In a city where high culture is not scarce and film festivals abound (according to Richard Pena of the New York Film Festival, there were sixty-three film festivals, just in New York, at one point: if films about Provence are your shtick, there was a festival for that) FILMS ON THE GREEN distinguishes itself not only because of its energetic and varied selection but also because it doesn’t try to cater to anyone or sell a popular product. Showing subtitled films in the park is a tough sell, even though the movies are free. Baudry and the people at Parks and Recreation and FACE have raised the bar high; it’ll be up to the people to show up (and they do).
Other films at this year’s FILMS ON THE GREEN include “La Haine” (June 27, Tompkins Square Park), “The Moustache” (July 11, Riverside Park, Pier 1), “La Grande Illusion” (July 18, Riverside Park), Le Magnifique (July 25, Transmitter Park), “2 Autumns, 3 Winters” (August 1, Transmitter Park), with a nice finish at my alma mater Columbia University on September 4th with “The French Minister” starring Thierry Lhermitte and the charming Raphaël Personnaz.
Follow Ali Naderzad on Twitter @alinaderzad