New French Shorts
2020, NR, 149 min. Directed by Various.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 15, 2020
Few nations have taken as much of an interest in their cinema as a cultural force (rather than purely for economic gain). As curated by UniFrance's Young French Cinema program and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New French Shorts undoubtedly tries to live up to its name of representing a nation changing, growing, evolving, with new and more diverse voices added to its choir.
Foued Mansour's "Ahmed's Song" ("Le chant d'ahmed") anchors the package with the story of Ahmed, a solitary cleaner (Mohamed Sadi) charged with training a new kid, Mike (Bilel Chegrani), at the public baths at which he works. The older man lives with a clipped kindness that can come across as brusk, but he has too many people to look after - the homeless people who depend on the showers, his drunk neighbor who can't find his keys - to deal with this distaff teen who can't tell when he's treading on someone else's dignity. But the underlying story is, inevitably, that it's never too late to learn how to really connect with people. Ahmed's story is the other end of the remarkable Vitalina Varela, which concetrated on those left behind when a husband or brother or son goes overseas to earn a paycheck, but Ahmed is far more sympathetic than the absentee spouse in Costa's lyrical drama. In no small part, that's due to Sadi's sensitive portrayal of a man who has done everything that is asked of him, but can still find a little bit more kindness and connection.
Mansour takes a deliberately lo-fi approach of simple but effective compositions to let Ahmed's journey speak quietly. By contrast, dialogue-free and enigmatic animated short "Sheep, Wolf, And a Cup of Tea" ("Moutons, loup et tasse de thé") is stylistically more interesting than thematically so. The story of a child who receives a strange midnight visitor as a way to escape the blandness of her home life, it's a mixture of the childish complexity of Maurice Sendak and the mixed-media darkness of Dave McKeen.
Back on the more realistic side, Cecelia de Arce's "Tuesday from 8 to 6" ("Mardi de 8 à 18") sensitively puts the audience in the shoes of a class monitor (Rime Nahmani) who quickly realizes she can't save every kid from themselves, but that doesn't make her a failure. It's a much more fraught story of connections than the measured eroticism of "The Distance Between Us and the Sky" ("La distance entre nous et le ciel"), Vasilis Kekatos' Cannes 2019 Short Film Palme d'Or and Queer Palme-winning story of two men and a random encounter that feels sexual, but is really much more emotional. The writer/director keeps Ioko Ioannis Kotidis and Nikos Zeginoglou in tight closeups from below, heightening the clear tension between the two of them that disguises a shared sense of loneliness and need. It's a chance encounter, but their conversational dance is witty, layered, and unexpectedly heartwarming in this brief, nine-minute exchange.
Unfortunately, Venice Film Festival 2019 selection "The Tears Thing" ("Le coup des larmes") tries for the same kind of depth, but proves that simplicity can sometimes be more effective than a complex idea. The setup is classic filmmaking about filmmaking - an actress, preparing for a new part, is sent to train with a weapons instructor who happens to be her ex-girlfriend - but while sparks and bullets fly, the whole point is that the armorer (Sabine Timoteo) is trying to teach the performer (India Hair) that nothing matters unless she cares. It's a cry for emotional authenticity that somehow the short itself never quite finds.
In other circumstances, maybe another shorts package, that might work fine (although it's hard to see how it could ever leap past all the missing emotionally beats), but here its turns feel unearned.
There's a lighter tone to another queer short, Marine Levéel's "Magnetic Harvest" ("La traction des pôles"). It's another story about an emotionally stifled protagonist, in this case pigfarmer Mickaël (Gilles Vandeweerd) forced to open up with an unexpected return - in this case, freespirited farm hand Paul (Victor Fradet). Romantically humorous, and ocassionally dipping into explicit sex comedy, it's one of the few depictions of modern, technologically-assisted agriculture in recent years that was seemingly made by someone that has at least been near a farm. That becomes increasingly important with Levéel's smart use of geotracking as a narrative device, even if there are a couple of plot threads left hanging (a strange problem for a 26-minute short, which should be lean and efficient, but with space to fill in all its gaps).
Much more abstract and satirical, in a Quentin Dupieux-esque fashion, is Benjamin Croty's "The Glorious Acceptance Speech of Nicolas Chauvin" ("Le discours d'acceptation glorieux de Nicolas Chauvin"), a commentary on a mythical figure in French culture. Chauvin, for whom chauvanism was named, was a soldier in Napoleon's Grande Armée who was injured 17 times in service of l'empereur, and would have gladly been wounded 17 more for his beloved France. Except he never existed, and went from being a source of national pride to a running joke about blowhard veterans. Here he is resurrected by Les Misérables Alexis Manenti as a bombastic blowhard and an expression of French's most problematic psyhcohistory (a term explained to him by an armored knight he finds buried in a field). A broad and ridiculous look at the most problematic aspects of French identity, it's a fittingly cutting look back at old France as these filmmakers try to establish a new national identity.
New French Shorts are currently available through Kino Lorber's initiative whereby streaming rentals can be bought through virtual ticket booths for local art house cinemas. Choose from: • Violet Crown Cinema (Link)