Friday, March 29, 2019

Synopsis en Francais

It's that magical time of year when all the Carytown banners are equal parts red, white and blue and French speakers mill about on Cary Street.

Bonjour, 27th Annual French Film Festival. Glad to have you back.

And since it wouldn't be a French Film Fest without running into Barbara, we'd only gotten as far as Bygones before she and her new husband passed by and stopped to chat. It's sort of the unofficial launch to the festivities for me. Or put another way: every year for well over a decade, Barbara and I - always without dates - have run into each other socially because we were drawn to the same nerdy events.

We still do, except we now have companions who like nerdy women.

They'd just come from "Libre" and we'd just finished dinner at Greek on Cary and were headed to see a short, "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" followed by a full length feature, "Fait d'hiver."

Before going inside the Byrd, I chatted local theater with manager Todd, who had not only enjoyed TheatreLAB's production of "Sweeney Todd" as much as I had, but had used his specials effects skill set so that he and his wife had gone to see it with fake slit throats.

And lest I doubt him, he showed me photographic evidence.

Waiting for the films to begin, I checked out the crowd. A woman behind me had been to three of the four master classes offered this morning. The trio two rows behind me had driven down from Bethesda for the four days of the festival and like to hang out at "Con Con," as he pronounced it, at least until someone corrected him to Can Can. Meanwhile, an official usher draped personalized seat marker covers on the three seats in front of us, a privilege for having donated cash money to the festival.

I'm happy to report that once again, festival goers were told to stay in the moment with an onscreen sign reading, "NO texting during screenings. Violators may be removed." Mais, bien sur.

The French are civilized like that.

French director Robert Enrico (RIP) was the focus this evening, with his first and last films being introduced by his lookalike son Jerome before being shown.

We were told that "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," yep, from the 1891 Ambrose Bierce short story, won at Cannes as well as at the Oscars when it came out. The story of a Civil War-era civilian being hanged on a bridge struck me as the unlikeliest of starting points for a French director in 1962, yet the film captured the era evocatively in shades of black and white.

I don't know if I've ever read the short story, but I think I must have because I somehow knew halfway into it how it would end.

As the credits rolled, a woman near me turned to her spoiler of a companion and complained, "You shouldn't have told me what was going to happen!"

Jerome had informed us that we'd be seeing "Fait d'hiver" on the only subtitled 35 mm copy of the film left in the world, which felt pretty special. I always get a kick out of seeing the blip on the screen signaling the switch to the other projector.

The 1999 film was set in 1970 and based on a true story about a divorced man who decided not to return his kids to his ex after they come for a visit. Although the oldest daughter escapes and returns to her mother, the two younger ones want to stay on with Dad, barricading the windows and doors and shooting at anyone who dares approach the house.

It touched on several issues - fathers' rights post-divorce, PTSD, the bonds soldiers develop in wartime, overeager media hype - while always keeping at the center of the story the fact that this guy sincerely wanted to be with his kids but his wife had full custody.

Mr. Wright took issue with its slow pacing because the saga unfolded over 16+ days, many of them represented by little more than the police captain deciding to give the man one more day to surrender. Because the captain had served with him in the military, he felt certain he wasn't going to do anything awful and wanted to give his old friend a chance.

And there was such a purity to how devoted to their father, not to mention fun-loving, these two kids were, whether standing sentry with a gun at the window or collecting the bottles of nutritious milk that the local doctor delivered at the roadside for them.

The interesting part was, when the powers-that-be decided that they'd wasted enough time (other divorced dads were publicly siding with him) and the tanks and gendarmes began rolling in, breaking windows on the house and tossing stinkbombs?/teargas? inside, the camera froze and the credits began rolling up.

"Oh, no!" the woman behind me wailed loudly. "They can't do this!" Of course they can, honey. Ever seen "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?" She was far from the only one moaning and groaning at the absence of a clearly expressed ending.

But, hey, this isn't Hollywood, kids, and if a French director who'd been making films for 27 years wants to end on an unclear note, more power to him. Besides, if the police wound up killing those two adorable children, I, for one, didn't need to know about it.

It's enough to know that I can count on four days of hearing French spoken and seeing French films that follow no American rules.

And most likely, another Barbara sighting or two.

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