Cinefranco Film Festival

5 films to watch at the 2011 Cinefranco Film Festival

The Cinefranco Film Festival aims to deflate the notion that French-language cinema is principally brooding, art house fare. For the 15th installment of Toronto's annual Francophone film festival, Cinefranco moves to TIFF's Lightbox beginning March 25th and runs until April 3rd. This year's fest is notable for a spate of high caliber comedies from regions near (Québec) and far (France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Algeria), and features a variety of familiar faces. Here are five of my top picks for what to see.

MAMMUTH (March 28, 9:30pm)
If there's one actor you'd expect to see at a Francophone film festival, it's surely Gérard Depardieu. Cinéfranco's programmers have duly obliged, via off-kilter charmer Mammuth. Reminiscent of The Wrestler in style and theme, if not in its whimsically surrealist tone, the film opens as the oafish Serge (Depardieu) struggles to make sense of his recent retirement. He soon discovers that he's also administratively unprepared for pensionhood, and that he must collect paperwork from a series of far-flung past employers in order to claim his benefits. Writer-director duo Benoit Deléphine and Gustave de Karen spin this prosaic task into a tale of redemptive misadventure, as Serge takes to the road on his vintage 'Mammuth' motorbike. Likely to be one of the festival's hotter tickets, Mammuth arrives having scored César nominations in the Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture categories.

COPACABANA (March 29, 9pm)
Isabelle Huppert is another César favourite, as well as a two-time winner of the Cannes acting prize. While she's best known to North American cinephiles for her astonishing, intensely dramatic turns (as in Michael Haneke's La Pianiste), she demonstrates her versatility in up-beat festival selection Copacabana (March 29, 9pm). Huppert plays Babou, a free-spirited misfit whose embarrassing eccentricities see her dis-invited from her daughter's wedding. In typically oddball fashion, Babou schemes to regain respectability by moving to Belgium to sell time-share apartments. The unlikely choice to feature Huppert, an often tortured onscreen presence, is made all the more intriguing as director Marc Fitoussi casts her opposite her real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah. For newcomers, Copacabana should prove an accessible entry point to Huppert's sometimes challenging filmography, while seasoned fans will undoubtedly relish her exotic departure.

FAIR IS FAIR (April 2, 4:30pm)
Caché star Daniel Auteuil joins Huppert as a Haneke alumnus turned comedic performer in Fair is Fair, the third feature from popular actress-director Isabelle Mergault. In truth, Auteuil has long exhibited comedic talent, and the diversity of his performances has established him as one of France's most respected actors. Mergault looks to exploit the darker spectrum of his comic range, casting him as Constant, an escaped convict who is discovered by a witness (Medeea Marinescu) and presented with a murderous ultimatum: kill her miserable mother (Sabine Azema) or return to jail. Naturally, Constant bungles the job and Mergault plays up the laughs, the Hitchcokian conceit giving way to a crowd-pleasing mother-daughter-convict love triangle.

MASCARADES (March 27, 1pm)
One star not featured among this year's selections is Sacha Baron Cohen, but the lushly mustachioed Lyes Salem bears more than a passing resemblance to Borat in the award-winning Algerian farce Masquerades. Salem, who also writes and directs, plays Mounir, a devoted family man with a heart that is nearly as big as his ego. Determined to win the esteem of his fellow villagers, his frustration at his inability to marry off his beautiful but narcoleptic sister (Sarah Reguieg) inspires the drunken boast that she's to be wedded to a wealthy and powerful (and nonexistent) European. As Mounir's fib spirals inevitably, increasingly out of control, Salem delights in skewering the patriarchal machismo and Eurocentrism that he plainly believes are hobbling his homeland. A hit throughout the Middle East on the 2009 festival circuit, Cinéfranco provides a welcome Anglo-Canadian debut.

FRACTURE (March 27, 3:15pm)
A counterpoint to Salem's playful satire, Alain Tasma's Fracture probes at the domestic ramifications of the legacy of French colonialism. One of several dramatic features screening at this year's festival, Fracture aired on French television late last year, and is adapted from a 2005 novel exposing the racial and religious divisions prevalent in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburbs of northern Paris. In a manner reminiscent of Laurent Cantet's 2008 Palme d'Or winner, The Class, and his own docudrama, October 17, 1961 (a TIFF selection in 2005), Tasma chronicles the interactions between a young Jewish teacher (Anaïs Demoustier) and her students in a community college fraught with anti-Semitic tension. Fracture's unflinching verité style won fulsome praise from French critics, and will be a popular choice for Cinéfranco attendees looking to supplement the abundant laughs with a touch of social realism.

For screening details and a full festival schedule, visit Single tickets can be purchased online, by phone at 416-599-TIFF (8433), or in person at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Box Office, Reitman Square, 350 King Street West. Festival passes are available by phone and in person only.

Writing by Julian Carrington

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