for this week’s Tribune : BELFORT FILM FESTIVAL REPORT

CINEMA HISTORY, UNDER THE EYE OF THE LION
report from the Belfort International Film Festival
by Neil Young

"All the mountain tops around are converted into fortresses, and the whole place runs over with soldiers, and seems to breathe the spirit of the colossal 'Lion of Belfort.' This wonderful monument is partly cut out of the living rock at the foot of the castle, and seems always to gaze fiercely forth upon Alsace and upon Germany."
   So wrote an 1894 New York Times correspondent about Belfort – a small city tucked away in a remote but highly strategic corner of north-eastern France, not far from the Swiss border. And the Lion, a sphinx-like red-sandstone beastie some 22m long and 11m high, is still there beneath the garrison-like castle, his feline vastness commemorating the townsfolk's resistance during the 1870-71 siege at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.
   But, then as now, the Lion – designed by sculptor Frederic Bartholdi, his last major commission before New York's Statue of Liberty – actually faces away from Germany, as a consideration to the victorious Prussians. While the nearby areas of Alsace and Lorraine became part of Germany after 1871, French-speaking, siege-enduring Belfort always stayed in France, and now comprises its smallest departement outside Paris.
   Son altesse monsieur lion peers towards the city's sole remaining movie-house, located in a former abbatoir, run by international chain Pathé, and for the majority of the present decade home to Entrevues – Festival du Film Belfort, which in November celebrated its 24th edition.
   There had been a forerunner festival in the city for several years before 1986, but 'Entrevues' was instantly a more high-profile event thanks to the renown of its founder Janine Bazin (1923-2003), widow of legendary critic and cinema theorist André Bazin (1918-1958) and described by Jean-Luc Godard as "a star who lit up the history of cinema."
   In an area not exactly over-brimming with cultural activities – Belfort is these days something of a company-town for engineering and power-generation giant Alstom (which makes the TGV and was founded here in 1928) – Entrevues is organised with the support of the local council, in collaboration with other artistic bodies such as Paris's venerable Cinémathèque Française.
   Because whereas the capital's residents enjoy easy access to what's effectively a 365-day film-festival, citoyens of more far-flung localities are generally stuck with standard multiplex fare (if only the BFI sponsored similar initiatives on this side of la Manche.) Indeed, only half of the Pathé-Belfort's 14 screens were dedicated to Entrevues during its nine-day run, festival-goers rubbing shoulders with popcorn-buyers en route to see Robert Pattinson in Twilight – Chapitre 2 : Tentation and Woody Harrelson in Bienvenue a Zombieland.
   And there was plenty of shoulder-rubbing going on during the 24th Entrevues, as many screenings were notably busy, especially with late-teen/early-20s students from local schools and colleges – the Pathébeing one of few entertainment options available to the youth in what's now a rather sleepy spot (especially after dark.)
   Foreign visitors and journalists are clearly a secondary priority at what's officially an "international" film-festival – a disappointingly small handful of movies have English subtitles. But as an event designed to bring an eclectic range of challenging, seldom-screened work to adventurous local audiences, Entrevues must be counted a resounding success.
   The programming is carefully divided into a multiplicity of sections and sidebars. And while new work is showcased – there are four competitions (long fiction; short fiction; long documentary; short documentary) – the emphasis is heavily on archival fare.
   I caught a smattering of "fresh" material, the only really notable discovery therein being Atlantiques, a poetic, elliptical 16-minute study of Senegalese refugees written, directed and shot by Mati Diop, the 27-year-old star of Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum.
   This year's sections devoted to older fare included retrospectives dedicated to neglected auteurs Louis Skorecki (French) and Adolfo Arrieta (Spanish); a survey of the representation of workers in cinema; selections of films influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and those inspired by Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera (1929); plus the first nine features of Brian De Palma (most disappointingly, the two I was keenest to see – Sisters and Obsession – were screened via near-unwatchable DVD.)
   Especially intriguing was the well-stocked sidebar devoted to directors and actors famed for their collaborations with each other – from Dietrich and Von Sternberg, to De Niro and Scorsese. Among these, I was particularly drawn to the legendarily stormy pairing of Werner Herzog (whose current The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call : New Orleans was recently lauded on these pages) and Klaus Kinski. The delirious conquistador fable Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and the lesser-known Woyzeck (1979) were both shown from fine (but unsubtitled) 35mm prints.
   And Belfort's military backdrop proved an ideal place to experience the latter, adapted from Georg Bûchner's play and tracing an oppressed soldier's jagged, jealousy-spurred descent into madness – almost entirely unfolding within the barracks and streets of a garrison town. Indeed, the astonishingly well-preserved Renaissance/Baroque streets and houses in the Czech ville of Telč remain, despite Kinski's pop-eyed histrionics, the real scene-stealers here.
   English subtitles were also unneccessary for the screening of Francois Truffaut's classic 1959 feature-debut, The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cent coups), starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as wayward schoolboy Antoine Doinel. The audience included a couple of dozen kids of Doinel's age, whose misbehaviour at certain junctures added a certain "participatory" air to proceedings.  
   With more obscure titles I did try to base my viewings around subtitled prints, which led me to a pair of pictures from the section devoted to Swiss cinema from 1964-1984. I lasted only two reels of Daniel Schmid's Violanta (1977), a stodgy period melodrama in the Catherine Cookson mode only partially redeemed by a cameo from a youthful Gerard Depardieu.
   But Claude Goretta's The Wedding Day (Le Jour de noces, 1970) proved a real find and an absolute delight for pretty much the whole of its brisk 71-minute running-time. A loose adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant story, rather in the style of early, funny Mike Leigh, it follows an urban family as they go for an outing to a rural restaurant, there to stumble across a boisterous but dysfunctional middle-class al fresco wedding party.
   Unfussily hilarious and structurally audacious, The Wedding Day is bafflingly little-known for such a gem of a movie – especially as Geneva-born Goretta, now 80, went on only a few years later to enjoy considerable international arthouse success with 1977's The Lacemaker, (which propelled Isabelle Huppert to stardom.) Then again, with so few festivals able or willing to undertake such adventurous archive-raiding as Entrevues these days, it's perhaps no surprise that minor masterpieces are falling through the cracks.

8th December, 2009
written for the 17th December issue of Tribune magazine

seen 3rd December
CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER – PARIS 1960 : [7/10] : Chronique d'un été – Paris 1960 : France 1961 : Jean ROUCH & Edgar MORIN : 85m : [19/28]
AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD : [7/10] : Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes : W.Germany 1972 : Werner HERZOG : 93m : [18/28]
WOYZECK : [6/10] : W.Germany 1979 : Werner HERZOG : 82m : [15/28]

4th December
VIOLANTA : [3?/10] : Switzerland 1977 : Daniel SCHMID : 95m {walkout after 40m} : [6?/28]
Hallo Papi : [**/5] : Germany/France 2009 : Salma CHEDDADI : 7m : [4/13]
Interview With Almiro Vilar Da Costa : [**/5] : Entretien avec Almiro Vilar Da Costa : Switzerland 2008 : Sergio DA COSTA : 29m : [5/13]
DISORDER : [5/10] : Xianshi shi guoqu de wailai : China 2009 : HUANG Weikai : 58m : [14/28]
Zí´on Politikon : [***/5] : France 2009 : Noí«lle PUJOL : 1m approx (festival trailer) : [8/13]
Atlantiques : [****/5] : France/Senegal 2009 : Mati DIOP : 15m : 15m : [10/13]
Janghar – Film – One : [**/5] : India 2008 : Amit DUTTA : 24m : [3/13]
LE PLEIN PAYS : [4/10] : aka The Full Country : France 2009 : Antoine BOUTTET : 58m : [11/28]

5th December
THE 400 BLOWS : [7+/10] : Les quatre cents coups : France 1959 : Francois TRUFFAUT : 99m : [19+/28]
THE WEDDING DAY : [8/10] : Le Jour des noces : Switzerland/Bel/Can/Fr 1970 : Claude GORETTA : 71m : [21/28]
LOVE STREAMS : [7/10] : USA 1984 : John CASSAVETES : USA 1984 : 141m : [18/28]