Fans of French film haven't had it very good over the last decade or so. Where once U.S. distributors were happy to screen the latest in Gallic cinema, more recently they've seen overseas movies as more of a source of ideas for American productions than as something American audiences need to see in their original form. Why show Coline Serreau's Three Men and a Cradle when you can remake it as Three Men and a Baby? Why pay much attention to La Femme Nikita when you can give Bridget Fonda a gun and redo it as Point of No Return? And why send Gerard Depardieu's The Return of Martin Guerre to the local cineplex when you can instead send the Americanized Sommersby, complete with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster?
In each of those cases, one reason film buffs may have preferred to see the originals was simply that the originals were better -- much better. In fact, it's rare that a U.S. remake of a French movie equals, much less surpasses, its source. That's not because French films are necessarily better than U.S. ones, but just because they're different. And this week, Houston audiences will have a chance to see just what that difference is for themselves at what's being billed as the city's first French Film Festival.
A joint creation of Unifrance, an organization of French film professionals dedicated to promoting French cinema, and the Museum of Fine Arts, the festival will feature six U.S. premieres as well as a retrospective of the works of famous French filmmaker Agnes Varda. The Varda retrospective will be held this weekend at the MFA's Brown Auditorium (1001 Bissonnet, 639-7515), while the premieres will begin Monday at Landmark Theatre's River Oaks 3 (2009 West Gray, 524-2175). As a bonus, a number of the filmmakers and actors will be on hand at the premieres, most notably singer Patrick Bruel, who stars in the film K. And at 2:30 p.m. Monday, the MFA will host a dialogue at the Brown Auditorium to give fans a chance to direct questions to the filmmakers.
(A listing of the films to be shown at the French Film Festival follows. Though none of the films have been rated, no one under the age of 18 will be admitted.)
Friday, November 21
The Young Girls Turn 25 In 1966, while director Agnes Varda's husband, Jacques Demy, was filming The Young Girls of Rochefort, Varda chronicled the experience of the actors and technicians -- including a very young and beautiful Catherine Deneuve. The film will be preceded by another Varda documentary, the 22-minute Uncle Yanco. 7 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Cleo from 5 to 7 In this 1962 film, a pop singer (Corrine Marchand) waits two hours for the results of a cancer test. 8:45 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Saturday, November 22
Le Bonheur (Happiness) A married carpenter (Jean-Claude Drouot) becomes involved with another woman, and insists that both women can share him. After his wife commits suicide, he raises the kids with his mistress. Director Agnes Varda's implied acceptance of adultery provoked considerable debate during the film's 1964 release. Preceded by the Varda short L'Opera-Mouffe. 1 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts.
One Sings, the Other Doesn't In this 1970s epic, two women friends meet in 1962 and are reunited a decade later. Preceded by the Varda shorts Reponses des Femmes and Plaisir d'Amour en Iran. 7 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Sans Toit Ni Loi (Vagabond) In documentary style, director Agnes Varda tells the disturbing story of an anonymous drifter. 9:15 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Sunday, November 23
A Hundred and One Nights In this 1995 film, director Agnes Varda meditates on the 100th anniversary of film. Monsieur Cinema (Michel Piccoli) holes up with his untrustworthy assistant Camille (Julie Gayet). Lots of A-list actors make cameos: among them, Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford and Marcello Mastroianni. 1 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Jacquot de Nantes Director Agnes Varda explores the early life of her husband, director Jacques Demy, who's best known for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. After the film, the visiting delegation of actors, directors and writers participating in the film festival will be available for schmoozing. 3:15 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Monday, November 24
Nettoyage a Sec (Dry Cleaning) When a happily married couple goes to a nightclub, their lives change radically. Director Anne Fontaine's movie has been praised for performances by actors Miou-Miou, Charles Berling and Stanislas Merhar, and the Venice Film Festival gave the movie an award for Best Screenplay. Director Fontaine will be on hand to introduce the film. 5 p.m. at the River Oaks 3.
K A police inspector and the daughter of a former Secret Service officer wend their way through murder, forgery and clandestine political networks in Paris, Berlin, Hamburg and Jerusalem. French star and singer Patrick Bruel will attend the screening, along with director Alexandre Arcady, producer Robert Benmussa and screenwriter Jorge Semprun. 7:30 p.m. at the River Oaks 3.
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Le Pari (The Bet) A box-office smash in France, this comedy follows two smokers (comedians Didier Bourdon and Bernard Campan) as they try to rid themselves of the vice. Bourdon and Campan also directed; Bourdon will attend the screening. 10 p.m. at the River Oaks 3.
Tuesday November 25
La Verite Si Je Mens? (Would I Lie to You?) A hit in France, this comedy is set in Paris's garment district and concerns a man who turns his life around. Director Thomas Gilou and actress Amira Casar will attend the film's screening. 5 p.m. at the River Oaks 3.
Le Septieme Ciel (The Seventh Heaven) Director Benoit Jacquot presents a complicated portrait of a marriage. Jacquot will attend the screening. 7:30 p.m. at the Landmark River Oaks 3.
Martha In this wartime romance, Guillaume Depardieu (son of Gerard) falls in love with Clotilde Courau. Director Jean-Loup Hubert will attend the screening. 10 p.m. at the River Oaks 3.