Geneva Anderson digs into art

The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival opens Thursday night with a captivating French drama and continues with 14 days of fabulous film

The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 19 – May 3, 2012, features 174 films and live events from 45 countries, 14 juried awards, and upwards of 100 participating filmmakers present.

The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF55) opens this Thursday and runs for 15 days, featuring 174 films and live events from 45 countries, 14 juried awards, and upwards of 100 participating filmmakers present.   Organized by the San Francisco Film Society, the festival is well-known for its emphasis on experimental storytelling, its support of new filmmakers and for championing independent films that are unlikely to screen elsewhere in the Bay Area.

Opening night is dedicated to SFIFF executive director, Graham Leggat, who passed earlier this year.  The Thursday evening festival opener is Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen, (Les adieux à la reine) (France 2012, 99 min), a lush and captivating historical drama about the early days of the French Revolution that dovetails perfectly with March’s celebrated Bay Area screenings of Abel Gance’s silent film Napoleon.  Set in July 1789, Farewell, My Queen, covers the final 4 days at the court of Louis XVI at Versailles as seen from the perspective of palace servant Sidonie Labord (French actress Léa Seydoux), Marie Anionette’s personal reader. The film quickly rises beyond the standard historical costume drama into territories aptly explored by Jacquot—the internal world of women all at levels of society and how French royalty dealt with the very rapidly approaching societal changes at hand. Self-absorbed Marie Antionette (Diane Kruger), oblivious to politics, has an obsessive crush on Gabrielle De Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), who reciprocates just enough to keep the exquisite baubles coming.  As Sidonie aptly navigates the enormous passages of Versailles trying to secure information about what is happening, she is constantly called upon to console the desperate queen through reading, the intimacy of which spawns her own platonic infatuation with the queen.

Below are capsule reviews of the festival’s art-related line-up, which is strong this year.  Stayed tuned to ARThound for full reviews in the coming days.

ARThound’s recommendations: ART, ART, ART!

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (Mathew Akers, 2011, 105 min)  This riveting documentary tracks the prolific career and struggle of the so-called grandmother of performance art—Yugoslavian Marina Abramović— who it turns out is youthful, outspoken, glamorous, shrewd, very talented, and craves the validation of the big leagues.  The film is the perfect companion piece for Lynn Hershman Leeson’s riveting     !Women Art Revolution (2010) which screened at SFIFF54 and was a shocking visual primer for the oft-repeated statement “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”   Anyone familiar with Abramovic knows that she’s not—and never has been—well-behaved, which is a large part of her enduring intrigue.  The film’s framework is her preparation for her celebrated 2010 MOMA retrospective—Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present— and the film is the longest-duration solo work of her career.  As she brutally questions her own relevancy, we see a very serious artist at work.  Filmmaker Mathew Akers and Marina Abramović will attend. (Sat, Apr 21, 2012, 4:15 p.m. and Sat, April 28, 2012, 3:30 p.m., both at Kabuki, and Sun, April 29, 2012, 5:40 p.m., PFA.)


Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012, 91 min)  An authentic and thorough portrait of renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s chronic pursuit of art, freedom of speech and human dignity using imagination, skill, and social media savvy.  Weiwei came to global prominence via Twitter after he doggedly probed the deaths of over 5,000 in the Sichian earthquake.  The Chinese government held him for 81 days in solitary detention  This riveting documentary by American journalist Alison Klayman is a persuasive portrait of the harsh underbelly of today’s China and of the union of art and politics in our increasingly networked world.  The film gives a glance to time Ai spent in New York in the 1980’s and his recent major installation at London’s Tate Modern in which he carpeted the Tate’s Turbine Hall with 100 million sunflower seeds made of porcelain (all hand-fabricated in China, of course).   The emphasis is primarily on his political activism though which keeps him in the news.  (Mon, Apr 23, 2012, 6 p.m. and Wed, Apr 25, 2012, 9:15 p.m., both at Kabuki.)

Architect, inventor and designer Buckminster Fuller, subject of Sam Green’s “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller,” playing at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 19 – May 3, 2012. Photo: John Loengard/Time Life Pictures, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller (Sam Green, 2012, 60 min)  Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sam Green presents the world premiere of his “live documentary” on Buckminster Fuller.  The piece is a follow-up to his internationally acclaimed live film Utopia in Four Movements, which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.  In this new piece, Green looks at the projects Fuller proposed for the Bay Area, including a gargantuan floating tetrahedral city in the middle of the Bay, and explores his utopian vision of radical change through a “design revolution.” Green’s narration draws inspiration equally from old travelogues, the Benshi tradition, and TED talks, and will be a live collaboration with experimental indie band Yo La Tengo.  The film itself is part of a larger Green project that includes a multi-channel installation (built by Obscura Digital) on display in a concurrent exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, “The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area” (Tues, May 1, 2012, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. SFMOMA)

The Sheik and I (Caveh Zahedi, 2012, 109 min)  Commissioned by the 10th Sharjah Biennial,  a huge contemporary art event in the Persian Gulf region  to make a film on the theme of “art as a subversive act,” independent Iranian-American filmmaker Caveh Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict (2005)) goes for it in a big way. Told that he can basically do whatever he wants except make fun of the ruler, Sheik Sultan bin Muhammad-al-Qasimi, who finances the Biennial, Zahedi decides to do just that.  He turns his camera on the Biennial itself and presses every culturally sensitive button he can find which is a big no-no in the most conservative Islamic state of the seven that make up the United Arab Emirates.  His antics fail to amuse.  Zahedi’s film is banned for blasphemy and he is threatened with a fatwa.  (Sat, Apr 21, 9 p.m., Wed, Apr 25, 2012, 6:30 p.m., Sat. Apr 28, 9 p.m.—all at Kabuki.)

Golshifteh Farahani as Irâne (left) and Mathieu Amalric as Nasser Ali
in Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s “Chicken with Plums,” screening at SFIFF55. Photo by ©Patricia Khan, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Chicken With Plums (Poulet aux prunes) (2011, 91 min)  Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s drama based on Satrapi’s best-selling graphic novel of the same name which, in 2005, won the Prize for Best Comic Book of the year at the prestigious Angoulême International Comics Festival.  I’ve placed this film in the art category because it’s as riveting a portrait of an artist and all his brilliant and disturbing excesses that you’ll find.  Set in 1958 in post-Mossadegh Tehran (deftly filmed in German and France), the winding story captures the last eight days of Nasser Ali’s life.  The virtuoso tar player (a Persian string instrument) has resigned himself to die after he runs into his old love, Irâne, who does not recognize him, and then returns home to find that his wife has smashed his prized musical instrument beyond repair.  As he miserably, egocentrically and brilliantly winds down, only his daughter, Farzaneh, his memories, and his favorite dish, chicken with plums, rouse his desire.  Imaginative sets, lighting and animation all enhance the drama.  (Mon, April 30, 2012, 6:15 p.m. and Wed, May 2, 2012, 12:30 p.m., both at Kabuki.)

Gimme the Loot  (Adam Leon, 2012, 85 min)  Malcolm and Sofia, two Bronx teens, are the ultimate graffiti-artists.  When a rival gang buffs their latest masterpiece, they must hatch a plan to get revenge by tagging the iconic Home Run Apple during a Mets game, but they need to raise $500 to pull off their spectacular scheme.  Over the course of two whirlwind, sun-soaked summer days, Malcolm and Sofia travel on an epic urban adventure involving black market spray cans, calling in favors, selling pot or even committing robbery. (Fri, Apr 20, 2012, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki; Sat, Apr 21, 2012, 9:30 p.m., FSC; Tue, Apr 24, 2012, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki)

The Double Steps (Los pasos dobles) (Isaki Lacuesta, 2011, 87 min)  Isaki Lacuesta, representative of a new Spanish cinema and winner of the Golden Shell in San Sebastián, tells a poetic story which unfolds in the deserts of Mali, northwest Africa, with an odd group of people in search of a bunker in a remote, undisclosed location that is covered with frescoes—a rumored Sistine Chapel.  The 20th –century French painter and writer, Francois Augiéras, supposedly left behind these frescoes but covered the bunker with sand to protect the paintings for future enlightened humans—ones who can decipher the cryptic clues to its whereabouts that he left behind.  “The best way to escape from your pursuers without leaving any trail,” says Augiéras, “is to walk backwards over your own footprints.”  In this layered tale, the fractured logic of poetry prevails over any linear reality.  The film uses two different characters to investigate the clues and mysteries that could lead to this secret artistic trove. A black African, Bokar Dembele, is cast as a soldier who imagines he is Augiéras and goes in search of the bunker. The real-life artist Miquel Barceló, who has a spent time painting in Mali, creates intriguing Rorschach-like watercolors throughout the film, which serve as another thread in the fabric of conundrums, mysteries, riddles and paradoxes, woven from the folk wisdom of the Dogon people. (Sat, Apr 21, 2 p.m., PFA, Sun, Apr 22, 2012, 3:30 p.m. and Tue, Apr 24, 2012, 6:45 p.m., both at Kabuki.)

55th S.F. International Film Festival

When:  Thursday, April 19, 2012 through Thursday, May 3, 2012

5 Venues: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post Street, San Francisco,  S.F. Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post Street, San Francisco, Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, San Francisco, SFMOMA, 151 Third Street, San Francisco, Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
Tickets: $11 to $13 for most films with a variety of multiple screening passes.  Special events generally start at $20
More info: (415) 561-5000,

Special Attractions:
Opening night: Benoît Jacquot’s   Farewell, My Queen, (Les adieux à la reine) (France 2012, 99 min),  a historical drama about the French Revolution, screens Thursday, April 19, 2012 at 7 p.m., Castro.  Followed by Opening Night Party, 9:30 p.m.-1 a.m, with live music, Terra Gallery, 511 Harrison Street (at 1st), San Francisco

Film Society Awards Night Gala:  Benefitting SFFS and its Youth Education programs, the evening honors exceptional directing, acting and screenwriting—Thursday, April 26, 2012, VIP cocktail reception; 7 p.m. dinner and awards program, both at Warfield Theatre, 983 Market Street, San Francisco.  Individual Ticket starts at $625.  To book, phone Margi English at (415) 561-5049

Persistence of Vision Award: Filmmaker Barbara Kopple appears before a screening of her Oscar-winning 1976 documentary, Harlan County, USA, a vivid historic film about a Kentucky coal miners’ strike using arresting cinematography and poignant protest songs to call up the sights and sounds of underclass Appalachia in the 1970’s.  Sunday, April 22, 2012, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki.

Founders Directing Award: Kenneth Branagh appears in an onstage interview at a screening of his film Dead Again.  Friday, April 27, 2012, 7:30 p.m., Castro.

Centerpiece Presentation: Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister (USA, 2011, 90 min) features Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass.  Saturday, April 28, 2012, 7 p.m., Kabuki

Closing night: Ramona Diaz’s inspirational Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey follows the iconic band Journey on tour and tells the AMAZING story of their lead vocalist Arnel Pineda’s  rise from poverty and obscurity in the Philippines to becoming Journey’s lead singer.  This is one of the best stories you’ll ever hear about making it in the topsy-turvy music industry.  Thursday, May 3, 2012, 7 p.m., Castro Theatre.

April 17, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review–“The Beautiful Person” (“La Belle Personne”) even the angst of teen love plays better in French, San Francisco Film Society, Sept 4-10, 2009

Lea Seydoux as "Junie," the new girl in class in "La Belle Personne"

Léa Seydoux as "Junie," the new girl in class in Christophe Honoré's "La Belle Personne"

 “The Beautiful Person,” set in Paris, in an upscale high-school, made me contemplate the unthinkable—if I ever had to do high-school over again, how would it go?  How would I react to the various opportunities—amorous and otherwise– that unfold?  Loosely inspired by the scandalous 17th century novel La Princesse de Cleves by Madame de La Fayette, director Christophe Honoré (“Ma mère,” “Love Songs”) continues his exploration of French romantic intrigue.  Instead of Parisian aristocracy in the court of Henry II, Honoré and co-writer Gilles Taurand set their action in contemporary Paris in an upscale high school.  The students are interesting, beautiful, and unkempt– the teachers too–and they explore love and passion while trying to stay engaged with what seems a very loosely regimented but awesome program of poetry, humanities, Italian, English and math.  Junie (Léa Seydoux, “The Last Mistress”) is the new girl at school, a transfer student, who has come to live with her cousin Matthias just after the death of her mother.  Voluptuous, alabaster-skinned, with a tragic air, she becomes the object of male attention and is quickly welcomed into Matthias’ clique of school friends.  

Mild-mannered Otto (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), falls hard for her and their first conversation sets up a loose plot.  Otto tells her that Junie is also Néron’s tormentor in Racine’s 17th  century tragic play “Brittancus” and they discuss how it ends badly for Junie who takes vows and never marries.  Later, egged on by his friends, Otto professes his love to Junie.  She tells him what she needs “Don’t lie to me and look after me, always.”   Otto agrees.  Junie French kisses him publicly in the school hall and the two become an item.   Junie is bursting with magnetic mystique ..she is photographed in the hallway by a student who is an amateur photographer; she is noticed by women as well.   At one point in the film, an evocative song on a jukebox plays lyrics that compliment what is going on throughout the film–  “She was so pretty that I didn’t dare love her.”

 When newbie Junie arrives in Italian class, a student is in the midst of a presentation about Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.   Junie sits down by the teacher Mr. Nemour (Louis Garrel) and the two eye each other nervously.  She abruptly walks out, in tears, during Maria Callas’ spellbinding aria, leaving her books behind.  After this brief encounter, Mr. Nemour too falls hard for Junie and even steals a picture of her from her notebook.  Nemour, a dark-eyed dreamy lothario, who barely looks like he is out of high school, is in the midst of two affairs–one with a colleague (Florence Perin) and the other with a student Catherine (Anaïs Demoustier).   Nemours breaks it off with both women and confesses his love for Junie to his colleague who advises him that “loving a student is too easy.”  “Not this one” Nemours replies “I’m a total love-sick mess.”  To which his friend insighftfully replies “You seem more disappointed in love than in the concept of love at first sight.”   Indeed the complexity, no mess, that ensues is overwhelming.

Louis Garrel and Lea Seydoux in Christophe Honore's "La Belle Personne"

Louis Garrel and Léa Seydoux in Christophe Honoré's "La Belle Personne"

 We get subtle hints that stalwart Junie is falling for Nemour but trying hard not to.  She is terribly afraid of giving in to what she assumes will be a grand, once in a life-time love and  denies herself Nemour but snacks on safe love with endearing Otto.  Meanwhile, a subplot emerges involving a love letter that is passed around and mistakenly thought to be Nemour’s but really involves Junie’s cousin Matthias (Esteban Carvajal-Alegria) and his affair with fellow student Martin (Martin Siméon).  Mathias has hidden his homosexuality and, in addition to Martin, has carried on with another student Henri (Simon Truxillo) who is in love with him and very vindictive.  The letter threatens to expose everything if the correct author and intended recipient are revealed.   But it’s all a mess.  The letter changes hands several times and when Junie reads it, she assumes that Nemour has written it to her and takes actions that push this volatile group into certain doom.

 This has all the makings of a great drama but falls short.  The performances of the lead characters lack real depth and it’s very hard to get inside their heads, with the exception of Otto.  Léa Seydoux and Louis Garrel are enthralling to look at…and, based on looks alone, we can certainly envision them in bed together, but how would that happen?  Their conversation is basically flat and they fail to connect naturally or with any tenderness…time after time.  Junie is cold or indifferent, sending Nemour into confusion after confusion.  By the time they finally come to an understanding, it is too late.  And even when it is too late, we don’t get any feeling of implosion.  Junie’s constraint, fear of succumbing to her passion, is what needs to be further explored.  The potential is there but there’s no spark.  Nicole (Chantal Neuwirth), a maternal and wise older woman who works at the local café where they all hang-out, takes a shine to Junie, and delivers one of the most authentic, but too brief, performances in the film.   The cinematography is marvelous, capturing gray, drizzly Paris and some candid close-ups.  The sountrack ranges from opera to Nick Drake , the lyrics tracking or accentuating the action in the film.  

Screens Sundance Kabuki Theatre, September 4-10, 2009: 2:05 pm, 4:05 pm, 7:15 pm, 9:35 pm. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 11:40 am.

August 30, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment