Everything changes, civilizations collapse, end times approach and recede, but there are always good movies from France. How can this be so? Every film culture has its periods of pervasive suckingness. France perhaps had one: the 1950s, when the stagnation of vapid costume epics and such made bores of icons like Jean Gabin, provoking the nouvelle vague as creative protest. But even then you could find some gems every year, by the not-shabby likes of Ophüls or Tati.
Thus the addition of yet another annual film festival to the Bay Area's crammed calendar seems not only right, but bizarrely overdue. Surely there was some local equivalent to "French Cinema Now" before San Francisco Film Society hatched it? Non? Quelle horreur.
The spotlight this inaugural year is on attending writer-director Arnaud Desplechin (2004's Kings and Queen). His latest, A Christmas Tale, which opens the event, encapsulates certain familiar Gallic cinema values: it's an all-star dysfunctional-relationship blowout in which gaping verbal wounds are inflicted in a tone of light badinage, often amid lengthy meals enjoyed no matter how high the crises pile.
Catherine Deneuve is a matriarch whose health emergency necessitates the entire, drama-packed yet insouciant clan gather for Xmas including Desplechin's muse Mathieu Amalric (2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) as Henri, the son who's such an obnoxious screwup he's been "banished" from such gatherings for five years. The inevitability with which Henri will make everyone want to smack him is just the funniest of the myriad storm fronts brewing. You can get another big dose of Amalric as cause for multiple characters' complaints in the director's 1996 My Sex Life ... or How I Got Into an Argument. There will also be a rare screening of his 1991 debut feature Life of the Dead.
That classically French template of character, ensemble, and dialogue-based seriocomedy not to mention Amalric as a tantrum-prone theater director is also on display in writer-director-star Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's amusing carnival of neuroses, Actresses (2007). Straddling fiction and nonfiction terrain is the closing night film by Laurent Cantet (2001's Time Out), The Class. It's a vérité-style urban schoolroom drama that arrives in SF preceded by sky-high praise and a Cannes Palme d'Or. Benjamin Marquet's documentary, Lads and Jockeys, observes kids in a different educational setting: high-pressure training for a career in horse racing.
As in so many countries though France's industry holds its own pretty well there are debates about whether Hollywood's influence is snuffing out native culture or, conversely, whether homegrown product is too boring, arty, and lacking in explosions. Actually, that latter complaint grows less credible amid an emerging generation of interesting genre talents, even if many like Alexandre Aja (2003's Haute Tension) or Christophe Gans (2001's Brotherhood of the Wolf) all too quickly bolt for you-know-where. Franck Vestiel joins their ranks with Eden Log (2007), a dystopian fantasy boasting lots of dank atmosphere, almost no dialogue, and a serpentine plot that starts like 1997's Cube and ends up more like The Matrix (1999).
Less edgy but likewise certainly not catering to art-house snobs is Pascal Bonitzer's Alibi, a starry whodunit so old-school it's actually got an Agatha Christie pedigree; while Dany Boon's Welcome to the Sticks is a fish-out-of-water comedy that's become the biggest hit in French cinematic history.
Last but not least, a screening of 1965's seldom-revived Six in Paris flashes back to New Wave's heyday and that once-ubiquitous art house animal, the omnibus film.