Cinéfranco, arguably the most significant International Francophone Film Festival in English Canada, has started. Running from March 28th through until April 6th, the Toronto-based film festival showcases the rich diversity of Francophone cinema, in an attempt to help promote and better appreciate French film. This year’s programme addresses the anxiety of aging, historical heroines, immigration, love, romance, and wrestling, all of which are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Jean-Marc Rudnicki’s Les Reines du Ring (Wrestling Queens) had its English Canada premiere on Saturday, March 29th. The film centers on Rose, a young single mother who’s just recently been released from prison. Held responsible, and punished, for a horrible accident, she’s had her son taken away from her, and placed into foster care. Having found a job at a local grocery store, she’s getting her life back on track. All that’s left is to win back the trust of her now disappointed young son. The way back to his heart is through one of his greatest passions: professional wrestling.
Rose assembles a team of coworkers, each woman facing their own unique life changes. As they train alongside retired wrestling veteran Richard the Lionheart, they conquer their personal obstacles, and assert themselves as the new face of female professional wrestling.
Rudnicki’s hilarious film is warm, and heartfelt. Not only do you believe his characters, but you find yourself deeply invested in their wellbeing, and rooting for them almost involuntarily. You’ll laugh and cheer for the diverse group. While it’s not the most profound film, its emotive range being relatively limited, it’s a gem to watch.
Wrestling Queens finds itself the victim of brutal editing. It moves at a feverish pace, and keeps you well engaged and enthralled throughout. You’ll “whoop!” at the screen as the women tackle their personal obstacles, and as they learn how to properly take a body slam. However, it’s the slow, emotional moments that suffer. While the editing for montages and comedic moments are appropriately swift, the same brisk pace was kept through moments of profound depth. As such, emotional investment in the film is all but non-existent. We’re never given the chance to adequately immerse ourselves in the potential weight of the film. As a result, it feels like a puff piece, when it clearly has more to offer. Hopefully this doesn’t deter future audiences or distributors, as the film still stands strong as an absolute pleasure to watch.
Saturday also saw two emotional dramas take the stage, with Marion Vernoux’s Les Beaux Jours (Bright Days Ahead), and the North American premiere of Ariel Zeitoun’s period drama Angélique.
Starring Fanny Ardant (Elizabeth and Confidentially Yours), Bright Days Ahead is about Caroline, a newly retired dentist coping with vast changes in her life. Having just lost her best friend to cancer, and newly retired from a long-standing career, Caroline is displaced and aimless. Her daughters, both married with young children, buy her a membership to a seniors community club in an attempt to get her up and active. Reluctantly, Caroline attends mortifying acting classes, propelled into a world where she’s belittled and spoken to as a child. In one last attempt, she attends a computer class – partially to humour her daughters, partially because of Internet issues at home that need solving. Here she meets the charming and much younger Julien, the computer instructor. In a bold and impulsive move, Caroline is swept up into a passionate affair with the young man. Escaping the pain and confusion of her daily life, her new duties at home to her still-working husband, and behaving perhaps more recklessly than she has in decades, if ever, Caroline finds herself carelessly navigating the murky waters of illicit desire.
The film is beautifully shot, traipsing along the North Sea beaches in France. With a backdrop like that, however, it’s hard for the film to look bad. Its shortcomings manifest themselves in our heroine, Caroline. She’s a hard woman to feel sympathy for, which, for the most part, we’re not supposed to. Her behavior reads as senselessly and unapologetically reckless, but without substantial motivation. It’s difficult to feel invested in her, as a result, because the “why” of it all feels underdeveloped. While it may not be the most compelling film, Bright Days Ahead is still charming, if perhaps a touch vacant.
Angélique is anything but vacant, in contrast. Based on a series of novels written by Anne and Serge Golon, the film stars Nora Arnezeder as the titular heroine and Gérard Lanvin as her infamous husband, Le Comte Joffrey de Peyrac. Set during the reign of Louis XIV, the young Angélique Sancé de Monteloup is practically sold into matrimony by her father to the Comte de Peyrac. A grossly disfigured man rumored to be a sorcerer in league with the Devil, he can promise Angélique a lavish life of comfort, one she’s scarcely swooning for. The politically minded, if moderately spoiled, young woman is sent to meet her new spouse, where she asserts herself as being held against her will. As the two bond over their mutual passion for politics and their matched strength of character, Angélique begins to see the man behind the hierarchy, and softens her position. As time and politically tumultuous scenarios bear down on the couple, they’re torn apart in a scandal that attempts to defame the Comte. Political intrigue and scandal run rampant in what is seemingly the first part of a long series.
Another victim of poor editing, Angélique finds itself suffering far worse than the delightful Wrestling Queens. Unfortunately, the focus of the film is all but nonexistent. It deals with an intricate weave of plot points, from the romance between Angélique and the Comte, to a political scandal, the Comte’s arrest, Angélique’s other love interests, and her eventual rise to underworld Queen. While every plot point is integral to the story, especially in the long run, it places too much emphasis on each portion of the story, without determining a clear tone to hinge them all. As a result, facts are mislaid, integral points are forgotten, and the overall severity of her situation beyond her husband’s fate is overlooked.
One of the true gems thus far is the Cathrine Deneuve starrer Elle S’en Va (On My Way) by Emmanuelle Bercot. We follow Bettie, a former beauty queen turned restaurant owner, in the throws of a chaotic point in her life. Her business is failing, her lover has left her for a younger woman, she lives with her overbearing mother, and her daughter hates her. One day at work, after finding out about her lover, she steps out to find cigarettes. What started as a simple errand grabs her attention indefinitely, as Bettie finds herself aimlessly driving to small towns in France, asking strangers for smokes. As she aimlessly wanders, she winds up accepting the responsibility of transporting her young grandson, Charly (Nemo Schiffman), to his grandfather’s home. The trip, like the rest of her life, proves difficult, but offers a strange sense of closure and catharsis to the various chaotic crevices of her life.
This film is truly stunning. Only the French could focus on a mundane activity like hunting for cigarettes for nearly 20 minutes, and make it seem purposeful and profound. Deneuve is captivating as the distraught Bettie. Our opinions of her are formed organically as the film progresses, subtly revealing various complex layers of her life with delicate and nuanced precision. We never learn the details of her past, but ultimately, that’s not what matters. We wind up where we wind up, and it’s what we do when we get there that matters.
On My Way plays on Monday, March 31st at 6:30pm at The Royal Cinema. Be sure to check out the rest of this festival’s eclectic lineup. Tickets can be purchased in advance online, or at T.O. Tix in Dundas Square, 1 Dundas Street East, Tuesday to Saturday from 12:00 pm to 6:30 pm. Same day tickets can be purchased directly at The Royal box office with cash, and starting one hour prior to desired screening.