The annual Williams College French Film Festival began this Monday night with the screening of Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen at 7 p.m. at Images. The film falls under the festival’s theme and title, Unlikely Love: Longing and Desire in New French Film.
Associate Professor of French, Brian Martin, opened the festival stating, “This festival presents films that examine the roles of love and affection, attraction and seduction, and gender and sexuality in contemporary France. From chivalric romance to romantic comedy, French culture is celebrated and known for its obsession with the love story and both the pleasures and dangers of erotic passion and romantic desire.”
Martin explained that this year’s three films, all produced in 2012, play a part in contemporary debates and issues in France regarding conceptions of love and sexuality. The selected films offer “new stories of unlikely love, from homoerotic love at the court of Marie Antoinette to relationships across lines of race, class and physical handicaps to moving lessons of long term love and loss.” Martin mentioned events from 2012-13 that influenced the festival’s theme, including sexual harassment allegations against French politician and economist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the recent legalization of gay marriage in France, consideration of prostitution and sexploitation in the French National Assembly and ongoing debates on gender identity and gender equality education in French schools. Martin also spoke of several very recent, serendipitous ties with the United States, Francois Hollande’s unaccompanied appearance at Tuesday’s state dinner in the wake of his recent breakup and Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech in fluent French in praise of warm diplomatic relations between the two countries since the American Revolution.
The festival’s first film, Farewell My Queen, is based on the work of French historian Chantal Thomas, who analyzed 18th century pamphlets and propaganda that criticized Marie Antoinette in her book La reine scélérate (The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette.) The propaganda frequently accused the Austrian queen of wild affairs with a plethora of her friends and court, ranging from a cardinal to her hairdresser. Martin points out that Marie Antoinette’s alleged infidelity therefore “threaten[ed] with her own body the body politic of France.” Farewell My Queen portrays the intimate relationships between Marie Antoinette, played by Diane Kruger, her reader Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, played by Léa Seydoux and her friend the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac, played by Virginie Ledoyen during the opening days of the French Revolution. The film features beautiful set and costume design, as well as emotive close-up shots.
In his introduction of Farewell, My Queen, Martin stated, “this film is in many ways the latest contribution to what the American scholar and author of The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture Terry Castle has called the Marie Antoinette obsession, “a centuries old fascination with the enigmatic queen in everything, from Madonna’s 1990 MTV music video awards performance of her song ‘Vogue’ while dressed as the French queen … to Sofia Coppola’s more recent film Marie Antoinette.” Martin also noted the film’s signifcance in the history of queer film in France since Jean Poiret and Francis Veber’s 1978 La Cage aux Folles (adapted to the 1983 Broadway musical and 1996 American comedy movie The Birdcage), to Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary of elderly queer couples in France The Invisible Ones, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color on lesbian desire and Alain Guiraudie’s gay male thriller Stranger by the Lake.
Martin concluded his introduction to Farewell, My Queen by quoting Castle: “Why is it so difficult to see the lesbian when she is right there quite plainly in front of us? In part because she has been ‘ghosted’ or made to seem invisible by culture itself … The lesbian remains a kind of ‘ghost effect’ in the cinema world of modern life: elusive, vaporous, difficult to spot-even when she is there, in plain view, mortal and magnificent at the center of the screen.”
The festival continues next Monday, Feb. 24 with Rust and Bone and concludes the following Monday, March 3 with Amour, both at Images at 7 p.m. Directed by Jacques Audiard, Rust and Bone is a French-Belgian film about the relationship between a young man and a marine biologist in the wake of her having suffered a devastating accident. The film stars Marion Cotillard, winner of the Academy Award for her role in La Vie en Rose. Directed by Michael Haneke, Amour chronicles an elderly couple of retired music teachers as they face the challenges of age and legacy. The film stars Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant.
This year’s Williams French Film Festival was co-organized by Martin and Jane Canova, Administrative Director of the Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Along with Associate Professor of French Kashia Pieprzak, Martin and Canova have organized the festival for the last eleven years. This year’s festival is presented by the Williams Department of Romance Languages and the Center for Foreign Languages, with additional support from the Davis Center, the Department of History and the Programs in International Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies.