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Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013

Great Films in French

UW-Milwaukee festival features movies from France, Quebec and beyond

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The Women on the 6th Floor
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Jean-Louis has lived all his life in the same elegant Paris apartment building, but never ventured up the backstairs to the 6th floor where the Spanish maids live. He’s in for some surprises—some of them pleasant—when he finally steps up. The Women on the 6th Floor is a charming comedy of class and ethnicity set in the early 1960s. Directed by Philippe Le Guay, The Women on the 6th Floor will be shown Feb. 15-16 as part of this year’s Festival of Films in French at the UWM Union Theatre.

Now in its 16th year, the festival has grown from modest origins into a 10-day run. The event began under UW-Milwaukee French professor Gabrielle Verdier, who stepped aside after her retirement in favor of her colleagues, Anita Alkhas and Sarah Davies Cordova. Originally called the French Film Festival, the Festival of Films in French may be an unwieldy handle but it encompasses the scope of the project. The rich cinematic heritage of France is included, but also the prolific filmmaking of Quebec as well as movies from French-speaking nations in the Caribbean and Africa. Reflecting on the festival’s growth from the “modest affair” she launched in 1998, Verdier emphasizes the UWM French department’s commitment to expand and diversify the program by showing “the multi-ethnic nature, past and present, of French society.”

“We have a vibrant French program at UWM and strong support on campus for the study of languages and culture,” Alkhas adds. “By offering some of the latest films coming out of the Francophone world, [as well as] classic and silent films, the Festival promotes the appreciation of French and Francophone cultures and their important contributions to cinema.” The festival’s format remains unchanged, with current films shown on weekends, silent movies on Tuesday and at least one other weeknight devoted to a classic talking picture. This year, the classic is Jean Cocteau’s eerie black-and-white fairytale, Beauty and the Beast (1946), shown on Feb. 14.

All screenings are free, a result of astute fundraising from foreign sources and the philanthropy of an angel donor, Dr. Richard Stone. “We want to make people appreciate the difference between typical Hollywood movies and thoughtful, provocative, artful films,” says Stone, discussing the greater freedom enjoyed by many foreign filmmakers to address issues overlooked by America’s entertainment industry.

A good example of a movie too subtle for contemporary Hollywood is The Salesman, screened Feb. 16-17. The dead moose being hauled off a snowbound country road and onto a flatbed immediately suggests Canada, and the nearby carcass of a wrecked car signals a serious accident. Director Sébastien Pilote’s feature debut, The Salesman is set over the course of a winter in a northern Quebec town. A pall of snow drapes the land and anxiety clings to the air over the impending closure of the area’s major employer, a factory gobbled up by a transnational corporation.

The protagonist, the town’s leading car salesman, Marcel, is a 67-year-old with the polished manner of a successful gladhander who sprinkles every pitch with sparkling gold dust. He tells his grade-school-aged grandson, whom he hopes to groom into “the best salesman in North America,” the secret is to “practice liking people.” Whether Marcel succeeds at connecting deeply with anyone, other than his beloved daughter and grandson, is unlikely.

The Salesman
’s elegiac tone is heard across the distance between Marcel’s disarming charm and the sadness in his eyes. The life he has known is gradually slipping from his gloved hands as he pads across the crunchy snow of his lot, trying to sell cars in a dying town. “I like to make people happy,” he declares, but it’s the transitory happiness of a shiny new car doomed to suffer rust and wear.

The Festival of Films in French runs Feb. 8-17 at the UWM Union Theatre. All films are subtitled in English and admission is free. For a complete schedule, visit www4.uwm.edu/cie/frenchfilm/.

 

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