Vive la France: The French Film Festival returns

What started as a whim has turned into a festival that’s even cooler than you think it is.

“The French make about 160 feature films a year,” said Dr. Peter Kirkpatrick last week inside the VCU office of the French Film Festival. “We see them all.”

But that’s not it. “They make about 300 shorts a year,” he said.

And those?

“We see them all.”

VCU associate professor of French and co-founder of the French Film Festival, Kirkpatrick adores French cinema. When he speaks about its actors and directors, his eyes light up like The Byrd Theatre projector that flickered the first French film he saw, Mon Oncle d’Amérique (My American Uncle) starring Gérard Depardieu, when he was 15-years-old.

Screening French celluloid in an actual theater was rare back in the days when Kirkpatrick was a student at Benedictine High School. It’s still rare. “International films represent less than 1 percent of the market share of screens in the US,” Kirkpatrick said. On any given day, “less than 1 percent of our screen time is given to foreign films.”

Now in its 22nd year, the French Film Festival is one of the nation’s largest and best advocates for international film. What began merely as a “test” has turned into the largest French film festival outside of France. Not only that, the festival’s influence has inspired past and future films.

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In the early 1990s, Kirkpatrick and his wife–Dr. Françoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick, University of Richmond professor of French and Film Studies–wanted to entice students to French studies.

“What could we create with our contacts in the literary, political, music, journalism, and also film industries…that would attract more American students to the French major?” Kirkpatrick said. “The first year was a test to see if cinema was the medium that would draw these students.”

The first French Film Festival took place in 1993 on VCU campus. Just as it is today, the festival was student-produced and driven by the Kirkpatricks’ love of French culture.1

That first festival paled in comparison to its current scope. “We only had 16mm projectors on campus,” Kirkpatrick said. “We didn’t have 35mm.” The event was a success despite its technical limitations, luring both students and even members of the public.

Some years later, students helped renovate The Biograph Theatre at 814 W. Grace Street2 to give the festival a proper cinematic home. “A lot of work behind that,” Kirkpatrick said. “We had to put in the seats, we had to redo the 35mm projectors that were rusted there, we had to get electricity in the building, repaint the place…it was a huge endeavor.”

And well worth it.

You see, back then the Kirkpatrick’s would call over to France to get permission from producers to screen each film twice. Films were screened twice to accommodate the various schedules of the attending public and to prevent the theatre from overcrowding.

That system worked for a few years, but soon people were queuing up and down W. Grace Street at both screenings to try and get in. “We were calling the producers in France saying, ‘Hey listen, people are standing in the streets…can we show more?”’ Kirkpatrick said.

The festival outgrew The Biograph’s 320-seat capacity and moved to the 1,400-seat Byrd Theatre. In addition to welcoming the public, the festival began welcoming more and more French actors and directors.3

The Kirkpatricks soon decided to stop showing films multiple times. “You need one showing,” Kirkpatrick said. “You need that cinema packed like it used to be in the old days and have a real true cinematic experience where people are laughing, crying at the same time, [and] the actor or director is there watching it.”

Kirkpatrick says the festival has “energy.” That energy goes beyond the excitement of screening French films, some of which are world premieres; some aren’t shown in the US beyond that one Richmond screening.

A lot of the festival’s energy comes from having so many figures of French film convening at one location. You’d have to travel to the Cannes Film Festival to see so many French filmmakers in one spot. Not only do those actors and directors get to come to America, but they actually get to, you know, answer questions and talk about their work.

“These are big stars in France,” Kirkpatrick said. “These are the Brad Pitts, the Richard Geres…so the [French] public is a little shy” asking them specific, technical questions about their films. But Americans — who don’t “quite fully realize what a big deal it is to have these guys come over”–have no such apprehensions.

Kirkpatrick said the actors and directors love the festival for this reason.4 “They want to be with the American public the whole weekend, so they’re hanging out at The Byrd…,” Kirkpatrick said. “Some people have lunch with [French stars] somewhere in Carytown.”

French filmmakers will even meet and collaborate with one another while in Richmond. “We’ve also had blockbusters that…their origin and creation started here,” Kirkpatrick said. The most successful of which was the 2011 film The Intouchables. The film’s directors, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, had attended a French Film Festival to show their feature film. While in Richmond, the pair met and began discussions with a French producer that would go on to make their critically successful film that grossed over $365 million.5

The accessibility to the public and the opportunities for filmmakers to create successful films aren’t the only reasons that entice French filmmakers across the Atlantic. The Byrd Theatre embodies an era of cinema that many French filmmakers adore, including one filmmaker who has chosen The Byrd to represent the US in an upcoming film.

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Built in 1928, The Byrd Theatre is both a state and national historic landmark, and was named one of the “10 great places to see a movie in splendor” by USA Today.

Kirkpatrick has his own history with the theater. “It’s the first place I ever saw a French film,” he said. “I never thought I’d be in the same theater with my wife doing the largest French film festival outside of France.”

French filmmakers love the theatre for its historic opulence. It’s a notable piece of Americana that stands out from all the boring cineplexes. But those boring cineplexes have technology and comforts that The Byrd can’t compete with. Or some think.

In addition to welcoming French films, the festival also welcomes members of the Commission Supérieure Technique (CST), which oversees projections at the Cannes Film Festival. CST technicians are the sommeliers of cinema.

“They are in charge of the quality–not only cameras, lenses that are used in the profession to make films in France and in Europe–but also the standard that needs to be respected in all cinemas throughout France in order to make sure that when someone pays their $15 to go to a film, that they’re seeing the film the way the director intended it to be shown,” Kirkpatrick said.

Each year, members fly to Richmond to tweak The Byrd’s cinematic experience during the festival. CST members work between 1:00 – 7:00 AM to test films, tweak sound, and refine lighting to ensure that each film screened at the festival is superlative in every sense of cinema.

“We can say hands down that The Byrd Theatre is already a tremendous space in itself for cinema that we’re lucky to still have, but it is definitely, by far, the best place to see a film sound-wise, image-wise in the United States during the weekend of our festival,” Kirkpatrick said.

One French filmmaker that attended last year’s festival, Jean Achache, decided to anoint The Byrd in a special way. Achache’s experience at The Byrd convinced him that the local theater should represent the US in an upcoming documentary about the world’s best cinema palaces. “He’s going to shoot that in April and May at The Byrd,” Kirkpatrick said.

The French Film Festival’s connections to France should make things more comfortable for Richmonders in the future. The Grand Théâtre Lumière, which screens feature films under competition at the Cannes Film Festival, will donate its seats to The Byrd after the French theater replaces its 20-year-old seating later this year. It’s an upgrade for The Byrd, with its seats being the originals from 1928.

“Hopefully, we’ll have next year’s festival be a little more comfortable,” Kirkpatrick said. While future festivals may be a little easier on Richmond derrières, organizers have made sure that this year’s festival is well worth a few more screenings in The Byrd’s historic (if not sometimes painful) seats.

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Among the notable attendees this year is French icon Josiane Balasko who will present and discuss her recent film Demi-Sœur (Half Sister).

French actor and producer Jacques Perrin will present a remastered version of the 1976 classic [Le Désert des Tartares] (The Desert of the Tartars). The Kirkpatrick’s gave Perrin carte blanche to handpick another film to screen at this year’s festival. Perrin chose Italian film Che Strano Chiamarsi Federico_6 because that film’s cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, was the cinematographer on _Le Désert des Tartares.

Mandarin will also be represented at this year’s festival with a screening of Le Promeneur d’oiseau (The Nightingale), directed by French filmmaker Philippe Muyl.

And the woman featured on this year’s poster, actress Amélie Glenn, will screen and discuss her directorial debut, Jean & Béatrice.

“Each festival is truly a different entity,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s got a life of its own.”

That life is largely sustained by ticket sales, which account for 85 percent of the French Film Festival’s budget. “We don’t have a Ministry of Culture in the United States that hands out envelopes of money to create cultural events like this,” Kirkpatrick said. “So it’s a labor of love and dedication.”

That love and dedication turns Carytown into a petite France for several days each year. It’s an event that’s unparalleled, at least in America.

“We can say this as professors of French: hands down, without a doubt, there is not another French cultural event in the United States that’s this intense, and that can give you the closest experience that you can have outside of France,” Kirkpatrick said.

“The only other way you’re going to have an experience like this is if you get on a plane” and go there yourself.

The French Film Festival takes place March 27th – 30th at The Byrd Theatre. Here’s a full schedule of this year’s screenings and events.

  1. Neither the Kirkpatricks nor anyone else behind the French Film Festival receives financial compensation for their work. 
  2. An alternative movie house from 1972 – 1987 that sat next to what is now Chipotle. 
  3. Kirkpatrick estimates that over 400 have attended the festivals. 
  4. “Sometimes they send us their scripts to read even before they start shooting their next film saying, ‘Keep me in mind. I’d like to come back,'” Kirkpatrick said. 
  5. The film was reported to have been made for roughly $10 million
  6. The first Italian film ever screened at French Film Festival. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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