I bet you knew that the VCU French Film Festival is the largest festival of its kind in America. But, did you also know that it is pretty darn cool?
The VCU French Film Festival! An annual three day event during which Richmonders stampede the Byrd Theatre like eager vessels for French directors to fill up with their wisdom! A time for us to wonder while we stand in line how we possibly got so lucky as to be the first Americans to view these. And until this year, a time for me to stress out about which movies to try and go see, get overwhelmed and vow to Netflix them all later, and ultimately blame it all on not wanting to spend the cash.
I don’t know what my problem is. I love film, I love French film, I guess I just assume that because this is such a concentrated, no-breaks-for-meals event, it’s going to consist of an elite few, writing with golden pens on silver tablets, murmuring in beautiful French to their neighbors, and peering at me like I’m just a local with their dates mixed up, wandering into the Byrd to try to catch the second run of I Am Legend. Dispel ye these notions, if you have them. The place is frigging nuts! There are Frenchies there, sure (identifiable by their purposeful strides and really neat coats), but the vast majority of folks fighting over every single uncomfortable seat are average Joes, just trying to do something a little different on a weekend. I was blown away. Not only did Richmond stand outside in unseasonably cold weather for an hour and a half to get in, but during the film, the completely packed house (upstairs and down) made nary a peep. And most folks even stayed afterwards to listen to a laboriously-translated Q&A session with, in my screening’s case, the director’s wife.
The film I chose, Un Secret by director Claude Miller, wasn’t the best film I’d ever seen. It started out as a character study, ended up a tragic Holocaust remembrance, and billed itself as a wartime romance, but it was engaging at least and very prettily told. Even if it had been a bad film, which it wasn’t, it was still thrilling to silently watch this new-to-us film with what felt like a million other people, who all clapped enthusiastically at the final credits. The Q&A session at the end of Un Secret with Miller’s wife didn’t add any layers of complexity, but that wasn’t really Mme. Miller’s fault.* At the very least, many, many people were really interested in what she had to say, and even more people braved lines, weather, and sardine-like seating situations just to view this film.
My twinge of disappointment in my chosen film didn’t last long. I probably could have done more research before I went (and now I know to do just that next year), find some English-language reviews, view a couple samples of directors’ past works, talk to some experts. I can’t help but blame the festival setup a little, though — we probably all would have enjoyed the two sections of various short films a lot, but who does anything at 8:00 am on weekends? Start it at 10:00, build in some mealtime breaks for those, like me, who might want to camp out so as to broaden their net, ask the director, actor, or other representative to have some thoughts prepared so that they aren’t just clarifying plot points for those who missed one, and politely cut off a director whose long-winded explanations are the direct cause of the next film’s audience having to wait in line in their thin jackets for much longer than was necessary…all of these things would fine tune the experience. However, my heart wouldn’t be in any real criticism of something that we are damn lucky to have in our little city on an annual basis, and the best part of it all was that it seemed like nobody took it for granted.
Except maybe the cashier who rang up my groceries afterwards. “Everyone’s trying to look all French because of the festival. Either that or they are French,” he said with a sigh as I followed his gaze across the checkout lines to the scores of Sunday shoppers who all looked exactly like we always do at Kroger Carytown. I smiled and said something dumb like “Totally!” but didn’t have the heart to tell him what deep down I sadly knew and what the VCU French Film Festival had reinforced within me. French people wouldn’t be caught dead in our clothes. And that’s a fact.
*One questioner asked her if she thought directors typically avoided the Holocaust as subject matter because audiences found that particular tragedy too painful to experience onscreen. Her answer was graceful, indicated that her husband really wanted to explore lots of themes with his film, and she never once shouted “Every movie is about the Holocaust! What are you talking about??” (unless she did say that but it was translated as “Thank you very much, what a great question.”)