Three films to catch at the Rendez-vous French Film Festival

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      Now in its 25th year, the Rendez-vous French Film Festival has long provided Vancouverites with the chance to catch some of the biggest and best movies coming out of Quebec. Here are three of this year’s most auspicious titles.

      La Grande Noirceur (The Great Darkened Days) 

      The title calls out to the archconservative regime of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, but La Grande Noirceur strives to express something about the here and now—if not entirely successfully. Relieved of his cash by muggers in the film’s first few minutes, Charlie Chaplin impersonator Philippe (Martin Dubreuil) sets off hobo-style across an America that would look and sound like the 1940s if it weren’t for the R.E.M. song that blares from an old sedan at one point.

      Even worse than having to hear “Everybody Hurts” without being asked first, Philippe eventually ends up in the hands of a dangerously insane farm spinster (Sarah Gadon), and then a sadistic human trafficker (Roman Duris) who buries our luckless hero up to his neck in concrete.

      Opening with the climactic speech from The Great Dictator tells us that the Chaplin reference isn’t just another frivolous detail in a film straining too hard to present itself as a picaresque nightmare: with its pointed anachronisms and a background of war—Philippe is on the run from conscription—the film echoes Christian Petzold’s recent Transit along with any number of well-meaning cinematic attempts to ring the bell on our current political predicament.

      It’s a curious follow-up from filmmaker Maxime Giroux after 2014’s Felix & Meira, but Dubreuil keeps us invested, while cinematographer Sara Mishara’s chilly Nevada/California vistas are worth the price of admission. 

      Auditorium Jules-Verne, February 2 (7:30 p.m.)

      Chien de Garde (Family First) 

      Some serious problems aside, writer-director Sophie Dupuis’s debut feature is dazzling enough to have been fronted as Canada’s candidate for this year’s foreign Oscar.

      JP (Jean-Simon Leduc) and Vincent (Théodore Pellerin) are brothers recruited into reptilian Uncle Danny’s small-time Verdun drug racket, although the elder JP is losing his stomach for all that violence. Eighteen-year-old Vincent has no such qualms; like Johnny Boy from Mean Streets, he’s an exploding device in any situation and happy to become Danny’s favoured hit man.

      That’s Chien de Garde in a nutshell, with wrinkles provided by JP’s girlfriend and an alcoholic mom, Joe (Maude Guérin), who’s a little too scared to fully reject Vincent’s faintly incestuous White Heat overtures.

      This knotty business is handled exceptionally well by the film’s cast, maybe a little too well in the case of the astoundingly uninhibited Pellerin, a major up-and-coming talent whose fireworks almost consume the entire movie. On the other hand, maybe that’s for the best: it distracts from a scenario that smells more of screenwriter contrivance than reality. 

      Auditorium Jules-Verne, February 3 (7 p.m.)

      Une Colonie  

      Sullen kid Mylia must negotiate a new school in the rural outskirts of Montreal and a disintegrating family in this note-perfect coming-of-age drama from writer-director Geneviève Dulude-de Celles, making her feature debut. 

      Une Colonie cleaned up when it played at the Whistler Film Festival last year, bringing in well-deserved Borsos awards for best Canadian feature and director, along with a nod for young Emilie Bierre in the lead role. She’s tremendously engaging as a 12-year-old who doesn’t always behave admirably, but that’s partly what distinguishes Une Colonie inside a done-to-death genre that stands or falls on its emotional honesty.

      The lives of adults remain mysterious to the girl, including the ones she shares a home with. An unhappy event that transpired at Mylia’s last school is similarly occluded by the film, as if by a sense of shame, all of which serves to put us square inside this sensitive preteen’s head.

      Mylia gradually develops a fitful bond with Jimmy (Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie), a misfit Indigenous kid being raised down the street by his grandmother. Here’s where Une Colonie could tumble into liberal pandering. Instead, it triumphs by virtue of sheer poetic force. 

      Fei and Milton Wong Theatre at SFU Woodward's, February 5 (7:30 p.m.)

      The Rendez-vous French Film Festival runs from February 1 to 10. For more information visit the website.