French Film Day at BFI Southbank

French Film Day

On a blustery morning in November, Valeria Givone and I chaperoned an inquisitive group of French-language students to the British Film Institute on London’s Southbank to attend Le Cinéma Français: an Introduction to French Cinema for A level French students.

Ensconced in the darkened interior of Screen One, our day – run for the most part in the target language – was devised to broaden our understanding of the key themes, genres and stylistic movements of French film. Guided by a French native speaker and cinema enthusiast, we watched a plethora of engaging film clips, shared our opinions and tackled a wide range of valuable activities in the target language. Right off the bat, students were challenged by an illustrative quiz in which we were encouraged to pair names of French actors with their portraits, testing our ability to distinguish a gallery of famous faces. We completed an extensive timeline on the history of French movies, from silent cinema to contemporary films. By comparing and contrasting the differences in early silent films, such as the fantastical Le voyage dans la lune by Georges Méliès to the naturalistic L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat by the Lumière brothers, students were introduced to the very beginnings of cinema style and genre. Students then embarked on a discovery of some of the key successes of the Nouvelle Vague (or
French New Wave) – a period during the 1950s and 60s in which filmmakers often radically experimented with the forms of film to create highly stylized and influential works. Beginning with precursors to the movement in Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) and Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956), we journeyed through the 1960s, covering Francois Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups and the films of Jean-Luc Godard – a director who famously insisted that “a film should always have a beginning, a middle and an end; but not necessarily in that order”. We were also introduced to the entertaining genre of the musical and watched key scenes from two markedly contrasting musicals: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, directed by Jacques Demy in 1967, and the more recent 8 Femmes by Francois Ozon, released in 2002.

As part of our syllabus, we are currently studying the 1987 film, Au Revoir les Enfants, directed by Louis Malle. It was therefore extremely pleasing for them to be shown a clip from the film and then compare it to a scene from another, more recent, feature set during the Second World War: Les Choristes.

During the afternoon, Paris, a contemporary ensemble drama by Cedric Klapisch was screened in its entirety. A chassé croisé between assorted characters, the film depicts life in the French capital, its travails, loneliness and serendipitous encounters. The charismatic Romain Duris plays a young dancer recently diagnosed with a heart condition who chooses to observe the world from afar and embraces life from the confines of his apartment. The performances of Juliette Binoche and Duris were both convincing and the film’s fragmented narrative proved engaging and entertaining.

All in all it was a thought-provoking and enjoyable day in which the students were thoroughly immersed in a very appealing introduction to one of the most enduring aspects of contemporary French culture. I hope the experience will motivate them to discover more about French film.