Fans of French cinema don’t have to wait until July and the Museum of Fine Arts’s Boston French Film Festival to see contemporary films from France. The 22nd annual Providence French Film Festival runs Feb. 29-March 5 at Brown University’s Martinos Auditorium in the Granoff Center for the Arts. The lineup includes features, shorts, and documentaries, nearly all of them Rhode Island premieres. The event kicks off Feb. 29 at 12:30 p.m. with a program of children’s animated shorts (with an encore showing March 1 at noon), co-presented with the Providence Children’s Film Festival.
The festival showcases new films from such internationally known directors as François Ozon, Bertrand Bonello, Elia Suleiman, and Agnès Varda, who died last year at 90. In Varda’s final film, the playful, personal documentary “Varda by Agnès” (Feb. 29 and March 4), the French New Wave pioneer speaks directly to the camera as she reflects on her life and six-decade-long career.
Suleiman’s latest, “It Must Be Heaven” (March 1 and 3) screened in October in the Boston Palestine Film Festival, which has long championed the director. His deft mix of humor and pathos has earned him comparisons with Jacques Tati. Suleiman plays himself in “It Must Be Heaven,” a bittersweet saga about his search for a place to call home after he escapes from Palestine and struggles to build a new life, first in Paris and then in New York.
Bertrand Bonello’s horror-drama “Zombi Child” (March 1 and 3) centers on Haitian teenager Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a student at a prestigious boarding school. She confesses to her group of new friends at the school an old family secret rooted in voodoo culture. Melissa’s story has frightening consequences, particularly for the impressionable Fanny (Louise Labeque).
It wouldn’t be a French film festival without the legendary Catherine Deneuve, who heads an ensemble cast in Cédric Kahn’s “Happy Birthday” (Feb. 29 and March 5). Deneuve plays matriarch Andrea, who is about to be feted for her 70th birthday. But Andrea’s estranged eldest daughter, Claire (Emmanuelle Bercot), makes an unexpected appearance, unleashing family drama and dysfunction.
Ozon’s “By the Grace of God” (March 1 and 5), based on true events, has earned comparisons with Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” (2015) for its sober account of an ongoing Catholic Church child abuse scandal and coverup in the Archdiocese of Lyon. Melvil Poupaud plays Alexandre, who lives in Lyon with his wife and their children. He discovers that the priest (veteran actor Bernard Verley) who sexually assaulted him when he was a boy is still in contact with children. Alexandre’s fight for justice inspires two other survivors to come forward, leading them to question their lives, relationships, and faith.
Not so ‘ordinary’
The Boston Society of Film Critics voted Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” the best film of 2017 for many reasons. At least for some, Lesley Manville was one of them. The veteran British stage and screen actress, currently starring in the popular BBC sitcom “Mum,” went toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis as his quietly powerful sister and business partner, Cyril. “Don’t pick a fight with me; you certainly won’t come out alive,” she says to him, teacup poised at her lips. Interviewed at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where her new film “Ordinary Love” premiered (it opens Feb. 21 at the Kendall Square), Manville said fans quote the line to her “all the time or they just want me to give them the Cyril look.” In “Ordinary Love,” an intimate drama directed by Lisa Barros D’sa and Glenn Leyburn, Manville plays a woman who faces a breast cancer diagnosis alongside her supportive husband (Liam Neeson). “It’s quite an unsentimental, realistic, truthful observation of a marriage,” Manville says. “It’s a love story not often told; the middle-aged love story about people who still fancy each other and find each other funny. … It’s about the small things of your life. Happiness is in such fleeting moments, isn’t it?”