Vive les Femmes!

Lefont honors female directors with French film series

Local art film legend George Lefont's third annual French film series, "Vive les Femmes!," is devoted to women directors, but that focus should in no way imply warm and fuzzy, romance-consumed girly pics. As the case of Catherine Breillat's 1999 Romance illustrated — with its emphasis on sadomasochism, rape and a featured performance by a porn star — titles can be deceiving.

The same strain of bracing social realism that has marked the recent French cinema infects a large portion of the films on view in "Vive les Femmes!" showing at the Garden Hills Cinema Nov. 8-15. Garden Hills owner Lefont, who celebrated 25 years in the art film business this October, offers "Vive les Femmes!" as a hot button salute to the country's raging femme spirit that this year alone gave us a hardcore Thelma and Louise performed — again — by porn stars (Baise-Moi) and a scandalous memoir of sexual promiscuity from a noted French editor and curator, La Vie Sexuelle de Catherine M.

"Where I think you used to think of the typical French film as being an Eric Rohmer, talk, talk, talk, charming, romantic, lightweight kind of a thing," observes Lefont, "[now] they tend to be a little more heavy. ... I think they reflect more of the current problems that exist in France than they used to."

If the fastest way to shimmy out of your G-string is a social problem, then Breillat is on the case. The unrelentingly racy director has been scandalizing her seemingly unshockable, cosmopolitan confreres for decades and even middle age hasn't cooled her creative jets. Her every new work inspires a fresh outburst of indignation including this year's Fat Girl, which Lefont calls his favorite on the program. "A very rough, difficult film, but I thought it was quite, quite good," he says. A dark, visceral treatment of adolescent sexuality, Fat Girl's shattering ending has only reaffirmed Breillat's legacy of outrage.

Women filmmakers like Breillat long have been defying the status quo with clear-eyed, often un-PC treatments of sexuality, especially from a woman's vantage. Helene Angel's Skin of Man, Heart of Beast (1999) shifts its focus from Breillat's examination of female sexual psychology to a brutal depiction of male aggression and sexual predation. A film rooted in the oozing muck of the unconscious, Skin often suggests American true crime melodramas like At Close Range coupled with the eerie allegories of devouring adults in Parents or Ripe, where family is the grimmest sort of fairy tale.

A far more pleasant approach to sex, which focuses more on the sex organ between the ears, Tonie Marshall's captivating, smart Venus Beauty Institute follows the merry-go-round relationships of aging beautician Angele (French film icon Nathalie Baye). But beneath its depiction of a maturing woman's evaporating romantic prospects, Venus is potent stuff, about the almost saintly function of Angele in her world of women customers, who seem to need emotional nurturing as much as a lather of face cream.

Although it was released in 1997, the exquisite Nenette et Boni is certainly worth another gander. Directed by the exceptionally gifted French auteur Claire Denis (Beau Travail, Chocolat), Nenette is a highly tactile, painterly film that certainly benefits from a big-screen viewing. The sensuously shot and imagined tale centers on the lust-drunk Boni (Gregoire Colin), a Marseilles teenager obsessed with a pneumatic pastry shop owner whose fluffy negligees and bosoms bursting from tight sweaters suggest a human cream puff filled to the brim with sweet custard. While Boni pines for his lovely baker, his estranged, world-weary younger sister Nenette re-enters his life, pregnant and coping with the pragmatic consequences of sexual rapture.

Also on the "Vive les Femmes!" bill is Agnes Varda's exceptional, personal documentary The Gleaners and I. One of the enduring talents in French cinema and a leader of its influential New Wave, Varda paved the way for the social verite that infects so much of current French cinema with her disturbing 1985 film about a teenage drifter in Vagabond. Gleaners examines the peasant tradition of scavenging the remnants of a harvest in its modern incarnation, where the truism "waste not want not" is practiced by a range of Varda's countrymen and women. Homeless, politically radical, resourceful, poor or simply hungry, these contemporary gleaners reap the leavings of a remarkably wasteful, often cruel society.

The "Vive les Femmes!" program also includes the Atlanta premiere of Daniele Thompson's tale of three sisters, La Buche, and the premiere of Sophie Fillieres' indescribably bizarre romantic triangle, Ouch!, an initially promising but ultimately misguided hash of Woody Allen meets Splash.

"Vive les Femmes!" will be held at Garden Hills Cinema, 2835 Peachtree Road, Nov. 8-15. Before 6 p.m., $5. Evenings, $7.50 adults, $6 seniors/ students. Preview party and opening night screening $10. Series pass $25, for admission to all features.??