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‘Queen to Play,’ ‘Father of My Children’ among highlights

Festival of Films in French

UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre

Feb. 3-12

This year’s Festival of Films in French, held at the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre Feb. 3-12, features selections from throughout the French-speaking world—including Paris, Quebec and the Francophone nations of Africa—and features comedy, drama and animation. Admission is free for all screenings. For more information, visit uniontheatre.uwm.edu.

The Father of My Children and Queen to Play exemplify the intelligent, heartfelt films included in the festival.

When we meet Grégoire, the first of two protagonists in The Father of My Children, he’s walking in a determined if unhurried stride, a mobile phone glued between his right hand and ear. An art-house film producer, Grégoire (Louis-Dominique de Lencquesaing) keeps moving and talking along the boulevards of Paris, past the crowded cafés and the tree-shaded Beaux-Arts buildings into his car, where he continues conversing about ongoing productions without missing a beat or a turn. Juggling several international projects along with his wife, Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), and their three daughters, Grégoire seems to have it all—family, wealth and a fulfilling career. However, he’s dangerously close to losing it all.

Grégoire appears to wear his many responsibilities lightly, yet the burdens grow heavier as the story progresses. His company’s debts are mounting, the tax office is freezing his assets, his back catalog is in hock and his current productions are running over budget. While grappling desperately for another line of credit, he buys a gun. And with little but a subtle foreshadow (“Maybe I’ll jump out of a window,” he breezily tells a colleague), he shoots himself one night on a lonely street. Now what?

In this film inspired by the story of a reallife producer, writer-director Mia Hansen- Love shifts focus to Sylvia, the film’s second protagonist. The widow and her daughters respond to Grégoire’s suicide and the mess he left them with a complicated mix of regret, recrimination and determination. A kindly man who had trouble saying no, Grégoire was as married to the art and commerce of film as he was to his family, even though he tried hard to integrate the two halves of his life. The Father of My Children unwinds at a leisurely pace, allowing plenty of time to closely observe the major characters, and yet it moves forward with elliptical grace and never bogs down in unnecessary detail.

Although Queen to Play’s setting is an idyllic destination for tourists, to Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire) the little town in the south of France is the dead end she accepts with a harried shrug. One day the chambermaid encounters an attractive foreign couple (Jennifer Beals, Dominic Gould) in a seductive game of chess on the hotel balcony. Hélène can barely tear her eyes away.

Suddenly, chess, a game she had never considered, became not merely sexy through the touch of the flirtatious couple, but also the token of a desirable realm of sophistication. Hélène wants to play, too!

Queen to Play’s plot is a theme Hollywood would never consider: the dogged pursuit of chess? And yet, director Caroline Bottaro’s charming film has a familiar ring in Hélène’s midlife crisis, its welling up of a long-suppressed sense that life could be more than a dull routine. The queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard, really? Perhaps the ancient game is a model for female strength as well as a strap for sharpening the mind. With her husband entirely nonplussed by her fascination, Hélène begs Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), the imperious American intellectual ensconced in a book-filled mansion on the outskirts of town, to teach her the game. He overcomes his condescension and finds himself attracted to his pupil.

Hélène’s preoccupation with chess distracts her from friends and job, not to mention her decent if somewhat neglectful husband and sulky, resentful teenage daughter.

Rumors race around the little town and her husband grows jealous. If the story resolves itself a bit too easily, it doesn’t precisely follow the Hollywood models for fulfillment, romantic misunderstanding and family trouble. The setting is picture-book France and Bottaro cleverly shows how the checkerboard pattern of chess replicates itself through the architecture of everyday life.

The backdrop for both films is worth considering. Queen to Play takes place against the declining security of the working class with unions under pressure, jobs disappearing and solidarity hard to sustain. In The Father of My Children the problem of heartless, global capitalism plays out in society’s upper echelons, with the aristocratic Grégoire discovering that corporations resulting from bigger and bigger mergers are unwilling to cut any slack for art.

Queen to Play screens at 7 p.m. Feb. 4 and 5 p.m. Feb. 5; The Father of My Children runs at 9 p.m. Feb. 4 and 7 p.m. Feb. 5.n

See also