Focus on French Cinema off to a great start

A sold-out house enjoyed the first screening of the annual Focus on French Cinema festival Monday night.

The crowd at the Avon Cinema in Stamford welcomed the legendary director Claude Lelouch before a screening of his recent film “Un + Une” starring Jean Dujardin. Lelouch is this year’s guest of honor and on Saturday in Greenwich he will be on hand for the North American premiere of the restored version of his 1966 Oscar-winning film “A Man and a Woman.”

The festival sponsored by the Alliance Francaise of Greenwich is a moveable feast, starting in Stamford on Monday, moving to Manhattan for three days, and then returning to Fairfield County for three days of screenings in Greenwich, starting Friday. It’s a fantastic immersion into recent French language cinema and a chance to meet some of the filmmakers and actors behind the selections.

Anne Kern, who is director of programming for the festival, told me that lining up talent like Lelouch, and last year’s guest of honor, actress Nathalie Baye, “comes down to network and reputation.”

“In the cases of Nathalie and Claude, we were given an introduction and then spent the better part of a year cultivating a relationship with these incredible talents. In both cases, I met them in person in France in order to tell them the story of our festival, about our incredible audience, and to invite them to suggest both retrospective and contemporary examples of their work so that the movies we include really speak to them as well as to us.”

Anne believes one of the secrets of keeping the festival fresh for 13 years has been “to push the boundaries a little bit, and to always dare to take some risks in terms of our programming.”

The festival has also begun to focus on the French language cinema of countries other than France. Last year a tribute was paid to Lebanon and this year six films and six shorts from Quebec are being highlighted in a new partnership with the Montreal film festival Cinemania.

Focus on French Cinema is one of the best attended film festivals in Connecticut thanks to the broad mix of movies, from comedies, thrillers and family fare to cutting edge art movies and documentaries. Anne stresses the fact that “We…really try to listen to our audience: they very actively tell us what they like, what interests them, and we do our best to seek out movies that meet their desires.”

The official opening night in Connecticut is Friday at the Bow Tie Cinemas in Greenwich where the first of the films from Quebec – “It’s Only the End of the World” (below) – will be shown at 7:45 p.m. The movie is the work of the brilliant young writer-director Xavier Dolan. At the Cesar Awards ceremony in Paris last month, Dolan won for best director and Gaspard Ulliel won for best actor.

Saturday and Sunday are jam-packed, with films running on three screens in Greenwich. For complete schedule and ticketing information visit www.focusonfrenchcinema.com