Renee Amory Ketcham of Greenwich has a passion for things French. She speaks the language, majored in French in college and travels often to France, most recently to Aix-en-Provence to visit her daughter, a college student majoring in -- what else? -- French. Ketcham, however, cannot claim French nationality but she does her best, as president of Alliance Française Greenwich (AFG) to foster ties of friendship between French and American cultures.
Over the weekend of April 9 to 11, she is presiding over a French film festival, "Focus on French Cinema," that is unique to this area. Now in its sixth year, the festival draws thousands of people from as far away as Washington, D.C., to the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, where it becomes a sort of Hollywood East but with exclusively French stars.
This year's big star, Ketcham says, is Sylvie Testud, whom she calls "possibly one of the greatest French actresses of her generation." Testud will premiere her film, "Gamines (Sisters)" on Friday, April 9 -- the opening night of the festival. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Testud conducted by film advocate John Farr.
There to view the premiere will be "stars" of the French diplomatic world: French Ambassador to the U.S. Pierre Vimont, the French Consul General in New York, Philippe Lalliot, and former Ambassador to France, Craig Stapleton and his wife Debbie, of Greenwich.
Opening night filmgoers also will have their fill at a tasting buffet -- "Promenade Gourmande" -- hosted by Les Maîtres Cuisiniers de Greenwich, with wine by Le Wine Shop of Greenwich, pulse beats by Cameroonian R & B and jazz singer Kaissa, and a silent auction.
By weekend's end, viewers will have had the chance to view a dozen of the latest French language films --- with English subtitles -- from France, Belgium, Quebec and Africa (in addition to a selection of short films from Belgium). A chance to dialogue with film stars and directors comes Saturday at a "Meet the Actors and Directors Breakfast."
To learn more about the festival, we asked Ketcham a few questions.
Why a French film festival?
For one weekend, we have the opportunity to see a dozen fantastic films that we will quite possibly never have the chance to see again. When was the last time that you had the chance to grab a glass of champagne in a casual setting with an award-winning actor or director who is recognized at the highest level of international cinema? There is nothing VIP or stuffy, like standing on the red carpet, for a great weekend of cinema. Like a lot of things French, "Focus on French Cinema" is alluring and unique, not pretentious!
With the powerful medium of film you can expose the community to the vitality of French and Francophone culture. Vive Greenwich! Vive la France! The Festival fosters ties of friendship between French and American cultures by reaching out to a large public of francophiles, francophones, students and avid moviegoers in the tri-state area.
What was the motivation on the part of the Alliance to create the Festival?
"Focus on French Cinema" was the brainstorm of Catherine Lamairesse of Greenwich, former president of the AFG, who together with myself and co-president Gail Covney started the festival in 2005. We were called "Les Trois Mousquetaires." It was when the relationship between France and the U.S. was being tested with the war in Iraq, and we felt the time was perfect to promote the richness of French and francophone culture in the community. By sharing newly released French language films, we could transcend perceived differences and clichés, and build a bridge of understanding via the storytelling of film. For me, it felt like we were humble diplomats at the beginning, hoping to solve the problems of the world through the universal language of film. We succeeded the first year with an audience of 800, when all we could afford was a selection of films on DVD and two 35mm films. Last year 4,000 spectators came to our 5th anniversary festival.
What is special about the feature films this year?
There is a special pre-festival screening on Thursday, April 8 of 19-year-old Xavier Dolan's debut masterpiece, "J'ai Tué Ma Mère"(" I Killed My Mother") that was nominated for the French Academy Award -- a César -- for Best Foreign Film at Cannes. Our closing film "Rapt" is a parable of the "exorbitant and obscene power of money," directed by Lucas Belvaux. Fans of French star Catherine Frot will enjoy seeing her in two premieres: "Le Vilain" by Albert Dupontel and "L'Empreinte de l'Ange," where she co-stars with another French favorite, Sandrine Bonnaire. This year's book club favorite "Le Herisson" ("The Hedgehog"), by Muriel Barbery, starring Josiane Balasko, will likely be sold out, so reserve early. And the premiere of "La Première Etoile" by Lucien Jean-Baptiste is a laugh-out-loud family comedy about a black family on a ski vacation. Stratton and Aspenites beware!
Why have you added short films this year?
For those not familiar with the short film, "It is an interesting genre, a fantastic, light way to deliver a laugh, a reflection or a scare," says Benoit Lamairesse, the 24-year-old son of Catherine Lamairesse. To accommodate, we are offering two projection rooms to show the award-winning Belgian "shorts." Stay up late on Saturday night and see "Peur(s) Du Noir ("Fear of the Dark")," six chilling and riveting scenarios of fear, animated in black and white. And, don't miss our first-ever silent auction on opening night.
Can you give some highlights of previous "Focus on French Cinema" festivals?
When famous director Coline Serreau said that she would fly to Greenwich for one day to present her film "Chaos," starring Catherine Frot and Vincent Lindon, we could not believe it. That same year, Philippe Muyl came to the festival to present his magical film "Le Papillon." In 2007, Claude Brasseur, one of the most prolific actors in France, seduced the audience in the premiere of his wonderful film, "Le Héros de la Famille" by Thierry Klifa. In 2008, we showed a hysterically funny film about summer camp in France called "Nos Jours Heureux." Not your Camp Kineowatha in Maine scenario, but tent-hopping teenagers enjoying an innocently risqué summer away from home. A wide-eyed Greenwich boy raised his hand during the Q & A inquiring as to whether or not French camp was really like this -- and how he could find out more!
Last year, Jean-Michel Ribes presented his premiere film "Musée Haut -- Musée Bas" that literally changes a visit to a museum forever. Museums are not really about the art -- they are about the people who are looking at the art.
(For more information, visit www.focusonfrenchcinema.org for the full schedule of films and events or call the AFG office at 203-629-3644. This year the festival will give 20 percent of its proceeds to the charity Action Against Hunger.)