Allons au cinéma!
French Film Festival continues to delight
By Jessica Laskey
A crime drama. A comedy featuring an animated inner voice. A romantic comedy about an undocumented nanny in Paris. A drama that explores the Bataclan concert hall terrorist massacre of 2015.
These are just a few plotlines from movies that will be featured at this year’s French Film Festival in June at the Tower Theatre. Now in its 22nd year, the event is the perfect way for Francophiles, cinephiles and anyone looking for a good time to enjoy new films from France.
“We choose films we like and think our audience would enjoy,” says festival co-founder, executive director and artistic director Cécile Mouette Downs. “We have a good mix of perspectives. Not all French film is super intellectual. We like to present comedies, but even if the film is funny, it’s thoughtful, too.”
In 2001, Downs arrived in Sacramento by way of New York, where she worked in the film department of the Cultural Services division of the French Embassy. Before that, she was a press officer in her native Paris for the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (the French federal communications commission).
She realized Sacramento was ripe for an injection of cinéma thanks to the Crest and Tower historic movie houses and an appetite for new cultural experiences. Downs went to work creating the inaugural event in 2002.
“My dad loved film, so I grew up watching classic films,” says Downs, who lives with her husband and two sons in Curtis Park. “He’d let me stay up late if there was going to be a particularly good one on TV. I studied history in school and ended up putting the two things I like most together.”
Thanks to the work of Downs, co-founder Connie Georgiu and a team of volunteers, as well as media attention from the Bee’s then film critic Joe Baltake, the first festival sold out.
Over the next two decades, the festival grew to include live discussions with directors, a Winter Shorts Fest that features brief films nominated for the César Awards (French Academy Awards), a Minifest one-day festival in the fall, and other special events in partnership with organizations such as M5 Arts, Crocker Art Museum, Verge Center for the Arts, Sacramento Public Library and Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra.
Downs and her selection committee—managing director Jane Berner and board president Kevin Elstob, known to festivalgoers as “Le Professeur,” plus Paris contacts Stéphanie Vasseur and Richard St. Ofle—keep the festival balanced.
For example, the 2023 festival included films with an equal number of men and women directors, equal number of comedies and dramas, two films made by North African directors and four directors making debuts. All films feature English subtitles and are available to American audiences only through the festival.
“Most of the films we show have no U.S. distribution, so this is the only chance for people to see them,” Downs says.
While COVID rocked the festival’s world, the show went on. It just moved online. The festival was hosted on a virtual streaming platform until in-person festivities resumed this year.
Downs says the group plans to present its fall Minifest virtually and then phase out the platform, hoping they’ll never need it again. She was heartened to see audiences return in person and hopes it’s a bellwether for the future.
“I want people to know how fun it is,” Downs says. “There’s no need to be intimidated by foreign films. If the story is good, you forget the subtitles are there after two minutes. It’s all about presenting good human stories.”
The Sacramento French Film Festival is June 7–9 at the Tower Theatre. The Winter Shorts Fest, featuring shorts nominated for a 2024 César (French Academy Awards) is Feb. 22.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento