A taste of Paris in L.A.

City of Lights, City of Angels serves up mix of high-lo French cinema

The chilly air and rain-slicked streets were more akin to April in Paris, but the weather did not deter otherwise rain-challenged Angelenos from attending the 10th annual City of Lights, City of Angels festival at the Directors Guild of America on Sunset Boulevard.

Granted, this wasn’t your typical L.A. audience — more fashionable and cosmopolitan than the city is given credit for. Despite the 65%/35% split between American and Gallic attendees, the murmur in the air was decidedly French.

That’s not to say the crowd wasn’t industry-heavy. In fact, 80% worked in the biz, many of whom were invitees. But the weeklong event neither doubles as a market nor is it purely a cineaste affair. Part cultural exchange and part L.A. networking opportunity, COLCOA — the second largest showcase of French films in the world after the Festival du Film Francais in Japan — has always taken pains to present a wide spectrum of French film offerings.

Organizers acknowledge that the names Chabrol, Resnais and Blier no longer guarantee playdates in U.S. arthouses, which points to the event’s underlying message: Not all French cinema is of the elitist variety associated with the Nouvelle Vague — or “intellectual cinema,” as program director Francois Truffart terms it.

In this regard, the 10th annual COLCOA (April 3-9) — sponsered by the Franco-American Cultural Fund, Unifrance, the MPAA, DGA and the WGA, among others — served up a mixture of high-lo French cinema, ranging from Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s feel-good, coming-of-age drama “Ces jours heureux” (Those Happy Days), which won the Audience Choice Award, to the darkly probing “Vers le sud” (Heading South), directed by the gifted Laurent Cantet (“Time Out”).

Of the 18 features shown, 11 of the filmmakers showed up to talk about their work, but only two of the films already had America distribution in place: “Heading South” and “Gabrielle” (although the latter was picked up by now-defunct Wellspring and faces an uncertain theatrical fate).

And unlike past years when exposure at COLCOA would lead to one or two distribution deals — such as “Venus Beauty Institute” in 1999, or Francis Veber’s “Tais-tois” in 2003 — there was little comparable activity this time around. Part of the reason, as Truffart states, is that French cinema must share niche screen space with a widening array of international exports, including vastly increased output from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

More often than not, Hollywood is interested in remakes, such as when Lionsgate nabbed the rights to Veber’s fest entry “The Dinner Game” in 1998, or this year’s “La valet” (also from Veber), which was announced as a DreamWorks remake for the Farrelly brothers three weeks after its international bow at COCOA. But even a remake magnet like Veber would acknowledge that his work can get lost in translation (witness Veber’s “La Cage aux folles” spinoff, “The Birdcage”).

Apart from its unabashed insistence on injecting cultural, philosophical and political issues into seemingly everyday discourse, part of the appeal of French cinema is its transporting magic. “Fauteuils d’orchetre” (Orchestra Seats), accompanied at COLCOA by writer-director Daniele Thompson, charmingly delved behind the scenes of classical music, theater, cinema and film in Paris — a kind of dream tour of the City of Lights. And yet viewers, myself among them, never had to leave the ground; but we left the theater floating.

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