The Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival kicks off its impressive 18th annual edition tonight and runs through Thursday, April 2. Featuring movies from every country within the European Union, this festival is a great way for local movie lovers to catch up on the best of contemporary European cinema. My best bets for the festival’s first week are a pair of drastically different French comedies.
L’il Quinquin, an off-the-wall masterpiece by writer-director Bruno Dumont, bears the same relationship to small-town northern France that the stories of Flannery O’Connor do to the rural American south: both show a darkly comedic fascination with grotesque characters living in backwater climates of racial and religious intolerance. Dumont’s police procedural was originally seen as a miniseries on French television, but is being released here as a single 3-and-a-half-hour feature by distributor Kino/Lorber. Ingeniously, Li’l Quinquin’s murder-mystery plot unfolds not primarily from the perspective of the cop characters but rather through the eyes of the town’s children, specifically the titular character (Alane Delhaye), an altar boy who has a potty mouth, the face of a pugilist and a penchant for firecrackers. Don’t let the extended running time scare you: Li’l Quinquin is not only one of the best films in the EUFF, but seems destined to be one of the best films to play Chicago theaters this year.
Gemma Bovery is a uniquely French rom-com from veteran filmmaker Ann Fontaine. A huge improvement over her last film to be widely distributed here, the middling Audrey Tatou-starring biopic Coco Before Chanel, this modern-day feminist retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a complete delight from beginning to end. The premise is that Martin (Eric Rohmer favorite Fabrice Luchini), a baker in Normandy who is obsessed with classic literature, is amazed to find that his new English neighbors are named Charlie and Gemma Bovery. Martin soon becomes obsessed with Gemma (Gemma Arterton at her most achingly unattainable), a beautiful young woman whose life—in addition to her name—seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to Flaubert's infamous heroine. As Martin tries to steer Gemma’s fate away from impending tragedy, Fontaine hilariously satirizes both the notion of the “male gaze” and the idea that one can love a work of art to the point that it becomes the primary lens through which he views the world. Unmissable for fans of Madame Bovary, Gemma Bovery has thankfully already been picked up for distribution by Chicago’s Music Box Films.
You can check out the complete European Union Film Festival line-up (as well as find ticket info and showtimes) at the center's website.