For some reason, I don’t often think to watch a short or a series of shorts. Shorts just aren’t a part of my regular culture diet.
What a missed opportunity that is. Thank you, “New French Shorts 2021,” for reminding me of that.
The series, now screening via Austin Film Society’s virtual cinema, is made available through Young French Cinema, a program of UniFrance and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. It’s made up of seven short films: “Genius Loci,” (Adrien Mérigeau); “By a Hair” (Lauriane Escaffre and Yvonnick Muller); “Haute Cuisine,” (Merryl Roche); “So What if the Goats Die?” (Sofia Alaoui); “And Then The Bear,” (Agnès Patron); “Sukar,” (Ilias El Faris); and “Olla,” (Ariane Labed).
It’s an unruly group. What generalizations can I even make about seven stories as wildly different from each other as these? How about this: they’re all very, very good.
Ranging from 10 to 27 minutes in duration, this showcase of French filmmakers offers a wide range of aesthetics and genres — lyrical and narrative; funny, tragic, quiet, weird, vindictive; live action and animation; realistic, expressionistic and (possibly) supernatural. It’s a trip — from cities to suburbs, from the beach to the deserted mountains.
Altogether it makes for a pretty interesting portrait of humanity and life on earth. Strange, depressed, horny, scared. What fun.
There really isn’t a weak link in the bunch. And I don’t want to choose a favorite, but here’s some of my favorite moments:
I’ll start with Mérigeau’s “Genius Loci,” which netted an Oscar nomination this year for Best Animated Short. Yes, the Oscars can be kind of meaningless because they’re mostly driven by marketing and don’t usually correlate to movies’ originality or aesthetic or political risk. But this impressionistic portrait of a young Black woman’s stroll through a night-time cityscape is amazing. It’s going to be a long time before I forget those dreamy images or eerie soundscapes.
What of Roche’s “Haute Cuisine”? I didn’t think it was possible to have a fresh take on the ambitious-person-working-in-Michelin-star-restaurant-trying-to-move-up-the-ranks narrative. But I was wrong. And I do mean “fresh” take. Marie, the saucier in question, finds a hilarious and truly horrifying way to fast-track her cooking career, both visually exciting and metaphorically poignant.
Or how about that weird sexy dance in the oddball romance in Labed’s “Olla”? Or the dazzling animated wanderings and haunting soundtrack of Patron’s coming-of-age story “And Then The Bear”? The unbelievable specificity, the visual facts of El Faris’s “Sukar”? (And those snotty shitheads on the Casablanca beach?) The wit and tenderness of “By a Hair” of a father-daughter relationship?
It’s all such a treat. A French treat. A perfectly crispy but also soft and buttery croissant.
Speaking of perfectly: maybe the reason I’ve been averse to short films is that they’re just so hard to pull off. They are often too neatly wrapped up — some silly conceit has been found to keep the story to a time frame that will make it eligible for festivals. Or sometimes the story just hasn’t been executed thoroughly enough; there isn’t a reason for the thing to be a short and not something longer.
But seeing these seven short films, I see that this difficultly executed form also offers an opportunity — for virtuosity, and maybe even, yes, perfection.
At a recent talk in San Francisco (available via the podcast City Arts & Lectures), the writer Zadie Smith was asked if she preferred novels or short stories. A short story can be perfect, Smith offered. A novel — due to its length, its many characters, its irregular shape and unwieldy digressions — rarely is.
I think a similar principle can apply to short films. Longer movies can offer scope, time and space for thoroughness and exploration. But a short film can attempt a kind of perfection, achieve moment-to-moment brilliance.
Are any of the 2021 New French Shorts truly perfect?
I’ll let you decide. But my answer? Oui.
See ‘New French Shorts 2021’ at afsathome.org/new-upcoming-releases/new-french-shorts-2021-kino