Montreal's Cinemania film festival translates to virtual realm

The stalwart festival of French films with English subtitles survives founder Maidy Teitelbaum’s departure and the challenges of 2020.

“My job is to make sure that everything works," says Cinemania managing director Guilhem Caillard, "and we have fantastic years in front of us, even though times are difficult.”

It’s quite the transition year for Cinemania.

Montreal’s international festival of French-language films, all shown with English subtitles, enters its 26th edition without feisty founder Maidy Teitelbaum, who retired from the event in January, and in the midst of a pandemic that has forced all films online. But if managing director Guilhem Caillard is breaking a sweat, he isn’t showing it.

“It’s just a continuity,” Caillard said Monday of Teitelbaum’s departure. “I’ve been working at Cinemania since 2011, so we stay on the road and we keep on going. Maidy left after 25 years, and there’s more to come for Cinemania.

“My job is to make sure that everything works, and we have fantastic years in front of us, even though times are difficult. I hope we have 25 more years. There are more exciting things to do for the future.”

Caillard’s vision and unflappable optimism have seen Cinemania grow exponentially under his watch as managing director, since 2014. Formerly an ambitious niche event, it has become one of Montreal’s premier film celebrations, showcasing the best titles from each year’s French film crop, including many highlights of major film fests, from Cannes on down.

Cinemania managing director Guilhem Caillard gets set for the festival’s 26th edition, taking place entirely online.
Cinemania managing director Guilhem Caillard gets set for the festival’s 26th edition, taking place entirely online. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Cinemania’s 26th edition presents 94 films from 19 countries, including 43 features, from Nov. 4 to 22. At the top of the list is a film with an asterisk, a programming coup that had to be postponed due to the government health regulations forcing the closure of all movie theatres in the province: Valérie Lemercier’s Aline, a France/Quebec-produced drama about the life of Céline Dion, was set to open this year’s festival.

Unable to acquire online rights, Cinemania is maintaining the feature as its honorary opening film, while postponing the screening until theatres reopen.

“I have no disappointment,” said Caillard, ever stoic. “The festival keeps going. Aline is still the opening film. We’re reinventing ourselves. We have an online program now, and as soon as we can, we’re going to hold that event physically. Cinemania will happen and have many events and activities (outside of the festival itself). Even if we’re going through a tough time, the organization is stronger and we are going to make sure to offer fantastic things.”

Among the fantastic things to be shown as part of Cinemania’s online program is French auteur François Ozon’s latest offering, Été 85 (Summer of 85), a gay teen romance set at a seaside resort in Normandy.

Caillard calls the film, which was part of the official selection for this year’s cancelled Cannes Film Festival, “a passionate romantic encounter.”

Two notable films explore Algeria’s troubled history: Lucas Belvaux’s Des hommes (Home Front), another Cannes selection, starring Gérard Depardieu, Catherine Frot and Jean-Pierre Darroussin; and Yamina Benguigui’s Soeurs, starring Isabelle Adjani.

“It’s a quest for identity about the relationship between someone’s country of origin and their host country — between France and Algeria,” Caillard said of the latter.

Veteran French actress Emmanuelle Béart has the lead role in Ludovic Bergery’s L’étreinte (Margaux Hartmann), about a woman overcoming loss and finding the will to live and love again.

Charlotte Gainsbourg plays alongside writer-director-actor Yvan Attal in the comedy Mon chien Stupide, an adaptation of the bestselling 1987 novella My Dog Stupid by Italian-American writer John Fante.

Writer-director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) is back with Police (titled Night Shift in English), a drama starring Virginie Efira, Omar Sy and Grégory Gadebois as officers who must make an ethical decision after learning more about the migrant they are driving to the airport.

Isabelle Huppert gets to show her funny bone, assuming the role of a police translator turned drug dealer in Jean-Paul Salomé’s La Daronne (Mama Weed). Based on Hannelore Cayre’s popular novel, the film is currently a box-office hit in France, Germany and Austria, and has been sold in over 20 countries.

Sy also stars alongside Bérénice Bejo in Le prince oublié (The Lost Prince), from Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist). He plays a father who turns into Prince Charming every night, as his bedtime stories for his 11-year-old daughter spring to life.

Socially charged topics are broached in Ismaël Ferroukhi’s Mica, exploring inequalities in Morocco; Frédéric Fonteyne and Anne Paulicevich’s Filles de joie (Working Girls), about prostitution in France; Atiq Rahimi’s Notre-Dame du Nil (Our Lady of the Nile), which revisits the Rwandan genocide; and Armenian-French director Nora Martirosyan’s Si le vent tombe (Should the Wind Drop), a Cannes-selected study of separatist dynamics in the Caucasus region.

Cinemania boasts an unprecedented nine Quebec features in its lineup this year, including Neegan Trudel’s first feature, the family drama Vacarme, starring Sophie Desmarais and young actress Rosalie Pépin as a 13-year-old girl living in a group home; Maryanne Zéhil’s La face cachée du baklava (The Sticky Side of Baklava), a comedy set in Montreal’s Lebanese community; Abenaki filmmaker Kim O’Bomsawin’s documentary Je m’appelle humain (Call Me Human), a portrait of Innu poet Joséphine Bacon; and actor Jean-Carl Boucher’s directorial debut, the comedy Flashwood, starring Pier-Luc Funk, Antoine Desrochers and Simon Pigeon, which played in Quebec theatres this summer.

Most films will be shown twice during the festival, and all films will be available for 48 hours following their screening times. Tickets cost $8 per film, or $65 for a festival pass. One of the upsides of the online format is that, for the first time in its history, Cinemania’s entire lineup will be available Canada-wide.

“We started selling passes last week, and we’ve already sold 400,” Caillard said. “This is unbelievable.”

And while the all-virtual format isn’t ideal, Caillard is determined to look on the bright side.

“The solution this year might not be 100 per cent perfect,” he said, “but we are learning a lot and Cinemania is reinventing itself. We take nothing for granted. It’s a year to learn, and the only focus is to bring the best possible experience to our audience.

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