Palm Springs is probably the only place cinephiles can take in 16 French movies in two weeks and watch a roadrunner scuttle alongside the base of a snow-capped mountain.
"It's different here," quipped director Francis Veber, as he relaxed in a wicker chair at the Wyndham Palm Springs Hotel's bar. "You open windows to the rest of the world. I wouldn't go to a Bulgarian or Korean movie anywhere else."
Veber was marveling at the vigor of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which has been in full swing since Jan. 8 and runs through the weekend. In his 40 years as a filmmaker, this was Veber's first time attending the festival, as he screened his latest film, "L'Emmerdeur" ("A Pain in the Ass") -- a remake of his 1973 slapstick comedy about a stone-cold assassin who forges an unlikely and unwant- ed friendship with a suicidal photographer -- last Satur- day.
But he said he felt at home amid a crowd drawn to see European talent that is often underestimated by Hollywood -- and there's the setting.
"Here, they're choosing less-known directors -- courageous films but not known," Veber said. And "the secret to a good festival is to have a place people love to come to."
Indeed, the once tiny festival has grown in style and prestige over the years. With highly anticipated movies such as "Waltz With Bashir," the Golden Globe winner for best foreign-language film, and "The Class," which won the Palme d'Or award at Cannes, Palm Springs has a strong foreign presence. And festival organizers say that although about 70% of the attendees are American, some of the parties have a distinctly international flavor.
On a breezy Saturday afternoon, the Colony Palms Hotel was transformed into a Mediterranean oasis, complete with poolside champagne and unseasonably tanned guests during a French film brunch sponsored by the French Embassy and the TV5 Monde network. Munching on delicacies such as steak and egg ravioli and mushroom frittata, festival- goers basked on white chaise lounges while mellow electronic music drowned out the chatter. The relaxing scene was more French Riviera than desert mirage.
"This is not a little film festival for a local audience," said Darryl MacDonald, the festival's director of programming. "It's a springboard for international filmmakers to reach Americans."
This year, French films have reemerged at the forefront of non-Hollywood cinema at the festival. Directors such as Veber ("The Dinner Game," "The Valet"); Laurent Cantet, who won the new director's showcase award in 2000 at the Seattle International Film Festival for his breakthrough movie "Human Resources"; and Jean-François Richet (2005's "Assault on Precinct 13" ), here with his new film, "Public Enemy," are just a few of the names to watch who ventured to Palm Springs for the annual fest.
Cantet's "The Class," shown twice over the weekend, is easily the festival's most talked-about release. Shot with a digital camera and a minimal crew, Cantet's unflinching portrayal of a racially mixed Parisian classroom illuminates the student-teacher conflicts of today's education system. The lead role is played by François Bégaudeau, author of the novel that inspired the film.
Trouble in the classroom is a popular trope for filmmakers. But Cantet's approach is far removed from American movies such as "Dangerous Minds" and "Freedom Writers," according to MacDonald.
"It catches you by surprise," he said. "It's been done before but this so much more real."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times