Programmer of Cinema St. Louis’ annual Classic French Film Festival

Cliff Froehlich_1Cliff Froehlich is the executive director of Cinema St. Louis, an organization devoted to promoting the art of cinema in the St. Louis area. Mr. Froehlich does the programming for the Classic French Film Festival, held each year at Webster University.  A veteran of journalism, academia, and film festival programming, he worked at the Riverfront Times in various capacities from 1983 to 2001 as a film critic and executive editor.  Additionally, he’s worked as Arts-and-Entertainment editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and has taught film-studies courses at Webster University for more than 30 years, where he’s currently an adjunct professor in the Electronic and Photographic Media Department.  Mr. Froehlich was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk to us about his programming duties with the 2015 Classic French Film Festival, now in progress…


ZekeFilm: It could be said that most vintage foreign cinema is a tough sell these days.  What is it about classic French cinema that sets it apart, to the point that it commands a solid block of screenings at the Webster University Film Series each year?  Is St. Louis particularly receptive to French cinema?


Cliff Froehlich:  There’s no doubt that repertory programming can be a challenge today, given that devoted cinephiles can find an extraordinary array of classic works on DVD and Blu-ray and through such streaming sources as Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Fandor. But discerning audiences continue to appreciate seeing films presented on the big screen, with high-quality projection and sound, so the right programs continue to draw committed filmgoers.


 As for why we decided to concentrate on French film in particular, the reason was simple: French works have traditionally done well at SLIFF, and when we decided to expand our annual programming, a French fest thus seemed a logical choice. (I should note that the first two French fests actually were a mix of contemporary and classic films, but it became clear that the older works were being received with more enthusiasm, so in 2011 — our third fest — we made the transition to all classics.)


We also liked the fact that St. Louis has French roots, and the presence of several local organizations devoted to French culture (such as the Alliance Francaise and Les Amis) allowed us to market the fest not just to cinephiles but also to a receptive audience of Francophones and and Francophiles.


Finally, classic French films are far easier to obtain than works from other countries because there are several U.S. specialty distributors (e.g., Rialto, Janus, Kino, Film Desk, Cohen) that both offer new restorations and control American rights, and the French government’s Insitut Francais provides invaluable aid in securing prints and offering other programming help.


ZekeFilm:  Regarding the films themselves, How did you narrow down all of French cinema to this handful of titles?  Regarding this particular batch, was there an intentional leaning away from the usual Truffaut/Godard/French New Wave titles that might more readily come to mind?


Cliff Froehlich:  Another attraction of doing a Classic French Film Festival was the wide range of extraordinary films and filmmakers from which we’d be able to choose. Like Hollywood, France offers a seemingly inexhaustible well of great works from which to draw, so we didn’t have to worry about running out of attractive possibilities after a few years. I try to balance different criteria when choosing films for the fest, offering a range of different styles and genres.


I also want to avoid overemphasizing any one period, attempting to include films from the silent era all the way through the 1990s. (We formerly used 25 years as the cutoff point for “classic,” but we’ve now shortened that to 20 years, allowing us to include such recent restorations as Patrice Chereau’s Queen Margot and Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter.)


Finally, and perhaps pre-eminently, I look for recent restorations — eight of the 10 films presented at this year’s fest, for example, are newly restored. The 2015 lineup is admittedly a bit light on New Wave directors (only Rohmer qualifies, though Philippe de Broca was a contemporary), but that wasn’t a deliberate choice. Previous fests have arguably skewed heavily in the direction of the New Wave, including films by Rivette, Chabrol, and Rohmer, with Truffaut and Godard especially well represented. This year, we simply had access to new restorations of works that fell outside the New Wave, so I chose accordingly. That said, a practical aspect that affects my selections is format: Many new restorations are only available on DCP. Because Webster U. is still not equipped to show that format, we couldn’t play a few candidates that would likely have been included (such as Rialto’s restoration of Godard’s Alphaville, which I would have otherwise screened).


ZekeFilm:  This selection of films runs the tonal and stylistic gamut, dipping into several genres, from Bresson to Carax, Renoir to Rohmer.  Which films by which directors are you personally most excited see make the cut?


Cliff Froehlich:  I like all of the films that we screen on one level or another, but it’s especially exciting to offer works with which the audience might not be familiar. Carax’s Boy Meets Girl certainly qualifies this year, and although Melville is a favorite of many cinephiles, his Two Men in Manhattan has been fairly inaccessible to American audiences. I’m also happy to present the uncut Queen Margot— the American-release version was considerably trimmed, so this complete cut will be brand-new to St. Louis audiences.


I certainly love masterworks by Renoir, Bresson, Tati, etc. — and there’s great value in showing them, particularly in new restorations — but it’s even more gratifying to give exposure to less-known but worthy films. In 2013, for example, we presented a sampling of comedies by Pierre Etaix, a filmmaker who had essentially been forgotten even in France because his movies had been tied up in rights problems and were not able to be exhibited. When Janus and the Criterion Collection made his films available, they were a real revelation. Similarly, in 2012, I was particularly pleased to present Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, a major work that is rarely screened in the States and remains unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray (at least in licensed versions).


ZekeFilm:  Why are these screenings worth coming out to the theater to experience as opposed to simply watching them at home?


Cliff Froehlich: Even absent the introductions and discussions by our speakers, I strongly believe that filmgoers benefit from seeing a movie on the big screen with a receptive audience. I certainly watch a large number of films at home, but with all the interruptions that inevitably occur — the phone ringing, dogs barking, cats jumping onto my lap — the experience just doesn’t compare to a theatrical screening.


In the case of the Classic French Film Festival, the screenings are also considerably enhanced by thoughtful introductions by films critics and scholars, and the post-film discussions are invariably lively and informative, providing insights that clarify and deepen the viewing.


ZekeFilm:  If Cinema St. Louis were to take on additional classic film festivals of other nationalities, what countries/filmmakers/titles would be ideal candidates?  What other grouping of foreign films would you personally love to enlighten people with, and why?


Cliff Froehlich: As already mentioned, France is something of a special case because of the enormous number of great works it has produced and the relatively good access we have to many of them. But there are certainly other significant national cinemas that would support an annual fest, with Italy and Japan perhaps the preeminent examples.


In the case of the former, I’d worry about competing with the highly successful Italian Film Festival — although that fest, which is run by Barbara Klein, features only contemporary work, I think it might create a bit of confusion if we were to launch a classic complement. As for Japan, there’s an astonishing array of rich material, but I’m not certain that we’d draw a large enough audience to sustain it over the long haul.


The most viable possibility would likely be a fest focused on British films, and there’s a substantial body of work that could be featured (films by Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, David Lean, Michael Powell, and early work by Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke, and Terence Davies). There are many, many Anglophiles in the U.S., — just look at the success of Downton Abbey and other BBC productions on PBS — and I suspect that local English enthusiasts would embrace such a fest.


At this stage, however,  Cinema St. Louis has a fairly full plate with five annual events — SLIFF (The St. Louis International Film Festival), the Classic French Film Festival, the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, QFest, and the local component of the 48 Hour Film Project — so I don’t foresee any new additions in the near future. But even if we never mount a dedicated festival on another country, keep in mind that we feature classic works from many locales during SLIFF, so lovers of older work should definitely look at the fest schedule in November to see what restorations or revivals we might be offering.


ZekeFilm:  Thank you Cliff for all you and Cinema St. Louis do in your efforts to enrich St. Louis through film!  Have a great rest of the fest!
The Seventh Annual Robert Classic French Film Festival – co-presented by Cinema St. Louis and the Webster University Film Series — ran at Webster University’s Winifred Moore Auditorium in March of 2015.