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Lumières Françaises film festival to open; 8 Frank Lloyd Wright buildings added to UNESCO list

“Promise at Dawn”
Pathe International
“Promise at Dawn” opens the festival on Friday (and repeats on Sunday).

What makes French films so appealing? The music of the language. The scenery, almost any scenery. The storytelling – less action, more drama and talking. The non-Hollywood, non-action-figure look of the actors. The refreshing lack of uptightness. In French films, nudity happens, sex happens, and adults talk to children as if they’re grown-ups.

Welcome back, Lumières Françaises. Now in its fourth year, the Film Society’s annual toast to French films starts this Friday (July 12) and continues through next Thursday (July 18). Eleven films are spread out over seven days, most showing twice. The line-up is a mix of drama, comedy, documentary, animation and a 1928 silent comedy (with live musical accompaniment). Yes, there’s a film with Charlotte Rampling. And we have a new favorite French actress: Camille Cottin.

Neither appears in “Promise at Dawn” (“La promesse de l’aube”), the film that opens the festival on Friday (and repeats on Sunday). Based on the autobiographical novel by award-winning French author Romain Gary (played as an adult by Pierre Niney), this sprawling, gorgeously filmed epic covers 20-some years in his life, from his early boyhood in Poland’s gray and snowy Vilna through his teenage years in Nice to his World War II exploits in Europe with the Free French Air Force. It’s bracketed by moments from his later life with his first wife, but those aren’t the story and barely matter, except to set the stage for the final lines.

At the center of Gary’s world and most of the film is his adoring single mother, Nina (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who pushes him hard toward the fame and success she believes are his destiny. Someday, she predicts – she insists, she demands – her boy will be a French ambassador. A general. A Knight of the Legion of Honor. A man of the world. Lothario and Casanova rolled into one. A writer. But “not a painter! Van Gogh died at 35. I want you to be famous while you’re alive.” So Gary “resigns himself to literature,” scribbling stories as a child. As a young man, he knew “I had to become a French literary genius and write an immortal masterpiece.”

Gary, in fact, won the Goncourt Prize, France’s top literary honor, for “The Roots of Heaven.” No author can win the Goncourt more than once, but he did – for “The Life Before Us,” written under the assumed name Émile Ajar. Writing about Gary for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik called him “a great big liar.” (If you see the film and want to know more about Gary after, Gopnik’s profile is a good read.) Gary also grew up to be a diplomat – in 1956, he was named French consul general in Los Angeles – but all that falls outside the frame of this film.

Directed by Eric Barbier, “Promise at Dawn” is beautiful to watch, thanks to Glynn Speeckaert’s cinematography. One critic wrote that it “exudes the light gleam of freshly polished vintage silver throughout.” Sometimes it almost looks black-and-white. The pace is leisurely, the story compelling, with moments of hilarity and humanity. Gary and his mother were Jews; anti-Semitism affects their lives in Vilna and his in the French military.

Almost the entire film takes place in a cloud of cigarette smoke. It’s history – the French smoked all the time (don’t they still?) – but it’s also a sharp contrast (and maybe a French flip-off) to America’s attitude toward smoking in films, on TV and in the theater. Responding to a report from the anti-tobacco organization the Truth Initiative, Netflix just pledged to ban smoking in all television shows rated TV-14 and below and all movies rated PG-13 and under, “except for reasons of historical or factual accuracy.” If “Stranger Things” returns for a fourth season, Hopper will have to give up his habit. Closer to home, a content advisory on the Guthrie’s website warns that “Guys and Dolls” contains “the use of electronic cigarettes.” Yes, please tell us if a character in a play is going to pull out a gun and shoot someone (mainly so we can plug our ears), but what are we supposed to do when an e-cigarette appears? Cover our eyes?

Here’s le scoop on Lumières Françaises, including trailers, times and tickets ($12-6). We were able to preview several films and will write about more this week. You might want to spring for an all-access pass; every film we’ve seen so far has been so enjoyable. Vive le French cinema!

Frank Lloyd Wright makes UNESCO list

Big news from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation: At UNESCO’s annual conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, on July 7, eight Wright sites were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

It only took 15 years of campaigning for UNESCO to add modern architecture by an American architect to its prestigious list of places of “universal” value. European architects including Walter Gropius, Mies Van Der Rohe and Le Corbusier were already represented. Le Corbusier made the list in 2016 with 17 sites, nine more than Wright, but who’s counting?

Frederick C. Robie House
Photo by James Caulfield/Frank Lloyd Wright Trust
An interior image of the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
And why does it matter? Because it places Wright’s work alongside the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids of Giza in terms of importance. Because a UNESCO designation increases tourism and its revenues, something most FLW sites need. Because 449 structures designed by Wright were built but 67 have been demolished so far, leaving only 380. (BTW that’s the Foundation’s math, not ours.) And now that eight Wright structures have been given UNESCO designation, it should become more difficult, or at least more unpopular, to tear others down.

On January 10, 2018, the FLW-designed Lockridge Medical Clinic in Whitefish, Montana, was bulldozed overnight. At the moment, a FLW Usonian cottage in Glencoe, Illinois, has been targeted for demolition. And the new owners of the Olfelt House in St. Louis Park have undertaken a $2 million addition. City Salvage was called in to salvage the kitchen and most of the south wing.

In 1972, the FLW-designed Francis Little House in Deephaven was razed. Here’s a segment from TPT’s “Lost Twin Cities 4” that tells the story, complete with photographs of the teardown. Before the house was smashed to splinters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought four rooms, including the living room. The Minneapolis Institute of Art has the hallway.

But these eight new UNESCO World Heritage List properties are now safe and protected by international treaties: Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois; the recently restored Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago; Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin; the Hollyhock House in Los Angeles; Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania; the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin; Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California, were originally proposed for inclusion but didn’t make the cut. You can read the nomination document here.

NPR reminded us that the Trump administration withdrew from UNESCO in 2018. The reason: “anti-Israel bias.”

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