AS two military jets slash across blue skies in an exiting dogfight with a rogue fighter, the pilots converse in terse staccato lingo. The planes dive and roll in a macho display of air superiority in what could be a scene from a sequel to "Top Gun" -- except the pilots speak French and fly under the trois colours of the French air force.
The film is "Sky Fighters" (Les chevaliers du ciel), an uncharacteristically Gallic action film that screens this week as part of the 10th City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival. The annual event, which begins Monday, assembles 18 premieres of French feature films (in addition to 18 shorts) and displays a wider array of the nation's cinema than we're accustomed to seeing in the U.S.
It's easy to think of French film as being limited to the art-house fare it has long been famous for and broad comedies that don't translate well to American audiences, such as the "Asterix" series and "Les Visiteurs." The festival, however, brings to Los Angeles a diverse group of contemporary films that cover the middle ground with serious dramas, comedies both silly and sophisticated and a healthy dose of \o7le popcorn\f7.
"Sky Fighters" stars Benoit Magimel and Clovis Cornillac as Captaines Antoine "Walk'n" Marchelli and Sebastien "Fahrenheit" Vallois, respectively, who shoot down a state-of-the-art French plane that is apparently stolen while being tested at a British air show. The jet jockeys are immediately censured by two government officials (Geraldine Pailhas, Philippe Torreton), who reveal that the pilots interfered with an undercover anti-terrorism mission. Marchelli and Vallois aren't buying the story and begin to unravel a plot involving international arms dealers.
Directed by Gerard Pires and written by Gilles Malencon based on a French comic book, the plot is every bit as implausible as a Hollywood genre film, but it's well-executed fun. The men are rugged, the women are sexy and the airborne action sequences deliver. There is even a female American pilot who conveniently moonlights as a stripper.
"Those Happy Days" (Ces jours heureux), the festival's closing-night film and its lone world premiere, is a gentle comedy reminiscent of "Meatballs" and the summer camp movies of the 1970s and '80s. Jean-Paul Rouve heads an appealing young cast -- including the talented Marilou Berry -- playing a camp director who's in way over his head. Formulaic and sentimental, the film is nevertheless highly entertaining and displays a typical French frankness toward teenage sexuality. Writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano also steer clear of the tendency toward coarseness that ruins many U.S. films about adolescence.
The lighter side
AMONG the comedies, Daniele Thompson's "Orchestra Seats" (Fauteuils d'orchestre) is a likely crowd-pleaser. Cecile de France plays Jessica, a young woman who arrives in Paris inspired by her grandmother's memories. Landing a job at a cafe on the Avenue Montaigne, Jessica interacts with a famous TV actress (Valerie Lemercier) appearing in a play and trying to land the role of Simone de Beauvoir in a film by an American director (Sydney Pollack); a wealthy art collector (Claude Brasseur) at an impasse with his adult son (co-writer Christopher Thompson); and a concert pianist (Albert Dupontel) fed up with life on the road. The charming film builds toward one night in which three events -- the opening of the play, an auction and a concert -- prove to be transforming moments in the characters' lives.
Lemercier co-wrote, directed and stars in the wacky satire "Palais Royal!" in which Catherine Deneuve plays the queen of a fictional contemporary European monarchy. When her husband dies in an accident, the crown bypasses the groomed-to-be-king older son (Michel Vuillermoz) because of an obscure bylaw and lands on the head of callow Prince Arnaud (Lambert Wilson), an otherwise unemployed polo enthusiast. Lemercier is Arnaud's awkward wife, who clashes with her mother-in-law and whose rise in popularity among the subjects parodies a certain British royal family.
The irresistible romantic comedy "Love Is in the Air" (Ma vie en l'air), written and directed by Remi Bezancon, stars Vincent Elbez as Yann, an air safety specialist whose acute fear of flying costs him his true love (Elsa Kikoine). Years later, he gets a second chance with her but is torn by his attraction to his neighbor (Marion Cotillard), a radio therapist, with whom he has become close friends. Gilles Lellouche co-stars as Yann's amusing couch-potato roommate.