The ninth annual QFest, presented by Cinema St. Louis, runs Sunday, April 24 through Thursday, April 28 at the Hi-Pointe Backlot Theatre. The QFest mission is "to use the art of contemporary gay cinema to spotlight the lives of LGBTQ people and to celebrate queer culture." This year's program does just that with 13 feature films and 15 short subjects.

Seven of the feature films are fiction, six are documentaries. Kicking off the festival is writer/director Cheryl Dunye's 1996 lesbian classic The Watermelon Woman, starring Dunye and celebrating its 20-year anniversary with a restored edition. Also of note on Sunday, St. Louis native Doug Archibald's semi-autobiographical romantic comedy I Love You Both will have its St. Louis premiere with two screenings and a Q&A discussion with writer/director/co-star Doug Archibald and writer/co-star Kristin Archibald. It offers a warm, insightful look at intimate relationships and the difficulty of navigating a particularly complicated one.

Some films address serious subjects; for example, the documentary Upstairs Inferno that interrogates a hideous hate crime. Other films take a humorous or purely dramatic approach. And the 9 p.m. program on Wednesday showcases an international selection of diverse short films.

Other noteworthy films previewed include Major!, director/producer Annalise Ophelian's fine documentary about Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, an inspirational black transgender activist for over 40 years. Major's descriptions, illustrated with colorful sketches, archival photographs and film footage, provide a solid historical context of her and other transgenders' struggles and triumphs. Following "Major!" on Tuesday and a perfect companion documentary is Jennifer Abod's "The Passionate Pursuits of Angela Bowen." She is a groundbreaking black lesbian feminist and ballerina whose story is told through a rich collection of music, photos, posters, footage, and interviews.

I'm clearly partial to documentaries; but nonfiction or fiction, there's plenty to choose from. All screenings are at the Hi-Pointe Backlot Theatre, April 24-28. You may go to CinemaStLouis.org/QFest for more information or to Facebook's QFestSTL.

 

I've been told that Russian writer/director Aleksandr Sokurov is an acquired taste. If that's true, I happily acquired it with his 2002 Russian Ark, a fascinating trip in one continuous tracking shot through the Hermitage Museum and Russian history. Now Francofonia showcases the Louvre, tracing its architecture, contemplating noteworthy paintings, and dramatizing World War II events.

Following a meandering stream of consciousness, the narrator, Sokourov himself (with this variant spelling), devotes most of his attention to the Louvre's Deputy Director Jacques Jaujard who in 1940 moved the museum's priceless art to safe havens. When Count Franz Wolff-Metternich arrived, he found mostly heavy sculptures and minor works, and courageously, perhaps surprisingly, he would protect these and other art as well. Sokurov dramatizes these events with actors and revisits this decisive episode at several points in Francofonia. In fact, the impact comes across most powerfully as the camera, often silently, moves through Louvre's corridors filled with empty frames on the walls and bare pedestals.

Actors portray other historical individuals as well -- including Napoléon Bonaparte and France's national symbol Marianne -- while significant authors Tolstoy and Chekhov appear in deathbed photographs that Sokurov addresses, along with a ship's captain fighting rough seas, his ship laden with now endangered, prized art. To this mélange, the narrator adds a thoughtful, philosophical interrogation of art's importance through the ages, beginning with photos of the museum's construction. Archival film presents Hitler and Paris in WWII, often shown with almost eerily empty streets.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel uses sepia tone, black and white, and dimly lit footage. It appears at time with sprocket holes or the sound stripe showing on the left hand side of the frame. Francofonia is unusual, sometimes challenging, and always intriguing. In French, Russian and German with English subtitles. At a Landmark Theatre.

 

Coming out in the same year are two movies about two women who thought they could sing. Meryl Streep plays the American, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Catherine Frot plays the French, Marguerite Dumont. Both performers had more money than self-awareness as both singers could peel paint off walls with their voices.

Marguerite well presents the conflict involved in responding to innocence. Is this woman delusional or crazy or just tin-eared? Marguerite Dumont had money and married a man with a title. She loves him with the same vibrancy that she loves classical music. Her money buys her intimate concerts in her home with the Amadeus Club. She wants to sing in Paris though her voice pierces like her peacock's.

Her husband Georges does everything he can to avoid these concerts, which she does not like even to start without him. Her servant Mandelbos honeys around her, shoring her up by photographing her. But he is also selling those pictures to exploit her. Denis Mpunga excels in the role. Also eye-fetching is Michel Fau as her teacher with his Fellini face and pageboy.

Director and writer, Xavier Giannoli, does an excellent job of showing the fine lines between sycophancy and exploitation, comedy and tragedy as those around Marguerite lie to her face with plastered smiles on their faces and cotton balls in their ears. Yet, some, like a music critic, applaud her kindness and innocence. Frot is marvelous as Marguerite.

Glynn Speeckaert, the Belgian cinematographer, recreates theatrical light and shadow in Marguerite's music room, with the swinging chandelier. Giannoli weaves a theme of eyes throughout, starting with a giant eyeball prop and focusing on the eye in a camera.

Marguerite offers pathos bathed in luxury and delusion with a hint of compassion. No one wins.

 

For a film about a musician, I Saw the Light has precious few moments of music. The bio-pic about Hank Williams follows his short life -- he died at 29 with nearly 40 hits -- right down to dates in the corner of the screen but does not follow the music.

Tom Hiddleston, the fine British actor, delivers the notes with more croon than angst -- he certainly has the glottal stop down. He also delivers the physical appearance of the lanky Hank, his back curved by a form of spinal bifida. But Hiddleston floats above the story, never inhabiting the bio of the pic. That could just be the fault of the scriptwriters, including the director Marc Abraham and Colin Escott, who co-wrote the biography. It's a skim, not a swim, of a role.

The story covers Williams's beginnings as he struggles toward the Grand Old Opry in Nashville while singing at radio stations and marrying in 1944 at a gas station. The film suggests that Audrey May, who considered herself a singer, too, was a jumping-bean hellbent to up Williams' ambitions. Audrey had to endure put-downs and pity and the endless parade of women glued to Williams's sequined suits -- it was not enough that Audrey had to deal with the man's alcoholism and physical frailty. Elizabeth Olsen turns in a wired performance when she's on screen with Hiddleston. I Saw the Light is one of those films where the performances, including Cherry Jones' as Mother Williams, work well beyond the script -- as hard as that is to figure. As for production values, I Saw the Light also plays with light, starting with Williams, solo, in the spotlight, his sight obscured by his hat as it often is. The film does elucidate Williams' little known alter ego, whom he called "The Drifter," but the Wikipedia entry on Williams' life has more energy, more sparks, than the whole of I Saw the Light. Hank Williams left a greater legacy than this film will.

 

This awkward documentary begins, as it should, with definitions of the title nouns. Both mean, to the filmmaker, Tony Monaghan, a "redneck" is an "uneducated American worker of a rural base," whereas "cultchie" refers to an "unlearned Irish person." Monaghan comes from County Mayo, Ireland, and he considers himself a cultchie.

As the head of Irish Construction in St. Louis, he is all too familiar with local "rednecks." His rednecks are not farm boys or construction workers whose necks are red from working in the sun. His rednecks are druggies and alchies. He hires them to work construction in his independent company. Most of these men could not work for union companies because of the drug tests.

But Monaghan, who wrote and directed the 82-minute film, hires them because he was given a second chance or two when he was young. "After all," he says, "we're all human." He hires them; lends him his truck, which they run off with; settles them on his couch, where they camp; and rehires them after rehab or a toot. American rednecks do not have the work ethic of the culchies he grew up with, very frustrating.

He introduces Annoying Andy, Sandwich, and Johnny D. They are opinionated, entitled, rowdy, drunk, and illiterate. Monaghan plays Irish music in the background of the action. The interstices offer data, such as the fact that 9% of men come to worksites hung over, or 15.1% of construction workers used illicit drugs. "It's madness on top of madness," he says. His film, though uneven, presents a subculture worth considering.

Rednecks + Cultchies will be available on Amazon April 19.

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