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10 Stars To Watch At This Year's European Union Film Festival

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 1, 2017 3:15PM

Kristen Stewart in "Personal Shopper." (Photo by Carole Bethuel. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.)

Film critics—this one included—tend to steer most discussions toward directors. It's that auteur theory thing, and mostly a good thing, focusing attention on the creative control of moviemaking (though by no means is a director always the one with the most control over a film).

But in an average conversation among casual moviegoers at the bar or in the break room at work, it's a safe bet actors and actresses come up far more often than directors. Stars have always been the big draw for mass audiences, so to encourage people to be a little more adventurous in their movie habits, our preview of this year's Chicago European Film Festival (March 3 - 30) will focus on the talent in front of the cameras.

Thanks to a reliably strong schedule that includes several underexposed national cinemas, the Gene Siskel Film Center's annual showcase of E.U. cinema, now in its 20th year, has become a treasured event—prized more highly by many cinephiles than the Chicago International Film Festival.

The "Brexit" vote and general uncertainty over the E.U.'s status going forward gives plenty of material for social and political takes on the lineup of 62 films from 28 nations (the U.K. is represented in this year's fest). But we're putting the gravitas aside and focusing on the glitz this time to show that Hollywood doesn't have a monopoly on charismatic stars.

Gemma Arterton in Their Finest (March 26)
Arterton has seemed on the verge of superstardom since her memorable "Bond girl" turn in the otherwise not-so-memorable Quantum of Solace. A questionable choice of roles in failed blockbuster fodder (Prince of Persia, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) may have stalled her celebrity quotient, but not her talent. The British actress looks to fare better in this WWII romantic comedy from the director of An Education.

Paula Beer in Frantz (March 19 & 23)
A relative newcomer, Beer has been getting lots of attention for her performance in this film as a woman drawn to a man who visits the grave of her fiancé in the wake of World War I. Named Best Young Actress at the last Venice Film Festival, Beer seems poised for big things after working with director François Ozon (Under the Sand, 8 Women), who is known for giving actresses a chance to really shine.

Juliette Binoche and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in Slack Bay (March 11 & 16)
If you haven't heard of Juliette Binoche, I hope you are recovering well from the coma. Binoche is arguably at the peak of her acting prowess right now, coming off exceptional performances in L’atessa and Clouds of Sils Maria. Bruni Tedeschi is less known in the U.S., but the Italian actress/filmmaker's career parallels her co-star's, both in its international scope and a wealth of awards and acclaim. These top European actresses share the screen for the first time in a period comedy considered a departure for director Bruno Dumont (Humanité).

François Cluzet in The Country Doctor (March 17 & 22)
Cluzet may not be a household name, but with Tell No One and The Intouchables, he headlined two of the more successful foreign language films at the American box office in recent years. A versatile actor especially good with everyman roles, he plays a dedicated rural physician who is diagnosed with terminal cancer in this French drama.

Ricardo Darín in Truman (March 24 & 26)
Of all the actors mentioned here, Argentina's Darín might be the most natural movie star. Conveying a combination of world-weariness and romantic charm, he exploded in terms of global recognition with 2009's Academy Award-winning The Secret in Their Eyes (an American remake with Julia Roberts came out in 2015). In Truman, he plays an actor who decides to stop his cancer treatments...and yes, that's two terminal cancer movies in a row for those counting.

Adèle Haenel in The Unknown Girl (March 12 & 15)
Though still shy of 30, Haenel has accumulated enough film and TV credits to match her age in a prolific career that started with a bang with a lead part in Les Diables when she was only 12. Her recent work has included films for renowned filmmakers such as André Téchiné and Guy Maddin, and with The Unknown Girl, she headlines the latest from much-honored Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta; Two Days, One Night). Haenel plays a young doctor obsessed with the case of a woman found dead near her clinic.

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The Death of Louis XIV (March 5)
At 72, Léaud is living French cinema history. If the only movie he ever made had been his breakthrough as a child actor—Francois Truffaut's landmark, The 400 Blows—he would still be a movie immortal. But nearly a half-century of subsequent roles, including work for several other giants of the French New Wave, has reinforced that status. Veering between naturalism and theatricality, Léaud could broadly be called a Method actor, like his hero Marlon Brando. In The Death of Louis XIV, he plays the title French monarch in director Albert Serra's intimate account of his final days.

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper (March 4 & 8)
Yes, this is a cheat. But Stewart earned a spot as our American ringer through her recent collaborations with French director Olivier Assayas—first opposite Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, and now in the lead of Personal Shopper. Art-house favorite Assayas apparently moves into ghost story territory here and reception has been mixed: the movie was booed by the audience at Cannes but also won Best Director honors at the fest.

Cosmina Stratan in Shelley (March 27 & 29)
2012's Beyond the Hills not only reaffirmed director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) as a leader in the Romanian New Wave, but also marked an impressive debut for Stratan, a journalist who shared Best Actress honors at Cannes with her co-star Cristina Flutur for her very first film. Shelley is Stratan's first feature since that auspicious debut and casts the intense, wide-eyed actress as a surrogate mother in a Danish chiller that IndieWire describes as "Rosemary's Baby Meets David Lynch."

The complete schedule for the Chicago European Union Film Festival is available here.