The best thing about French cinema is that it gets away with the things we might scoff at in our native tongue: passionate melodrama, perpetual adultery, affairs between teen girls and much older men and impressively selfish and indulgent behaviour – it’s true escapism.

So it’s no wonder we greet the Alliance Française French Film Festival with arms open wide and cigarettes in hand, ready to delve into the next love triangle (3 Hearts), salacious affair (Gemma Bovery) or cross-dressing scandal (The New Girlfriend, Summer Nights). Produced by the Alliance Française, the festival’s 26th run will kick off in Sydney on March 3 and Melbourne on March 4, lugging 49 films around in its suitcase. We outline some of the program’s stand-outs below.

Gemma Bovery
British babe Gemma Arterton (Tamara Drewe) stars in the festival’s opening night feature, Gemma Bovery. Don’t be fooled by the slight alteration in spelling; this is a modern – and lighthearted – spin on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the classic tale of a doctor’s wife who uses adultery to escape her mundane existence as a housewife. Arterton plays Gemma Bovery, who, newly married, moves to the French countryside. Show-stealer Fabrice Luchini plays a Flaubert fan astonished at Bovery’s beauty and likeness to his heroine and strikes up a friendship with her. But this is cut short when aristocrat Herve de Bressigny arrives on the scene, and the two begin a sordid affair which can only end badly.

3 Hearts (3 Coeurs)
The French really know how to do a love triangle. Smitten after a chance meeting, but left without each other’s phone numbers, Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Marc (Benoit Poelvoorde) don’t believe they’ll see each other again. Marc tries to move on and becomes engaged to Sophie, only to (painfully) find out she is Sylvie’s sister. Oh, the agonising irony. Suddenly Marc is close to Sylvie, but their love is absolutely forbidden. The acting makes this film, especially Charlotte Gainsburg’s, who is always at her best when emotionally traumatised (see: Melancholia).

Almost Friends (On a Failli Etre Amies)
Here is a film that realistically portrays the complications of female friendships. Carole feels overshadowed by her husband, a Michelin-starred chef, and wants more from life, so registers at an adult-education centre. It’s there she meets Marithe, and the women begin spending time together. Soon, Marithe advises Carole to quit Sam’s restaurant and Sam altogether. This advice (and the women’s friendship) is further complicated when Marith meets the charming Sam, and is clearly attracted to him.

The Blue Room (La Chambre Bleue)
A small French village, a red-blooded affair, a man living two lives and the crime that will expose it all. The second film as a director from actor Mathieu Amalric (Grand Budapest Hotel) represents a darker side to this year’s festival line-up, investigating the sometimes cold nature of humanity. Packed with thrills (and sex scenes), it’s a murder mystery to keep you guessing until the fin.

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The Bélier Family (La Famille Bélier)
Touted as this year’s Amelie, The Bélier Family tells the story of a family of deaf and mute dairy farmers that relies on its only able-hearing daughter to connect with the world on their behalf. The clincher is that not only can 17-year-old Paula speak, she can sing, and beautifully. Her decision to leave home to chase a singing career throws her family into chaos – they want her to succeed but fear they can’t survive without her.

The New Girlfriend (Une Nouvelle Amie)
Fusing the best of Hitchcock and Almodovar, love, loss and lingerie are the key players in The New Girlfriend. Adapted from a short story by British novelist Ruth Rendell, the film depicts the uneasy journey of a cross-dressing man aided by a woman who is mourning the death of her best girlfriend. Director Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women) manages to present the dark and light sides to our deepest sexual desires, adding humour without ever falling into the trap of mockery.

The 2015 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival runs in Sydney from March 3–22.