Beyond the Cliché: Contemporary French Cinema

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When Jean-Marie Le Clézio gave a press conference in Paris last week upon his being named the 2008 Nobel Literature laureate, he answered one question – that was submitted by both French and British journalists: does this award disprove the idea of a decline in French culture? His reply, though good-natured, was dismissive, saying that he had never even considered French culture to be in decline. Le Clézio is a polyglot cosmopolitan, of Mauritian and English ancestry, who has lived on all five continents and today calls New Mexico home, so the charge of French intellectual nombrilism will not stick on him. The question was predictable enough, as many of the journalists were jobbing stringers who had probably never heard of him before that morning, never mind read his books. And it is one that has been circulating since a particularly bone-headed article published in Time magazine last year speculated on the inexorable decline of the language and culture of Molière. The article by Donald Morrison had little to back it up other than a wonder at the French inability to match the Anglo-American cultural dominance of the globe, a dominance that Morrison was able to gauge only in economic terms, being sorely ill-equipped, not to mention ill-informed, to bring any cultural nous to bear on the matter.

France is one of those countries that take an easy bashing; such is the case for many large countries, most of which have a certain admixture of arrogance, self-assuredness and insularity that too often shadows the perception of their many better qualities.

The US, Britain, Russia and Japan are other obvious examples, and there are undoubtedly regional cases around the world too. What sets France apart though is the bashing of the French so often takes on a cultural hue. This might be because of its reduced stature as a political power in the era of a single Europe but also because of the very importance of culture to the social fabric in France. Though many criticisms of French culture are valid, mouthing off about its shortcomings has become an international sport, most often conducted by people that know neither the culture nor language they slate, nor care about it. French culture-bashing, and it exists on the European left as much as in the neocon US, is a product of an insecure anti-intellectualism among folk in other countries. An insecurity that is ironic since French culture is far from being the inaccessible bourgeois-inflected monolith that so many people imagine it to be.

One of the favourite punchbags for self-appointed francophobes is French cinema. Boring, dull and talky are the epithets one hears most often, to the extent that for many people, French cinema has morphed into one type of film, a parody of early Godard or Rohmer, like the skits on the Fast Show ten years back, of moody, languid, heavily-mascaraed young women talking existential gibberish to chain-smoking Belmondo clones. As with all clichés, there is a grain of truth in it, but a grain that is isolated in one strain of French cinema, and a very narrow strain it is these days. I’ve even heard some people announce the death of French cinema: one former colleague of mine declared it to be awful compared to its Spanish counterpart, even though I know his knowledge of Spanish film amounted to a handful of recent Almodóvar films. Similarly I encountered last year a Canadian film school bore who asked me, in a fittingly obnoxious fashion, to name ‘one French film worth watching from the last twenty years.’ When I reeled off the work of André Techiné, Arnaud Desplechin and Christophe Honoré, he sheepishly confessed to not having heard of any of them. But that didn’t prevent him from having an opinion most likely gleaned from a cursory study of the films of Luc Besson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet down at his local video shop.

So what is the state of French cinema these days? While it is undeniable that Europe’s biggest film industry is not as consistently exciting as that of other, sometimes smaller countries, such as Portugal, Argentina, Israel, South Korea or its renascent neighbour Germany, there are signs of life. And a good place to start is with a recent success story.

Le Clézio was the first French winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature since the nouveau romancier Claude Simon in 1985 (the 2000 winner Gao Xingjian is a French citizen and lives in Paris but writes in Chinese), and this year France bridged a gap almost as long by carrying off its first Palme d’Or at Cannes in 21 years. Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (known in English as The Class) was the French winner of cinema’s most prestigious prize since Maurice Pialat’s adaptation of Paul Claudel’s Sous le soleil de Satan in 1986. It also represents a nice symbiosis of French literature and film, as it is based on former schoolteacher and Cahiers du cinema critic François Bégaudeau’s 2006 novel, and stars Bégaudeau himself as a teacher in an inner city secondary school very much like himself.

Entre les murs is a surprising delight, with its setting in an urban school with working-class and immigrant children and its focus a world-weary but sympathetic teacher of French, there was scope aplenty for a tawdry, clichéd feel-good film. But Cantet, and Bégaudeau never lose sight of the bland disappointments of the everyday and the accretion of resentments built up by constant interaction with the same people. Though the film is clearly of a leftist bent there is no preaching and there are no obvious angels. Cantet has a past in documentary filmmaking and his three previous fiction features all derive drama from the politics of work and social stratification. His method with Bégaudeau and a cast of non-professional teenagers is to film the drama semi-documentary style. There is no script but a prescribed series of situations that are drawn from the original novel. The remarkable thing is that, though the credits say that the film is ‘freely adapted’ from Bégaudeau’s book, the resulting work is almost a perfect facsimile, with all the film’s incidents, even down to the most trivial, having their correspondence in the original text. The students are given free rein to act as they would in a normal classroom situation – more often than not that means they are bored and restless – and Cantet films the unfolding drama with four cameras.

The film maintains a defiant faith in the viability of education in even the most difficult situations but it is a faith that often teeters on the brink of defeat. Bégaudeau represents institutional language, and, by extension, the mighty force of the French Republic, trying to marshal the words and language of youngsters whose different cultural heritages and life experiences are twisting and warping the official speech out of the control of its guardians. Many of the film’s incidents will be hard to subtitle, and the novel is almost untranslatable because of its detailing of philological points peculiar to contemporary French.

Cantet’s film also represents both a continuation of a strong tradition in French cinema, the schoolroom film, and also a departure from it. Since Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (itself the inspiration for Lindsay Anderson’s If…) the schoolroom has functioned in French cinema as a focus for institutional discipline (Truffaut’s Les 400 coups and the films of Claude Miller), for the country’s broader history and politics (Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants) and also for a more regressive nostalgia for a France now vanished (Christophe Barratier’s Les choristes a slavish 2004 remake of the 1945 film La cage aux rossignols is the prime example but even Nicolas Philibert’s acclaimed 2003 documentary Être et avoir falls into this category). Entre les murs is fresh, simply by dint of the fact that it is more ethnically diverse than most films that have gone before it (French media are generally slow at reflecting the racial mix of society as a whole). But the film’s novelty lies in more than fulfilling PC quotas; it is one of the first French films to cast a teacher as a character every bit adrift and uncertain as the pupils he teaches. The teacher is no longer the monolithic lightning rod of cultural certitude, but an equal participant in the pedagogical drama. If all this seems obvious, for a long time, French film’s view of the teacher was of a one-dimensional cultural overlord, as it was for many French people too.

With a Palme d’Or and an Oscar for Marion Cotillard for her role in the Edith Piaf biopic Ma vie en rose (or La môme as it was known in France), this year has been a good one for French cinema. The industry is also in rude health, with many home-produced commercial features holding their own against Hollywood. The most notable success of the year is Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, a popular comedy directed by the TV comedian Dany Boon. It tells the story of a postmaster from the Riviera consigned to the decidedly unglamorous northern region of Pas-de-Calais as punishment for trying to defraud a job interviewer. It’s a likeable, if none-too-subtle fish-out-water tale, where the central character – played by Kal Merad, like Boon, a Ch’ti or a northerner – learns to overcome his disorientation at the local dialect, the rain and the strange culinary habits of the locals. The film broke the fifty-year-old record for cinema admissions for a French film held by La Grande Vadrouille and very nearly toppled Titanic too. With almost twenty million people having seen it, its grip on the public consciousness was such that when Paris Saint-Germain supporters unfurled a banner at the French League Cup final against the northerners Lens in April that read ‘Chômeurs, consainguins, pédophiles – Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis’ (Unemployed, inbreds and paedophiles, welcome to the north) the public outcry was such that PSG were for a while banned from the next season’s competition.

Many of the more popular French films are of either negligible quality or are serviceable local knock-offs of big Hollywood productions, to the extent that some French filmmakers have followed Luc Besson’s lead in making films in English: the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 and the recent Taken, starring Liam Neeson for example. But there are some gems too, such as Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS 117 films, slick, charming spy comedies adapted from the novels of Jean Bruce, a gallic Ian Fleming, that look like blossoming into a franchise. The enduring French taste for Agatha Christie, of all people, has also resulted in a string of adaptations in recent years, such as Pascal Thomas’ L’Heure zéro, Mon petit doigt m’a dit and Le Crime est notre affaire, and Pascal Bonitzer’s Le Grand alibi.

There is also a mini-boom in one area of film that has traditionally been non-existent in France – animation. Sylvain Chomet’s Les Triplettes de Belleville was a surprise hit five years ago and garnered an Oscar nomination, as did Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Perronaud’s adaptation of Satrapi’s autobiographical comic-book Persepolis. France’s strong tradition of comic book art is also providing another eagerly-awaited film next year, Johann Sfar’s adaptation of his own best-selling comic Le chat du rabbin; Sfar is also planning a life-action biopic of Serge Gainsbourg.

And then there is the art house film, the one by which French cinema is to be forever judged. There once was a time when serious and popular French cinema were interchangeable, in the era of the Popular Front with the films of Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir and Julien Duvivier. But post-war French popular cinema was stigmatised by the nouvelle vague crowd, being infamously labelled le cinéma de papa by François Truffaut. It was ironic because Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, Rohmer et al had no snobbery towards popular film per se, they just preferred the American and Italian versions. The nouvelle vague, following the legendary André Bazin, gave film an intellectual respectability, and for a few decades created a curiosity for world cinema in much of the western world that has sadly since died.

Of course there are many different types of art house film and, in the English-speaking world especially, they all get thrown into the same hat for commercial distribution. The middlebrow frescos of Claude Berri’s Pagnol adaptations Jean de Florette and Manon de Source were marketed in much the same way as Francis Veber or Étienne Chatiliez’s popular comedies. The reason, naturally is the fact they are both subtitled, and subtitled for a lot of English-speakers, denotes a stamp of quality, a cinematic equivalent of polenta or sun-dried tomatoes, a safe, nicely-parcelled helping of culture that doesn’t challenge the viewer too much but lets them leave the cinema with a gratifying sense of having consumed something good. Chief beneficiaries of such middle-class yearning for fast-food haute cuisine have been Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s gratingly fey and phony films Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain and Un Long Dimanche des Fiançailles (though it must be said that French audiences fell for them every bit as much). I find Jeunet’s wafer-thin characterisation and his hyperactive camera style – all sudden high-speed pans and zooms to hammer home a visual point – nigh unwatchable but I know many that do see the charm.

Éric Rohmer is probably the chief practitioner of the talky French film, his early seventies art house hit Ma nuit chez Maud was famously described by Gene Hackman’s morose detective in Arthur Penn’s brilliant Night Moves as ‘like watching paint dry’. And a lot of Rohmer’s career has been spent making films using a very selective pallet, usually two or three people talking for much of the film – though there have been detours into historical film too. I can understand how people would find Rohmer boring but his films are rarely inaccessible and being a good vaguiste, he never neglects the visual aspect of his cinema (many of his earlier films were lit by the legendary Cuban director of photography Nelson Almendros).

Compared to their counterparts in the English-speaking world, the Nouvelle Vague generation are still going strong. François Truffaut, Jacques Démy and Louis Malle may be all long dead – and Malle would have been considered by few, least of all himself, to have belonged to the Nouvelle Vague – but many of the early faces of the movement are still with us. Jean-Luc Godard is dead to most English cinephiles, simply because his films rarely get shown – his 2000 film L’Éloge d’amour is the only one I can recall from the last twenty years to get distribution. But his recent films, such as Histoires du cinema, Nouvelle Vague and Notre Musique are among his best work. Jacques Rivette continues to make challenging but enthralling films that may not be quite as punishingly long as his earlier ones but are still long enough to give cinema programmers headaches.

Claude Chabrol, veteran of over fifty films, has bounced back from a string of inconsequential thrillers in the eighties and nineties to regain the verve that made him the true heir to Hitchcock. His recent films are short on murder but long on intrigue and each one carries an inimitable stamp of classiness (I’ll even say this of his last one La Fille coupée en deux, which I was not a huge fan of). Alain Resnais is, strangely a director whose films have become less and less challenging since the 1960s while becoming increasingly commercially successful: he’s a regular presence at the Césars, the French Oscars, these days, and has an inexplicable passion for the plays of Alan Ayckbourn, two of which he has turned into films. Meanwhile, Agnès Varda, a great filmmaker whom it would be almost insulting to introduce as the widow of Jacques Démy, remains one of the few French directors to combine both documentary and fiction (Malle was another).

After the New Wave came another generation of filmmakers, many of whom continue to make films that are more appreciated in France than abroad: Philippe Garrel, Claire Denis, André Téchiné, Benoît Jacquot and Jacques Doillon. Olivier Assayas was from a younger generation still of Cahiers du Cinéma writers to move into cinema, like Pascal Bonitzer, and more recently the precocious 27-year-old Mia Hansen-Løve, whose debut film Tout est pardonné, garnered rave reviews last year. The latest inheritors of Rohmer, Godard and Truffaut are Arnaud Desplechin, Christophe Honoré (who prodigiously turns out a film per year), Bertrand Bonello and Serge Bozon and one of the few French filmmakers who can genuinely be called a maverick, Bruno Dumont.

Bozon had a surprise hit last year with the First World War musical drama La France and he makes all his films with his sister as cinematographer; in an interview he said he hoped that French cinema would emerge from the ‘Antonionian impasse’ it has been stuck in for thirty years. While Antonioni’s aesthetic influence still holds a grip far beyond France, I understand what he’s saying. French arthouse cinema is samey, often involving the same rota of twenty or thirty actors, and often speaking to an audience that it assumes will be feeding off the same cultural or filmic register. Which, if not exactly conforming to a description of navel-gazing, is indicative of a type of film that does not easily endear itself to new audiences. France’s trouble with film is similar to the one it has with literature: its culture is so engrained in society that filmmaking – or writing – becomes as much a fabric as cultural production per se. While it is not true to say that your average French person is more culturally aware than in other countries – in my own experience, cultural ignorance among the French is no different, in some cases, worse, than elsewhere – among French artists and writers it is generally higher. Consequently this immense cultural confidence can be unintentionally stifling, with few entry points offered to people with little experience of French culture.

What is also striking is that, considering how politically engaged many French filmmakers are, there are so few wide-canvas socially engaged films. There were a few flickers in the nineties with Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and a string of films by Bertrand Tavernier, all of which cast a largely sympathetic eye on the marginalised French underclass of the banlieues and the northern and eastern rust belt. Since then however Kassovitz’s subsequent films have shown him to be a one-trick pony and a shallow media whore, while Tavernier has tempered his briefly held radicalism sufficiently to become a supporter of Nicolas Sarkozy. There is, as we have seen, Cantet and Bruno Dumont continue to film non-professional actors from the French underclass but his films are too abstruse to ever reach a large audience, while Éric Zonca’s Julia, his long-awaited follow-up to La vie rêvée des anges, tapped a similarly socially-inclined vein but was filmed in California with Tilda Swinton. The best socially engaged francophone cinema these days, and which has kick-started the careers of new stars of French film such as Émilie Duquenne, Jérémie Renier, Déborah Warner and Olivier Gourmet, comes not from France but from Belgium, through the films of the Dardenne brothers and Lucas Belvaux.

But there are some signs of a way out of the impasse, and perhaps it is best to finish by looking at one director who has miraculously managed to bridge the gap between commercial and critical success: Adbellatif Kechiche. The 48-year-old of Tunisian descent started off as an actor in the films of Téchiné among others and also paid his dues on the provincial theatre circuit. His second and third films both won best film at the Césars, and were both huge hits, a remarkable achievement for films made with largely non-professional casts. The first winner L’esquive(released in English as Games of Love and Chance) was the tale of a group of banlieue teenagers falling out and falling in love as they try to rehearse – on their own time – a school production of Marivaux’s ­­­­Game of Love and Chance. It is a hardheaded film about dreams and the limited prospects of attaining them in the face of crime, drugs and social exclusion but it is significant for a deft lightness of touch, which like Cantet in Entre les murs, makes much of the surreal scenario of working class kids tackling the French literary canon.

Even better is Kechiche’s follow-up La Graine et le mulet (released in English with the underwhelming title Couscous), a long and exhilarating portrait of an extended Franco-Arab family in the Mediterranean port town of Sète and the efforts of the father, Slimane, to open a couscous restaurant on a converted boat. This hoary scenario gives it the lightness of touch familiar from the previous film, but the film’s serious purpose becomes apparent in the father’s struggle to overcome officialdom to get the restaurant up and running. Central to the film are scenes where Slimane visits the bank, the town hall and the customs accompanied by his lover’s daughter Rym to take care of loans and paperwork. The scenes are filmed in their punishing entirety and are difficult to watch, but they are unique in French cinema for depicting the fear and apprehension felt by many immigrants when confronted with the bureaucratic might of the French state. The zip and verve of the film is a match for the best of the Dardennes, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and its last twenty minutes constitute one of the best climaxes to a film I have ever seen. To say any more would be to give away too much.

It remains to be seen if the global financial crisis has a serious effect on French film production, or production elsewhere in the world. It looks likely that for the next couple of years at least production will be down. In general though the outlook is positive enough; there are enough big hits to keep the industry strong while the country remains a favoured destination for major international filmmakers, such as Michael Haneke, José Luis Guerin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang, Nobuhiro Suwa and Hong Sang-Soo, all of whom have made films there in recent years. There are also signs, with Cantet and Kechiche, of a greater variety being introduced to French art house cinema. Reports carried in many anglophone media of the death of French film have, one has to say, been greatly exaggerated.

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4 Responses

  1. James

    October 17, 2008 12:10 pm

    To be fair, it’s not only the ignorant who speak of a cultural decline – Perry Anderson’s two article in the LRB from a few years back are essential reading for Francophiles in this regard.

  2. Seán Báite

    October 20, 2008 8:03 pm

    An excellent ‘tour d’horizon’ there of French cinema in 2008, Seanachie.
    You may, however, have well outstripped the fairly limited attention span of the type of idiot that comes up with the stock ‘wordy… indulgent.. pretentious..’ accusation towards French cinema in the first place.
    For whenever I hear the likes, I usually put it down to the Van Damme-like attention span of the person talking, or writing.
    Another source of resentment (in the UK & US) might also be against the generous state subsidies given to a lot of French productions. This does, I admit, result in a fraction of self-indulgent shite – but take a look at British cinema in 2008 (for ex.)… a poxy lean-to hardly standing up on its own – propped up against one of Hollywood’s outside walls – I don’t think there’s much of an argument there for leaving the ‘exception culturelle’ behind…
    Of the most ‘wordy, indulgent and pretentious’ directors – I effin’ well love at least ten of Rohmer’s films – so the curse of Van Damme be upon me, I suppose…
    To further feminise your round-up of directors, you might mention Breillat (I know she’s a wee bit annoying betimes, but…) or the wan who made that version of Lady Chatterley – to keep the great Varda company.
    On a ‘second-language interference’ point – does ‘nombrilism’ exist in English ? – or can we content ourselves with ‘navel-gazing’ as you do yourself further down your piece ??
    Finally – ‘Couscous’ is a f@@@ing poxy rendering of ‘La Graine et le Mulet’. I see the limited attention span even extends to translating titles. Following that logic, Satyijat RAY’s films would be CURRY 1… CURRY 6, THE RETURN… A pity, for ‘The Grain and the Mullet’ would’ve looked good on billboards in Dublin… I’m not referring to Charlton era players’ haircuts – but I always remember seeing mullet in the Liffey from the quays – and shivering at the thought of what the hell they lived on in there….