One of the most annoying things about going to see a French film is overhearing people in the foyer afterwards: ‘Oh, it was just so French’, they mutter to each other, ‘French’ becoming a kind of by-word for sophisticated, cool, frigid, slow-paced, or any other adjective that carries faintly sinister undertones. For many cinema-goers, French cinema invariably conjures the same connotations of over-artiness, style over substance
or boredom as if going to the cinema and seeing a film unafraid to take its time was somehow damned as being too obsessed with itself. Clearly they have never seen Taxi.
First things first: the French invented cinema, in a Paris café in 1895. They take great pride in the fact that it was an invention packaged, branded and exported around the world. They also gave the world Renoir, Godard and Truffaut. And the Cannes Film Festival.
2. What makes it French?
If there were an overarching definition of French cinema, it would be a cinema that displays a preference for atmosphere rather than story. By this, I do not mean films that don’t have a beginning, a middle or an end (even though Godard said they didn’t even have to be in that order), but rather that French cinema tends to concentrate on mood and tone rather than any overarching structure. Film is the seventh art for the French, and as such often invokes art’s insistence on seeking out truth in an impressionistic and imagistic way. Atmosphere may often come from smoke curling from a Gauloise, a black turtleneck or moody gazes off-screen, but these are stylistic traits beloved of nearly all national cinemas. Instead, the ‘French-ness’ comes from an implicit understanding that the plastic values of cinema – costume, set design, acting – need not necessarily be sidelined at the expenses of the narrative.
3. The auteur strikes back
The auteur theory, much beloved of university undergraduate courses, stems in no small part to French critics invoking their love of American cinema in the 1950s. They fell in love with Hawks, Ray, Welles and Hitchcock because they saw these directors as being the main creative influence in their films. Every artistic decision, from acting style to camera angle, was decided by the director. This auteur tradition may now have died away in Hollywood, where committees and exit polls ultimately decide the fate of a film, but in France, the tradition is arguably alive and well. The likes of Chabrol, Rohmer, Godard, Leconte and Rappaneau are all still delivering high quality films that are ultimately dependent on the decisions and choices of the director. This is one small reason why French cinema always seems so pleased with itself – they make films that they want to make. There are rarely budgetary or aesthetic imbroglios, and smaller, more personal studios permit the expression of artistic visions much more readily than the faceless executive in Burbank.
Anti-Hollywood in the sense that it tries to be different. Different cultural strategies have been adopted over the years to try and stem the tide of US film imports – quotas, tax breaks for home-grown directors, 50% guarantee of French films at the multiplex, strict trade regulations – but the current situation is one of harmonious co-existence. Walk up the Champs-Elysées and the billboards see Schwarzenegger alongside Haneke. Hollywood cinema is still admired for its bravura and braggadocio, and retrospectives of Allen and Altman are endless, but it’s fair to say that the balance is just about right. France has always tried to create its own national cinema identity as something different than Hollywood. This explains the prevalence of costume dramas, introspective chamber pieces and witty comedies. To see a French blockbuster is inevitably to be disappointed – Le Pacte des loups (2001) or Mission: Cléopatre (2002) are never going to trouble Spielberg. As a result, the French tend to stick with what they are best at.
5. Brutal cinema
French cinema is never traditionally been prudish. I remember seeing A Clockwork Orange for the first time in a Paris multiplex, with ‘interdit aux -12 ans’ written in very small print on the poster. That a film culture can allow teenagers to see Kubrick’s most notorious film is both breathtakingly enlightened and wonderfully democratic. This is perhaps not the forum to discuss the intricacies of the French censorship system, but suffice to say that such a policy has not brought about the end of domestic law and order. French cinema too seems deeply in tune with brutalism – in recent years, Seul Contre Tous (1998), L’Ennui (1999), Romance (1999), Irreversible (2001) and Baise-Moi (2002) have all been released to a more or less accepting public. Needless to say, all of these films carried an ‘over 16s’ certificate (the highest for any non-pornographic film), but also incited deep debate about sexual violence, marginalized masculinity and female empowerment. All the films were brave explorations of vital contemporary issues and all raised important debates in the broadsheets and boulevards. This is a culture unafraid of talking about sex. That’s why the French always roll their eyes when we start castigating our politicians for their sexual peccadilloes – in France, it’s par for the course and this is reflected in the cinema.
6. And now?
But it’s not all costume dramas and rape-revenge movies. Some of France’s most popular recent exports are those films that seem relieved to throw off the strait-jacket of the French ‘art house’ film. Taxi (1998) and Taxi 2 (2000) are wonderfully droll car chase capers that recall the heady days of Burt Reynolds and irate red-neck sheriffs. They may be puerile and paper- thin in terms of plot and character, but it is a welcome sight to see Taxi play Hollywood at its own game, unafraid to ape its narrative sugar-rush and indulge in crowd-pleasing stunts. Hollywood continues to mine French cinema for all manner of remakes, and Paris continues to stands in as a kind of meta-city for romance and wish fulfilment. Both Le Divorce (2003) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003) are merely the latest in a long line of films that revert to the stereotypical topography of the city.
The French still have strange cinematic tastes – Jerry Lewis is still a star here, and Stallone films always score big on opening weekends. In one square mile around the Sorbonne University there are over fifty cinemas, each with at least three screens, and each often devoted to a career retrospective. That’s why a visit to a cinema here is a truly cosmopolitan affair. The audience is made up of inquisitive tourists, avid cinephiles, and bewildered Anglo-Americans, amazed at the way in which they can see a Lubitsch gem or a long-lost Mankiewicz.
7. A (Highly Subjective) Top Ten French Films of All Time
Fantômas (1913) – Louis Feuillade’s cycle of short films based on the pulp fiction of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain is remarkable for many things, not least its location shooting, naturalistic performances and its mixing of the magical, the real and the perverse of the streets of Paris. David Lynch must surely have been a fan.
L’Atalante (1934) – The greatest love story of them all, in which Jean Dasté marries, honeymoons, loses and then finds his radiant beauty Dita Parlo. Typically French in that not a lot happens but the mood and atmosphere of nocturnal Paris is perfectly captured. The soaring camera at the end is a majestic rendering of the redemptive power of love.
Le Jour se lève (1939) – Marcel Carné directs, Alexandre Trauner designs and Jean Gabin performs. The progenitor of film noir, the film that says most about France in the run up to war, and a perfect example of how story and set design can be fused into a symbiotic whole.
Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) – routinely labelled the greatest French film of them all, Carné again directs this paean to the theatre and the bustle of Paris. With Arletty, he fashioned some of cinema’s most iconic moments. Open any French film history and there will be a still from this film somewhere. Its impact is all the greater as it was filmed during the Occupation, at a time when cinema-as-national-artefact wasn’t particularly high on the agenda.
Le Salaire de la Peur (1953) – Clouzot’s wonderfully tense adventure, in which four men drive truck loads of nitro-glycerine through a Latin American jungle. One jolt, one bump, and it’s curtains for them all. The kind of film that would now be classified ‘high-concept’ by studio execs, this is a classic case of taut direction, expansive performances and well-judged mood.
Le Mépris (1963) – Godard’s best film, playful yet profound, tragic and comic in equal measure. Majestically lensed by Raoul Coutard, the story – Bardot feels an inexplicable contempt towards her husband – becomes incidental when framed against the backdrop of The Odyssey.
Le Cercle Rouge (1970) – Melville’s existential crime drama influences all those that came in its wake. With its famed wordless jewel heist, modulated performances and variations on the nineteen definitive underworld set-ups, the film is at once poetic and philosophical, with themes of loyalty, betrayal and friendship shimmering beneath. Michael Mann would do well to better this.
La Maman et la Putain (1973) – Nearly four hours of people talking about sex might become tedious in the hands of a less austere director, but Eustache’s steely-eyed deconstruction of sexual relationships, the politics of the body and chauvinism is very much of its time.
Diva (1981) – the start of the cinema du look; the flashy, stroboscopic mise en scene, surrealism and fairytale romance all meld into a fascinating audio-visual experience.
La Haine (1995) – the film that the French government was made to sit down and watch to try and decipher what was wrong with society. Kassovitz’s incendiary device uses a botched police raid, three disenfranchised youths and the dichotomy between city and suburb to fashion a powerful ‘state-of-the-nation’ cri de coeur.