French Cinema: Continuous Creativity

French Cinema’s Creativity: Vive La France

In festival after festival this past year, Cannes, Venice, and even Locarno, as a group, the French films stood proudly and firmly above the fare of other national cinemas. The strong commercial stature of French pictures has been evident not only in their own country but in foreign markets. It’s been a record year for French films at the American box-office, and the current success of Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, will push that record even higher.

Arguably, the French cinema of the past two years is the most viable one in the Continent, perhaps even all over the globe. But it’s not just commercial prosperity–an overall creative resurgence characterizes the industry, a massive artistic renewal based on both historical and institutional factors.

Institutional Factors:

Creative independence is integrated in the general culture in deep ways that have never taken hold in the American cinema, via government (and other public) subsidies, and the ability to make modestly budgeted films. Additionally, while film schools are as prominent training grounds in France as they’re in the U.S., they’re not nearly as expensive, which explains why top schools in America attract mostly white upscale students, while denying admission to talented ethnic minorities.

Middle-Range Cinema:

Various discussions (including my book, Cinema of Outsiders) have lamented what’s described as “the disappearance of the Middle” from mainstream Hollywood in the 1970s. Jaws in 1975, Rocky in 1976, and Star Wars in 1977 were the turning point. For decades, there were no high or low ends in American industry, just one large middle, a terrain of narrative and character-driven films, in which Capra’s comedies, Warner’s crime-gangsters, Minnelli’s musicals, and John Ford’s Westerns happily co-existed. Nowadays, the tyranny of the blockbuster mentality almost dictates the making of large-scale, star-driven, effects-laden “event” movies. (What Variety, the trade publication, calls tentpole pictures).

Fortunately, with few exceptions (Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, or Brotherhood of the Wolf, the French cinema is not paralyzed by this blockbuster-popcorn tendency, which stifles the making of personal and artistic films in Hollywood, and largely explains the emergence of American indies as a viable force to fill that void.

No Single Dominant Paradigm

The new surge of creativity expresses the philosophies of the New Wave as well as the Tradition of Quality (Cinema du Papa), against which Truffaut and other leaders of that momentous movement rebelled back in the late 1950s. Two of the highlights at Venice festival this year represented these divergent ideologies: the classically-constructed, formally disciplined drama, Time Out (by Laurent Cantet) and the intuitively sprawling, visually innovative, black-and-white coming-of-age tale, Le Souffle, by first-timer Damien Odoul. Overall though, preference for loose structures over “well-made” construction, a tradition that began with Renoir (Rules of the Game) continues to influence French directors, giving them enormous flexibility in making “cross-genres” or “mixed genres.”

Defying Old Age:

Seen from Hollywood’s point of view, this year’s Cannes Festival (and other forums) must have appeared as the cinema of senior citizens, as their programs featured filmmakers in the advanced phase of their careers, well into the autumn of their lives: Jean-Luc Godard, 70, made In Praise of Love; Jacques Rivette, 73, Va Savoir!; Eric Rohmer, 81, The Lady and the Duke; Claude Chabrol, 71, Merci pour le Chocolat. What’s exciting about these directors is not only that they’re still alive and kicking–though, that’s an achievement too–but that they continue to make mature, subtle, and poignant works.

Openness to Women Filmmakers:

There are no ghettoes, real or perceived, for female directors. Weary of seeing themselves through the eyes of the opposite–and dominant sex–a new cohort of French women directors, following the lead of Agnes Varda (who herself made an exquisite documentary this year, Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse), have taken matters into their hands via the writing and/or directing of films centering on women. The new group, which refuses to be constrained or discriminated against by a traditionally male-dominated industry, includes established talent, such as Daniele Thompson, Colline Sereau, and Claire Denis, and younger one, Tonie Marshall (Venus Beauty Institute), Agnes Jaoui (The Taste of Others), Nicole Garcia (Place Vendame), Anne Fontaine (Comment J’ai Tue Mon Pere), and others.

The Feminine Mystique:

One of the glories of French cinema, past and present, as Andrew Sarris had pointed out, is its acceptance of the centrality of women’s sensibility in mainstream culture. This explains the large number of intriguing films, many of which by men, about female protagonists and typically female concerns, a category that embraces the entire oeuvre of Eric Rohmer, many works by Andre Techine (some starring Catherine Deneuve or Emanuelle Beart), Francois Ozon’s arthouse hits, Under the Sand and Swimming Pool, with Charlotte Rampling, Patrice Leconte’s historical melodrama, The Widow of St. Pierre, with Juliette Binoche, and his latest, modern relationship drama, Intimate Strangers, with Sandrine Bonnaire.

Thematic Audacity:

Arguably no national cinema has tackled controversial issues, such as sexual politics and pornography, with the same bold frankness. The films of Catherine Breillat (Romance, The Fat Girl, Sex Is Comedy) or Virginie Despentes (Baise-Moi), which have raised the irk of censorship boards in several countries, may be an acquired taste. However, there’s no denying that their importance is not limited to the strictly sensationalistic, that they deal with “taboo” issues other industries are simply afraid to touch. A similar argument can be made in defending Patrice Chereau’s courageous sexual expose, Intimacy.

Sharp Storytelling:

Intimacy rather than scope have always been the defining elements”and major strengths”of the French cinema. Given the choice, French directors will sacrifice action (and special effects) in favor of dramatic conflict and sharp characterization. Grounded in variant of realism (poetic as well as social), the French cinema continues to show special attentiveness to the seemingly minor and mundane”from the American perspective at least–aspects of physical and social life.

Concentrating on seemingly marginal and fleeting moments of the physical world, has helped to expresses unspoken or unknown dimensions of psychological life. It’s truly a French specialty, particularly in the dramatic genre, to construct intimate psychological worlds out of carefully chosen. This is most evident in Patrice Leconte’s films (Mr. Hire, The Hairdresser’s Husband, The Man on the Train). It’s hard to think of any other industry that has shown such fascination with rendering ambiguous behavior, atmospheric milieux, and complex morality issues with such abundant honesty.

Diversity of Genres:

The French cinema doesn’t suffer from the rigid hierarchy of genres that prevails in Hollywood. Hence, psychological thrillers, such as With a Friend Like Harry, boulevard, stylish action thrillers like Matthieu Kassovitz’s The Crimson Rivers, gay films, such as The Adventures of Felix, historical accounts like Robert Guediguian’s The Town Is Quiet, and personal documentaries like To Have and have Not.

We can’t neglect or ignore the staple of French cinema and its biggest export, anti-bourgeois comedies, such as Francis Weber’s The Closet. Cosmopolitan and anticlerical at its source, French comedy takes “pleasure” in sin, which may explain its broader and more universal appeal.

At the heart of French cinema’s creativity is the firm conviction that, though filmmaking is a collaborative process, in the final account, film is the product of a single artist. To that extent, a good French movie is almost necessarily a personal work reflecting its director’s vision.

This essay was written in 2002.