At A Popular Annual Showcase in New York, Considering French Cinema’s Identity Crisis
by Anthony Kaufman
Has “The Chorus” killed French cinema? Does it represent the ‘Miramaxization’ of Gallic movies, an end to the subtle, intellectual humanism or formally innovative moviemaking that critics have often associated with France film? Or is it just the latest crowd-pleasing confection to cross over?
The success of Christopher Barratier‘s sentimental tale of an inspirational teacher and his singing changes, both in the U.S. ($3 million) and France (the country’s top earner in 2004), has created an outcry, albeit small, that the French film industry is losing its edge. In an article in the British paper The Guardian, Virginie Guichard writes, “French cinema has always been characterized by the uneasy co-existence of a populist, conservative tendency on the one hand and radical, hard-hitting film-making on the other. The success of ‘Les Choristes’ suggests the pendulum is swinging the way of the nostalgists.”
Like “The Chorus,” the year’s other French box office victor, Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s WWI saga “A Very Long Engagement” is steeped in nostalgia. Both movies also suggest an American influence, whether through traditional storytelling technique in the former, or big budget pyrotechnics in the latter. Or financing. The very “Frenchness” of Jeunet’s “Long Engagement” was famously called into question last year when Paris courts denied the film government subsidies because its production company has ties to Warner Bros.
As an article on news site alternet.org called “The French New Vague” pointed out, French films are “drifting towards emotional overstatement, narrative predictability, and emphasis on production rather than content (all glaring flaws of American filmmaking).”
But it may not be that simple: longtime writer, director, producer and French industry veteran Bertrand Tavernier (“Sunday in the Country,” “Safe Conduct”), in New York for the Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s 10th annual Gallic blow-out, “Rendez-vous with French Cinema” series (currently running through March 19), places both films firmly in the tradition of French cinema.
“It belongs to a long tradition of French film designed for a families, made in the ’40s and ’50s, so it’s a comeback of this tradition,” he says of “The Chorus,” remade from a 1945 movie called “La Cage aux rossignols.” Likewise, he says Jeuent’s highly stylish “A Very Long Engagement” belongs to both a modern auteur mode, a la filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, as well as early French impressionist masters such as Jean Epstein, Abel Gance, and Marcel L’Herbier. “It’s not typical of the French cinema as you see it from the U.S. But in fact it is,” he explains. “Why forbid a French director from doing that, on the pretext that most American directors do it? I think it’s as much as part of the French cinema as anything else.”
Tavernier also calls the recent tumult over the withdrawal of French funding for “A Very Long Engagement” ridiculous. “When the attack comes from Gaumont and UGC, two companies that are both associated with the Hollywood majors, it’s totally surreal; it’s mad.”
But are movies like “The Chorus” and “Very Long Engagement” a return to the Tradition of Quality, or “cinema de papa,” that Francois Truffaut rallied against in the 1950s? On view at the Rendez-vous with French Cinema series is a wide array of Gallic movies that shows the French industry is as fickle and fragmented, probably more so, than the mostly uniform product coming out of the U.S. each year. If the country is returning to the glossy cinematic bores that defined the country’s post-war output, tell that to Claire Denis, whose “L’Intrus” (“The Intruder”) is a mind-boggling non-narrative essay about an older man trying to come to terms with an estranged son (or it is just an opportunity to see Beatrice Dalle riding behind a pack of wild huskies). You can’t exactly call Lucile Hadzihalilovic an old-school traditionalist. Her “Innocence,” a haunting fantasy about prepubescent girls, trapped in a forest camp, represents an arresting, original vision.
The problem (and it’s only a problem, depending on who you ask) is that such daring movies are not the ones that sell tickets, either domestically or abroad. But at least these groundbreakers are getting financed and produced, which is more than can be said of most American independents.
And the Lincoln Center event seems to indicate that New York moviegoers, at least, will take whatever they can get. “This festival is, and has been for several years, a raging critical and popular hit. This year it’s even more so. The interest is almost feverish,” says the Film Society’s Graham Leggat. “We opened the box office on February 23 at noon and by 5pm had sold 50% of available tickets. There was a line all the way down the plaza.”
Leggat expects all of the shows to sell out, with star-driven movies (and that’s French stars, remember) especially hot, including “36 quai des orfevres,” a policier starring Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil; Andre Techine‘s “Changing Times,” with Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve; Tavernier’s “Holy Lola”; Benoit Jacquot‘s lovers-on-the-run fable “A Tout de Suite,” starring the pouty-lipped Isild Le Besco; Yvan Attal‘s latest collaboration with celebrity wife Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Happily Ever After”; “The Role of Her Life,” starring Agnes Jaoui, and new films from Claude Chabrol, Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas.
“There will always be strong interest in French cinema in America,” says Wellspring‘s Ryan Werner, who will be shepherding three French films to theaters this year, Sebastien Lifshitz‘s “Wild Side,” “Read My Lips” director Jacques Audiard‘s “The Beat My Heart Skipped” and maverick Arnaud Desplechin‘s “Kings and Queen.” “There is press support, exhibitor support and audiences always love a good French farce or thriller.” Werner expects additional pick-ups are possible during the series, as well. “There’s a lot of worthy films in the line-up,” he adds. “It gives distributors the rare chance to see how films will play and at the same time get some feedback from the press.”
Bertrand Tavernier, who is hoping “Holy Lola” will get acquired, is a little more skeptical about the Rendez-Vous series’s industry profile. “It depends on the films. Sometimes, it helps; sometimes, it does not,” he says. “The films that are picked up are films with strong aesthetics, like Claire Denis, or films that are part of a group, like gay cinema, or when they are in a niche that represents the French cinema in a way the American cinema wants it, like my own film ‘Sunday in the Country,’ like ‘Cousin, Cousine,’ like Truffaut. But when the French cinema goes in other directions, the film aren’t picked up.”
Acquisitions and releases of French films in the U.S. are still bountiful, but this past year, Chinese martial arts movies (“Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”) and Spanish language films (“The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Maria Full of Grace”) have both cut into their share of the small sliver of U.S. box office devoted to foreign language films. In 2004, though, “Monsieur Ibrahim” (Sony Classics), “Bon Voyage” (Sony Classics), and “Intimate Strangers” (Paramount Classics) fared well at the box office, all surpassing $2 million.
Back in France, 2004 ticket receipts rose to a 20-year record high of more than $1.5 billion, according to Variety, with five of the top 10 films being French. That bodes well for the industry, but then again, what type of films will it be fostering: Hollywood-style blockbusters like “36 quai des orfevres” and “Crimson Rivers 2 Angels of the Apocalypse” (which export well in overseas territories, aside from the U.S.) or intimate, idiosyncratic art-house pictures like France’s surprise multiple Cesar winner, “L’esquive,” Abdellatif Kechiche‘s anti-“Choriste” about teens in a Paris housing project, or Agnes Jaoui’s upcoming Sony Classics critic’s favorite “Look at Me”?
“The French cinema is always having problems, but we’re making a lot of interesting films, in a very wide range,” says Tavernier, “from some really recherché films like Claire Denis’ to a police film like “36 quai des orfevres” to a lot of great documentaries. I think it’s good to have the possibility of going into all those directions,” he continues. “The film that won all the Cesars this year, “L’esquive,” had been turned down by all the channels, and was independently financed and now since winning best film and best director, it’s been re-released with some success. So when you have the French cinema from ‘L’esquive,’ to some of the films in the series, to the documentaries of Raymond Depardon, that means you have a wide genre of films,” adds Tavernier. “And I think it’s something which we can be proud of.”