WORLD CINEMA REPORT: French Film's Rendez-Vous with Globalization
by Anthony Kaufman
"Le Choc." It sounds the same in French as it does in English: "shock." The recent news headline in a French trade magazine said it all: the sudden death last month of Daniel Toscan du Plantier, a key figure in French cinema, stunned and upset Gallic film watchers everywhere. He was president, no less, of two powerful film bodies -- Unifrance, the influential promotion organization, and the Academy of Cinema Arts and Techniques, which hosts France's Cesar awards. Toscan du Plantier was also a film producer, author, CEO, former exec at films studio Gaumont, wooer of starlets, friend of Jack Valenti, and a charismatic beacon for the French film industry.
Under Toscan du Plantier's 12-year reign at Unifrance, French movies experienced a major boom. In 2001, French-language films garnered 37.4 million viewers outside of France, compared to an average of 17 million in previous years, according to Unifrance statistics. The numbers for 2002 are nearly as rosy, making the past two years the most successful in the recent history of the French industry. Films like "Amelie," "Brotherhood of the Wolf," "8 Women," "Read My Lips," and "My Wife is An Actress" garnered significant ticket sales in the U.S. ($36 million in 2002) and abroad, while star-studded Francophone comedies such as "See How They Run" and "Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra" continue to draw major market share in their homeland.
Judging from such positive numbers, the future of the French industry would appear solid. But with the loss of its cinema's most celebrated ambassador, and conglomerate crises like those involving Vivendi Universal (which posted records loses of $25.5 billion last week) and one of its entertainment subsidiaries Canal Plus (which is hemorrhaging hundreds of millions of dollars), there are fissures developing in the cultural giant that is French-language media, reflected not only in such recent events, but also in the films themselves. At this year's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series (which the Film Society of Lincoln Center is currently presenting in New York) -- one of Unifrance's annual contributions to French cinema exports -- the dangers of corporate life and globalization run through the program like a subtle "cri de coeur."
The most stylishly panicked, Olivier Assayas' "demonlover," already covered extensively since its Cannes 2002 premiere, depicts the unsavory marriage of a French new media conglom with Japanese anime and American hardcore S&M websites. That the film features a duplicitous American (Chloe Sevigny) who eventually wrenches control of the company from the film's French protagonist (Danish actress Connie Nielsen) only adds to the anxieties around international mergers. (To further the corporate intrigue, Chris Blackwell's U.S.-Jamaican media company Palm Pictures recently announced its acquisition of "demonlover," even though rumor had it that micro-distrib Silver Nitrate Releasing was already closing a deal for domestic rights.)
"In My Skin," the first feature by Francois Ozon co-conspirator Marina de Van (co-writer of "8 Women"), is also set amidst the glassy towers and expensive meals of French finance. And like "demonlover," "Skin" focuses specifically on women climbing the corporate ladder -- and the very physical agonies that can ultimately result. The vampiric de Van, who plays the lead character, begins as an aspiring market analyst and eventually finds herself in a hotel room, chomping on her own skin in a binge of bloody, indulgent self-abuse. Despite its wallowing, de Van's vision is one of the most unique in this year's batch of 14 films presented in Rendez-Vous.
The other comes from Delphine Gleize. Though no corporations figure in her audacious 130-minute multi-character opus "Carnage," Gleize makes a point about the interconnected nature of the European economy. After a bull gores a matador before its own untimely death, Gleize tracks the animal's horns and organs and their mystical effects on an eclectic batch of Spanish, French, and Italian citizens. Gleize's imagery is witty and resonant (examples include a little girl's seizure, rabbits and birds pouring over the body of a dead taxidermist, and sex lit by the green glow of a copy machine). Although it is a little indulgent, Gleize's feature is nevertheless brave and sumptuous. It heralds the arrival of a major new talent. (Distributor Wellspring will release in the states.)
Julie Lopes-Curval's "Seaside," winner of the Camera d'Or for best first film at Cannes 2002, is a similarly ambitious debut that interweaves several different characters' stories. But even in this quaint, affective tale about a group of seaside residents, there lies an underlying economic reality: a pebble plant, once a small mom-and-pop operation that is now owned by a major corporation, serves as the catalyst for the film's class and romance conflicts. It is also host to the film's most resonant image: faced with early retirement, one quarry worker has nowhere else to go but sit atop a pile of rocks. (First Run Features will handle U.S. distribution.) It should also be noted that de Van, Gleize, and Lopes-Curval -- all first-time women directors -- have contributed the boldest new works in this year's Rendez-vous (aside from Assayas), a testament to the support of female filmmakers in Gaullywood.
For further proof of business dread, though, look no place else but the story of Jean-Claude Romand, whose life of deceit generated not one, but two French film adaptations: Laurent Cantet's "Time Out" and Nicole Garcia's "L'Adversaire," a more straightforward retelling of the horrible true story, starring Daniel Auteuil, of a man who pretended to be employed by the World Health Organization for 18 years and then killed his family for fear of being exposed.
Even comedies like Jeanne Labrune's literary farce "C'est le bouquet" and Michel Blanc's "See How They Run" deal specifically with the tricky relationships between employers and employees, haves and have-nots. Labrune goes so far as to include a running double entendre about U.S. interests to "penetrate" the French market.
This year's Cesar awards may have added to the unease: two of the best picture nominees, "The Pianist" and "Amen," were in English, and another, Cedric Klapisch's aptly-titled "Euro Pudding" speaks in French, Spanish, and English. When "The Pianist" went on to sweep the French industry's top honors, winning six prizes, including best actor for Adrien Brody and best picture for Roman Polanski, the awards ceremony seemed to confirm that French cinema had indeed been penetrated by outside forces. (To be fair, it goes both ways, with many American indies surviving on the backs of the French. Ousted Canal Plus head Pierre Lescure is rumored to be producing a new film directed by Steven Soderbergh. And just ask David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch about their Paris-based supporters.)
The present globalized nature of the French film industry may be a case of "be careful what you wish for." As the estimable Toscan du Plantier said at the Cesar nominations, the polyglot lineup indicated a "healthy evolution towards an international market." As France's industry blossomed in the late '90s and early '00s, as Vivendi emerged as a major entertainment conglomerate, and the French international blockbuster film was born, something finally had to give. Even in Europe, the bubble burst. Unfortunately, for France, it coincided with a more tangible demise.
Now, as the French industry mourns Toscan du Plantier's death and struggles with its deficits, the necessary job of restructuring begins. In the next few weeks, Unifrance will elect an interim president from its board of directors, and by May, in a small coastal Cote d'Azur town, the French once again will take center stage with new films in the works from such luminaries as Bruno Dumont, Francois Ozon, Andre Techine, Arnaud Desplechin, Jacques Rivette, and Catherine Breillat.