WORLD CINEMA REPORT: A French New Wave: The Blockbuster; But Will Art Films Survive?
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/03.06.02) — Audrey Tautou smiles impishly on the poster for “Amelie.” And with box office triumphs the world over, it’s no wonder she’s grinning: the Gallic crowd-pleaser sits atop the crest of a new wave in French cinema, the blockbuster. Sure, you can still find dozens of smaller, more thought-provoking movies on Parisian screens, but increasingly, such titles are being overshadowed by homegrown heavy-hitters such as actioners like “Crimson Rivers” and “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” comedies such as “The Closet” and “Sexy Boys,” and studio franchises including “Asterix and Obelix,” “Would I Lie to You” and “Taxi” (“Taxi 3” is already on the way). What’s next, “Breathless 2: Michel’s Revenge”?
The statistics surrounding the French industry’s upsurge are staggering. In 2001, French films saw a 400 percent increase at the U.S. box office when compared with the year before, and in France, local product accounted for roughly 40 percent of the theatrical market share. Just last month, with the release of Francois Ozon‘s “Eight Women” and the “Asterix and Obelix” sequel “Mission Cleopatra,” the country’s market share reached a record-breaking 66 percent. Dealing a hefty blow to Hollywood’s overseas domination, “Amelie” and her mainstream counterparts have seen huge admissions increases in nearly every territory, according to Unifrance, an organization devoted to promoting French cinema. With all this attention towards the bottom line, one wonders what’s happening to the French art film, that stimulating piece of intellect and artistry we’ve come to know from names like Rivette, Truffaut, and Godard?
At the Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series (opening this Friday), the popular New York-based film program now in its seventh year, mainstream vehicles and idiosyncratic visions exist side by side — a microcosm of the current French cinema’s conflict between commerce and art. “The big debate in France,” says Kent Jones, associate director of programming at the Film Society, “is about people like Philippe Garrel [‘Wild Innocence‘], who has an audience of, like, 10 and who continues to get his movies made.” According to Jones, many commercial French directors like Patrice Leconte (“Widow of St. Pierre“) and Jean-Pierre Jeunuet (“Amelie”) resent the fact that rigorous filmmakers like Garrel receive continued support even though there is little audience for their movies. “They think it gives France a bad name when competing with films overseas,” says Jones.
This year’s Rendez-Vous lineup isn’t so neatly divisible between both camps (in fact, many of the films straddle the fence), but it’s still easy to see when a movie is trying to please the mainstream or satisfy the whims of the filmmaker. Take, for instance, two of this year’s high profile U.S. premieres and those rumored to be heading for domestic distribution deals, recent Cesar multi-winner “Read My Lips” and festival favorite “Betty Fisher and Other Stories.”
“Read My Lips,” directed by Jacques Audiard (“A Self Made Hero“) introduces us to Carla (Emmanuelle Devos), a schlumpy secretary who wears hearing aids to compensate for her near-deafness. Overworked and under-appreciated, Carla takes on an assistant, an ex-con named Paul (Vincent Cassel), and the two eventually find themselves inextricably co-dependent. All of this is fine, accomplished with top-notch skill (particularly, clever subjective sound and humane characterizations), but the plot eventually devolves into a conventional thriller. Some New York critics found the film’s attempted blend of genre and intimacy exciting, while others simply wondered who would play Carla in the Hollywood re-make.
Likewise, “Betty Fisher,” directed by veteran Claude Miller (“The Little Thief,” “Class Trip“) begins with what appears to be profound characters and an intriguing premise: Betty (Sandrine Kiberlain) loses her infant son and finds herself holding on to a replacement, a little boy who’s been kidnapped. But the movie eventually loses the kind of complexity we’ve been set up to expect, with a couple of ludicrous subplots and an overly simple explanation for Betty’s motivations.
Still, “Read My Lips” and “Betty Fisher” remain the nominal highpoints of the program’s more commercial selections. Coline Serreau‘s “Chaos” is another mildly likeable hybrid, combining situation comedy, immigrant tragedy, and a mishandled crime plot. Directors like Audiard, Miller, and Serreau seem to be trying to appeal to a wider audience, while maintaining some of that “je ne sais quoi” of “le film Francais.” Kent Jones says this move is indicative of a lot of French filmmakers. “They dislike the self-image of French cinema as being psychologically-oriented, minimalist, and revolving around people sitting in cafes,” he says. “I understand the frustrations, the frustrations of feeling like you have to stay in this semi-documentary approach.”
Indeed, many directors are turning away from that stereotypical French headiness. Olivier Assayas (“Irma Vep“), who is in the Rendez-Vous series with his sumptuous, over-long period epic “Les Destinees” (the only film in the program currently with U.S. distribution, from Wellspring Media) will turn next to the more commercial “Demon Lover,” a techno-thriller that features American actors Chloe Sevigny and Gina Gershon. Patrice Chereau (“Queen Margot,” “Intimacy“) is in talks to launch a big budget “Napoleon,” starring Al Pacino. And even challenging filmmakers like Bruno Dumont (“L’Humanite,” the upcoming “29 Palms“) and Philippe Grandrieux (“Sombre“) are said to have plans for English-language Hollywood projects.
Jones worries that “Amelie” may set too high a commercial bar for future French productions, in the same way successful American independent films like Quentin Tarantino‘s “Pulp Fiction” created unrealistic expectations and demand for more accessible fringe product. “When French producers see a phenomenon like ‘Amelie,'” says Jones, “they might think, well, I’ll give some money to a Garrel, but maybe they can bend their aesthetic a little to be more popular. That kind of pressure will be greater.”
Still, the same economic conditions that have contributed to the increase in larger productions will also continue to benefit smaller films. France has an extensive support system of government subsidies, broadcast television backing, and the “compte de soutien,” a film financing fund created from a percentage of every ticket sold in France’s movie theaters.
The most precious discovery this year is one title that has surely benefited from France’s funding dollars: French actor Mathieu Amalric‘s diminutive second feature “The Wimbledon Stage.” Small on plot, big on ideas, the movie follows a French woman (“Va Savoir“‘s Jeanne Balibar) on a search for information about a long-deceased intellectual giant — one who fostered new talent, but enigmatically never published on his own. The woman’s quest eventually suggests more about herself than her “Citizen Kane“-like target, and Amalric captures the locales of her journey (Trieste, Italy and Wimbledon, England) with a sincere, delicate style and genuine fondness. Even though little actually happens in the 80-minute film, it is entrancing to see such a profound love for every single person who appears onscreen.
Returning to Rendez-Vous is another such filmmaker whose work remains celebrated critically, but who has yet to reach wider audiences: Andre Techine, perhaps most famous for 1994’s “Wild Reeds.” For his most recent work, “Loin,” another highlight of the Rendez-Vous series, Techine depicts a love triangle set in Tangiers. In a review for indieWIRE at its Venice premiere, Patrick McGavin called the film “a solid, moving piece that traffics in the director’s trademark themes: family relations, irreconcilable sexual entanglements, the allure of criminal activity.” And in what may be a sign of the times for certain directors of an acquired taste, Techine shot the film, according to director’s notes, in digital video for economic reasons.
But the French art film isn’t going away anytime soon. This year, we can look forward to powerful works from new talents such as Laurent Cantet‘s “Time Out” (released by ThinkFilm), a masterful psychological drama from the young director of “Human Resources,” and Gaspar Noe‘s “Irreversible,” the long-anticipated follow-up to his debut shocker “I Stand Alone.” And veteran provocateurs are also back: Jean-Luc Godard‘s “In Praise of Love” and Eric Rohmer‘s DV epic “The Lady and the Duke” will hit U.S. screens this year, and Catherine Breillat (“Fat Girl“) returns with “Scenes Intimes.”
“I think that no matter who’s in power in France, support for the arts is always going to be there,” says Jones. “I don’t see that going away. And thank God for it. You get to see movies like ‘Wimbledon Stage’ or ‘Loin,’ or a movie as completely weird and exciting as ‘Trouble Every Day,'” continues Jones, referring to Claire Denis‘s vampire love story currently playing in limited release. “Nobody would be able to make a movie like that here. You need freedom to make a movie that insane — to make a movie with Vincent Gallo as a research scientist.”