By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
I asked Desplechin if he ever felt overwhelmed by the omnipresence of American culture. He smiled and took a drag on his Chesterfield cigarette. Perhaps he‘d been asked this question before. ”My favorite novelist is Philip Roth, my favorite painter is Jackson Pollock, my favorite singer is Mary J. Blige, and my favorite living film director is Francis Ford Coppola,“ he said.
Coming from the director of My Sex Life . . ., a film its creator frankly admitted was intended to be ”the most French film imaginable,“ this was quite a statement. But perhaps it wasn’t so surprising. In one way or another, it was a statement I would hear from practically every director in France I spoke to. Ask Benoit Jacquot about the inspiration for his film Seventh Heaven, and he‘d tell you he got the idea from watching Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool. Ask Catherine Breillat about her film 36 Fillette, and she‘d tell you it was inspired by Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll. Listen to one French director (Anne Fontaine) tell you how much she despised The Matrix -- ”It‘s emblematic of these kinds of American movies that are very well done, very clean, and very empty. It’s too complicated, and too simple at the same time“ -- and you could be sure that another (Breillat) would not only tell you that she adored it, but that it had a carefully hidden Scientological subtext as well -- a major reason, she assured me, for its success, even if nobody mentioned it. (Breillat had seen the film several times, always on planes, and had analyzed it carefully.)
The French like American films, have always liked American films, and are almost comically reverential toward certain American filmmakers, like Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen. But is there any reciprocity? How much appreciation do American filmmakers and filmgoers feel for what French filmmakers are doing? Tavernier had an answer for that question. In the past, he told me, American directors used to be interested in what the French were up to, but not anymore. The current generation of American film directors ”couldn‘t give a damn about us,“ he announced with considerable bitterness. ”They despise us. They ignore us. For them we are nothing.“
I pointed out that Quentin Tarantino was a big fan of French movies, and had even named his production company after a Godard film.
Tavernier conceded that this was true. Tarantino always called him up when he was in Paris, he said, and the two of them would talk movies nonstop for hours. Martin Scorsese the same. And just the other day Harvey Keitel had been on the phone raving about Tavernier’s World War I epic Capitaine Conan (he was amazed at how little it had cost). Steven Soderbergh -- ”Here is a director who I love,“ said Tavernier, in his excellent and always dramatic English -- was another admirer. But these, Tavernier claimed, were exceptions. The overall prognosis was bleak.
And Tavernier was only talking about the directors. Where things got really bad -- where the ”reciprocity“ almost vanished -- was with the audiences. French and other foreign films continue to draw crowds in the States, but they have lost a lot of ground and cachet to the independents. In effect, we produce our own foreign films now, just as we produce our own wine, and to confess that you go to real foreign films with subtitles and all that is often to invite a look laden with a certain amount of irony. This may be particularly true in the case of French films, because French films don‘t pander to American tastes. Far from capitulating to market forces, they ignore them. In this, they are simply continuing a long French tradition. As Benoit Jacquot put it (somewhat hyperbolically):
”Who invented cinema and where? Cinema is a French invention. Afterward it became an American industry, but first it was a French invention. So the world cinema is divided between the invention and the industry. The industry is in the States, and the invention, in all senses, is in France. I think French [filmmakers] try to invent cinema with each film in a very particular way. In the States, each film has to make more money, but some American films are very inventive, and some French films are very artistic but make a lot of money. So we are not so far apart as we might think.“
It’s one thing if Americans have lost interest in French movies; what really worries the French Ministry of Culture types is that French audiences may be losing interest, too. Anne Fontaine, the director of the wonderfully droll Augustin and the disturbing psychosexual drama Dry Cleaning, spoke of younger French audiences as being almost an automatic write-off. Only 39 herself (and one of a growing number of women directors, of whom France has more than any other country), she thinks that the under-35 audience is no longer attuned to the rhythms of most French cinema. ”Young people are growing up with the Internet and with American movies like The Matrix, which they love,“ she told me, puffing on a cigarette in her apartment. ”We are not very good in French cinema at action. We are better at psychology. French movies are very alive, there are lots of very interesting directors, but it‘s very difficult for the producers, because they can’t produce big hits.“
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