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Erick Zonca, the director of The Dreamlife of Angels, a stunning film that won rave reviews in the States, said something similar. He told me a story of how, after directing a short film (with government financing) a few years ago, he was asked to take it around to various schools in France to show it and discuss it with the students afterward. When a student at one school asked him what his next project was, he mentioned that he would be directing a film starring the actress Elodie Bouchez, who had just won a Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for best actress in Andre Techine‘s film Les Roseaux Sauvages. When there was no audience response to this piece of information, he asked if anyone had heard of Bouchez. No one had. He then asked if anyone had heard of Les Roseaux Sauvages. No one raised a hand. Finally Zonca asked if anyone had heard of Techine. Only two or three hands went up, despite the fact that Techine is one of France’s best-known directors. ”In France there is no public for good French cinema, because the young people are bored with good French cinema,“ Zonca concluded at the end of his story.
”Including your film?“
”No, it‘s an exception. But they are bored. And when they see an American movie with the action, the special effects, they like it.“
”Compared to American movies, there’s very little plot or story in French movies. Why is that?“
”Because it‘s part of the very introspective culture. But I’m interested in the plot and the scenario, and to surprise people with the scenario.“
”Are you bored with current French movies?“
”Not really, because I see that we have really great filmmakers. I‘m bored with the stories. The scripts, the plots, don’t interest me, but I see the strong qualities of the directors.“
I spoke with Zonca at a cafe. Enormously friendly, with a metallic voice and a laugh that sounded like something coming out of a sawmill, he had the face of an Italian laborer in a photograph from the 1920s. Dreamlife was his first feature-length film, and it appeared when he was 42: relatively late for a first-time director. On the evidence of what they saw onscreen, however, a lot of people thought that might be a good thing. Unlike some younger filmmakers, Zonca seemed to have spent time knocking around and getting a feel for life instead of staying home watching videos.
The story of two young women (played by Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier) who meet in a sewing factory, move in together, become best friends, and then grow estranged when one of them falls prey to a terrifying obsession with the callous owner of a local disco, The Dreamlife of Angels combines grubby realism with something akin to a series of spiritual X-rays -- ”soul in self-revelation,“ one critic called it. This was a film that seemed angelic not because it had angels in it but because it uncovered something angelic in man. Its final tracking shot -- moving down the line of yet another sweatshop factory, until it freezes on the face of a young woman who has not even been in the film up to that point -- is not only intensely moving, but imbued with a generosity almost inconceivable in contemporary American cinema, since the film‘s protagonists are neither hip nor pathetic (and therefore laughable) enough to be in an American movie in the first place.
”Don’t you think you would have had a hard time making Dreamlife in the States?“ I asked.
”I‘m not so sure of that,“ Zonca replied, mulling the idea over. ”I could speak about two young girls trying to make their living . . . I could do that, I think, in America. It would not have a success, but I could.“
”But would you have received government funding or backing from a television station?“
”No, no, I don’t think so.“
”You would have had to use all your credit cards.“
”It‘s what the young directors from America do,“ Zonca smiled, seeming to like the idea. ”Or they wait for their grandmother to die. It was Daniel Toscan du Plantier who told me that: They wait for their grandmother to die so they will have a little money to do their movie!“
”That’s a movie in itself,“ I suggested. ”Waiting for the grandmother to die. Maybe you have to kill her.“
Zonca howled with laughter. ”That‘s an American plot!“ he said.
One obvious difference between French and American films is the pace. Zonca might say he is bored with the stories told in most French movies, but he has yet to display any great narrative speed or invention himself. His latest film, The Little Thief, begins with a young man being fired from his job at a bakery and ends, 65 minutes later, with the same young man starting an identical job at a different bakery -- a storyline that would not get past the front gate at Fox. True, in between those two jobs he does become a criminal, but even in the midst of a break-in the movie remains largely meditative in tone. The same could be said of films that are nominally thrillers, like Tavernier’s L.627, a deeply engrossing study of an undercover narcotics squad in Paris, or Desplechin‘s La Sentinelle, a fascinating but highly cerebral ”spy“ film. By American standards, both movies proceed at a crawl. I mentioned this to Tavernier.
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