Beauty and the Beast
Bertrand Tavernier, the distinguished French film director, was lying flat on his back in his Paris apartment, blind in one eye and temporarily unable to see out of the other -- a fitting symbol, some might say, for the state of contemporary French cinema. That week, the last of October 1999, close to half a million Parisians had gone to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but a mere 20,0001 or so had gone to see La Maladie de Sachs, Cest Quoi la Vie? and Voyages -- three films that Tavernier touted as proof that the French were making some of the best movies in the world. I dont know which country has produced films that are so free -- because thats the first quality, to have a film thats free, that has freedom of expression, freedom of ideas, of style, of narration -- as have been produced recently in France, he said passionately. The problem was, not many people were going to see them.
Tavernier, the 58-year-old director of such acclaimed films as A Sunday in the Country, Round Midnight, Life and Nothing But, L.627 and Capitaine Conan, had more serious things to worry about, however. He had just undergone surgery for a collapsed retina in his one good eye, and did not know if he would ever see out of it again. (His sight has since improved.) A vast, shambling man, with white hair and a sizable belly (hes reputed to be one of cinemas greatest cooks), he seemed in remarkably good spirits under the circumstances.
How much can you see? I asked him.
I can see the room, he replied, stretched out on the bed, but as if there were 10 filters. I can see the body, the way you are dressed, the color, but I dont have any focus.
And your other eye is blind?
Its very bad, like blind. Im not even like Andre De Toth -- he had one good eye. Hes quite a superb character. Hes the one who called me after Round Midnight came out and said, You know, Bertrand, you made me cry with your film, and its difficult to cry with only one eye!
Tavernier laughed uproariously at the memory. His belly bobbed up and down. I adore that! I think its a hilarious comment! Then he went on to compare his predicament with two films about blindness by another American friend of his, the late Delmer Daves. I adore some of his films, especially his Westerns, Tavernier said, and he made two films, one of which is for me a masterpiece called Pride of the Marines, in which John Garfield becomes blind after a fight. And the other film about blindness was that wonderful Western called The Hanging Tree, in which Maria Schell is temporarily blind. So Im becoming a kind of Davesian character.
It was typical of Tavernier to find an American movie reference for his situation -- he is, after all, the co-author of two weighty tomes on American cinema, neither of which, to his immense regret, has ever been translated into English. Unfortunately, even for this great fan, love of American culture has become inextricably entwined with a kind of loathing and dread for what he calls the globalization of ignorance, which has the kids in New York, Montreal, Glasgow, Milano, Amsterdam and Madrid eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, listening a to the same music and seeing exactly the same film, which can be Austin Powers or Armageddon.
Isnt globalization just a polite way of saying American? I asked.
But its one kind of American image, Tavernier replied. Its not Kundun, its not Robert Altman, Woody Allen, John Sayles. Its a certain kind of America, which is becoming for us a big danger.
Lacking a crystal ball, or a direct line into what the brains of the 15-year-olds gorging themselves on The Matrix would be thinking in 20 years, it was hard for an American visitor to Paris to decide whether Taverniers fears were exaggerated or not. Could what The New York Times called Americas global movie offensive bury the French film industry, as it had already buried others in Europe? I didnt know. All I could say for sure, and did say to every director I met, was how much Id enjoyed watching French movies, over the last few years, in faraway Los Angeles -- the place where that offensive was assembled, marketed and beamed to every corner of the planet. If the average American movie was a musclebound global entertainment package on free-market steroids, then the average French movie, it seemed to me, was a government-sponsored cultural artifact with dark circles under its eyes. Watching one, I felt as if I was temporarily escaping not only the world outside the cinema, but contemporary cinema itself. Short on violence, sentimentality and wall-to-wall soundtrack music, the typical French film was forced to be a little longer on honesty, intelligence and political awareness.
French films, in fact, often seem to constitute a kind of anti-Hollywood. There are other anti-Hollywoods around (in China, in Iran, sometimes even within Hollywood itself), but for me the French present the most consistently oppositional cinema going. For that reason alone, I wanted to talk to the people creating it. Although you may occasionally find a French actor or director interviewed on public radio, you almost never see one on television. When Luc Besson made a film in English with Bruce Willis in the starring role, Charlie Rose invited him on to his show. But French filmmakers who make films in French are not invited.
During a week in Paris, I spoke to six French directors (Tavernier, Erick Zonca, Benoit Jacquot, Anne Fontaine, Catherine Breillat and Arnaud Desplechin) out of a hoped-for 11 (Luc Besson, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas, Claude Sautet and Eric Rohmer were unavailable or canceled). I also spoke to Daniel Toscan du Plantier, the head of Unifrance, the government-sponsored agency that promotes French film around the world. Before meeting him, though, I was advised that I should bring a bouquet of flowers for his colleague, Veronique Bouffard, who had set up the interviews for me. This, I was assured by an American friend living in Paris, was the French way. I was a bit dubious about it -- Wasnt Mme. Bouffard paid to make phone calls and set up interviews? Wasnt that the whole point of Unifrance? -- but I dutifully went ahead and bought the bouquet.
Mme. Bouffard, attractive and smartly dressed, seemed pleased -- even delighted -- to receive the flowers, though not particularly surprised. Perhaps she received bouquets at the rate of one per every five telephone calls made. Evidently I had done the done thing, and as a reward, I was invited to kiss her on each cheek. It was a very French moment. Then she led me into du Plantiers office, having first let him know that I had brought her the flowers. Getting up from his immense glass desk, the president of Unifrance cast a quick connoisseurs glance over the bouquet and nodded his approval. Perhaps the American was not a complete sauvage after all.
Though older and white-haired (he was born in 1941), du Plantier reminded me a little of the character played by Andre Dussolier in Claude Sautets Un Coeur en Hiver, the upbeat business partner of Daniel Auteuils tortured violin maker. Dressed in a houndstooth jacket, white shirt and red silk tie, he smiled and laughed a great deal; he amused himself enormously. France is not a culture for children, he said when I paid him the compliment of saying that French films seemed aimed at adults rather than teenagers, but there was nothing haughty about the way he said it. He was too good- humored for that. Nonetheless, the implied contrast with the States was unmistakable.
Our main problem is that in Europe we are the last country obsessed with making films as cultural products, he told me in richly accented English. I dont think we are the only ones, but the others are not as much concerned. Italy was a big part of cinema for years, but -- du Plantier shrugged -- what is it now? Its Italian, but its an accident. And theres no German cinema now. There was a lot. And even the only one that exists, the British one -- du Plantier sighed extravagantly and gazed up at the ceiling -- Is Notting Hill really a British film? Its shot in Great Britain. For British filmmakers, speaking English is also a problem, because you can make the same movie with Hollywood money. Its not exactly the same, but except for Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, they all cross the Atlantic.
I asked du Plantier if French filmmakers were under pressure to produce big hits, to compete with Hollywood financially.
I think French movies are made for a potential of 10 percent of the world population, he answered. We reach 3.6 percent or 3.7 percent of the world audience, because we are not making mass-media movies, but the potential is certainly around 10 percent. We know our limits. We are a minority cinema. But Christian Dior made a fortune with a minority.
And how long can French cinema continue by appealing only to a minority?
Forever, du Plantier replied smoothly. Minority goes on. Its a general concept. If you put a street with only McDonalds on it, and you have one old lady making cassoulet on the fifth floor, its small, but its full. So we are the old lady on the fifth floor!
For an old lady, you might say the French film industry is doing rather well for herself. As is the case with many old ladies, however, theres a big bad landlord who wants her out of the building. In French eyes, that would be us. France is the only European country still producing films in large numbers (155 last year compared to the 600 or so produced annually in the U.S.), but according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), it is able to do so only because of its protectionist trade policies -- in short, it cheats. The French government subsidizes filmmakers by imposing an 11 percent tax on cinema tickets (including those sold for American movies), and by insisting that at least 40 percent of the films shown on television be French. The American position has been that such practices constitute unfair competition and should be outlawed; the French argue that cultural products such as film should not be subject to ordinary trade laws -- what it calls cultural exception. The French were gearing up for a major battle over the issue at the WTO meeting in Seattle when, ironically, American protesters put an end to the trade talks by smashing up NikeTown and Starbucks -- cheered on by, one imagines, the likes of Tavernier in his distant Paris apartment. Allez, mes enfants!
Lately, MPAA president Jack Valenti (who did not return the Weeklys phone calls) has been taking a softer line on the French. Were not opposed to subsidies, and we accept the status quo on the E.C. broadcasting directive, he was quoted as saying last year. But since he is also on record as saying that in a few years the Internet will make all quota systems obsolete, it appears likely that Valenti is simply being diplomatic. Why fight a battle when youre about to win the war? Even without the Internet, American films accounted for 55 percent of the market share in France last year (down from 63 percent in 1998), and reached levels of almost total saturation elsewhere in Europe. With the Internet, when Jean, Luc and Virginie are able to download movies at will, it will be a different game altogether. That the French will be able to do anything to protect French culture on the Web has been dismissed as a fantasy of the French administration even within France itself.
The last week of October 1999 was not only the week that hundreds of thousands of Parisians were going to see the new Star Wars movie; it was also the week they were celebrating Halloween. It was a sight to warm Jack Valentis heart. Two years ago, hardly anyone in France had heard of Halloween, let alone celebrated it; suddenly, it was everywhere. In the cafes, the white cobwebs were glued to the windows as if in accordance with some obscure branch of the Napoleonic code; on the streets, schoolchildren would be marched up to a skeleton poking out of a cafe window and scream on cue.
The French had a line about Halloween. Namely, that it was Irish in origin. No matter who I asked, whether it was a 22-year-old girl on rollerblades or a middle-aged Algerian making couscous, that was what I was told: Dorigine, cest Irlandais. It was a perfect example of a socially unified nation-state in action, and I half suspected the Ministry of Culture of having hurriedly commissioned a rigged study in order to loudly disseminate the results. At any rate, Halloween wasnt American, it was Celtic2 -- that was the main thing. Obviously, it made the French feel better about having rapidly succumbed to one more piece of American culture.
Still, the main impression was of how un-American everything was. At first glance, Paris looked oddly denuded, and it took a few minutes to figure out why: There was much less advertising than in an American city. Buildings had not been turned into billboards. Buses did not come wrapped in the green scales of the latest giant-reptile flick. (In the words of one American dot.com millionaire, indignant at all the unused advertising space, the buses and cabs in Paris were covered in nothing but dust.) There was no stock-market bubble, no e-commerce, no fevered sense of fortunes being made. At dinner time, the French would descend in packs on tiny restaurants and then sit there eating and drinking and smoking for hours, as if no one had heard of the Internet, a health warning or an IPO. a
This was in the city, of course. To get a sense of the changes going on in the suburbs, one had only to pay a visit to Chatelet-les-Halles, the giant train station through which unemployed kids from the projects enter and leave the city. On the day I was there the kids were African and Arab, and suddenly it was all Nikes and Walkmans and baseball caps and the swish of oversize nylon track suits slicing through the crowd. It was a crowd within a crowd, with an electric energy you recognized immediately. The style was that of rap and rock videos, the slash and burn of the NBA -- a kind of Islam dunk. It certainly didnt make you think of Eric Rohmer.
Since 15 years, the young people in the suburbs stopped sharing the same culture thats in the center of the town, I was told by Arnaud Desplechin, the pale, soft-spoken, 39-year-old director of La Sentinelle and My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument, two resolutely cerebral, Alain Resnais--influenced films. Its the case in L.A., its the case in New York, its the case everywhere around the world. There is a very specific culture -- which is not really a culture [Desplechin laughed] -- in the suburbs. And in the center of the town there is a culture of the bourgeoisie.
Desplechin wasnt talking about Chatelet-les-Halles. He was talking about the rise of a mass global culture (not really a culture) that was marginalizing French films. We would love that our films could speak to all audiences, he said, but frankly, even the great American directors of the 70s have stopped making [personal] films, and you have just action movies which are done like products, objects to sell to the majority, and the good films are just for specific audiences. Fine. What would we do? Cry? No, this is our times.
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 hed 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 wasnt 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 hed tell you he got the idea from watching Otto Premingers Whirlpool. Ask Catherine Breillat about her film 36 Fillette, and shed tell you it was inspired by Elia Kazans Baby Doll. Listen to one French director (Anne Fontaine) tell you how much she despised The Matrix -- Its emblematic of these kinds of American movies that are very well done, very clean, and very empty. Its 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 couldnt 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 Taverniers 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 dont 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.
Its 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 its very difficult for the producers, because they cant produce big hits.
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 Techines 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 Frances 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, its 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, theres very little plot or story in French movies. Why is that?
Because its part of the very introspective culture. But Im 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. Im bored with the stories. The scripts, the plots, dont 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 films protagonists are neither hip nor pathetic (and therefore laughable) enough to be in an American movie in the first place.
Dont you think you would have had a hard time making Dreamlife in the States? I asked.
Im 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 dont think so.
You would have had to use all your credit cards.
Its 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!
Thats a movie in itself, I suggested. Waiting for the grandmother to die. Maybe you have to kill her.
Zonca howled with laughter. Thats 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 Taverniers L.627, a deeply engrossing study of an undercover narcotics squad in Paris, or Desplechins La Sentinelle, a fascinating but highly cerebral spy film. By American standards, both movies proceed at a crawl. I mentioned this to Tavernier.
Its not a question of pace, he replied, its a question of getting to know the characters. In French movies, he said, Characters are more important than the plot. They try to escape the dictatorship of the plot. Furthermore, the kinds of films he and other French directors were trying to make were based on questioning the characters and not on imposing the characters . . . The American audience loves to have things solved. When L.627 starts, its like were arriving by accident in the life of a group of cops. There is no special drama. And at the end of the film, nothing is solved, nothing. No solution in the problem of the couple, no solution in the problem of the drugs. To base the dramaturgy of a film on the principle of resolution makes things very simple, because you create a drama at the beginning and then you solve it. The life of the group in L.627 doesnt obey the principle of resolution, because the problem in their life is that they dont solve anything.
For Tavernier, there is one very efficient and simplistic rule that dominates most American cinema -- namely, that of one hero against the world. When you have that, everything is dramatized very easily. In Dead Poets Society, you have one guy, Robin Williams, against the entire establishment. Or it can be a cop against all the rotten cops -- that makes everything for an audience very clear. And it looks faster because its very, very clear!
Tavernier fell upon this overriding theme, or stratagem -- what he calls this apology for the individual hero -- while working on his books about American cinema. Since discovering it, he has deliberately tilted his films in the opposite direction, by telling stories about people who achieve their goals, to the extent that they do so, only when they receive help from others. This is my John Ford influence, Tavernier said. John Ford was a champion for that. He was a champion of the group against the individual. Its always the family, always the cavalry, as opposed to the Hawksian hero, who is the lonely adventurer. John Wayne in Rio Bravo turns down the help of the people of the city who want to help him. Henry Fonda, in My Darling Clementine, accepts it, because he knows that maybe he is not good enough. I found in these two attitudes an enormous difference. And maybe because Ford was Irish, a European,3 he was like that. I feel that European cinema is more based on the collectivity, on the group, on civilization, and American cinema -- and there have been some exceptions, like Huston and Ford and all the foreign directors like Preminger and Lang -- has always been the champion of the lone wolf against the rest of the world.
That last statement took on a decidedly political cast when the discussion turned, as it inevitably did, from the question of American film to the question of the American film industry -- a lone wolf not just against the world but, in certain French eyes at least, intent on devouring it. French cinema may be too protected, but as Zonca put it, If it was not protected, it would disappear. In any case, both Tavernier and Desplechin were quick to point out that France was not only protecting its own cinema. Either through direct government funding or (to a much greater extent) through private companies like the television station Canal +, it was also protecting world cinema. For them, this was a key point. Foreign, non-English filmmakers like Paul Verhoeven or Lasse Hallstrom are welcome to make films in Hollywood, provided their films are commercially viable, are made in English and star American actors. But when a foreign film director receives funding from the French, its understood that the film can be made in the directors own language, whether that language be English, Russian or Farsi. Furthermore, the director retains creative control -- a fact attested to by Mary Sweeney, David Lynchs producereditor (and companion). By phone in L.A., she said that Lynch had been receiving French financing for the last 10 years. The most important thing for David is that he retains creative control, and theres been no attempt by the French financiers to interfere with that, she said. Once they approve the budget, they give us the money and we give them the film. Obviously, if we didnt come in under budget that might not continue, but its been a nice arrangement. On The Straight Story, there were six or seven American companies competing for financing, but based on his experience of having total creative control, David went with the French.
Contrast that with Taverniers experience after Miramax purchased the American rights to his film DArtagnans Daughter: Harvey Weinstein demanded cuts, Tavernier refused, and as a result the film went straight to video under the tacky title Revenge of the Musketeers. It could be a argued that Taverniers film needed cutting, but then, the same could be said of Lost Highway. The difference is, Lynch was allowed to achieve his vision, and (in America at least) Tavernier wasnt.
Perhaps this is what prompts Tavernier to speak of French filmmakers love and hate relationship with America (love for everything that is creative in America, and hatred for Mr. Valenti and the diktat and the fact that he is trying to impose one image and treat [film] like a product). It may also explain why he defends Frances protectionism, and even goes so far as to claim that it is Hollywood that is truly protectionist, not France. When the Americans will produce seven Russian films, 10 Czech films, not in English but in their own language, then they can give us lessons -- not before that, he concluded angrily. And with that, the interview was over.
Ironically, one American who claims to agree with Tavernier about protectionism (at least when hes in Europe) is Harvey Weinstein. In an interview given to the French newspaper Le Figaro, Weinstein stated that the French had every right to impose quotas on the amount of American films shown on television, because the American networks imposed a secret quota of their own -- namely, never to buy French or other foreign-language movies. Perhaps Weinstein was simply buttering up his hosts, the better to sell them on Shakespeare in Love, but a quick look through TV Guide reveals that the number of foreign-language films shown on network television appears to be zero, while (at a price) a very small number are available on cable and pay-per-view.
One can see why the French get frustrated, even paranoid. They impose quotas on our films, while we simply impose our vast indifference on theirs. Eventually the indifference crosses the Atlantic, and the French start to desert their own cinema. They dont have to, of course, but at some point you cant help wondering whether American pop culture is a culture or a virus. Simplicity and speed become addictive, as does sensation. French films, with their emphasis on individual psychology and fidelity to experience, can look awfully wan next to the bright mythic tales turned out by Hollywood. Creative sterility may be to blame for some of this, but there is also a price for being truthful. In The Dreamlife of Angels, people who dont make a lot of money look like they dont make a lot of money. In Erin Brockovich, on the other hand, a woman who has lost both breasts and a uterus to environmental poisoning looks like a million bucks.4
The race just isnt on anymore, says the film critic David Thomson, comparing the current situation with the one that held 30 years ago. If you go back to the 1960s and early 70s, the great richness of American film at the time was very hard to separate from the waves of excitement coming from France, Italy, Germany and England, as well as from directors like Buñuel and Ray. Then you felt that there was real interaction going on between national cinemas, whereas everything about the state of film in the U.S. today encourages the notion that you dont need to bother with other countries films.
Thomson, like a lot of critics, thinks that France is producing some very interesting movies -- last year, he was particularly struck by The Dreamlife of Angels -- but holds firm to the opinion that its cinema is not the rich, diverse medium that it once was. Perhaps this is true. If you didnt come of age during the New Wave, however, the comparison may be less pressing. For Americans who still go to foreign movies, French or otherwise, I suspect that one of the chief attractions is the opportunity to see people whose personalities do not seem to have been formed by the media. In American films -- with exceptions, obviously -- such people are hard to come by. As Thomson puts it, the people in American movies do not have their own character anymore, they have a warped genre character, which is characteristic of contemporary American art as a whole.
Even when we are treated to three hours of nothing but character, as in P.T. Andersons overwrought Magnolia, the characters in question are apt to be so absurdly hysterical or unfeeling or naive that sharing their company is more of a strain than a pleasure. Some of the best American movies, like the wonderful Election and, to a much lesser extent, American Beauty, begin with caricature -- this is how we instinctively see each other now -- and then slowly break through to something deeper, until the protagonists fundamental humanity has been reclaimed and ratified for the viewer. The epitome of this tendency is probably the character played by Tom Cruise in Magnolia: For over three hours, encased in his mediagenic armor, he acts out a slimeball variation on the Tony Robbins school of motivational speaker until, finally, as frogs fall from the sky, he breaks down and weeps at the bedside of his dying media-mogul dad -- a real human being at last.
In other words, Cruises character ends where the typical French film begins: with someone you could imagine having a conversation with. Personally, I think its a better place to start -- it is, after all, where American movies used to begin. At the very least, its a relief. The allure of French film may be fading, especially among the young -- those Hollywood movie executives who spend their days targeting teenagers are very good shots -- but a lot of people would be bitterly disappointed if Frances cinema disappeared. As Daniel Toscan du Plantier put it:
Everywhere exists a minority that wants something different. Its like food, somebody needs something else. So we are probably the majority share of the difference. French producers like to say, French cinema is the second in the world! And I say, Please! Second is too far from the first. Lets say, we are the first of the others. Thats a window. Thats a job. La niche -- thats a French word. We are certainly the star of la niche.
Note: City of Lights, City of Angels: A Week of New French Films opens this week at the Directors Guild. See Film Calendar for details.
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