Thursday, November 11, 2010

Everything You Wanted to Know about the State of French Cinema but were Afraid to Ask: Conclusions Arrived at After Having Seen L'Homme qui Voulait Vivre sa Vie and La Princesse de Montpensier

     In glancing at some of the American reviews for La Princesse De Montpensier , I came across a brief Cannes write-up denouncing the film as a return to the "'Tradition of quality'-- dull 'respectable' literary adaptations or historical dramas--the French New Wave tried to kill off 50 years ago."And this got me thinking about the undeniable quality--the maîtrise--that characterizes modern French movies and renders them at the same time intelligent and, yes, a little dull. I know I should judge Princesse on its own merits, but I don't have as much to say about the movie itself (which I nevertheless found quite compelling) as I do about the film as part of this continuum of French cinema that I'm just now beginning to understand. It's a difficult topic in that there are always exceptions to the generalizations that I'm about to put forth, and also in that I'm incapable of making my up my mind. My attitudes towards French filmmaking shift abruptly from respect to annoyance, often in the space of a single scene or even a single line of dialogue.
      But let's start with this tradition de qualité which was most famously criticized in Truffaut's 1954 Cahiers du Cinema essay Une certaine tendance du cinéma Français. Basically, Truffaut spent much of his time as a critic lambasting the popular screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, and in particular their adaptation of the novel Le diable au corps. According to Truffaut, Aurenche and Bosc cut out all that they deemed unfilmable, jumbled scenes around, and generally failed to consider mise en scène or the fact that cinema has a power that is entirely seperate from that of literature. In America, at least, "screenwriters and directors are not failed novelists but intellectuals in the service of spectacle" (from L'adaption litteraire au cinema, published in 1958).
      Well, 50 years have gone by, and the New Wave has come and gone. Nowadays, France has many highly esteemed and competent directors (Bertrand Tavernier, Francois Ozon, Claude Lelouche) but it's true that there's a certain complacency in the films they put out. Everyone working now has soaked in the ideas of the New Wave, but instead of becoming emboldened, they seem resigned to entrench themeselves in an entirely new sense of tradition that formed after that brief surge of vitality. With the greatness of French cinema already affiirmed, most directors seem unwilling to prove anything at all. I feel bad for using La Princesse to launch this reflexion because it's not much more than a beautiful and well thought out 16th century costume drama, but I do think that it remains academic and literary despite some directorial flourishes. It certainly doesn't show the full extent of what an auteur can accomplish.
     But now, there are much bigger problems in French cinema than literary adaptations and historical dramas. Without the budgets of their Hollywood counterparts or the idealism (or ideas) of their historical counterparts, French directors have to show their mastery in another way. They accomplish this by focusing their considerable talent on the nuances of the vie quotidenne, attempting to replicate the way real French people eat, talk, fight and make love. It's honorable and refreshing on some level (even the better Hollywood movies can seem obvious and contrived in comparison) but realism doesn't accomplish much on its own. And this particular kind of realism--the accurate portrayal of the French lifestyle--doesn't exclude other kinds of ridiculousness. In a popular film I saw in theaters today called L'Homme qui Voulait Vivre sa Vie, the protagonist (played by popular French actor Roman Duris) encounters all kinds of implausible situations, the story seems haphazard and poorly thought out (despite being based on some sort of respected novel), and the conclusion is dumb. But before the movie turns into the meandering thriller that it is, the audience is subjected to almost one hour of Duris interacting with his estranged wife, his mother, his children, and his friends in a way that poignantly conveys the gravity and importance of our daily interactions. To French people, the ideal isn't to be found in the distant interactions of some stars in Hollywood, but in their own lives.

Catherine Deneuve in L'Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie. She shows up in approximately 84% of all French movies

     This wouldn't be such a bad thing if a) this wasn't the collective goal of French filmmakers or B) French people weren't so annoying at times. I don't have enough space to discuss why French people are annoying, or if they are any more annoying than any other group of people in the world, but they can be, and are, annoying. And they are annoying in all their stunning, realistic glory in almost every genre of French Film. From the teen sex comedy of LoL (which can be admired for it's frank and realistic look at generational differences) to the depressing drama of Contes de Noel (which can be admired for putting even more depressing realism in the very real realism of its portrayal of family life). Sometimes this can make a legitimately great movie; Entre les murs (La Classe) showed us a totally unsympathetic teacher dealing with mostly unsympathetic kids, but was powerful only because one was able to condemn and distance oneself from what was happening onscreen. However, much of what I see seems more narcissistic than critical.  The worst offenders seem to be the most popular films; Les Bronzés, Camping, Les Petits Mouchoirs. Many of the better French films are too modest to make their way out of the country and too modest to make much of an impact. 

Here are some exceptions: French directors who care more about creating cinema than translation life or literature. I don't want to seem like I care more about style than substance, but I think that it shouldn't be overlooked.

Jacques Audiard- Audiard's films--notably De battre mon coeur s'est arreté and Un prophète--  are visceral, powerful, and have their own style of gritty realism. Un prophète, in particular, is incredible. But what's the difference between good realism and bad realism? In my opinion, the good kind is used to heighten an emotional response. The violence in Un prophète is shocking because it feels real. The bad kind is anything that accompanies a story that's not worth telling.
      I will admit that it's all a matter of opinion. I was engrossed by the honest portrayal of a lower class black family in Clair Denis' 35 rhums (although this description is unfair; the film is much more than that). But a film has to be really good if it wants me to care about the daily lives of the upper middle class. Contes de Noel didn't cut it. Des hommes et des dieux is a great film because partly because the story (monks and war in Algeria) deals with greater obligations and more important decisions than the average theater goer would normally face.

Un prophète. damn that movie was good

Gaspard Noe- Unfortunately, I haven't seen Irréversible, which is supposed to be brutal. But I did see Enter the Void yesterday. Wow. Say what you want, this guy is definitely trying to create something memorable. I've only seen Bluebeard from Catherine Breillat, but she's supposed to be equally provocative.

Jean Pierre-Jeunet- Ah Amelie! A little cute and whimsical, but still very enjoyable and touching. Delicatessen (1991) is just as good.

Sylvain Chomet- Of Triplets of Bellville fame. His new one, The Illusionist, is based off a Jaques Tati script and is supposed to be excellent. Persepolis is another excellent French animated film, but it's not directed by Chomet. 

Here are some more thoughts. What I've basically realized while writing this is that, considering the talent involved, there aren't as many good French movies as there should be.

-France does have some more esteemed films that appeal to American audiences, but I'm not impressed by a lot of them. Examples include Guillaume Canet's Ne le dis a personne, Cedric Kapisch's L'Auberge espagnole and Les poupées russes, Anthony Zimmer, La môme (called La Vie En Rose in America: one good performance and little else), and Les choristes (good for high school French classes).
-Many of the greats, such as Godard, Resnais, and Varda, are still putting out movies. Varda's Glaneurs et la glaneuse is superb and I've heard that Les plages d'Agnes is awesome.
-Gondry, Aja, and others are now firmly established in America.
-Some foreign directors are now firmly established in France, but they don't really count. No one can say that Polanski makes French movies. Haneke's Cache was in French, though, and it was excellent. Julian Schnabel, an American, directed a French movie that is better than almost all other French movies this decade with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In fact, this movie proves my point about the cowardice of French directors better than anything else. Everything about it feels French--the sex, the dialogue, the pacing, the intelligence--but it also realizes that more is not always less.
- Ces amours là, by Claude Lelouche, is one French film that thinks that more is more. And it's terrible. 

The actor is Mathieu Almaric. His most recent directorial effort, Tournée, is supposed to be great, so the situation isn't all that bad.

- I do realize that there are many, many great French films that I haven't seen (L'Enfant and I've Loved You so Long for example) but until someone proves me wrong, I'll stand by my points. In any case, if I were evaluating the state of Hollywood, I would be a lot meaner.
-Princesse de Montpensier: 7.5
-L'Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie: 6.3

Anyone agree? disagree?

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