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The Artist
Culture

Is French cinema special?

By Jon Davies
28/04/2016

Last week I asked students starting a new class in French cinema ‘what was so special to them about French films?’ The answers were what I expected. The group though of different ages, backgrounds and from a variety of countries  including one French woman) were all in agreement. They all found French films intelligent, innovative, edgy, thoughtful and challenging. I gave them my usual health warning that for every The Artist there are at least twenty lightweight features that will never be shown at Cannes or leave France (quite rightly in most cases). But they were right, what we see represents the best of world cinema. 

Trailer for 'The Artist'

Marion Cotillard in La Môme
Marion Cotillard in La Môme

Their view of French cinema on this side of the channel is determined by what a small number of film distributors choose. Given, even in London, that there just aren’t enough screens to show more than a fraction of the world’s output, only about 40 French films a year make it onto the screens.  Film distributors choose the ones that will get the most bums on seats. They will consider the prizes it has won, the reputation of the director and who stars in it. Stick Cotillard, Deneuve or Dépardieu in a film and its chances of distribution are greatly enhanced, add a director like Audiard  or the Dardenne Brothers (yes I know they are Belgians) and the chances of a UK release grow stronger. And despite access to films on-line or via DVDs it is the ones that hit the cinema screens that get the reviews and the publicity. So given that our view of foreign cinema is, and always has been, slanted by seeing what is regarded as the ‘best’ on offer, why does French cinema dominate non English language cinema in the UK?

There are some very obvious reasons. France has one of the strongest film industries in the world. It is much the same size as Britain’s but given the Hexagon’s demand for films in the French language it can sustain its own culture. UK studios may be flourishing but how British is 'Star Wars'?  With around 200 features a year France can sustain studios, labs, dubbing theatres, special effects companies and all the paraphernalia a film industry needs. On the back of this comes the training and nurturing of technicians. France can compete with the best in the world when it comes to all aspects of film making. 

A second reason comes directly from the first, brilliant French acting talent. Since the 1930’s, when sound films started, the cinema has bred actors that offers directors a broad choice of faces dedicated to the silver screen and in the process created the film stars that have helped drive the whole business. Back in the thirties audiences worshipped Gabin and Arletty who were followed by the Delons, Bardots, Moreaus, Belmondos, Debbouzes, Hupperts etc etc. These actors draw large loyal audiences which also means directors can take the risks that keep French cinema fresh. Isabelle Huppert, for instance, could so easily have sat back on the success of La Dentellière (The Lacemaker) and taken roles in her comfort zone but instead has consistently worked with new directors on edgy projects, I am thinking of Amour, White Material, Ma mère and Amateur amongst many others.

Trailer for 'La Dentellière'

But is this by chance? Not really. The French embraced cinema as a worthy art form very early on with the brightest and best creative minds deciding that making films was a worthwhile use of their talent. Think of Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné, Jacques Prévert,  and Jean Cocteau who set a trend that led creative geniuses to the film studios. The British intelligentsia can still be quite disparaging about films as opposed to the stage but in the 30’s France, Marcel Pagnol, one of France’s most successful playwrights, chose to make films when he saw how his work could reach bigger audiences. The French even christened cinema the ‘septième art’ (the seventh art), in recognition of its merit up there alongside dance, music and whatever the other four are.

With this recognition and talent came the enthusiasm of audiences. French filmgoers are certainly drawn to Hollywood blockbusters (and Ken Loach!) but have remained loyal to their own countrymen and women helping support a healthy range of cinematic output.

A third, and very important reason, for the success of French cinema is the support of the French state. Whether it was De Gaulle supporting the restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon or Sarkozy approaching Xavier Beauvois for a special screening of Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men) at the Élysée or Alain Juppé summoning the cabinet to see La Haine (Hate), there has always been a healthy respect for film by the French political establishment, even excluding President Hollande’s special affection for Julie Gayet. This is made concrete in favourable tax laws and subsidies for film production, cinemas and festivals and a constant fight to protect EU films in their commercial battles with the big Hollywood studios.

Trailer for 'Des Hommes et des Dieux'

I would suggest there is one other reason that French cinema keeps its freshness and reputation and that is the way it is open to outside influences. At a simple level this is through Francophone cinema from other countries, Belgium and Canada in particular, and let’s not forget that Jean-Luc Godard is Swiss. At a deeper level there has always been a flow of talent into and out of France, many international directors, Losey, Polanski, Hitchcock, have chosen to work in France and some of France’s best have conquered Hollywood. Think of Jeunet with Alien: Resurrection. French films may inspire others but they also learn from them too.

I wish there were more French films on our screens but the ones that get here are pretty good!

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Jon Davies is the tutor of French Cinema at Morley College, who runs classes in several venues around London (more info here). 

COMMENTS:

08/05/2016 - writers_reign said :

Speaking as someone born and bred in England and passionate about French cinema, which I consier to be the finest in the world, I agree with most of what Jon Davies has to say. Whenever I am offered the opportunity to 'leave a comment' on this site and the topic is related to French cinema I will do so approximately 90-95% of the time, even now I write after attending a screening-cum-discussion at Cine Lumiere on Tavernier's A Sunday In The Country.
I would also like to use this forum to register disgust at the way the PR for the new release Florence Foster Jenkins appear to be doing everything in their power to erase the French treatment of the same story, Marguerite, from existence; Meryl Streep is everywhere on the media promoting FFJ which is fair enough, it's probably part of her contract but NOWHERE - to my knowledge - has Streep or indeed anyone connected with FFJ even acknowledged that Marguerite exitsts - it was given a handful of screenings at Cine Lumiere in March and then sunk without trace despite winning FOUR Cesars, including Best Actress. Catherine Frot, who plays the eponymous Marguerite has no need whatsoever to take a back seat to Streep, she is equally talented, equally versatile and also an accomplished stage actress - she recently took a three-year sabbatical from film acting to work in the theatre in, among other things, the work of Samuel Beckett. This is not the first time a distinguished French film has been ripped off. Chabrol's 1988 entry The Story OF Women (Une affaire de femme) was ripped of by Mike Leigh in Vera Drake. There's a bizarre connection between the two rip-offs. Chabrol based his film on the TRUE story of a REAL woman who was, in fact, the last woman in France to be executed in France via the guillotine. It happened in the second world war and the woman's crime was performing abortions on French women who had been made pregnant by German militia. Mike Leigh transplanted the story from France to England and moved the time-frame forward to the 1950s whilst Marguerite did the reverse, taking the TRUE story of a REAL person, Florence Foster Jenkins, transplanting it from America to France and moving the time-frame Backwards to the 1920s (Jenkins hired Carnegie Hall in the 1940s).
Although fictionalized it is crystal clear that Marguerite Dupont is based on the story of Florence Foster Jenkins and this is more or less acknowledged when, towards the end of FFJ Streep is shot from behind, standing centre stage wearing an outsized pair of feathered 'angel' wings, replicating a scene from Marguerite.
It is, I think, important to distinguish between a rip-off - as in the two examples above - and a remake and here again other countries, primarily Hollywood, fail to equal let alone eclipse the French originals. I will concentrate on only a handful of examples beginning with Duvivier's Pepe Le Moko, which was remade not once but twice in the 1940s, initially as 'Algiers' and a couple of years later as 'Casbah' (to be fair the latter, a musicalization, did have a fine score - For Every Man There's A Woman, What's Good About Goodbye, It Was Written In The Stars - by Harold Arlen and Leo Robin. Duvivier was hired by Hollywood to remake his masterpiece Un Carnet de bal, but the result, Lydia, was mediocre at best. Duvivier suffered yet again when his La Fete a Henriette was butchered into Paris When It Sizzles. One of the biggest disasters was the Prevert-Carnet Le Jour se leve, which emerged from Hollywood as The Long Night. Even the great Billy Wilder was not immune to remake disaster and it's a great shame that Buddy, Buddy, his remake of Francis Veber's L'Emmerdeur turned out to be his final film. Veber himself, who later moved to Hollywood, was hired to remake his own Le Fugitifs, which also turned out to be a damp squib. One that I find particularly annoying is the henri Decoin-Daniell Darrieux gem Battement du coeur which turned up in 1946 as Heartbeat with Ginger Rogers, then 34, playing the teenager that Darriex played at 22. I'll leave it there having, I hope, illustrated that excellent French films don't travel well in terms of remakes. I would argue that French films continue to be popular because cgi, sequels, and technology inn general play a minimal part in their cinema, whereas actors, stories and strong production values remain paramount.
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