Movie Mix

The French New Vague

The identity crisis of French cinema is reflected in the box office draw of American movies, and in the American-style blockbusters like 'The Chorus.' Is Americanization the new French New Wave?
As one is often reminded in France, cinema is a French invention. The Lumière brothers are credited with the first motion pictures at the end of the 19th century, and influential movements like the avant-garde, Poetic-Realist and New Wave have contributed to the French sense that historically, film is a realm very much their own. Paris has been known to boast more film journals, retrospectives, revivals, and movies playing each week than any other city in the world. Not even a century-long cinematic rivalry with America and an increasingly Hollywood-dominated French film market have seemed to drastically diminish France’s image of itself as pioneers of this cultural field.

But is France living in the past? Have the French lost their position as artistic leaders of the film world, their cinematic tradition slowly but surely losing its luster? Commercially speaking, the data is unambiguous. In 2004, six out of the 10 highest-grossing films in France were American, slightly down from seven in 2003 and eight in 2002. The single most successful film in France in 2004, however, was Les Choristes, released Jan. 14 in selected American cities as The Chorus and nominated this week for best foreign film and best song Oscars. Its hometown success is significant, as The Chorus is the rare recent French film that has more than held its own against an endless Hollywood invasion.

Indeed, France’s national cinema – once proudly associated with glamorous names like Bardot, Depardieu, and Deneuve, as well as wildly talented directors like Truffaut and Godard – has been gradually eroding as it struggles to compete with lucratively exported American films. In Europe, France is recognized as the country that has managed to maintain a relatively high degree of autonomy in the face of the Hollywood steamroller, but the extent to which American film dominates French cinematic culture is nevertheless astounding. The unexpected success of The Chorus—a crowd-pleaser about a school for troubled boys in the late 1940’s—has therefore been received in France as a pleasant indication that French cinema is still alive and kicking.

The bad news is that the movie itself is not very good. A remake of a 1949 French film, La Cage aux Rossignols, The Chorus is a shamelessly sentimental and improbable piece of fluff, a sort of Gallic, all-male Mona Lisa Smile. That film, however, as blatantly conventional as it might have been, at least captured rather convincingly the kind of controversial spell a charismatic young teacher can cast over her students. The Chorus doesn’t even bother to explore this hackneyed phenomenon of pedagogical inspiration. The affable Clément coaches a group of rowdy pubescent rebels into an angelic sounding boys’ choir, and the transformation, as portrayed, is immediate and utterly random. The film helps itself to every cliché of the genre—the tyrannical principal, the bad boy with a hidden talent, the climactic farewell scene—to tug impatiently at our heartstrings, yet nothing rings true. The Chorus may be a commercial redemption for the French film industry, but it is by no means a creative victory.

The film’s success can be explained away by the presence of an immensely likeable lead actor, Gérard Jugnot, an undemanding storyline fit for viewers of all ages, and an easy-to-swallow message: that inside every surly misfit is a gift waiting to be coaxed out. More bothersome than the film’s self-congratulatory moralism, however, is the bland, manufactured quality of the film-making. One gets the feeling, while watching The Chorus, that it might as well not be a French film at all, that the same movie could have been made by a Hollywood studio. None of this would be worth noting – it’s not the first foreign film to make an unabashed bid for global appeal – were it not for two key factors that are unavoidably – and troublingly – linked: firstly that The Chorus was the highest-grossing film of 2004 in France; and secondly that the film is almost totally incongruous with the long-standing tradition of exhilaratingly messy emotional realism in modern French film. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie may have been brazen in its effort to delight and dazzle, but it was also sprung from an undeniably fresh artistic sensibility and a canny sense of romantic Paris mythology. Perhaps more than any other French film released internationally in recent years, The Chorus seems to indicate a dramatic departure from the distinctive strengths of contemporary French cinema: the ambiguous, intricately mapped human relationships of André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds and My Favorite Season; the provocative overlapping of fantasy and reality in François Ozon’s Under the Sand and Swimming Pool; the unflinching dissection of female friendship in Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels; the wittily observed romantic complications of Agnès Jaoui’s The Taste of Others.

That The Chorus has proven so successful in France is a disquieting sign that French cinema is undergoing an identity crisis. More and more French directors are adjusting to the increasingly Americanized tastes of the French masses by making movies “à l’américaine”: big-budget action films, like Matthieu Kassovitz’ The Crimson Rivers, and low-brow comedies, few of which reach American screens. Even less patently American-influenced French movies are beginning to reveal tendencies never considered typical of French cinema. Jeunet’s recent A Very Long Engagement is bombastic and overblown in the same way American war epics such as Saving Private Ryan and Cold Mountain often are. Cédric Klapisch’s minor, though entertaining 2003 summer sleeper L’Auberge Espagnole is even broader and more accessible than its American counterpart, Ben Stiller’s mainstream but surprisingly insightful grunge classic Reality Bites.

More and more successful French films reflect this same divergence – evident in The Chorus – from classic French cinematic “values” of authenticity and subtlety, drifting instead towards emotional overstatement, narrative predictability, and emphasis on production rather than content (all glaring flaws of American filmmaking). It would be perhaps going too far, however, to argue that French cinema is unequivocally going downhill. Three recent French releases in the States – Patrice Leconte’s romantic teaser Intimate Strangers, Julie Bertucelli’s poignant family drama Since Otar Left, and Cedric Kahn’s Hitchcockian thriller Red Lights—are proof that the French film industry is still producing interesting movies. These films are also proof that French cinema’s strengths are, as they always have been, in intimate, character-driven pieces, erotic mysteries, and film noir. Unfortunately, these kinds of challenging films are less popular than ever in France, particularly among French youth, whose Americanized expectations are leading them further and further away from an awareness of their own cinematic legacy. Brahim Hajji, an economics student at a Parisian university, admits that movements like the New Wave are now largely unknown to young French people. “People find those movies too serious, too intellectual,” he explains. “It’s the kind of film that France does best, but sometimes the heaviness of those films prevents you from enjoying them.” The result, according to Mr. Hajji, is the abundance of French films that emulate American styles and genres, pumped out to compete financially with Hollywood. “French movies that imitate American cinema are pretty bad,” Mr. Hajji notes matter-of-factly, “but many typically French films are not so fun to watch.”

Though this last claim is subjective – a matter of taste – there might be some truth to the idea that aside from the Hollywood-style films being made in France today, the more typically French films are not consistently very good. Many American film critics still glorify French cinema, extolling its intellectual and aesthetic virtues beyond reason; those who praised Catherine Breillat’s unwatchable Anatomy of Hell as a penetrating reflection on gender relations fall into this category. Yet the fashionable intellectual notion that instinctively equates French film with brilliance and American film with commercial emptiness seems far from the reality of the current situation. French films are still often quite good, but there is an undeniable dearth of truly excellent movies from France in recent years.

This fact is perhaps less a reflection of the quality of the films themselves than of the differing cinematic ideologies of French and American filmmakers. French movies are generally smaller-scale, not just financially, but in artistic scope as well. They rarely reach for the operatic grandeur of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the technical audacity of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, or even the emotional directness of American indies like In the Bedroom or You Can Count on Me. Aspirations of French filmmakers indeed seem more modest, less arrogant, and perhaps less daring. Benjamin Vié, a 31-year-old French graphic designer and devoted cinephile, tries to understand these differences: “American films elevate their stories into the sublime or dramatic, while French films are quieter and don’t make big statements.” Mr. Vié maintains that he admires French cinema, but the films that have deeply impacted him in recent years—The Thin Red Line, American Beauty, and Memento, to name a few—have been American. “I usually go see American films,” he says. “They’re likely to be more of an escape, something that I wouldn’t recognize from my everyday life. French films are more realistic, and for me less striking.”

Today French cinema finds itself threatened by an increasingly diverse array of American movies: high-quality blockbusters and animated features such as Spiderman 2 and Finding Nemo, stylish auteur films like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Michael Moore’s provocative documentaries, and elegant mainstream movies like Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Michael Mann’s Collateral. If anything, American film, though frequently dictated by Hollywood’s repressive standards, has become more varied and risky. The same cannot necessarily be said of current French cinema. As with its literary and visual arts, one gets the impression that in terms of film, France remains a prisoner of its mighty past—the proliferation of cinematic movements, groundbreaking directors, and internationally recognized masterpieces that came out of France right up through the 1960’s. Mireia Ibars, a post-production manager in Paris, confirms this notion that France has yet to evolve past its glory days to forge a new era of French cinema. “French film has been on a slow decline for several years now,” she observes. “There’s a lack of risk-taking, a shortage of new voices. The auteur movement is no longer inspired, so mainstream French cinema competes with American films by making easy movies that sell but aren’t very good.” Like The Chorus, for example. “The thing is,” Ms. Ibars continues, “many of these American films are good.”

One would think that America’s domination of France in a sphere in which the French historically claim superiority—the arts—would be a brutal slap in the face. Indeed, there is a certain collective effort to protect French film from the American threat. French film industry practices like the rule of “cultural exception”—which gives a certain percentage of the money movies make in France to local production companies—are used to boost French cinema. French actors often declare proudly that they’re not tempted by Hollywood. And when a truly superior French film is released, like Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen (lauded at this fall’s New York Film Festival), there’s a genuine feeling of celebration that goes beyond the sense of relief provided by a financial coup like The Chorus.

Yet it would be inaccurate to conclude that France has negative feelings towards American film. On the contrary, the French appreciate our cinema, often more deeply than we do. As much as Parisian intellectuals gripe about the latest American “navet” (French for turnip, or, incidentally, bad film), most recently the Nicolas Cage vehicle National Treasure, hordes of people nevertheless show up for these movies. Film buffs, of course, are partial to less commercial American cinema, and several American films – Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, for example—that were critical and box office disappointments at home, are considered masterpieces in France. American auteurs such as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Woody Allen and the Coen brothers are adored in France with steadfastness unparalleled even by their most loyal followers in the States. Current Parisian film cycles are dedicated to John Cassavetes, Humphrey Bogart, Nicholas Ray and Tim Burton. This past year, Steven Spielberg was made knight and Martin Scorsese officer in the French Legion of Honor, and Leonardo DiCaprio was given the prestigious Arts and Letters award. According to Ms. Ibars, the post-production manager, many of the films that have inspired people working in the French film industry are American. “The consensus is that there are more geniuses working in American film than any other country,” she affirms. “The French like American cinema too much to be against it.”

In a tense phase of French-American relations, it appears that cinema is a domain in which the French continue to exhibit considerable admiration for us. It is also a field in which French-American collaboration can be carried out to fruitful effect: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the very best film of 2004, joins an inspired American script and cast with a French director, Michel Gondry, possessed of a unique visual sense and a complicated, bittersweet romantic vision typical of the very best French cinema. If film is an inevitable source of international rivalry, it is also, in the respect, affection, and exchange of creativity it can elicit, one of the most powerful diplomatic tools we have.
Jon Frosch is a freelance journalist and film critic based in Paris since September 2002. His work has appeared in The Pasadena Weekly, The Paris Voice, and Pariscope.