Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema, Tim Palmer. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. Paperback, $28.00. 304pp. ISBN: 978-0819568267
Endemic to any reading of a new work lionizing French cinema is the question of necessity. With seemingly endless global cinematic landscapes, and with a vast number of those landscapes underrepresented or fully excluded from serious examination, the continued, almost pathological, focus on French cinema borders on the absurd. I’d wager that many undergraduate film students and burgeoning theoretical and creative practitioners may agree. Their professors and mentors, however, likely take an alternate stance, a position that reinforces the growing gap between the present and future generations of film scholars, filmmakers, and aficionados. Tim Palmer, author of Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema, has potentially found a way to bridge this gap, producing a book that simultaneously grounds contemporary French cinema in its hallowed past while also examining the forces that are moving it into its own distinct future.
Palmer’s project, then, is to contextualize contemporary French cinema, situating it as the evolution of its own specific aesthetic and theoretical past, while working to offer critical insights on contemporary French film production from both an ideological and economic perspective.1 To this end, Palmer does not focus on handpicking a select number of texts to fit into his ideological framework, but rather surveys a broad network of recent productions, sectioning his work into four chapters that cover young filmmakers, the films of the cinéma de corps, popular and pop-art cinema, and what he terms feminine cinema. The introduction focuses on mapping the industrial ecosystem these films are born of, and his concluding chapter brings that economistic slant full circle with an examination of la Fémis, France’s state-funded film school, and its impact on the nation’s culture of cinephilia.
Palmer’s analysis of the industry is exacting and easily highlights the state’s economic and cultural investment in the propagation of French cinema, both at home and abroad. It is, however, in his critical analysis of the various facets of contemporary film that the work is most interesting, and perhaps most frustrating. Palmer casually connects the new generation of young French filmmakers with the enfants terrible of the French New Wave, commenting on the country’s almost single-minded interest in young filmmakers as key to the industry’s vitality. Similarly, he also binds the films of the cinéma de corps, which emphasize in-depth examinations of corporeality in brutal and intimate terms, with the French New Wave. These are films he describes as: “arthouse dramas and thrillers with deliberately discomforting features: dispassionate physical encounters involving filmed sex that is sometimes unsimulated; physical desire embodied by the performances of actors or nonprofessionals as harshly insular; intimacy itself depicted as fundamentally aggressive, devoid of romance, lacking a nurturing instinct or empathy of any kind; and social relationships that disintegrate in the face of such violent compulsions.”2
However, in the case of both young filmmakers and the cinéma de corps, Palmer lets those connections stand on allusions alone, referring to their similarities only in passing, and only through generalities. A theoretical examination into the influence of historical French cinema through its contemporary incarnation is wholly missing from the text. His critical analysis is clearly grounded by an in-depth knowledge and understanding of French film theory, so much so that it puzzles the reader as to why critical theory has been conspicuously left out of the competent analysis he performs.
This is especially puzzling considering that the cinéma de corps (sometimes called French New Extremism) represents some of the most interesting filmmaking happening today, both in terms of cinematic aesthetics and in the development of new iterations of filmic theory, philosophy, and ideology. These are films like Marina de Van’s In My Skin(2002), Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible(2002), Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), and Virginie Despentes and Coralie’s Baise-moi (2000). Palmer, not too subtly, sees these films as the direct inheritors of French New Wave avant-gardism and ideology. He enunciates their essential value as experiments for the filmmakers and the viewers alike, a film form that pushes the boundaries of how we as viewers interact with film as a body; a body of ideas, a body of creative labor, a body of intimate gazes, and perhaps most importantly for these films, a body of work bent on understanding corporeality through transient cinematic images of human physicality. This idea of film as a vehicle to represent, and hence understand, the “realness” of human existence is so critical to both the cinéma de corps and the theoretical legacy of André Bazin and theCahiers du cinema, that the reader feels somewhat cheated by the book’s lack of theoretical grounding. Maybe I am asking too much from the text and including a theoretical perspective wasn’t part of Palmer’s project, but when you can literally feelthe shadow weight of history and theory pressing down on large sections of the text, the question of inclusion/exclusion naturally arises.
Where Palmer coheres beautifully, however, is in his discussion on popular or pop-art film. As the type of cinema that financially props up the French film industry, popular (née pop-art, née mainstream) film is more often than not disregarded in serious discussions of cinema. Palmer smartly rectifies this, tracing the popularity of such stars as Jean Dujardin in Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio(2009) and Vincent Cassel’s turn in Jean-François Richet’s L’Instinct de mort(2008) and L’Ennemi public no.1 (2008). Cassel, known to American audiences mainly for his roles in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, and Dujardin, who has gained American fame via Haznavicious’s recent hit The Artist (2011), are arguably France’s biggest export stars. As such, they serve as representatives of French film across the globe, and Palmer recognizes their importance through exhaustive examinations of their acting, cinematic style, and the impact of popular films in maintaining a type of French cinematic hegemony in an overwhelming international business. This is where Palmer shines, using the focus on popular film and in particular genre films, to reconcile the contradictory images of French film audiences as both Jerry Lewis-loving comedy adolescents and nose-in-the-air film snobs. It is this dialectic that mirrors so closely the gap between present and future cineastes and one that the author navigates, and repudiates, with aplomb.
Brutal Intimacy is an ambitious work, one that wrestles not only with the ghosts of French film past, but also with the ever-fluid contemporary cinematic landscape and the uncertainty of the aesthetic and economic filmic future. It is a book that should be applauded for its ambitious scope, acknowledged for its occasional lapses, and studied for its ability to recast what is too-often an untouchable cinematic legacy.