France on Film: Reflections on Popular French Cinema, edited by Lucy Mazdon. London: Wallflower Press (£13.99)/New York: Columbia University Press ($55.00 cloth, $20.00 trade paper), 2001, 196pp.
The films discussed here have been chosen for their popularity in France. Les Visiteurs went up against and beat Jurassic Park at the box office in 1993. Gazon Maudit (French Twist) was the second most popular film at the French box office in 1995. Locating them within film-cultural and sociohistorical contexts, these writers colourfully evoke the times and places of these films. Responsible for propagating one of the most potent myths of “Frenchness” abroad was Jean de Florette (1986). Maria Esposito explains that it is one of the most mythical of French films because it epitomizes a deliberate attempt at branding cultural exports. Looking to reinstall a notion of national identity at a moment of high immigration and political flux in the ‘80s, the Mitterrand government promoted a culture of “patrimonialization,” branding everything from food to heritage sites with an official stamp. Jean de Florette’sidyllic portrait of rural Provence fit the bill perfectly. The image of pastis-swilling old men playing “boule” in the square has been cultivated in arthouse peripherals and TV commercials everywhere. Yet for the French, Florette evokes real memories of childhood trips to see aging grandparents, remembered vacations in the Midi, a France before industrialization, a France that is dead. But these specifics have no such poignancy for arthouse patrons in Minneapolis or Manchester seeking excursions into “French cinema.”
This current is served by Lyn Thomas on Sandrine Veysset’s Will it Snow at Christmas? (1996), a film that resonated with French audiences for its honesty about a working-class childhood, and with critics for seeming to herald a fresh New Wave. (Arguably, the film’s blend of naturalism and magic realism also chimed that year with Ponette’s account of a tainted childhood.) Set in the south, Marius et Jeannette (1997) evokes less a mythical Provence, and more nostalgia for the Provencal community politics of Marcel Pagnol’s films of the ’30s, as well as specific recall of the incendiary politics of May ’68. What claim does so regional a flavour have as a national cinema, asks Phil Powrie. In her discussion of When the Cat’s Away, the most successful French film in American cinemas in 1997, Mazdon catches that sense in which films that, apparently, embody “Frenchness” can exceed these cliches, capturing something of the lives that generate them.
British and American critics and audiences remain smitten by French actresses such as Beart, Binoche, Huppert because they epitomize the beauty and “feminine” passivity to which arthouse cinema has acculturated us. For its frank and violent revision of female sexual pleasure, Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999) elicited polarized critical responses in the U.S. and UK, countries fiercely informed by the feminist politics that touched film comment. But Romance emerged, Emma Wilson argues, out of a hallowed French philosophical attitude toward love, a context enabling subtler responses in France.
France on Film keeps returning to such shifts in reception. When Breillat conducted a Q&A following a screening of Parfait Amour! at the 1996 Cambridge Film Festival, the simplistic questions clearly embarrassed her. France on Film answers a real need for more educational backup in anglophone arthouse programming. It springs from the conviction that we can be smart enough to think and talk about art movies like we think and talk about American movies.