Despite the enduring lure of Gerard Depardieu in a frock coat, inventive French auteurs are reviving the low-budget genre.
One of the key films of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (1958), is dedicated to makers of American B movies Monogram Films. In this film Godard pays homage to the B movie with his swaggering, heavily American influenced hero, but ultimately he subverts the conventions, inflecting the genre with his own fresh cinematic style. The emergence of this aesthetic sensibility was made possible by the state, which supported young and first-time directors in the late 1950s and 1960s. This fertile period produced such genre films as George Franju’s Les Yeux sans visage (1959), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1967). Forty years later there is new interest in the B movie in France, and once more the national inflection is highly visible. Funding is again a core issue, but resurrecting genre filmmaking has only been possible by circumventing the state’s system of finance.
Fidelité Productions have teamed up Canal+Ecriture, the development arm of the pay-tv channel, to create Bee Movies. This company is dedicated to making three to four genre films a year, starting with the release of Laurent Tuel’s horror movie Un Jeu d’Enfants (2001), which cost $1.7 million.1 Founded by Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missionier, Fidelité Productions has already carved itself a niche in the film market with Francois Ozon’s Sitcom in 1998. They continue to be associated with Ozon’s work,2 but are broadening their output with Samantha Lang’s The Idol and Giordano Gederlini’s martial-arts film Samourais, both currently in production at the time of writing (December 2001).
This concerted move to make thrillers, fantasy, horror, sci-fi and, a recent addition to the genre school of filmmaking in Europe, martial arts films, marks a clear break in the cinematic landscape in France, which has been dominated by comedies and costumes dramas since the mid-1980s. To understand how the B movie has re-emerged and why it represents a significant shift in the film market, we need to look at the question of funding, as this has become a major obstacle for lower-budget, genre films.
Drawing a parallel between the New Wave and the current production of B movies in France illustrates the power of the state to determine the shape of its national cinema. France has consistently funded filmmaking, viewing it as a crucial part of national life that brings together seemingly opposed activities: art and commerce, national tradition and technological innovation. While protection and promotion of film can be critical for the existence of a national, non-English-language cinema, it can also be constricting. The New Wave illustrates the positive scenario. A system of interest-free loans was introduced by the state in 1959 for filmmakers who could provide an outline for a film. These loans largely assisted 30 to 40 low-budget productions every year, and Bresson, Doillon, Duras, Godard, Resnais, Rivette, Tavernier, and Truffaut all benefited from the scheme.3 However, the state-administered funding system in France has become increasingly selective, and in recent years has stifled diversity in cinematic output. With a poor hold on its domestic market until this year’s hit Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001, released in the U.S. as Amélie),4 funding for cinema during the last two decades has been predominantly channeled into big-budget productions intended to create a popular national cinema to compete with Hollywood at the box-office.
Funding is administered by the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie (CNC) which runs two schemes for the production and distribution of film: the soutien automatique and aide selective or avance sur recettes. Soutien automatique is available to all productions and is generated by a tax on box-office receipts that is then directed toward the financing of subsequent films. Although, as its name suggests, it is intended to favour all productions, it works to the benefit of directors with a good track record.5 Currently this soutien also discriminates against new directors by using the allocations to cover the losses incurred by high-budget but not always high-return films (Hayward 1993). In all of this the loser has been the smaller, “riskier” productions with budgets of less than 50 million francs.
The avances sur recettes system of loans provides the filmmaker with 5 percent of the total cost of a film at the preproduction stage. This has also come to favor the expensive, quality costume dramas of a very particular kind. Often taking canonical novels as their source and foregrounding history or historical figures, these films bring together high production values, national stars, a strong sense of nostalgia, and reverential representations of the French countryside. The nostalgic aesthetic is a defining feature of this type of filmmaking, which I call the film de patrimoine as it is closely tied in with French notions of cultural inheritance and a tendency to turn away from a less than certain present to an idealized past. This is a term I coined in my doctoral thesis Space, place and the past: the construction of national cinema and national identity in the contemporary film de patrimoine in France (2000) University of North London (unpublished).)) So films such as Claude Berri’s Germinal (1993) and Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) and Le Hussard sur le toit (1995) have secured funding from the CNC in the hope of winning back French audiences for French films.
The favoritism of the funding body can be explained by the value placed on this genre: it is officially perceived as one of the best vehicles for French ambitions, as it not only bolsters box-office figures for home-grown productions but also firms up the notion of France as a nation of high culture and tradition. René Cleitmann, the producer of Le Hussard sur le toit, illustrates the intentions underpinning the film de patrimione, claiming that the film was conceived “almost as a mission of national interest”6 as “the defender of French difference in the face of American stylisation of narratives and images … the principal weapon in French cinema’s fight to regain a decent part of the market in its own country.”7
From the mid-1980s on, there have been few exceptions to the big budget = big audience formula favored by state and investors.8 This logic is perhaps explained by the audience sizes high-budget films are able to attract: Germinal, at a cost of 180 million francs, along with Les Visiteurs, at a cost of 50 million francs, were responsible for bringing in half of the total cinema admissions for the whole of 1993 (20 million admissions). This trend is still evident today. $638m was spent on film production in 2000 as opposed to $551m in 1999. Crucially, this money was spent on fewer high-budget films, ranging from $10m with films such as Amélie ($11m) to over $40m on Astérix et Obélix Au Service De Cléopâtre ($43.5 million). Film admissions for French films abroad have been encouraging this year, up by 40 percent from last year to 30 million admissions worldwide. Within this higher bracket it is interesting to note that there has been a broadening of the films produced in this high-budget bracket; the usual costume dramas and comedies are there (La Veuve de Saint-Pierre and Le Placard), some with a twist such as Vidocq and Bélphegor, which are essentially repackaged costume dramas, but they have been joined by thrillers (The Crimson Rivers) and action period pieces (Brotherhood of the Wolves). The idea of genre filmmaking is clearly filtering through to the market more generally.
The money for this loan system is provided by the state (in steadily decreasing amounts); private enterprise; and, since Socialist Minister for Culture Jack Lang reformed the film sector in the early 1980s, television. To counteract the adverse impact of the deregulation of television in 1982 and of the introduction of video on the film sector, Lang stipulated that television companies must invest in film production. This policy has been successful, as the film economy is now largely dependent on television’s financial input. For example, in 1999 Canal+ financed 80 percent of French films.9
Television investment has proved to be a double-edged sword for cinema. While it undoubtedly feeds film’s official coffers, the television-led film economy can be limiting, creating a straitjacket for filmmakers who want to make films that fall outside the parameters of the CNC’s criteria. Free-television, as opposed to pay-tv, companies place demands on the films they fund. The narrative, pace, and soundtrack must be suitable for television’s older audience.10 The film must contain stars, have a strong media presence on cinematic release (to ensure high audience ratings when it is shown on television), and be profitable. The other problem, which is particularly relevant here, is genres. French television tends to look to America to provide thrillers or action movies, which in turn limits the production of such genres in France.11 Television has therefore come to determine the aesthetics and narratives of the films they co-produce, leading to the televisualisation of cinema in order to fit in with the demands of the small screen.
French television channels help to generate and maintain the secure position of the less than challenging costume drama in film production: not only do they actively channel money into the production of this genre for cinema, but they also produce their own expensive made-for-tv versions, thereby forcing cinema to compete with their small-screen attractions.
In this atmosphere, genre filmmaking lacks obvious sources of investment. Its ambitions do not correlate with those of the CNC or free-tv channels in terms of scale and ambition. Although France arguably produced the first fantasy/sci-fi film (Melies’ Le Voyage dans la lune in 1902), genre filmmaking has not been encouraged by state funding, studios, or production houses. This reluctance to fund horror films or thrillers perhaps stems in part from the way French cinema intentionally positions itself in the international market. The films exported to the U.S. are generally films de patrimoine such as Indochine, Jean de Florette, Cyrano de Bergerac, Camille Claudel, Germinal, La Reine Margot, and Le Hussard sur le toit. This can be explained by two factors. First, France has a recognised tradition of quality literary adaptations/costume dramas with narratives that are universal enough to appeal to a foreign audience. Where the auteur film is criticised for its length, intimacy, and lack of pace and the comedy for its failure to remain funny in translation, the heritage film can function in spite of its origins. Second, American distributors are aware that the French heritage film does not undermine the American market in a way that other products might: there is a reluctance to distribute the French original of American remakes such as Nine Months or Three Men and a Baby in case they impact on the financial return of the remake.
Given these distribution and exhibition practices, the B movies clearly does not sit easily with this image of French cinema. Although the idea of genre cinema is filtering through to the high-budget films de patrimoine with productions such as Belphegor and Vidocq mentioned above, the B movie does not correspond to the high-culture status of French cinema. Nor does it fit in with existing structures of film finance. Fidelité Productions have only been able to make horror films such as Requiem, Bloody Mallory, and Un Jeu d’Enfants by finding alternative methods of funding. The precedent they have set is clearly attracting other producers to low-budget genre filmmaking: in the wake of Bee Movies’ creation, Ognon Pictures, Maia Films, Gemini Films, and Pirates have all been set up with this intention in mind.
All of this points to a new chapter in French cinema in both production and viewing habits. The genre film is injecting new life into the lower end of the market; while the free-tv channels and the state are pouring money into increasingly expensive films, outfits such as Bee Movies are regenerating the indie market with projects under $5 million. This has implications on the demographics of filmgoing: clearly the audience for horror films such as Un Jeu d’Enfants is young. Together with this year’s domestic and international hit Amelie, the return of the genre film will go some way to stretching our view of French cinema beyond Gerard Depardieu in a frock coat.
- Promenons Nous dans les Bois (Lionel Delplanque, 2000), a horror film, was released under the Fidelité label last year. [↩]
- Les amants criminels and Goutte d’eau sur pierre brulantes (1999). [↩]
- Jill Forbes, The Cinema in France: After the New Wave. Basingstoke: MacmIllan, 1992, 7. [↩]
- French films achieved 32.3 percent of the box office and American films 53.9 percent in 1999. CNC Info:Bilan 2000. [↩]
- Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, London: Routledge, 1993, 46. [↩]
- “quasiment en mission d’intérêt national.” “Le Hussard sur le toit, de Jean-Paul Rappeneau a été vu mercredi septembre par quatre-vingt-dix mille spectateurs,” Le Monde, 21 September 1995. [↩]
- …le défenseur de la différence française face au formatage américain des images et des récits…la principale arme dans l’offensive du cinéma français pour retrouver une part décente dans son propre pays. As above. [↩]
- Trois hommes et un couffin (Coline Serreau, 1985) and La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) are good examples of films that bucked this trend. [↩]
- CNC Info: Bilan 1997: 41. [↩]
- Hayward 1993: 61. [↩]
- The main television genres in France are fiction, documentary, animation and magazine programmes. CNC Info Bilan: 2000. P.43. [↩]