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.
Since the Lumieres in the 1890s, France has been host to key developments in film aesthetics. French films regularly appear on critical top tens, and French stars appear on cinema and TV screens worldwide. Continental Europe is particularly receptive to French output. The French-speaking communities of Belgium and Switzerland turn out in droves to see new French releases. Of the tiny percentage of foreign-language titles that find distribution in the UK and U.S., most are French. Yet in these markets, “French cinema” is equated with “art cinema.” Carrying a certain cultural cachet, French films are more demanding, more “difficult.” This collection of academic essays from Wallflower, a recent publisher making its mark with readable and intelligent film commentary, assumes that French films arespecial, having a specific velocity that Anglophone distribution and exhibition agendas scarcely exploit.
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.”
From this archetypal premise, the book fractures into nuanced vignettes of French experience. In her piece on When the Cat’s Away, Mazdon quotes director Cedric Klapisch — “what’s interesting in a movie is to talk about big things with small things.” It’s an apt metaphor for what France on Film achieves, seeing individual films as expressions of entire social and cinematic cultures. Juggling location, camera move, dialogue and edit, Will Higbee shows how Bye-Bye (1995), set and shot in the Tunisian suburb of L’Estaque in Marseilles, not only challenges negative French stereotypes of North Africans, but takes issue with the genre “cinema de banlieue,” much touted by critics in the wake of La Haine, whilst rejected by directors. Bye-Bye really belongs, for Higbee, to a fresh flowering of social realism in ’90s French filmmaking.
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.