Don’t Blame Don’t Blame Le Messager …

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Blame Le Messager
sez no debate on French film failures" was the headline on a short Variety
item of Feb. 25 that offered a small but drolly revealing peek into France’s
current cinema wars. Datelined Paris, the piece began, "Organizers of the
Cannes Film Festival reacted angrily Wednesday to a French press report suggesting
that France’s troubled film industry will be the subject of a debate on
the eve of the festival."

Why all the heat and pique
over a seemingly innocuous nonevent? The reasons touch on why people connected
with French moviemaking currently seem to be in a mood of consternation, hypersensitivity
and, in many cases, denial. The causes are to be found in the box-office tallies
and in the various forums where esthetic worth is assayed; in both arenas, the
news for French cinema of late has been consistently dispiriting, despite the
fact that the French–unlike other European nations–have gone to extraordinary
lengths to subsidize and shore up their movie industry. Where’s the payoff
for all that protectionism? Good question, many think. As Variety put
it, "the continuing failure of French films to make a mark both commercially
and artistically is a subject hotly discussed in Gaul."

What you won’t find
there is virtually anyone–any nonfilmmaker, let’s say–who’ll
argue that, measured as either art or entertainment, French cinema is in good
shape. "The vast majority of French people would rather have root canal
than pay to see most French films," a Paris-based critic friend said in
an e-mail this week. "It may be a temporary trend or the end of life as
we know it, but French cinema is definitely in a tailspin. Of the 138 French
features released last year, there are fewer than ten I would actively recommend."

The latest chapter in this
sorry tale, one that undergirds the mini-furor over that Cannes non-debate,
bears a familiar heading: "blame the messenger." Faced with all the
bad news regarding the steady decline of French films at French box offices
(which has been matched by a continuing ascent for Hollywood movies), some in
the French film industry showed their desperation by deciding it must be the
critics’ fault.

This was more the stuff
of knockabout farce than cultural tragedy, admittedly. It began in mid-October
of last year when Ridicule director Patrice Leconte wrote a private letter
to colleagues in the Society of Auteurs, Directors and Producers suggesting
a meeting to discuss the role the press was playing in the downward spiral of
French cinema. He singled out the papers Liberation, Telerama
and Le Monde as a "Bermuda Triangle" of critical hostility.
"Since the fall, all French films have flopped," Leconte wrote. "I
see this auguring the collapse of French cinema in its entirety. And in this,
French critics are playing the role of gravediggers."

After copies of Leconte’s
letter were inadvertently faxed to the very newspapers he faulted, the battle
exploded publicly. Naturally, critics were near-unanimous in heaping scorn on
the imputation they were the real culprits in the public’s growing distaste
for French cinema. Things got nastier still after 60 directors, responding to
Leconte’s suggestion, met in closed session on Nov. 4 and drafted a declaration
stating that "criticism is in crisis," and making some outlandish
suggestions for remedy: e.g., that lists of "irresponsible" critics
be distributed to moviegoers outside theaters, and that the press agree that
"no negative review of a film be published before the weekend that follows
its theater release."

When a draft of this declaration
was printed in the press before it was approved, it not only drew the predictable
fusillade of disparagement from critics, but also drove an acrimonious wedge
into the ranks of filmmakers. The Society of Auteurs, Directors and Producers
said that its imprimatur should not have been used on the draft, and a statement
denouncing the draft itself was issued by 60 filmmakers including Agnes Varda
and Bertrand Blier.

What’s behind this
war of words? Obviously, there’s not only the faltering performance of
French films on home turf, but also what critics and the press make of that.
When the French magazine Technikart devoted an issue to the subject last
spring, the cover’s headline–Why Does French Film Suck?–was
emblazoned over a photo of a human navel. That’s the overriding analysis
in a single image: French films suck because they’re so solipsistic that
they appeal only to a coterie, if that. And underlying this limitation is something
peculiar to French filmmakers: a sense of entitlement.

Arguably, the propagation
of the auteur idea in the 1950s and 60s was one of the most catalytic events
in the history of world cinema, but a disaster in waiting for the French. That’s
because of the inherent conflict between the democratic nature of popular art
and elitist/corporatist nature of French culture. In France, a young person
of the right background who goes to the right schools and cultivates the right
friends expects to leave university and be able to enter not just a job but
a lifelong, protected role in society. If you’re a bureaucrat or a foreign
service officer, that perhaps makes sense. For moviemakers, though, it has led
to the absurd assumption that simply because one proclaims oneself an auteur
and makes a movie, one deserves to be applauded, lauded and rewarded.

As Alan Riding dryly put
it in The New York Times in December, last fall’s critics-directors
contretemps left "the impression that some French directors believe their
right to make films also includes the right to be praised." In other countries,
of course, even the notion of a "right" to make films would be deemed
ludicrous. In France, it appears to imply a claim on approbation as well.

In its origins, the auteur
idea was a polemic with the immediate goal of getting François Truffaut
and friends the chance to make films. Its long-term deleterious impact, in addition
to that sense of cultural entitlement, included upsetting the traditional collaborative
roles of director, producer and screenwriter; in effect, the excessive elevation
of the first led to the creative disenfranchisement of the other two. At first,
this was no problem; Truffaut, Godard, et al., really could do most everything
themselves, and do it brilliantly enough to engage audiences worldwide. But
subsequent generations were not so blessed, which is how France ended up with
far too many films that had nothing to advertise beyond the director’s
exquisite sensibility (translation: yawn).

In the wake of last year’s
bitter exchanges, it seems that cooler heads are trying to get a handle on the
real problems underlying France’s cinema crisis. Last Tuesday, Feb. 29,
France’s film ministry, the Centre National de la Cinematographie (CNC),
released it annual report, which, significantly, recommended efforts to foster
better screenwriting. As Variety reported, "Challenging the traditions
of auteur-driven French cinema, in which films are usually written and directed
by the same person with scant attention to what the public might want to see,
the CNC has asked producer Charles Gassot to take soundings from distributors,
cinema-owners, exporters and ‘people who are confronted with what is missing.’"

That last phrase has a wonderful
ring to it. One might speculate that it’s perhaps meant to include American
critics, except that most critics here don’t seem to know or want to know
that anything is missing. In fact, the American press evidences a striking
and all but unbridgeable division in its commentary on French films. Only in
news reports like Alan Riding’s for the Times or in trade journals
like Variety do you get any sense of the current crisis, or an inkling
of how the French–critics, cinephiles, industry people–view the esthetic
state of their cinema. Such understandings and perspectives hardly ever filter
into the musings of American critics. Whether it’s the Times or
the Voice, The New Yorker or any of our other serious journals
or film mags, writing about French films simply means assaying the new crop
of auteurs looking for the latest genius to belaurel, of whom there are invariably
a few.

Why is this? Several reasons
spring immediately to mind. First, mindless Francophilia is still as prevalent
in certain American cultural and cinematic quarters as Anglophilia is in brain-dead
literary circles. Second, old habits die hard; many critics who assume that
they’re in the auteur-anointing business when it comes to French cinema
have been doing just that since the 60s or 70s, when it bore some relation to
reality. A third reason, I think, is that, consciously or not, many critics
don’t like to buck "the way things are done," which ends up meaning
that they pass along various attitudes and assumptions in the p.r. they’re
handed, which reflects the commercial and institutional interests backing the

I wouldn’t ask this
of Sony Classics, say, but the Museum of Modern Art or the Film Society of Lincoln
Center, for example, might do the film community a great service by organizing
one or more discussions on "The Current Crisis in French Cinema."
Don’t hold your breath waiting for that, though, because both outfits have
obvious reasons not to allude to any such crisis: it might derail the kind of
over-the-top paean to current French cinema that Stephen Holden delivered last
March in a Times preview of Lincoln Center’s annual "Rendez-Vous
with French Cinema Today" series, a piece that drew disbelieving comments
from friends in Paris for months afterward. (Look for more journalistic hosannas
regarding the French this week: the 2000 edition of "Rendez-Vous,"
comprising 16 recent films, plays the Walter Reade Theater March 10-19.)

When American critics look
to France, they mostly still seek the latest arty auteurs (which lately has
involved awkward efforts to place the mantle of Godard and Truffaut on the heads
of lesser talents like Olivier Assayas and Claire Denis). But France’s
auteur cinema has been in decline for about a quarter-century; the real story
of the last decade, it seems to me, was the dismaying falloff in the ability
of French filmmakers to mount intelligent, high-quality commercial films like
The Return of Martin Guerre, Jean de Florette and so on. Only
a little over a decade ago there was a regular supply of such movies, which
served as the international flagships for the whole French industry.

Those movies were also irreducibly,
unapologetically French, and now look at what we have in their stead: The biggest
French film at French box offices last year was Luc Besson’s grotesque
historical travesty The Messenger, which constituted not a counteroffensive
against Hollywood but a flat-out capitulation to it. Trying to be as action-packed
and vulgar as any American actioner, Besson’s lip-smacking degradation
of the Joan of Arc story (if you thought of Dreyer or Bresson’s versions
during it, you almost had to weep) recalled the worst "international coproductions"
of the 70s by employing American stars like Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich.
Worse still, it was shot in English (in Paris, the "version original"
of this French-produced Joan of Arc film was in English: something that
would’ve been considered treasonous a few years ago, and that I still have
a hard time believing).

There are, however, a few
films that deliver some of the quality associated with classic French cinema.
Regis Wargnier’s East-West, France’s nominee for this year’s
Best Foreign Film Oscar, reunites the director and star of 1992’s Indochine
in a film about the bleak fate of French citizens of Russian origin who repatriated
to the USSR at the end of World War II, unaware of what Comrade Stalin had in
store for them. French intellectuals have spent half a century wrestling with
their complicity in the Soviet horror, but it’s still something of a tricky
topic. Perhaps the late-90s publication of The Black Book of Communism
and François Furet’s The Passing of an Illusion helped prompt
or permit this dramatic account of an horrific episode in modern French history.

When the Soviets were visited
by far more returnees than they’d expected, they figured many must be spies
and simply killed large numbers of them. East-West focuses on a Russian-born
doctor (Oleg Menchikov) and his wife (Sandrine Bonnaire, who’s terrific)
who survive because the regime needs his skills. Costarring Deneuve as a left-leaning
French actress who tours the USSR and Sergei Bodrov Jr. as a young swimmer,
the film is part love story, part historical unveiling and part escape-minded
thriller. With Laurent Dailland’s handsome cinematography and Patrick Doyle’s
symphonic score, it has the well-appointed (if sometimes a bit soft-edged) feel
of a French film of the era it depicts, the 1940s.

As such, it displays a kind
of steady-eyed realism that’s now deeply unfashionable in the artier quarters
of French cinema since it runs counter to the prevailing fashion for haute
(my term). Thirty years ago the idea that a single style would
be the standard for "artistic" cinema–especially naturalism,
a former bete noire–would have been anathema; every director was supposed
to have his own style. If you want an idea of the current orthodoxy (which is
approved by most fashion-following American critics, too) catch the double bill
of The Little Thief and Alone, short films by Erick Zonca (The
Dreamlife of Angels
) that plays through March 14 at Film Forum.

Not only is the fussily
naturalistic camera and acting style for this orthodoxy a given, but so are
the subjects (attractive young people in oppressed social circumstances) and
the filmmaker’s attitude toward them (a pretense of concern and cool objectivity,
both riddled with what Mr. Sartre would call bad faith). Zonca’s hourlong
Little Thief is about a pretty young thug in Marseilles, the half-hour
Alone about a pretty girl who loses her job in Paris. The latter of course
particularly recalls the Dardennes’ Rosetta, the reigning paradigm
for this new fashion in Francophone cinema, a kind of mild sociological pornography
masked in Marxist gravitas. Such movies are not about liberating poor people
from their circumstances, as their predecessors back in the 60s were. They’re
about affirming middle-class lefties in their posture of moral superiority and
world-weary complacency.

What makes these two short
films of interest, besides their status as prime examples of the French cinema’s
current penchant for naturalistic gaucherie, is that Zonca is a really clever
filmmaker. Both the style and substance of his films are as formulaic as any
Hollywood comedy or actioner, but he constantly eludes the expectations that
those formulas breed. The Little Thief is especially impressive in this
regard. For the first five minutes, you know exactly where it’s going.
But moment to moment, it keeps you guessing, and looking expectantly or nervously
around the corners of the edgy world it conjures. There’s enough of a gift
in all of this to suggest reasons for adopting a similar watchful attitude toward
French cinema itself.