Don't Blame Le Messager "Cannes 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 films.
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 naturalism (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.