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Eight films open a window into French cinema

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 16, 2010 - Qu'est-ce que le cinema Francais? Is the nation that gave birth to the flickering image still home to the gritty melancholy of "L'Atalante" and "La Jour se Leve"? Does the spirit of the nouvelle vague still inspire fresh young filmmakers to run into the streets, turning generic conventions upside down with nothing more than a reel of film and a pack of like-minded cinephiles? Does it even make sense to speak of a "national cinema" anymore, when Hollywood has colonized the screens of every country from Bahrain to Bulgaria?

The organizers of this weekend's French Film Festival at Washington University obviously think so. They've assembled an eight-film event drawn from a span of nearly 60 years: four authentic classics or deserving rediscoveries from two cinematic giants, balanced by four new films from some of France's most acclaimed contemporary filmmakers.

These movies present a wide-ranging look at where French cinema stands today and how it got there.

The Auteur

Yes, it's a over- and misused phrase, but let's take it back to its origin. If any one thing runs through the span of French cinema, it's the importance of the artist, the singularity of an individual vision. From pioneers like Alice Guy Blache and Louis Feuillade through the great directors of the years before the Occupation - Gance, Vigo, Renoir, Clair, Carne - French cinema was defined by the idea of the independent creator.

After World War II when the tradition of solitary artists had been largely pushed aside and the young critics of Cahiers du Cinema railed against the stagnant condition of French film, creators like Jean Renoir and Jacques Tati were held as exceptions, outsiders who defiantly continued to pursue their own visions. Any film could have a "metteur en scene," someone to tell the actors where to stand and order the cameraman around, but a Renoir or a Tati put himself into the process, truly became the film's "author."

(The creators of the four new films being shown this weekend - New Wave veteran Jacques Rivette, Olivier Assayas, Catherine Breillat and Jacques Doillon - have probably never had been a director-for-hire. Cinema as a director's medium has become one of the axioms of French filmmaking.)

Under the Curtain

Jean Renoir's "The Testament of Dr. Cordelier," a rarely seen retelling of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" made primarily as an experiment in applying multi-camera techniques of television to filmmaking, begins with a very strange scene: Renoir enters a television studio, checks out the position of the cameras and then, as if on TV, begins telling us about the story his actors are about to tell. It's as if he wants the audience to be as fully aware of the method by which he's made the film as they are of its (slightly silly) horror plot.

French films are full of examples of pulling back the curtain and allowing the audience to view the process by which the film is being made. They use:

  • a quick visual trope, such as all of those Truffaut films that boldly announce their literary sources by showing the actual books in the opening credit,
  • a simple narrative device such as Breillat's "Bluebeard," which offers an old straightforward fantasy tale of the serial widower, but also has two young girls in a dusty old house reading the story to each other. Needless to say - this is a Breillat film - things end badly),
  • or the blatant kind of narrative self-destruction that only Jean-Luc Godard could pull off. Check, literally, "tout va bien ."

Perhaps it's significant that the very first French films, the "actualites" of the Lumiere brothers, concentrated on ordinary events, subjects drawn from every day. Even in the midst of the the most contrived narrative, French cineastes are likely to turn their cameras around and let the real world slip in.

The Process

Related to the above, we may find in French films an interest in the detailed process by which a specific action or endeavor is accomplished. Even amid a fictional film, the directors of the New Wave frequently interrupted the action to show - with Lumiere-like detail - the step-by-step progress of some extra-narrative event.

Think of Truffaut lovingly following the passage of a message in the pneumatique, Godard painstakingly recording the transformation of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" or Rivette recording the rehearsals of a theater group or the completion of an oil painting. Olivier Assayas' "Eldorado" could be labeled a documentary, but the label is irrelevant. It's in the same inquisitive spirit of those earlier films, watching with wonder as a group - in this case, dancers - sets out to do something. Which leads us to...


It's been said that the classic movie narrative focuses almost without exception on an individual hero. Stories about collective groups or "society" in a general sense tend to be unknown. If this is less true of French film, perhaps it's largely due to the influence of Jean Renoir, whose films often tell us as much about a neighborhood, a community or even a historical epoch as they do about individual heroes. "French Cancan," a charming account of the famed Moulin Rouge, may largely be about the struggles of theater entrepreneur Jean Gabin, but manages to find space for a wide range of other souls on stage, in the audience and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Perhaps no filmmaker has taken this open-mindedness to such formal, abstract extremes as Jacques Tati. A gifted, theatrically trained clown, Tati turned the tables on his audience with "Mr. Hulot's Holiday": He dropped the role of the clown and became drab Hulot, the model of ordinary French citizenry, while replacing the lights and artifice of the vaudeville stage for the simple streets (and beaches) of the real world. But that wasn't enough. In Tati's masterpiece "PlayTime," Hulot nearly disappears, fading into the landscape like an optical illusion, while the modern world itself, rows of glass, steel and stone, becomes the real star. To Tati, we are all Hulots, all co-stars in the film of life.

Robert Hunt is an expert on film. 

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