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New Wave

Film History: A History of French Cinema (Part 2) - A Story of Passion, Seduction, and Survival

Film, Opinion, HistoryTrey TakahashiComment

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle (1960)

If you have deeper look at what films France produces each year, you will discover that we release rather clumsy comedies and dull dramas. I will never say that all French films are all bad, but they simply do not compare to those we produced in the past. Simply take a moment and go on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and look at the highest rated French films. There might be a few from the 21st century, but looking at when a majority of the films were released, you will know what I mean.

Luc Besson at Wondercon. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

 Nowadays, French films are somewhat interesting, but not exactly entertaining. Who goes to the cinema without expecting any form of entertainment? I am the first one to choose the latest movie of the Terminator franchise rather than a movie pointed out human misery and that makes me feel absolutely miserable. Films you can find in any Paris cinema can be divided in three categories: American blockbusters, critically acclaimed award winners, and the “others:” Luc Besson’s movies (And, he could represent a category alone to me), indie films, low-budget comedies, dramas, &c.

Of course there are few exceptions. This is how the cash machine works:

The French like making films about what they know best: France, their most iconic singers, designers or actors. Unlike Marvel that seems to target a very specific kind of viewers, French producers try to target a larger public. The larger, the better, eh? They know that we, French people from 10 to 80 y/o, can afford to buy a ticket to see a biopic about Yves Saint Laurent rather than paying for Guardians of The Galaxy (2014). But how about the power of French films abroad? Are Americans as excited as we are when a movie about Cloclo comes up (“Who’s Cloclo?”). Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist (2011)

I am the first one to admit that The Artist (2011) from Michel Hazanavicius was risky but a breath of fresh air at the same time. La Môme (2007) from French film-maker Olivier Dahan became unexpectedly very famous across the world, which did not happen since Amelie (2001). The reason? Telling the story of a worldwide-known deceased and iconic singer. Everybody knows Edith Piaf. And if you do not? Perhaps the songs “La Vie En Rose” and “l’Hymne A l’Amour” come to mind. I believe that Piaf still represents a fundamental aspect of popular culture. Numerous songs are used in films and other media such as Nolan’s hit Inception (2010) and the military epic Saving Private Ryan (1998). Sometimes when I meet foreigners, I ask them three words that best describe France or French culture. Piaf is always mentioned. Perhaps not her full name, but at least one of her songs.

Audrey Tautou in the famed film Amélie (2007)

Let look at some other examples of how France seduces American culture. But first let me ask why is Amelie (2001) one of our biggest success abroad? Simply because there has always been this fantasy about France, about Paris, capital of love. Jean Pierre Jeunet who directed this film succeeded in making people fantasize about our country. On behalf of French people, I apologize. Living in Paris isn't like Amelie (2001).

Marion Cotillard. Photo credit: Studio Harcourt Paris

French cinema survives through the careers of its best actors. There is this passion for French actresses and actors that makes me sometimes, proud of contemporary French filmmakers and their works. I remember that particular evening I was watching the Academy Awards when Marion Cotillard was a nominee for her role in La Môme (2007). I stayed up almost all night due to jetlag just watch the show (and dozed off the next day in class).

The day after, I carried the attitude: “Yup guys, bow down… bow down, we won!”

I then became a fan of the actress. It’s terrible to like an actress only because she got the top prize. I idolized her for years. Any news saying that she was casted in an American movie made me even happier.

Until I became a movie expert and had a deeper look at her acting (and that particular scene in The Dark Knight (2008). You know which one--I know you know.)

Working in the film business made me grow up in my approach to French film. Now I follow the careers of actresses who truly astonish me with their acting, hoping and praying that they get recognized for their talent someday. The French actress Eva Green is one example, and I would recommend everyone immediately binge-watch series Penny Dreadful.  She is the daughter of the acclaimed New Wave actress Marlène Jobert. I recall reading an article where she stated that she does not understand why Eva Green plays roles in indie movies, movies that “nobody watches.” I did watch Cracks (2009), the first Jordan Scott’s feature. I did watch White Bird in a Blizzard (2014) from Gregg Araki too. And trust me, it was awesome.

Recently, another French actress made her debut in an American movie. Well, not exactly her debut, since she has a small role in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011). But she gained a lot of attention thanks to the success of Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013). Lea Seydoux has not only a famous name and grandfather, she is also talented—very talented. I believe that her performance in the next James Bond movie Spectre (2015) will surprise us. In a good way.

Truth is, French cinema is no longer exciting. I had numerous appointments with screenwriters. I read many scripts over the past years. And what I felt wasn’t disappointment, but sadness.  Sadly, everything is so controlled that it is very hard to make a film nowadays in France. We no longer have the freedom to create and experiment--

Something has died, an element that is, I believe, the most important thing when it comes to movies: creativity.

To follow along with this series, click here

To check out Part 1 in this series, click here

-Allison Launay

Film History: A History of French Cinema - The Old Ones, the Good Ones (Part 1)

Film, Art, Culture, HistoryTrey TakahashiComment

Anna Karina, starlet of many of Jean-Luc Godard's film appearing in Le Petit Soldat.

For the longest time I had a very strong opinions when it came to French cinema, I used to say “Oh boy, I hate today’s French movies. It might be very well filmed with textbook cinematography, however they are very dark and depressing. What happened to the French film industry that had influenced a generation of film makers? Why do modern French films pale in comparison to those our countrymen had produced in the sixties?”

François Truffaut stands outside of cinema showing Charbol's Le Beau Serge, one of the first New Wave films.

The 1960s is marked as possibly the greatest time in French cinema history. The new film movement, known French new wave, hit the scene and revolutionized the way people saw film, viewed color, and how they lived a story. It was an explosion of innovation and self-conscious films by young filmmakers living in a time of rejection, revolution, and renaissance. This movement was led by critics from Les Cahier du Cinema. Among them, the famous Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Demy, and Claude Chabrol. Their approach to film-making broke away from what French cinema was used to. Those young directors revolutionized the way of filming and producing. They rejected the traditional way of storytelling and created a new language. Leaving the film studios, New Wave directors began to film more outside, using the natural environment or city as their backdrop. New methods of editing and shooting films broke through limitations in the way in which narrative was created in the cinema. The invention of Nagra-brand tape recorders, of the 16mm movie camera, proclaimed a new aesthetics, much closer to real life.

Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Pierre (Jean Sorel)  in Belle de Jour "Beauty of the Day" (1967)

In early 70s, cinema attendance was on the decline. On one hand, France was facing the birth of a movement that would influence generations of directors. On another hand, Frenchmen were disinterested and attendance at the theaters was sparse. With the rising popularity of TV and video cassettes, French cinema was beginning to experience the crisis that it still faces to this day.

Les Films 13: Claude Lelouch shooting with a Caméflex camera

The Nouvelle Vague was a major influence on the next generation of American directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. This style has continued to inspire many major figures in contemporary American cinema, including Steven Soderbergh, and Wes Anderson, professing admiration for the movement and employing many of its techniques.

The directors of the New Wave continue to have a profound influence on cinema and popular culture. Some, like Godard, still make films. And If you have time, go watch his latest film « Adieu au Language "Goodbye to Language" (2014) or one of his classics Une femme est une femme "A Woman is a Woman" (1961), both well worth a watch.

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