Posted October 10, 2012 by Jonathan McCalmont in Features
 
 

French Style


Unconventional French comedy, Untouchable, is on course to be one of the biggest French cinema hits of all time and is already touted as an Oscar hopeful.

Unconventional French comedy,
Untouchable, is on course to be one of the biggest French cinema hits of all
time and is already touted as an Oscar hopeful.
Last year, French silent movie, The Artist (Main Picture), beat the likes of Moneyball,
The Descendants and The Tree Of Life to the coveted golden
gong. However, while many applaud the continuing triumph of French art house
cinema over big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, success brings its own problems.
Jonathan McCalmont asks whether the
success of ‘French Style’ could well be a curse rather than a blessing …

To reduce Britain’s cinematic
legacy to a series of emotionally constipated costume dramas is to summon the
spectre of The Italian Job, the
elegant fantasias of Sally Potter and
the leering face of Sid James. To
speak of American film in terms of ‘Hollywood’ is to invite impassioned
defences of Sex, Lies And Videotape.
However, when it comes to French film … everybody knows precisely the type of
film that you are talking about.

Since the days of the
Nouvelle Vague, France has deliberately constructed and carefully policed a
cinematic culture that is entirely its own. To speak of French film is to speak
of adult relationships, middle-class angst, godlike directors and actresses who
grow in both stature and beauty the older they get. Sure, French film has its
Hollywood moments and its flirtations with genre scenes but, as generations of
directors come and go, the core of the French cinematic experience remains both
remarkably constant and admirably distinctive. While this unique cinematic
culture undoubtedly owes a lot to the magazines, awards and film festivals that
celebrate it, the true source of French political power lies in economics
rather than criticism.

Like most Westerners, the
French reacted to the introduction of television by abandoning the cinema en
masse. Faced by the prospect of both industrial collapse and cultural
marginalisation, the French state adopted a policy of robust cultural
protectionism that stimulates both the supply and the demand for French films.

Countries like Britain have
attempted to bolster their domestic film industries by making it easier to
produce British films. Using a complex array of tax-cuts, state-funded
promotional opportunities and bursaries for worthy but non-commercial projects,
Britain addresses the supply-side problems of the British film industry by
making it easier and cheaper to make films in Britain. However, as cynics are
quick to point out, this supply-side solution has actually done little to
preserve the British cinematic legacy. All it does is protect jobs by making
Britain seem like an attractive place to make American films. Mindful of the
fact that film studios employ people who track and exploit international
tax-cuts and loopholes, the French state also actively invests in and
subsidises the types of film it would like to see being made. However, as
effective as these supply-side measures may be, they are as nothing when
compared to the massive cultural impact of the French state’s demand-side
intervention in French film.

In an effort to ensure that
French film retains its cultural significance, the French state imposes a
strict set of quotas on the types of film that can be shown on French cinema
and TV screens. So, no matter how
much Hollywood studios spend on marketing their films in France, American films
seldom account for more than a quarter of the capacity of France’s 4,500
cinemas. What this means in practice is that it is easier for a French person
to see a French film than it is for them to see a non-French film and so
domestically produced films are more likely to find an audience than they are
in places like Britain, where Hollywood marketing budgets and the greed of
cinema operators force smaller films onto smaller screens in larger cities.

Taken together, these
demand-side and supply-side stimuli make for an attractive cultural package as
anyone thinking about making a film in France will find it, not only easier and
cheaper to get the film made, they will also find it considerably easier to
secure an audience for that film. An audience that might turn an obscure art
house film into a hit and thereby make it even easier for the director to
secure funding for their next project.

There is no denying that the
medium of film benefits hugely from French cultural protectionism. Many great
actors and directors owe their careers to the fact that France looks after its
own and many great films would simply never have been made had the destiny of
film been left entirely to the devices of the market. Even today, France’s
cultural protectionism continues to provide directors such as Mia Hansen-Love and Katell Quillévéré with the chance to
find both their voices and their audiences. However, by providing ambitious
filmmakers with an oasis of financial stability, the French state may also have
begun a process of cultural assimilation through which non-French directors
surrender their distinct cultural identities in an effort to produce French
films for the French marketplace.

In fact, two of world
cinema’s most distinctive and celebrated voices have, in recent years, acquired
something of a Gallic accent:

Born in Munich but raised in
Austria, Michael Haneke began his
career with a series of films expressing his disgust with a society where empty
middle-class myths served to keep people distracted from the howling abyss of
alienation and violence that surrounded them at all times.

Born in Tehran and an active
filmmaker since 1970, Abbas Kierostami’s
combination of technical brilliance, meta-textual insight and intense humanity
has cut across political boundaries and reminded us, time and again, that
cinema can serve as a vocabulary for inter-cultural dialogue.

Both of these directors have
won numerous awards for films that could only ever have been produced by people
in a very specific place at a very specific time. When Haneke lifts the curtain
on middle-class smugness and reveals hidden yearnings for violence and
destruction, he does so in a manner commensurate with a youth spent in the
shadow of Nazism. Similarly, when Kiarostami uses camera positioning to allude
to metaphysical and spiritual dimensions that are forever out of sight, he does
so in a way that is infused with echoes of a culture that attempted to
modernise itself through the marginalising of its traditional beliefs. Both
filmmakers are unique products of their own times and places and yet both are
now celebrated for making French films like Hidden, Amour and Certified Copy.

While it would be foolish to
suggest that either of these directors had ‘sold out’ or compromised their
visions in order to get their films made, it would be just as foolish to
believe that ease of funding and guaranteed cinematic distribution never
feature in the minds of people attempting to secure funding for non-commercial
film projects. As governments scrap arts funding and ambitious directors find
it harder and harder to make difficult films, the temptation to reinvent
oneself as a maker of French films must be overwhelming and that temptation
cannot help but have an impact upon the future of art house film.


Jonathan McCalmont