In Conversation: French Film of the 2010s

Henry: Cinema was born in France and it has consistently given us some of the most exciting developments in the art form and attracted some of the greatest cinematic minds from around the world to enter its film industry so it’s no surprise that it continues to be a major force in today’s landscape. Today, Kern and I are being joined by Sarah, our resident French film expert, to discuss some of our favorite French films from the last decade, trends that we’re seeing there, and what we’re looking forward to in the future.

Sarah: It almost seems like there’s two cultures of French film these days. On one hand, there’s a very traditional group who heavily derive from a lot of the old masters, and are happy to work with a formula, while on the other hand so much of what’s actually made it out of the country has been the younger generation, who outwardly criticize these older tropes and formula that’s been kept because it’s worked. What does well internationally often doesn’t even perform well in the French box office, it’s a country that suppresses it’s own cinema.

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Henry: It seems to be a pretty similar situation to a lot of the world now where these massive, usually American, blockbuster films are the ones that dominate cinemas everywhere as everyone moves closer to this sort of homogenized culture with everything being made to appeal to as many people as possible. It just seems a bit odd to think of France being the same as the country that invented the film, produced such legends as Renoir and Rivette and Varda, and launches so many films to notability through the yearly Cannes film festival. Yet, when the films doing the best at the box office in France aren’t Disney properties, they’re often French romantic comedies. And I don’t mean Amelie or anything like that. It’s the dreck we would release straight to Netflix here. Meanwhile, as is so often the case, the films we get in our arthouse theaters and rave about, especially as they get some wider recognition during awards season, like Les Miserables and Portrait of a Lady on Fire a year ago, hardly make a splash. That may just be the permanent fate of great art though. Inevitably the things that speak to us the most do so, not because they contain something for everyone, but because they contain truths that are specific to us and to the people who made them. I have some friends in Hungary who I once asked about Bela Tarr and they all said they had never heard of him despite his being the first name I would associate with cinema from Hungary and I suspect it may take some years before the people we know through arthouse film become recognized as the masters in their own countries as well.

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Kern: I had no idea there was such a divide between what fares well over here with critics and what does well over there. Maybe it’s because Cannes is the most notorious film festival, but I’d always figured the French population gravitated toward that art house fare. It’s probably the same in most countries as well, like I doubt Mungiu is a household name in Romania. Have either of you seen any of those generic films that are popular over there or know any examples off the top of your head?

Sarah: Well, less generic but J’Accuse was winning awards and doing great in the French box office, without a release just about anywhere else. Obviously reasons for that, but it’d a large gap. Most of what France has put out lately that’s done well in theaters have been comedies that never quite left the country. Even the better parts of French comedy, like Noémie Lvovsky and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s films never quite took off outside the country

Henry: I’ve seen a couple of those Asterix and Obelix films that always seem to do well over there and they’ve been fairly enjoyable but they’re also pretty cheesy and the humor doesn’t often do much for me. I’m always ready to watch a comedy, no matter how bad, so I end up checking out a handful each year like Serial Weddings or French Fried Vacation and it’s usually not so different from American comedies in terms of quality, though the French sense of humor differs. Occasionally one does well enough to make some waves outside of the French speaking world but those often seem to be the more generic ones. I assume you’ve probably seen The Intouchables, which is one of the better examples of what’s popular in France that’s actually French as one of the highest grossing films in France from any language. I think it’s a decent enough film but it’s also nothing groundbreaking. Still, maybe you’re right about a French leaning towards arthouse because it certainly doesn’t look anything like the types of franchise films that always dominate the American box office and I’d much prefer that we got something original like that to the 12th sequel to some mediocrity.

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Kern: It’s almost ironic because there was even an American remake of that Intouchables movie called The Upside (I actually haven’t seen either one) with Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, which, despite seemingly being completely forgotten, actually grossed a ton of money over here. It’s emblematic of the drought of creative inspiration in the American film industry. But I often find myself drawn to French cinema, to the point where there was an inside joke among my friends of me being borderline unable to dislike a French movie. I don’t know why that is—maybe it’s because that was the first foreign language I learned (and have mostly forgotten), so I can still sorta follow dialogue without having to constantly read subtitles. A lot of my favorite films of the decade were French films—Certified Copy, Holy Motors, Clouds of Sils Maria, etc.—and that seems to be the same for you two as well. What is it that draws you toward French cinema or modern French filmmakers?

Sarah: For me, it’s that the lower budget focus means the indie film scene is a lot more prominent, and therefore a lot for really well written dramas will stand out. The culture of filmmakers almost always writing their own films means we get a lot of stories that feel really authentic. A particular draw for me, is that as someone very into lgbt film, the country’s gay film scene all tends to be very centralized and work together, giving this nice trail of great lesbian cinema and a dialogue around it. It’s also interesting seeing how people say that french film has fallen off, when something like Divines holds up to the old school like 400 Blows so well. I saw The Upside in theaters, Americanized the heart out of the original.

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Henry: I think what draws me to French film is something we mentioned earlier about the two distinct modes of filmmaking there being very traditional evocation of the past masters or else rejection of them and creation of something new. This might seem a bit odd to say because those are the really the two options everywhere but I think American filmmakers are more likely to strike a sort of middle path, usually in pursuit of commercial appeal, whereas we don’t see a lot of the super commercial stuff coming out of France so it seems more daring. If someone is trying to make a film in the vein of the old masters then you watch it and are instantly transported back decades and get the feeling you’re watching something that’s part of this great cinematic lineage. On the other hand, if you aren’t getting that, it’s going to be something new and radical and it feels like you’re in at the ground for the birth of a new movement. Another thing that gives French cinema something of a boost is that it isn’t just made by French people. Especially recently, people from other French speaking countries have had a tendency to gravitate towards France as it usually presents more opportunities for filmmaking and France has served as a place a lot of African cinema has passed through before it becomes known to Europeans and Americans. It’s also attracted filmmakers from non-French speaking countries like Kieslowski who hailed from Poland but made his last films in France, Noe who is Argentinian but has worked in the country for decades, and Haneke who has similarly made most of his recent films in French instead of his native German. With most countries we don’t get people from the whole world making their movies in the industry so they can’t hope to achieve the level of diversity of stories that come through France and it does make it feels more authentic and like the true global cinema even if it isn’t the films that everyone rushes out to see.

Kern: Yeah I’ve always felt like the stories being told are more authentic or at least there’s an earnest intention behind it, and that has a lot to do with the funding and the fact that they fund a lot of different artists from different countries who all get to establish their own creative voice. You can’t necessarily pin down a distinctive “French style” of film. It offers something for everyone really. I’m curious if there are any upcoming French film releases you’re looking forward to?

Sarah: For me, besides the obvious with Petite Maman, I’m really looking forward to the new films by Claire Burger and Catherine Corsini (Langue étrangère and La Fracture), as they both write such lovely realistic characters. I’ve parsed through Wild Bunch’s upcoming slate of films, and am quite curious about Audrey Diwan’s Happening, about the abortion struggle in 60s France. Portrait of a Lady on Fire actress Luana Bajrami has a big role, and the director’s debut feature, Mais vous êtes fous, was a simple drama I found to be very empathetic and quite promising, especially exciting as this film is an adaptation of an Annie Ernaux book. Wild Bunch is also backing Titane, Julia Ducournau’s follow-up to Raw, and Where is Anne Frank, the new Ari Folman animated feature, two long awaited heavy-hitters. This one’s played a couple festivals, but I’m also quite curious about a feminist meta-documentary called Jungle, that tracks a group of young woman during their rowdy nights in Paris. Tried to see it at IDFA to no avail after the trailer hooked me. It’s produced by the same people (Silex Films) who did Connasse (the Camille Cottin comedy series, if anyone’s seem it), which is enough to spur my curiousity.

I’m noticing a pattern that the future of french cinema is it’s heavy base of female directors. Organizations like 5050 by 2020 seem to have advocated for this generation of filmmakers that have shaped this new empathetic and diverse wave of french cinema that’s really cool to see. This is a time where a film like BPM can be a frontrunner for top Cannes prizes, and that French-backed film in places like Algeria and Senegal is starting to make some headway

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Henry: There’s been a much longer or at least more successful tradition of having female directors in French cinema than we’ve had in America so I would imagine it only continues to grow and hopefully one day we can catch up over here too. Where most of the female filmmakers that are well known in America have only come onto the scene in the last couple decades, we’ve had Varda as one of the biggest names in world cinema for over half a century, Denis has also spent decades creating veritable classics, and Akerman, though Belgian, made films in French that often found their distributions through the same companies as French films and similarly had groundbreaking films decades before women were getting any recognition here. And of course, Alice Guy-Blanche was a French woman who invented narrative fiction films and everyone is indebted to her. We’ve managed some headway towards equality but lag so far behind and should really start looking to what has been done there for a century and take notes because it’s been leading to some of the best films we’re seeing today. To answer Kern’s question, one of the most exciting voices today is Celina Sciamma and I’d also have to go with Petite Maman as the film I’m looking forward to the most even though I know nothing about it because Sciamma hits it out of the park every time. I’m sorta hoping it comes out pretty late though because I’ve seen all of her films in the cinemas and I’d like to keep up that trend so I can get the proper experience. Assayas and Godard always seem to have new films coming out as well and even though I’ve never been an Assayas fan and Godard hasn’t done much good stuff for decades, I’ll still be watching whatever they put out. Also, it might be a bit of a cheat to say this given that they are both in English but from French directors but Bergman Island and Annette are two others that I can’t wait to see. For all the good coming out of France, it often seems directors need to get American money and stars to realize their visions or get wider recognition, as we saw recently with Denis, who I believe is making her next film in English as well, and Besson who has continued to work in English since he first made the transition, among many others. Hopefully it opens a new chapter of their careers instead of confining them to the studio system but regardless, it’ll be some different filmmaking from some notables that will be interesting to see. Lastly, I have to say I’m very excited to see how the Mektoub trilogy ends. After the last one felt like a trip through hell, I can only imagine what wonders await us.

Sarah: I do find it funny how anticipated Petite Maman is without even a synopsis at the moment. Also super curious about the rest of the Mektoub films as I haven’t seen the second yet. It’s like a trainwreck bad but you can’t look away. During this conversation we got another super cool film announced, with Lilies Films not only doing Petite Maman, but also a film called Rose Hill from Marie Amachoukeli, her solo debut since being part of the directing trio behind the Camera D’Or winning Party Girl. All in all, I think French film seems to be entering a new Reniassance, one led by filmmakers like Mati Diop, Houda Benyamina, and Maïmouna Doucouré, a newer generation to bring a nations cinema out of the 2000s slump that had little to offer outside the New French Extremity movement.

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