What Is French Cinema Anyway?
Eric Rohmer showed us how to make a French movie French, but what comes after that is anyone's guess
In his review of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, Jonathan Romney, after pointing out the whiteness and bourgeois-ness of the film, describes it as mostly “a quintessentially Parisian film about French youth.” Being French myself, I tend to cringe at any description of a film as “quintessentially” Parisian. Nine times out of 10, what is actually captured is the essence of a microcosm that can only be subjective and incomplete.
American critics have a tendency to freeze French culture into a single image, but who could blame them? Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, for example, do tend to “sell” a certain idea of Frenchness. Then there’s Amélie, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starring Audrey Tautou and Mathieu Kassovitz. At its release in 2001, the film received much praise, but also a notoriously scathing review from Les Inrocks’ Serge Kaganski, who criticized the film’s reactionary ideology and passéiste view of Parisian life. Frédéric Bonnaud, Kaganski’s colleague at the magazine, sarcastically described the film as being “too French to be true.”
Although I agree that Amélie is not the best thing that happened to France or French cinema, I found it dishonest that it was this specific film that prompted such criticism, especially when it comes to the whiteness and latent racism of the film. Jean-Pierre Jeunet is considered a mainstream filmmaker, while Mia Hansen-Løve is positioned as an independent auteur. The criticism held against Amélie, the fact that it reduces France to a postcard, enclosed and suffocating, could easily be applied to Hansen-Løve’s films, which also seem to evolve outside of French reality.
This summer, TIFF Cinematheque welcomes a retrospective of one of France’s most legendary New Wave filmmakers, Eric Rohmer. Dangerous Liaisons: The Films of Eric Rohmer includes screenings of classics such as My Night At Maud’s, A Summer’s Tale, Triple Agent and his last film, The Romance of Astrée and Celadon. Even though Rohmer died only in 2010, I feel like I’ve never occupied the same historical space as he did. Watching Rohmer’s movies is a peculiar cine-ethnographic experience. I might share a language and a nationality with the creatures on-screen, but they seem to come from another dimension. If not from France, where does Rohmer come from?
In 1955, 37 years after the critic Louis Delluc claimed that “the art of cinema belongs to Americans”, Éric Rohmer wrote an essay called “Rediscovering America.” It was published in an issue of the Cahiers du Cinéma dedicated to American cinema. Arguing in favour of the classicism of American films and their ability to depict the issues of their time, the text captures a love and admiration that he and his fellow Hitchcockohawksian critics had for specific American auteurs, such as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, D.W. Griffith, and slapstick comedy master Mack Sennett. What they admired was the ability of these directors to impose their vision and view of the world on a film, while working within a rigid system. You could identify the director’s obsessions and desires, specifically through the mise-en-scène.
These canonized filmmakers were first and foremost approached as formalists who would inspire a class of critics and future filmmakers. It is evident through the Cahiers’ criticism, and later through their films, that when studying American cinema, the French critics were looking for weapons against a lethargic national film industry. Ultimately, the matter wasn’t how to be American but how to do like them. As Éric Rohmer put it himself in an interview: “I still consider myself to be a Hitchcockian filmmaker. And yet what is Hitchcock if not a creator of forms? I don’t claim to create forms in the same way he does.”
The influence of American cinema on Eric Rohmer was subtle, if not invisible. Of all the New Wave filmmakers, he’s the one that cannot be accused of being complacent with the American cinema’s aesthetic. His films were very French, even perpetuating and creating a fixed idea of Frenchness and French cinema. But what’s so French about the New Wave and more specifically, Eric Rohmer? What makes a French film, French?
Perhaps, the gratuitous nudity, the long conversations in cafes, beaches and bedrooms, Paris, older men desiring younger girls, the theatricality and artificiality of the conversations. The cinema of Éric Rohmer, at first glance, contains all the clichés associated with French cinema.
In 1970, Éric Rohmer was nominated for “Best Screenplay” and “Best Film in a Foreign Language” at the Academy Awards for My Night At Maud’s, a film that was part of his “Six Moral Tales” series. Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian, and Marie-Christine Barrault, his first international success contained all the characteristics of the Rohmerian style. It was a minimalistic premise derived from the Moral Tales’ concept itself: “a man looking for one woman meets another who doesn’t resemble the first one.”
The characters of the film talk, and they mostly only do that. They express their views about faith, love, Catholicism, Pascal and philosophy. They are attracted to each other but never have sex. Each character is, at the same time, the narrator and the narrated, describing themselves and being described by others. A lack of action, volubility, and highly intellectual conversations are characteristic of the Rohmerian style and in general, of French cinema itself.
Rohmer’s themes — love, friendship, fidelity, and fate — are universal. However, it is his treatment of them, the way he delays the action and even neutralizes it, that distinguishes his films from American films on the same subjects. In both My Night At Maud’s and Chloé In The Afternoon, a man and a woman want to consummate their love. Yet, they spend the length of the film verbally playing cat-and-mouse, questioning the possibility and morality of the act itself. As spectators, we derive pleasure (or irritation) through the deployment of language, the precise dialogue and preciousness with which the actors pronounce the words. It is not a coincidence that one of Rohmer’s actors was the verbose Fabrice Luchini. The first scene of The Tree, The Mayor and The Mediatheque shows him teaching a grammar class to what seems like sixth graders. Asked whether he’d shoot a film in the U.S. (like his fellow Cahiers’ critic François Truffaut), Rohmer said that his love for French language was too much of an integral part of his aesthetic to consider it. His dialogues are not only pedagogical, but part of the acoustic of his films, of their musicality.
My current favourite Rohmer film is probably the late ‘80s girl buddy film Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, the closest to a teen movie Rohmer has ever filmed. (The girls are actually in college.) Following the titular Reinette and Mirabelle in their respective environments, the director showcases his talent in filming and revealing landscapes both urban and rural. Even though he was born in the province, Paris seemed to have been Rohmer’s main love, the place where most of his stories take place, as demonstrated in this video essay by Richard Misek.
What is an event in a Rohmer film? A man buying a green shirt in Chloe In The Afternoon. Reinette and Mirabelle, waiting for a blue night in the countryside. Drinking, reading a book. And always two individuals encountering each other, not knowing what their fate will be. Plots and storylines exist in the Rohmerian world, but they are digression-friendly.
There is actually something very American about Amélie. In his review, Bonnaud spends a large amount of time describing the filmmaking style, which is full of effects and ostentatious cinematic techniques (tracking shots, zooming, ramping, wide-angle lenses). French auteur cinema as represented by Rohmer is often characterized by its reserved and classical style and almost muted mise-en-scène. Jeunet showcases characters defined by what they love and hate, reduced to their quirks. Rohmer explores myths and conceits too, but archetypes rarely exist in his universe. In Pauline at the Beach, the character of Henri (Féodor Atkine) could be “the villain” because he cheated on Marion (Arielle Dombasle), lied about it, and tried to hook up with the very young Pauline. But like all the characters in the Rohmer films I have seen, he has his reasons and the possibility to explain himself.
If Amélie pleased American audiences so much, it is because its mode of expression was more familiar. With this heroine and her strange story, in her neighbourhood full of quirky people, walking to the melancholic soundtrack of Yann Tiersen, there was a desire to create a mythic, iconic character. It was something that would remain anchored in pop culture memory, the way American cinema has produced them since forever. And Jeunet succeeded.
Today’s French filmmakers inevitably make films with American images and stylistic tactics in mind. To borrow words from Dusan Makavjev, who was quoted in Thomas Elsaesser’s European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood, “to live in the twenty first century is learning to be American.” In the ‘90s when Éric Rohmer was delivering his “Tales of Four Seasons,” in which young ephebes were singing regional French folks songs, American cultural hegemony had established itself for good in France. No amount of European and ruthless French anti-Americanism and cultural protectionism had prevented American pop culture from flooding our theatres and television screens. The fear expressed in this quote recalls the fear of “Americanization” or “coca-colonisation” during the interwar period, which led to the creation of policies that would limit the number of American films on French screens. Authorities were anxious that the passive consumption of Hollywood products would lead to a kind of inner displacement, encouraging a concrete one, a betrayal of the nation, and the adoption of a lifestyle and the star-spangled flag.
“My generation in France greatly admired American cinema. There was a whole myth surrounding the U.S.: the least little things that took place there became sublime. It took an epic quality while everything that took place in France did not exist. For example many French intellectuals have a difficulty accepting French detective movies because they find them incomplete.” - Eric Rohmer
In his later interviews, Rohmer would still recognize the greatness of American cinema, while warning about an influence that would be more perverse. He’d berated the Césars as a pale caricature of the Academy Awards. For him, “each nation should guard its cultural hegemony otherwise, artistically speaking, it could be dangerous.” Artistically speaking, it would give us “inauthentic” movies like Amélie. Or, in many ways, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, a film which has suffered from its director’s bad digestion of American TV shows and its reliance on banlieue-film tropes.
The film opens on an energetic American football game, situating it in a fantasy hybrid space. (It was also a nod to the director’s favourite show Friday Night Lights). The director’s friend, Fabrice Gobert, was also thinking that way when he conceived his feature film Lights Out. Though Girlhood is still rooted in French context, Lights Out has a real ambition to embody itself in a typically American universe. This French thriller and teen movie, obviously influenced by Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, deals with a series of student disappearances in a suburban high school in France in the early '90s. It’s interesting to see how these films need to import an imaginary America.
Even though it was appropriated globally, the teen movie is a “quintessentially” American genre. As the magazine Les Inrocks reported a few years ago, French cinema had missed the opportunity to explore French teenage life the way that American and British people had done. Before that, it was film noir that was systematically contrasted, the French noirs being perceived as incomplete, not as good as the American ones. Liza Azuelos, the director of LOL (Laughing Out Loud) expressed her frustration at not being American in the first minutes of the film. Lola, the teenage main character, is walking in slow-motion with her best friends in the introductory scene. She says: “We are in slow-motion because in American TV shows when the most beautiful girls come on they are always in slow-motion. Ok, it doesn’t work right now because we are in France, but it’s stylish.”
These three films’s stylization borrows cinematic techniques, spaces, archetypes (as Gobert said “the hunk, the athlete, the loudmouth, the outcast, the bombshell”) and conventions that are usually associated with American teen movies. In 2012, Azuelos literally remade her successful teen movie in the U.S., casting Miley Cyrus and Demi Moore for the mother-daughter couple at the centre of her story.
But not all contemporary French filmmakers are taking a flight from French reality. Abdellatif Kechiche, the director of the controversial Palme D’or-winning film Blue is the Warmest Color, is probably the most Rohmerian working filmmaker in France right now. Like Rohmer, Kechiche functions as a chronicler of contemporary French life with an attention for language and French youth in all its diversity. Young girls also have a central, constitutive place in Kechiche’s cinema. Blue is the Warmest Color contained all his obsessions. Running three hours long, it was a culmination of his filmmaking style with its succession of long scenes. We also find the eloquence and expressivity of Rohmerian characters, though with less sculpted direction in their performances. Kechichian encounters are more violent and crude, as the sex, fighting and eating shows us. But the highbrow, intellectual conversations on Klimt, Bob Marley and Sartre are there.
I definitely believe that the future of a specifically French cinema is in the hands of immigrants. We have the desire to not only reclaim specific spaces as ours, but to also depict the way we have been alienated from them. French cinema has merely started giving a place to characters who look and talk like us. Once the movies begin to fully register our existence, it will not need to look at America anymore, as our lives are as epic and special as the ones overseas. The real legacy of the French New Wave and Rohmer’s films is to have given us the tools to carve out a space in which we’ll be able to imagine our own cinematic manifestations. Meanwhile, we have the opportunity like they did with American cinema, to study their films so that we can create our own singular forms.