This article was written for A-Level Film Studies in early 2009. This is a reprint of the complete article.
War, Drama, Thriller - no matter the genre, France is leading the way in visionary cinema, competing with Hollywood all the way. As the battle goes on, one question remains constant. Whose side will you choose - Jonze or Jeunet?
Just one month ago, on the 8th February, Kristin Scott Thomas - a well respect and talented British actress recieved her third BAFTA nomination. This was particularly significant because the nomination was for a French film called I've Loved You So Long (2008), the feature debut from Philippe Claudel. Following up on her success in Guillaume Canet's Tell No One (2006) she is now part of a small revolution in French cinema, happening under the noses of many an ignorant moviegoer. She joins filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, 2001, pictured above) and rising stars like Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, 2007) who are creating some of the most visionary and critically acclaimed films not just of now, but ever. Largely ignored by the Academy these films suffer from limited release, but there is no denying the quality.
Laurent Cantet's 2009 OSCAR nominee The Class (2008) is a superior drama to most of Americas output that year, and Female Agents (Jean-Paul Salomé, 2008) will arguably be better than Quentin Tarantino's 6th film Inglorious Basterds, released this August. It seems a bold statement to make, and perhaps a premature one, but it wouldn't be surprising given the sudden influx and recognition of French cinema. Released to critical acclaim and followed with five OSCAR nominations Amelie probably started this revolution, despite a few popular French films being released the year before, including the controversial Baise-moi (Rape Me, Virginie Despentes, Coralie, 2000) and the sequel Taxi 2 (Gérard Krawczyk, 2000). It is of course arguable that despite not being as mainstream as American cinema, French films have always been in the public eye, made aware to anybody who's ever been to the cinema. In fact, the 90s were an exciting time for French cinema, the pinnacle being La Haine (Hate, Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995), a film about a group of young thugs killing time with the recovered gun of a police officer, over the course of one day. Shot in stark black and white and soundtracked by angry rap music, it's the sort of urban film you would expect independent filmmakers in America to come out with, but when released in 1995 it was hailed with critical praise and 14 years later, still grips like a vice and shocks like it did over a decade ago. It brims with energy and contains a raw animosity which assaults the viewer from the first frame. It was recieved well at the box office, arriving just a year after Léon (1994), Luc Besson's celebrated killer thriller, climaxing in claret red violence and a volcanic rage in the form of Gary Oldman, a market for France was beginning to emerge in America. Other popular French films of the 90s were Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990), The Three Colours Trilogy (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993-1994), The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997), Taxi (Gérard Pirès, 1998) and Joan Of Arc (Luc Besson, 1999). The common link between some of these films is of course Luc Besson who has long been the mainstream bridge between France and America - casting big stars like Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich and Gary Oldman in his films. Leon is without doubt his masterpiece, ranking 34 on IMDB's Top 250 films of all time at the time of writing. It's a simple story of the struggles encountered by a lone assassin and a 12 year-old girl who's looking for a father figure. It's a drama at heart, a tale of love - the story of an emotionally detached man coming to terms with his emotions and a girl finding love and respect in a man for the first time. The way they are torn apart through merciless acts of violence provides a compelling narrative and an emotional depth rarely seen in modern movies. It's a landmark in filmmaking and all the better for being French. It's unbearable to imagine what this film could have been like had the likes of Joel Silver got their hands on it - and lets hope a remake is never on the cards.
Leon and Mathilda in Léon.
It is of course important to remember the beginnings of French cinema - the greats like Truffaut and Godard. The French New Wave helped shape a lot of modern cinema, in particular of course, French. Landmark films like The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959) and A Bout De Souffle (Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) created a host of new techniques and styles since employed by every new filmmaker hoping to make a splash in the movie world. Handheld camerawork, voiceovers, jump cuts - we've seen them a thousand times and they originated in their finest form here. Films from this era have arguably had a bigger impact than style as well - some say Truffaut's The Soft Skin (1964) influenced Woody Allen's London drama Match Point (2005). The fact that these films still hold up today and are still studied avidly by film fans around the world proves just how important they are.
45 years on from The Soft Skin and we are at another important peak in French cinema. Amelie was released in 2001 and apart from launching Audrey Tautou into the mainstream it confirmed Jean-Pierre Jeunet as one of the leading auteurs of the country. Eight years on and one film later - the brilliant A Very Long Engagement (2004), and he now holds the title of one of the best auteurs in the world. His multi-layered, humanly funny tales of love in a city overindulgent in it feels refreshing and has a charm and style that most Hollywood films severely lack. His earlier works (the dark Delicatessen, 1991, superb fantasy The City Of Lost Children, 1995 and quadrilogy closer Alien Resurrection) are also each individual and original with Alien Resurrection being his only mainstream effort so far, and although it recieved a critical panning at the time it still stands as a worthy addition to the franchise. It still remains hard to pinpoint what exactly is so enticing about Amelie. It could be the beautiful cinematography, the performance of Tautou's career and superb supporting turns from Jeunet regulars Dominique Pinion and Rufus, or a script so full of charm and hopeless romanticism which makes it so watchable time and time again. The film follows the life of Poulain, a woman who takes pleasure from the simple things in life, as she goes on a journey to make others happy and maybe find love herself. Jeunet followed this up with A Very Long Engagement which met the same critical praise and is another quirky story of love, this time set against the backdrop of war. With an OSCAR nomination behind him for Best Screenplay, Jeunet is arguably the director responsible for the popular resurgence of French cinema.
If Jeunet has directing covered, Mathieu Amalric is leading the actors front. One of his first leading roles came in 1996's My Sex Life... or How I Got Into An Argument (Arnaud Desplechin) for which he won the César Award for Most Promising Actor. He is generally seen as one of Frances greatest living actors and he has gone on to star in critically acclaimed films such as Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz, 2007) and the multi-OSCAR nominated The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. One of the things that allows Amalric's smaller French films to be seen is the fact that he mixes them with big Hollywood movies including Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005) and last years Quantum Of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008), the 22nd film in the James Bond franchise. His roles in these big hitters (particularly Solace) no doubt pushed forward the release of his latest movie A Christmas Tale, which was released here on January 16th, 8 months after its French release.
Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.
Masters of genre, the French keep knocking out great films which, while not seen by a large audience, are blowing all Hollywood efforts out of the water. This is proven by just looking at a few specific genres America seems to excel at (if we all believe the OSCARS are an indication of quality anyway): War, Thriller and Drama. Last year France released Female Agents which was critically applauded and didn't feature the sort of gung-ho machoism that is sometimes seen in the Hollywood war efforts - a recent example being Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001). Female Agents is the sort of film grounded in real war, and being based on a true story it has believable characters and retains a certain grit and tension without resorting to big-scale CGI-led action sequences. A film that does focus on large scale battle scenes is Days Of Glory (Rachid Bouchareb, 2006) but it's a much more intense affair than a film with budget on the brain more than historical accuracy. Even Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement is better than some American war movies - and that only uses the setting!
The thriller speaks for itself with Tell No One and Hidden (Caché, Michael Haneke, 2005) being popular films in their respective years. Slow burning and totally unflashy, these egoless films thrill audiences without using big name stars or elaborate, effects heavy action sequences, instead opting for character and story - and using a great script structure to hook genre fans.
And finally we arrive at drama and Kristin Scott Thomas' very human portrayal of Juliette Fontaine, a woman readjusting to society after being in prison for 15 years, for murder. It's an amazing performance and one that truly deserved the win - and the film itself stands tall amongst all the other French masterpieces that are currently doing the rounds. This year will see the return of Jeunet with Micmacs and no doubt a good number of others will be announced or arrive unexpectedly as the year goes on. To misquote Colin Welland - "The French are coming!"
Look out for my follow-up article, This Is The New French, next month.