I know it’s rather foolish to try and make generalizations about a whole nation’s film tradition based solely on a handful of films – particularly when it is a tradition as rich and diverse as France’s. However, these last several weeks have been the most prolonged exposure I have had to French film – having watched seven films, both classic and modern, from a variety of genres (although I seemed to shortshift comedy – a genre it seems the French would probably be pretty good at). Thus, limited as they may be, I thought it would be appropriate to conclude with a few closing thoughts before moving on.

When I first started reviewing these films with Band of Outsiders, I compared French film to lyric poetry – shunning traditional narratives and realistic portrayals in favor of cinematic devices that could more appropriately convey inner emotions and development. Having seen several more French films now, I still believe this to be the case. In fact, the only films I reviewed where this wasn’t the case were The Sorry and the Pity, which was a documentary, and The Rules of the Game, which was a pre-New Wave film from an era where the French cinema was still struggling to develop its own identity. Even a film such as Cache, which on the surface is merely a thriller, delves deep into the soul of its protaganist and paints a complex psychological portrait of how we are shaped by childhood, love, politics, and many other factors. More than anything else, it is the artistry with which French films paint such inner landscapes that I think sets it apart from other nations’ film traditions. It’s this impulse that seems to compel the French to make so many arthouse style films – the kind that one describes, depending on his or her take, as either “beaufully rendered” or “snooty.”

As is so often the case, an increased exposure to something leads to a greater appreciation of it. And while I still wouldn’t say that French films are among my favorite foreign films, I must say that having watched all these films over these past several weeks I have a much greater respect for the French cinematic tradition. Not only can this tradition hearken back to a shining past that has produced some truly classic films, particularly during the New Wave era, but judging from the quality of some of the films that have come out of France in recent years, it looks like the future of French film is destined to be bright as well.

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As might be evident from the near month that has passed since my last post, my schedule has been quite busy. I was hoping to wrap up my little series on French film before we left for Paris, but – mon Dieu! – such an idea proved quite a bit too ambitious. Thus, I now have a backlog of a few posts that I’m hoping to get to in the next couple of weeks, so all you rabid classic and foreign film fanatics can simmer down . . .

The last French film I saw before our trip was Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (La regle du jeu). It’s considered a classic of French film and nearly everything I had ever read about it rules.jpgdescribes it in good to glowing terms, so I was rather surprised when I didn’t like it much at all. The basic plot follows a group of French bourgeois who gather at a country chateau for a party. While most of the film has a flippant feel to it – merely following the back-and-forth amorous exploits of the various characters – as the night’s events unfold, it becomes clear that the various, seemingly meaningless entanglements can lead to rather serious consequences. This is certainly a worthwhile plotline that’s been used in many great pieces of art. It’s just that Renoir’s work seemed to be lacking something. It was like a screwball comedy without the comedy, or maybe like a Mozart opera without the beautiful music.

Doubtless, the film seems to be a trailblazing one. One can find traces of its influence, for example, in some of the great films Fellini and Antonioni did in the early 60s. These later Italian films, however, were to me much more heartfelt and mature. Perhaps it was because I had seen these later, better done treatments of the same themes that I did not fully appreciate Renoir’s film. While I understood and admired the intents of The Rules of the Game, I just couldn’t get drawn into it, and only a few minutes into the film, I already found myself wondering how much longer I had to go.  

One final note worth mentioning. This is the only pre-New Wave French film I reviewed in the past several weeks. With that in mind, this film is a good example of what the New Wave movement was rebelling against. The movement’s leaders, like Godard and Truffaut, were frustrated with the stale conventions and recycled plotlines of classical French cinema and wished to reinvigorate the artform and explore the unique creative possibilities offered by the big screen. Watching a film such as The Rules of the Game and then comparing it to something like Band of Outsiders is a good way of seeing just how revolutionary the New Wave movement truly was.

I know that not everybody likes documentaries. In particular, not everybody likes four-hour long documentaries spanning two DVDs. And yet, for those people interested in history, I would highly recommend The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitie). This sprawling work (it’s worth noting that even though it’s on two discs, Netflix considers both discs to be one film and sends them both simultaneously) paints a highly informative, moving portrait of life in occupied France during WWII. No doubt about it, the film is long. sorrow2.jpgFurthermore, to somebody like myself who doesn’t know much about the history of occupied France, there were some portions describing incidents I had never heard of where I found myself quite lost (this was particularly true of the first disc). Yet, these are the only possible shortcomings I can think of. Filmmaker Marcel Ophuls masterfully interweaves archival footage with retrospective interviews to create a historic piece that truly brings the past to life. The resulting, complex tapestry of viewpoints (Ophuls interviews former aristocrats, working people, German soldiers, French Resistance fighters, pro-German French citizens, policymakers, you name it) is as revealing as it is comprehensive.

My first reaction to the film was mainly just surprise. When I think of France during WWII, I typically think of the Resistance fighters – brave, daring patriots like those so often portrayed in 40s era films like Casablanca. The reality, however, was of course quite a bit more complex, as the documentary shows that there was actually a fair amount of pro-German sentiment (along with its accompanying anti-Semitism) in France during the War, particularly during the early years. France was actually the only occupied country that participated in a cooperative program with Germany, sending commuting workers over the border in work-programs, passing cooperative laws, etc. Even as the War progressed and the Resistance movement picked up, there were still many people in France who were either apathetic or even welcoming to the German occupation, including many people who turned in known Resistance fighters. Despite the fact that this was not an uncommon reaction, there nonetheless was a widespread, violent backlash by the French against suspected German sympathizers once the War was over. In fact, it is stories describing this backlash of French against their own countrymen (rather than those tales describing the earlier acts of occupying German soldiers) that are the most ghastly in the film.

In all the hours of interviews, it’s interesting that those being interviewed some 25 years or so after the fact by and large seem rather calm and detached from the events they are remembering. And yet, ironically, it’s this detachment that gives the documentarysorrow.jpg its emotional punch. After hearing these level-headed people so calmly describing such horrific events from their past, it slowly sinks in that so many lives were affected by a war waged not by people, so much, as ideologies. Hearing first-hand accounts of everyday people getting swept up in ideological fervor – movements that they would later regret participating in – is sobering. It’s the main strength of The Sorrow and the Pity. It makes one realize that so many people were caught up in something much bigger than themselves. And, in turn, the film simultaneously makes these much-bigger ideologies suddenly appear not so big and important at all, once one compares them to all the lives that were turned upside down and wasted as a result.

Blue (1993)

February 20, 2007

Most of the people I’ve either read or heard discussing this film tended to really like it, which means I’m going to be expressing a minority opinion here, because I was only lukewarm in my reaction. Blue (or in its original French, Bleu) is part of Krystof bleu2.jpgKieslowski’s Three Colors (Trois couleurs) trilogy. I suppose since it’s in French and takes place in France, it’s considered a French film, although Kieslowski is actually a Polish filmmaker, which explains in part why there seems to be a East European feel about it (although that probably has just as much to do with the film’s bleak subject matter). Each film in the trilogy is titled after a different color in the French flag and represents a different ideal of the French motto “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” Blue deals with the first ideal, liberty.

Juliette Binoche plays the main character, Julie Vignon. After a car accident kills both her husband and her daughter, Julie seemingly has nothing to live for. Failing in a suicide attempt, she proceeds to commit something akin to a symbolic suicide instead – getting rid of all her belongings, moving to an anonymous location without notifying any friends or relatives, and generally detaching herself emotionally from events around her. Soon, however, a series of occurrences begins to pull her out of her withdrawal and to reattach her with some of those former associations she tried so hard to escape.

Liberty is a tricky concept in the film. Superficially, Julie does not seem to obtain the liberty she seeks, since she is still bound up in the old associations she originally wanted to forget. And yet, Julie’s passage to self-discovery opens the door for her to be able to live a life of emotional fullness – something she thought impossible following the death of her family. In fact, the piece of symphonic music that her husband (though it debatedbly may be Julie herself who is the composer) left unfinished is commonly interpreted as symbolic of Julie herself. Thus, only when she has learned more about herself and freed herself from her self-imposed restrictions can any attempts be made to bring this piece of music to completion.

As sometimes happens, the more I’m thinking and writing about the film, the more I’m starting to warm up to it, but the fact is that I was pretty bored while watching Blue. Granted, it’s a film dealing with psychological development and inner emotions – bleu.jpgsomething that isn’t always riveting on the screen – but those are actually the type of films I typically enjoy. I just don’t think this particular one was all that interesting. Even Binoche’s talents, which I appreciate, couldn’t save this film for me. It was almost as if Binoche did such a good job acting detached and emotionless that I couldn’t find any ground to empathize with her and subsequently felt detached from the film itself (how’s that for a backhanded compliment?). I suppose there was enough intriguing material in this film that I might try going forward in this trilogy, but I just haven’t made up my mind yet. The opening installment certainly hasn’t sucked me in.

Hiroshima, mon amour (1959)

February 16, 2007

Hiroshima, mon amour will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s an extremely serious, nontraditional film – the type of challenging arthouse offering that one could conceivably see SNL spoofing (if it weren’t for the fact that it deals with such undeniably serious themes that such a spoof would be considered quite insensitive). The first 15 minutes of the film is essentially a visual lyric poem, with opaque, rhythmical dialogue voiced-over a montage of accompanying images of the bombing of Hiroshima. Many a Joe Somebody probably loses interest in this opening sequence and doesn’t even make it to where the film lapses into its narrative form, dealing with the story of a French actress visiting Hiroshima and having an affair with a Japanese man. hiroshima.jpgNot that the film becomes any less challenging at this point. Indeed, the couple’s relationship and their stilted conversations are heavy with symbolism representative of humanity’s post-WWII burden.

Comparing the film to poetry is appropriate, as the work seems very much like the verse of many modern poets – it’s either going to resonate with an individual or it’s not. Thus, while I can certainly understand why many people will rave about this film, I personally liked it, but wasn’t rolled over by it. I liked its basic concept, found many of the scenes to be quite touching, and thought it was well crafted overall. It just seemed to be operating on a slightly different aesthetic wavelength or something, as I suppose sometimes happens.

Perhaps its most accurate to say I liked the premise of the film and what it was trying to accomplish; I was just somewhat disappointed by the particulars of how it was executed. The film’s themes are certainly impressive, dealing with the catastrophic events one faces in life – whether in love or war – and that essential human need to forget and move on following such events. It’s not that simple, however, as there’s also an elemental need to remember those influences that shaped us, and it’s in this conflict between remembering and moving on that the man and woman now find themselves torn apart. The couple’s stories are obviously supposed to be syptomatic of larger historical and social trends, which perhaps explains why I thought the dialogue was a bit too abstract and impersonal. It seems as if the film removes some of the genuineness of their relationship in order to serve loftier artistic goals. And yet, even with that said, well done treatments of such themes are typically worth checking out. So while the film did not really strike the right chord with me, I know it has done so with others – thus if it sounds like the kind of film you typically enjoy, you should probably go ahead and give it a chance.

Cache (2005)

February 8, 2007

I’ve never been one to keep up with the latest news coming out of all the major film festivals – even though many of them seem to specialize in the arthouse and foreign lines of film that are right up my alley. cache3.jpgThus, I had never heard of the 2005 French film Cache (sometimes translated to “Hidden” in English, sometimes not), which evidently won quite a bit of acclaim at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Nor had I ever heard of the film’s director, Michael Haneke, even though he won the festival’s best director award for the film and is a regular at Cannes with a series of laudable festival entries. I’m beginning, however, to think maybe I should pay more attention to Cannes and similar festivals, as Cache was just the kind of intelligent, well-crafted, and original film that I enjoy seeing.

I’ve typically discovered that when a film is described as a “taut psychological drama,” it means little more than “the main character is slightly unbalanced and probably wants to kill somebody.” Such is not the case with Cache, which does much more justice to the phrase, demonstrating the potential complexity and longevity of our unresolved psychological issues.  The “issues” Georges Laurent (played by Daniel Auteuil) is dealing with are not two-dimensional affairs, but rather, are the textured, mature problems of a man suffering from a wide range of troubles – everything from a childlike need for a parent’s love to more sophisticated adult political biases. Thus, when a stalker terrorizes Georges and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) with videotapes, phone calls, and mail that force him to confront his past both figuratively and literally, the resulting tolls taken both on Georges and on his relationships with those around him seem frighteningly realistic. Indeed, the realism of the film is one of its primary strengths.

Other than the always talented and alluring Binoche, the cast will likely be unfamiliar to cache2.jpgAmerican audiences, although it is a very good one from top to bottom. Haneke’s direction is also superb, although it might try some people’s patience. It’s the kind of direction that you’ll either love or hate; it will either hypnotize you or make you turn the DVD off in frustration. This film certainly is not universal in its appeal, and I’m guessing it’s one where even its fans probably don’t enjoy watching it over and over again. It is, however, an inventive film, and its careful craftsmanship and stark, unsettling realism will likely strike a haunting chord with many attentive viewers.

Amelie (2001)

February 7, 2007

I visited Paris for a week in 2003 – my first trip overseas. Later that year, I saw Amelie for the first time, and it reminded me very much of my time in Paris. I, like many people, found the film to be uplifting, original, and – for lack of a better word – charming.

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Amelie just seems to fit the bill as a quintessential French film – combining individualism, eccentricity, beauty, humor, and love as it seems only the French can do. Thus, now that I’m planning a return trip to Paris (this time with a lovely wife in tow), I thought it would be an appropriate time to watch Amelie a second time and see if it again would do its magic and make me nostalgic to return to the streets of Paris.

I don’t know that I have much to add that hasn’t already been said about this film. The plot follows the life of Amelie Poulain, an eccentric young woman who lives by herself in the Monmarte district of Paris. One day, she begins striving to force the people around her out of their daily, run-of-the-mill routines and to challenge them to look at their lives with a renewed sense of interest. As she is doing this, however, she discovers that her own life of unconventionality has left her feeling unfulfilled and lonely. amelie.jpgShe soon realizes that to be happy, she must break out of her cozy hermitage and take advantage of life before it passes her by. The film has a great story and beautiful cinematography, is skillfully directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and of course stars Audrey Tautou, whose perfect rendering of Amelie propelled her to international acclaim almost overnight.

Sure enough – the film got me even more excited about returning to Paris, particularly since most of it takes place in Monmarte, the same district we’re planning on staying in during our stay. (In fact, it turns out many of the key locales in the film – the cafe where Amelie works, for instance – are actual places in Monmarte, so maybe we’ll have a chance to visit some of them.) I will say I didn’t enjoy it quite as much the second time around (I imagine this is often the case with notably original films, which likely will not seem quite as original the second time around). On the other hand, it’s still a beautiful picture to look at and it contains a thoughtful story with a good message. Such films will always be worth a repeat viewing every not and then.

Band of Outsiders (1964)

January 26, 2007

Recently, the wife and I made the exciting decision to take a trip to France later this year. So if you notice a sudden influx of French films on the blog in the coming weeks (I don’t think I’ve reviewed a single French film thus far), that is why.

For some reason, I’ve never really gotten into the French cinema as much as, say, Italian or Japanese. It’s somewhat strange since it seems like it would be right up my alley. In many ways, trying to describe the tradition of French film – particularly since the 60s – sounds a lot like a description of lyric poetry. It is concerned with empirical reality primarily to the extent that it leads one to something deeper – those inner qualities and emotions that can be so difficult to express. Thus, having a straightforward, sensible narrative band21.jpgsometimes takes a backseat  in favor of the somewhat off-the-wall, “artsy” images and dialogue that so typify French film. This sentiment was pretty much the driving force at the heart of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) movement in the 60s, and I recently watched one of the movement’s classic films – Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders.

I’m afraid I’m not terribly well versed in the New Wave movement beyond its most basic tenets. Essentially, it did for cinema what the Modernists did for literature – i.e., it tried to make things new. New Wave proponents such as Godard and Francois Truffaut rebelled against classical cinematic form and explored unorthodox moviemaking and storytelling techniques in attempts to challenge the viewer’s notion of filmmaking and expand the artform’s capabilities. Thematically, many of the genre’s best known works are influenced by existentialism and thus features protaganists who struggle to understand the nature of being. As a result of such characteristics, the resulting films are often very metacinematical, reflexive pieces that question both the limitations of film and the very meaning of life. These questions, however, are often hidden under a veneer of a playful, superficial plot, and only as events unfold do they finally begin to surface. I’ve found that this, more than anything, is why watching a New Wave film can be such an unsettling experience. Godard’s film is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Band of Outsiders follows two wannabe thugs, Arthur and Franz, as they try to convince fellow student Odile to help them rob the wealthy benefactor with whom she is living. While doing so, both men fall for Odile and try to win her affection. Despite the potential seriousness of the crime, band.jpgfor the most part, the film playfully follows the three’s rather mundane daily lives – as they talk or dance at a cafe, as they reenact scenes from B-Westerns, etc. (Following criminals during such trivial moments might seem familiar to fans of Tarentino’s work, who, indeed, is a New Wave disciple. In fact, his production company, A Band Apart, is named after this film’s French name, Bande a part.) And yet, as is made obvious by bits of the dialogue and particularly by Godard’s occassional narration, there is a longing underlying their every action. No matter how they try to fulfill it – whether through love, money, or art – they are unsuccessful in their attempts.

Band of Outsiders is not generally as well known as Godard’s other New Wave classic, Breathless, nor do I think it’s quite as good. Nonetheless, it is fairly accessible and is probably a good introduction to the Movement. For me, there was just something a little too disjointed between the daily, superficial lives of the protaganists and the deeper, more meaningful questions the film was trying to ask (I’m sure somebody could well argue that this was actually something Godard was trying to do intentionally). Those few scenes where these two levels come closest to connecting, such as the Metro scene, which I consider to be the real central scene of the film, I found particularly moving. I just found such scenes too few and far between and as a result found the finished product somewhat lacking the aesthetic appeal of a film like Breathless. One should take my objections with a grain of salt, however, as I’ve encountered some zealous fans of this film, and I can certainly understand why they argue it’s one of the genuine classics of the French cinema.