Why the Allure of French Cinema Endures
Wall Street Journal, 13 June 2011
Since the competing claims of Edison and the Lumières to have invented the cinema, France and America have amassed two immensely rich but so often opposed film heritages. The attitude that has driven the American cinema was expressed by Sam Goldwyn when he observed, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.” The well-crafted narrative rules in Hollywood, which has had little time for Jean-Luc Godard’s comment that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, although not necessarily in that order.
But it is this ability of the French cinema to challenge the conventions, to do things differently – with style – that accounts for its appeal to English-speaking audiences. It has always been able to remind Hollywood of the deficiencies in its own industrial-scale production.
Fashioned on a more intimate scale, the French film has been attuned to the personal, idiosyncratic voice that it is the tendency of America’s corporate system to iron out. Long before the 1960s New Wave captured the imagination of America's ‘movie brat’ generation, bringing the word auteur into the vocabulary of American movie-making, the film-makers of France’s pre-war Golden Age — Marcel Pagnol, Jacques Feyder, Julien Duvivier, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné — were introducing American audiences to a different kind of cinema that stood out for a more individual, poetic sensibility. It is true that their films were corralled into the art houses of the big cities, where they enjoyed the reception of a limited audience that was more than averagely sophisticated, but their influence still passed into the mainstream through Hollywood’s own efforts to match their qualities. Casablanca may represent a pinnacle of the American film, but its respect for mood and character drew significant inspiration from the 1938 Hollywood film Algiers, which was a scene-for-scene translation of Julien Duvivier's 1937 Pépé le Moko.
With their bleak sensibility, such doom-laden French films of the 1930s as La Bête humaine, Quai des brumes or Le Jour se lève anticipated the outbreak of war in Europe but also pointed the way for America’s own cinema. When New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, in a review of Le Jour se lève, wrote in 1940 of French producers’ "morbid preoccupation … with characters who live in cold-water walk-ups and go crazy and do violent things," he was unwittingly anticipating the emergence a few years later of a new Hollywood genre, film noir.
If the French cinema taught American audiences a lot about style, it also offered a realism about adult life at a time when Hollywood still subscribed to the self-imposed censorship of the Production Code. In 1957’s And God Created Woman, featuring a nubile Brigitte Bardot, launched a French invasion of America’s screens with a frankness about sex that was as revolutionary then as it is commonplace today — although the movie had to be dubbed to reach a mass public that has never tolerated subtitles.
The French cinema showed American audiences how movies could be personal, sexy and chic, but also a serious art able to carry those messages that are too important to leave for Western Union. It may be a genre that is unlikely to appeal to American film-goers as much as film noir, but France’s tradition of cinéma engagé has consistently found a place in America's conscience ever since Renoir's La Grande Illusion — with its message about the folly of war to a world on the brink of war — became, in 1938, the first ever foreign-language film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Such films as Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard and Hiroshima, Mon Amour or Costa-Gavras' Z are some notable landmarks from the past, but the recent Oscar-winning animation, Logorama, which offered a brilliant satire on corporate America, and Xavier Beauvois's story of contemporary martyrdom, Of Gods and Men, which was voted best foreign film by the National Board of Review, are examples of how the French cinema continues to remind America that movies can both entertain and matter too.
© Charles Drazin, 2013.