Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Wonder that is French Cinema

Many of my friends in Britain tell me about how much they enjoy French films. I always react with a certain scepticism, since I know that what they get is a heavily-filtered selection.

There are real gems in French cinematic output – Le Placard (The Closet) was a brilliantly witty comedy about a man who pretends to be gay as a way of preventing his dismissal from a condom manufacturer; Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve loved you so long) was a clever, original, thought-provoking tale of a woman played by Kristin Scott Thomas reinserting herself into society after a long gaol sentence; absolutely outstanding was Le Goût des Autres (It takes all kinds) by that exceptionally gifted director Agnès Jaoui who gave us a quirky take, full of sensitivity, insight and humour, on a number of intersecting lives.

Then, however, there is what I like to think of as the ‘quota film’. French TV has been required for many years to make sure that 51% of its output is sourced in Europe, and since they generally want to show French-language material, that means made in France. I have the image of groups of cinema people sitting around saying ‘hey, there’s this bit of budget looking for a home: why don’t we make a film?’ You know, to fill up the quota.

To me the classic quota film was the 1998 Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train (Those who love me will come by train). At the time, we were living near Paris and I imposed this piece of pretentious intellectualism on my youngest son Nicky, then aged 14. As we left our seats at the end, I started to say ‘Well, there were a couple of good lines…’ and was about to quote the two pieces of good writing the film contained.

‘It was crap,’ he said, before I could dredge them from my memory.

I was about to object. Could we not be more moderate, more even-handed, more subtle in our judgements, I wanted to suggest. But then I thought to myself, ‘actually, sometimes the young get these things right, where those of us who pursue sophistication too hard look for something that isn’t really there.’ Nicky had hit the nail on the head. There was no single-word description of the film that encapsulated it better than his did.

Since we were living in France, we were able to avoid the quota films for quite a while after that. But right now we’re back in the country for a short time and this afternoon we made the mistake of going to a film that I had been told had been recommended by The Guardian. That is, of course, my favourite paper, and its news coverage is outstanding, its comment columns brilliantly insightful as well as entertaining, even its sport coverage excellent. But when it comes to the arts, they seem to make a fetish of employing only reviewers deeply imbued with metropolitan attitudes, always looking for qualities that seem to enhance their own sophistication, never interested in those trivial devices that appeal to the rest of us proles, such as humour, intrigue or characterisation. If, say, the film is made in Turkey in some minority dialect and lovingly follows the journey of a farmer on a visit to his cousin in the next village, with the high point of drama being when he has to fight off a wasp that buzzes round his hat, then The Guardian critics will sing its praises.

It seems that The Guardian liked Mammuth (Mammoth). I should have seen the writing on the wall. Sadly, I went to the film and discovered that, since it is a motorbike movie, it could have been called Ceux qui m’aiment prendront la moto. It is fully worthy of being the sequel to that earlier masterpiece so brilliantly summed up by my son.

If you want to see what a quota film really is, hurry, hurry, hurry to see this one.

If you want an evening’s entertainment, paint your sitting room wall and watch it dry. You will see more in the way of coherent plot, clever character development and dramatic twists than you would in the film.

And at the end you’ll have a nice new sitting room wall.


Anonymous said...

I will tell you how I know that you are wrong about Ceux Qui... I saw the film about 8-10 years ago, and liked it a lot; I remember discussing it with Trish (do you remember him?) for hours. I have heard people dismiss the film as intellectual crap ... so I could have ended up thnking that they might have been right. At the ripe old age of 75, my memory isn't as good as it used to be; I have seen so many films that I loved, but could not tell you now what they were about, but when it comes to Ceux Qui M'aiment, I still remember quite a lot. Ths must mean something.

David Beeson said...

It's great to know that someone got something from the film - particularly someone who is such a connoisseur of films as yourself. But I have to admit that for my part, I remember far less than you do, and above all my memory is dominated by a sense of excruciating boredom... I always remember a Barry Norman review of a film: 'I spend the first half wondering whether it would ever start and the second half wondering whether it would ever end.' My reaction to Ceux qui m'aiment... I'm afraid.