By Yanan Wang:
I am not a film connoisseur. I tend to like the movies that everyone else likes—Inception, Up, and some Woody Allen thrown in for good measure. I found Black Swan deliciously jarring, and I revelled in The Social Network’s quick-witted dialogue. When Cineplex Odeon offered half-price Tuesdays back in my Canadian hometown, my movie line-up featured both Oscar nominees and romantic comedies as trite and predictable as New Year’s Eve. So I am no movie expert, but fortunately, it doesn’t take an expert to see that French cinema exists in a realm of its own.
The film industry saw its birth in France, where Auguste and Louis Lumière (which aptly means “light”) worked in photography before creating moving pictures in 1892. The brothers used the first ever film camera, le cinématographe, to render footage of workers leaving the Lumiere factory. The work, completed in 1894, was the world’s first film. Since then, France has been the launching pad of several important cinematic movements, most notably the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) of the late 1950s to 1960s, an avant-garde period which saw the rise of iconic filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) and Jacques Rivette (Celine and Julie Go Boating).
The French government has worked hard to keep the country’s movie industry alive. Paris boasts at least one movie theatre in every arrondissement, and every year the city of Cannes on the French Riviera plays host to the world’s most prestigious film festival. This coming week, the Fête de Cinema will allow Parisians to watch films at highly reduced prices (2.5 euros for each additional ticket following the purchase of one at regular price).
Last week, two friends and I went to watch De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone), starring the ever-captivating Marion Cotillard. Cotillard may have spooked American audiences with her chilling performance in Inception, but her role as a handicapped killer whale trainer is something different altogether. Of the movies that I have seen, one thing that sets French filmmakers apart from their American counterparts is their keen ability to walk the thin line between emotional weight and idle melodrama. Although many French movies are rife with as many plot turns and dramatic scenes as an American soap opera, the taut realism of the characters’ reactions to seemingly inconceivable events makes the sentimentalism feel justified and genuine. As I followed the lead characters’ tumultuous love affair in De rouille et d’os, I couldn’t help but be swept away by the rawness of the scenes they shared, untouched as they were by Hollywood gloss.
And unlike most American film productions, the French industry has shown that it has nothing to hide. Nudity abounds in most French movies, though not in a sensationalist, bare-all way. Once in a while, a breast will appear on the screen because it would be artificial to conceal it.
Last semester, my French professor warned us that many of her past students had complained that the films that they were required to watch for class were too “dark”. “There’s not much I can do about that,” she shrugged. “It’s the way French movies are.” It is perhaps telling that one of the French movies most popular with the North American public is Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, the whimsical tale of a shy waitress who falls in love and performs good deeds along the way. The film is much more light-hearted than most of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s other work, among them a black comedy about cannibalism and a dark fantasy called The City of Lost Children. For those not accustomed to crudeness in film, the often twisted plotlines of these selections may be shocking. French cinema, like raw seafood or certain cheeses, is an acquired taste. After a few meals with Jeunet, Audiard and Godard, I’ve become addicted.
Yanan Wang ’15 is in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.