When cinematic pioneers the Lumière brothers cranked up the projector for one of the world’s first public film screenings at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris on 28 December 1895, they could never have imagined that over a century later, cinema would be a multibillion dollar global industry.
Though the epicentre of the movie world migrated long ago from the smokey cafes of Paris to Hollywood, France remains a country with cinema in its blood. There is still a lingering impression that what French cinema lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. Whether it’s the visual quirkiness of Amélie (2001), the arresting Catherine Deneuve in 1964’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg or Marion Cotillard’s breathtaking performance evoking the tragic spirit of Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose (2007), cinemagoers understand that French film equals the country’s fashion industry when it comes to producing beautiful, innovative and inspired creations.
A certain charm
French cinema can be romantic, groundbreaking, sexy, fearless and fun. Since 1956 France has picked up 36 Oscar nominations in the foreign language film category, compared with Italy’s 27. And while foreign language films are a tough sell at today’s mainstream box office, French films – the country now spends €1bn on film production in a single year – remain among the most popular in the UK.
As befits a nation that regards cinema as a true art form, France’s filmmakers – like the country’s philosophers, novelists and artists – are not afraid to delve deep into the human condition and are unflinching when it comes to exploring sexuality, relationships and death. ‘New French Extremity’ is how some critics describe the current vogue for uncomfortable, transgressive French films such as 2002’s Irreversible by director Gaspar Noé and filmmaker Catherine Breillat’s graphic explorations of sexuality (Romance, 1999, which featured mainstream cinema’s first erect penis). In literature as well as fine art, the French were pioneers of Realism, and it’s gratifying to our egos to know that when we settle into velvet cinema seats, we’re choosing a warts-and-all vision of the world over Hollywood’s airbrushed version. In 1995, Mathieu Kassovitz's gritty urban drama, La Haine, (see first image, below), focusing on a single day in the life of three youths in Paris’ violent suburbs, reminded the world just how unflinching the country’s filmmakers can be in exploring the realities of life in France. More recently, Jacques Audiard’s disturbing film A Prophet (2009) about racial tensions in prison revealed Europe’s disturbing underbelly.
Yet French cinema is also famed for being poetic and philosophical on the subjects of love and desire. See the subtle, engrossing films of the late Éric Rohmer, typified by his 1969 Oscar-nominated film Ma Nuit Chez Maud, in which a staid Catholic discusses life and love with a liberal, attractive divorcée.
France has steadily garnered a well-deserved reputation for producing films which are poetic, elegant, playful, arch and imbued with visual invention, from the avant garde filmmakers of the early days of French cinema with directors such Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir in the Forties to the heavily stylized modern directors like Luc Besson who directed 1994’s Leon and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. French movies are celebrated for pushing the visual and aesthetic boundaries of the cinematic medium, such as the ravishing work from Jeunet, most famous for Amélie. The Paris which Amélie skipped through feels distinctly vintage, owing to the accordion music and the sepia tint adding richness to panoramic skylines. It’s a sensory feast, but it never cloys in the way Hollywood rom-coms can do.
While films like Amélie have scored big at the UK box office, the British love of French cinema hit a cultural zenith in the Sixties, when Francophile hipsters spun records by the likes of Françoise Hardy and donned black polo necks to view the latest cinematic imports from New Wave directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
It was Godard who famously declared that all a movie needed was a girl and a gun – and France has always had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to actresses to play that girl. Just think of the groundbreaking sexiness of Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman in 1956 or the icy inscrutability of Catherine Deneuve’s buttoned-up prostitute in the 1964 masterpiece Belle De Jour, and you'll agree that French actresses can smoulder on screen like nobody else.
It’s a rich tradition with actresses including Juliette Binoche, Emmanuelle Beart and Marion Cotillard and rising stars such as Mélanie Laurent and Clémence Poésy garnering international attention.
Over the years French filmmakers have also been canny enough to tap into the country’s legendary fashion scene. Coco Chanel designed costumes for Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece La Règle Du Jeu, while Yves Saint Laurent made costumes for Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour, among others. But French cinema style isn’t confined to faces or clothes. Paris is one of the most cinematic cities in the world and its charms have graced numerous films: the quirky Montmartre streets in Amélie; the revered Shakespeare And Company bookshop at the start of Before Sunset in 2004 and the rundown post-war streets of Belleville in the beautiful 1956 classic The Red Balloon. The romance of Paris has also seen a stream of overseas films set there, such as the 1957 musical Funny Face starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, and Woody Allen’s latest, Midnight In Paris, a love letter to the City of Light. Paris has even worked its singular magic on animated movies like 2007’s Ratatouille and the 2003 Oscar-nominated Belleville Rendez-Vous. The city is a character in itself.
Beyond Paris, France is an equally photogenic country, from Provence in films like 1986’s Jean De Florette and its follow-up Manon Des Sources – sigh as you take in Provence’s fragrant hills and stone cottages, the pastis and the boules – to the super-glam Côte d’Azur as seen in films like Hitchcock’s 1955 To Catch A Thief.
With such a rich cinematic heritage, it’s not surprising that it was the French who coined the concept of the auteur – that cinema is the artistic voice of a director. And as film critic Andrew O’Hehir puts it, “What France has is a genuine ‘film culture’ in which certain movies deemed important by the intelligentsia are debated extensively despite their commercial insignificance.”
In Britain, a French movie on a Sunday afternoon is the ultimate high-brow first date. Among France's numerous cultural exports – Impressionist art and Existentialist philosophy, for example – French cinema is our most accessible fix of French culture. Somehow, a French film isn’t just a movie; we get a helping of philosophy, art and sociology alongside our popcorn.
It’s that intensity about the art form that makes French cinema so great. And worth discussing in a smokey cafe where it all began.
Images: Rex Features