Beyond Depardieu: adventures in le cinema Francais

I am in France. I am sitting at a French table in a French house full of actual French people who insist on speaking French. I have just eaten a French meal and washed it down with a pleasing amount of excellent French red wine. So yes, right at this moment I am living the French dream, or Je vis le reve Francais (which may or may not be the correct translation and I don’t know how to render on a British keyboard all those extra fiddly bits that climb all over French letters (not THAT type of French letter) in order for the words to be pronounced correctly by French people or, in my case, somewhat mangled and then spat out with an overly-strong English accent).

It appears that I “double-bracketed” in that previous paragraph, an aberration for which I can only apologise. I could perhaps try and pass it off as a valid stylistic attempt to capture the myriad simultaneous computations of the human mind, the punctuational (?) equivalent of a magician (why aren’t there more female magicians, or as the French might say magiciennes?) whisking three cups along a flat surface and asking his audience to guess beneath which cup the coherent point lurks? I COULD do that. But it would be dreadful lie. And I respect you too much for that. So yes, I’m sorry. I’d like to suggest that it won’t happen again but you know what? It probably will.

Alors, back to all things French. This is a great country. And not just because of the food, although this is clearly a huge plume in its chapeau. A couple of days ago I ate a lunch so rich, so deliriously, perilously delicious that I had to have a two hour sleep immediately afterwards in order to recover. (God, I love being on holiday). However France can also be a frustrating (borderline racist at times), set-it-its-ways and insular country but at least it looks after its poor, treats its state workers with respect and after the horrors of a Sarkozy presidency, returned to good sense and elected a socialist to take decisions on taxation that drove the fat-headed, pissing-on-planes, horrid man that is Gerard Depardieu out of the country and into the warm embrace of famous humanitarian and all-around good egg Vladimir Putin. Or as French satirists might say, Vladimir Putain. (French joke; ask Google if you need to).

The fact that, in his pomp, Depardieu was an extraordinary actor is a little irritating but perhaps shows that if indeed there is a God he does have a dark sense of humour. Anyway, I will return to all things cinematic a little later in this ramble. Let me first tell you a story about my trip to la mer this afternoon.

We drove to the coast earlier under the first bit of sunshine I’ve seen for what feels like months and arrived at one of  the countless brilliant French beaches that pepper the extensive coastline. The French are not on holiday at the moment. The fact that I can make this statement, and for it to be largely true, reveals an enormous amount about French habit and psyche. You CAN generalise about an entire nation in a way that would be absurd if you tried to do the same about Britain (ignoring, clearly, the list I bashed together in the previous post concerning “truths” about Britishness). So yes, the French are currently not on holiday and so when you arrive at a pretty seaside town this is what you see:

Empty French beach

Just to clarify, I hadn’t roped off the local population in some sort of town-wide French-baiting police incident in order to secure the beach for myself, nor had I walked along the seafront happily eating a British beef burger (the French still believe that we carry BSE around like the common cold), no the truth of the matter was that there was no one there. The sun shone, the wind had dropped, the blue sea lapped gently against the golden sand and absolutely NOBODY was there to witness it. Such a scene would be unthinkable in Britain and as such it was all the more wonderful to experience it today. I did all those things that you’d do if a director asked you to act as if you were enjoying a rare spot of fresh air and good weather: I tipped back my head and closed my eyes at the watery sunshine; I inhaled and exhaled with all the drama of the very worst type of hammy (Gillinghammy?) amateur actor; I “mmmmm”-ed to myself a few times and then I showed off by saying “Que ca fait du bien” JUST BECAUSE I CAN.

What has all this got to do with filmmaking? Absolutely nothing of course. But that will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog. However, Jimmy arrives tomorrow and along with some pressing production work required in the ever-shortening approach to the “High Tide” shoot, we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of spending a few hours discussing our NEXT film, which very, very tentatively might MIGHT just possibly be at least partially set in France. That is if we don’t make an utter pig’s arse of our debut feature which, let’s be honest, we still might.

Despite being married to a French lady, I am far from an expert on French cinema, despite her best efforts to educate me. When I was taught French at school, the standard end of term “treat” was to watch a knackered VHS copy of one of the only two French films ever made (or so we thought) – i.e. Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. To us these films seemed ancient (although actually they’d been made relatively recently when we saw them) and I would like to say that despite my tender years I was moved by the tragic story of Jean the hunchback and by the eventual revenge of his daughter. The truth is I found them dull. I mean for a start they were set in the countryside and when you yourself grow up in a rural area what you really want to see are exotic cities, clumps of illuminated skyscrapers, dingy, graffitied underpasses, glass and steel, not a peasant with a big nose who chases chickens. And secondly, and more problematically, THEY WERE IN FRENCH. And although by Year 9 (or third year, as we called it, in those “pre-decimal” days of school year labels) we could ask our way to the railway station and say that we lived in Devon, the linguistic subtleties of early C20th French rural life were entirely lost on us. Not only this, the television (and video) was one of those ones kept in a sort of cupboard on wheels (immediately familiar to any British adult of a certain age) and you could only read the subtitles if you were sitting at the front of the class. And we didn’t do that except in Geography because we fancied Mrs Miller.

To our minds (and this frequent use of third person possessive determiner refers to me and my school buddies with whom I had many low-risk adventures with bikes, go-karts, booze and eventually (and entirely unsuccessfully) girls during our formative years – see, told you I would double-bracket again) the ONLY interesting moment in either film was the brief flash of Emmanuelle Beart’s breasts in “Manon des Sources” and even this moment of wonder was usually spoiled by our French teacher standing in front of the screen to howls of derision from the spotty, horny teenage boys in the class. Mind you this moment of censorship (the kind of which you would never get in France) was as nothing compared to the travails of our music teacher when showing us Quadrophenia as part of a unit on Sixties music. She seemed pretty relaxed about the regular drug use in the film but would leap across the classroom (this being in the pre-remote control era) and scramble for fast forward during the masturbation scene (which did render the scene all the more hilarious to watch) and would near-explode with panic during sex in the alley moment at which she would press stop and then fast forward “blind”. Memorably (and it is no wonder that we remember given our age at the time) she once showed us the sex scene several times over by trying to find the correct place in the film again once she’d finished her attempted censorship. This was clearly the very best music lesson ever in the history of English secondary education.

Looking at them again now, Jean and Manon are cinematic masterpieces. They are by turns, tender, brutal and hugely moving. Gerard Depardieu is stunning in the title role of the first film (as indeed is Daniel Auteuil who went on to be near- ubiquitous in French cinema of the 90s) and Beart is just as good in the sequel. But to think of them as the sole representatives of French cinema is like suggesting that British culture is expressed most accurately by the films of Richard Curtis or if you own Don McLean’s “American Pie” album you need never buy another record by an American artist.

Cinema is in the blood of the French nation, as much as bread, wine and cheese (and not just because they invented the whole thing in the first place). As a British filmmaker I can only envy the health and stature of a French film industry that produces dozens of excellent films every year that reach interested, knowledgeable audiences. This is truly a nation that tells stories about itself. That said, despite the wonder of French cinema, French television is truly execrable. We have Doctor Who. They have Jules et Jim.  We make better television, they make much, much better films.  My esteemed colleague Jimmy Hay will happily sit you down at his dining table and talk you through the highlights of la nouvelle vague (he even has a giant poster of A bout de souffle above said dining table thus cementing his credentials as a proper cineaste) but I will end these gallic ramblings with five films francais of recent years that I have enjoyed. There are many, many more. And there may be many better. But all of these choices stay with me.

1. Comme une image (2003) Dir. Agnes Jouai

2. Ne le dit a personne (2007) Dir.Guillaume Canet

3. De battre mon coeur s’est arrête (2005) Dir. Jacques Audiard

4. Paris (2008) Dir. Cedric Klapisch

5. Intouchables (2011) Dir. Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache

Oh balls, Jimmy will kill me if I don’t include this final one, so the list is now SIX French films that I have enjoyed. Although I don’t think “enjoy” is quite the right word to describe my reaction to this final one; “shocked”, “moved”, “troubled” might be better verbs.

6. Cache (2005) Dir. Michael Haneke

And there we go. Apologies to French readers for the lack of accents and cedillas in the titles above.

Et maintenant, Je pense qu’il est presque l’heure de se coucher. Peut-être qu’il est temps pour un dernier verre de vin?

Salut et a bientôt.

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4 thoughts on “Beyond Depardieu: adventures in le cinema Francais

  1. La Nouvelle Vague | One quality, the finest.

  2. Hi James,
    I love traveling vicariously through you and “Long Arm Films.” I have several … questions/ponderings if you are willing to entertain my American ignorance. Some are deep but most are just plain useless and trivial – but fun. So in no particular order, here goes.

    1. In the U.S. culture (unless you are rich or a wine snob) there are typically only three or four flavors of cheese. They are Chedder, Swiss, Jack, and Colby. Now there’s obviously more at the store, but most are combinations of these or variations of these. I personally have fallen in love with a brand or type called “Dubliner” that is supposedly aged in a cave for a number of … time. European countries, as I recall from my brief time in Germany and visit to Italy, Amsterdam (don’t judge my priorities) is not this way. What’s your favorite cheese and one of these days, feel free to ramble about cheese culture (pun intended) before imparting the most recent Long Arm proceedings.

    2. About that – how did the film company get it’s name? It reminds me of a very U.S. saying – “The long arm of the law,” reminiscent of Westerns. I envision a young Clint Eastwood with a little cowboy cigar sticking out of his mouth … but then my genre’s get mixed up and he says, “Feeling lucky?!” I digress. I am sure you’ve blogged about the choosing of this name, but I’m a lazy American. You know the type?

    3. I love foreign films (when I’m not too lazy to read the subtitles)! I particularly like movies that remake good books and do it superbly. So I’ve actually seen “Tell No One” but couldn’t begin to tell you the French title. I thought they did a great job with that Harlan Coban book. But this brings me in a very sort of round-about way to my last curiosity. The only real differences in language we encounter on a regular basis in the U.S. is Spanish. Um, well not really Spanish, but the version of Spanish that Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and also other “Hispanic” nationals or descendants of those nations speak. But I recall that Germans were often highly pissed that I couldn’t speak their language, as well as Italians when I visited those countries. It is amazing to me how various European folks can speak a variety of different languages and don’t think anything of it. Do you actually speak more than one or two languages, and how did you learn them?

    Yep. There you have it on this lazy (that’s three of those in this comment – wow) Sunday in Boise, Idaho. Feel free to be as lazy as me and get to this when you feel like it. Cheers!

    • Hello,

      Apologies for the delay in replying; it has been one of those manic weeks . . . .

      I am delighted that you are enjoying the blog and tracking the progress of Long Arm Films – we have some exciting announcements upcoming so stay tuned.

      In answer to your questions:

      1. Cheese. Easily one of my favourite things in the world and I will certainly take you up on your invitation to write about it on the blog one day. I can’t understand why a country with such a massive dairy industry as America does not really “get” cheese. Over here, cheese is very popular. In France it is close to a religion. My top 3 British cheeses would be 1. Stilton. 2. Dorset Blue Vinney 3. Cornish Yarg. (you will probably have to look them up!). Top 2 French cheeses: 1 – Comte 2 – Neufchatel 3 – Cantal.

      2. “Long Arm Films” got its name from a musical I wrote a few years ago. It was called “Moon on a Stick” and told the story of an intergalactic fast-food empire. It featured a race of aliens whose very long arms had been discovered to taste great with ketchup and as such were close to extinction. It was all very silly. The Long Arm aliens were one of the hits of the show and the name sort of stuck.

      3 – Indeed, Tell No One (Ne le dit a personne – sorry I don’t mean to show off) is excellent. We all learn European languages at school but generally not very well. Most British people do what Americans do and travel around the world speaking English. We are lucky that it is very much the lingua franca of the world. I myself also speak French. Not brilliantly but I can understand everything and make myself understood when speaking. This is largely because I married a French woman! My French has improved hugely in the ten years we have been together – although her English is still better than my French. I do spend a fair amount of time in France so it does get easier.

      Hope that answers your questions.

      Boise, Idaho sounds impossibly exotic to a bloke from Devon!

      Happy Saturday.

      James,

      writing in Ealing, London, UK.

      • Boise – far from exotic. Now Pierce, ID … where I’ll be moving in a few weeks … very … off the beaten path.
        Moon on a Stick – sounds very Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – where can I find this masterpiece?
        Thanks for the cheese intro. I will look those up! Dairy here is mostly about milk supposedly doing your body good (that’s the ad campaign) and ice cream.

        My wife taught me the language of financial responsibility – hence I can afford a mac and write my blog. They are so good like that!

        Peace!

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