Critic’s Notebook: Racism, Murder and Techno (The Year in French Cinema)

Ptit Quinquin Cannes Film Still - H 2014

Ptit Quinquin Cannes Film Still - H 2014

THR’s Paris-based critics discuss the year in French film, from the lows of bad box-office smashes to the highs of budding auteurs on both the big and small screen

Jordan Mintzer: Any talk of French film in 2014 cannot ignore the two white (or platinum blond) elephants in the room: the box office smashes that were the popular comedy Serial (Bad) Weddings (whose French title translates roughly to: Good God, What Have We Done to Deserve This?) and Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp blockbuster, Lucy, which stars Scarlett Johansson as a superheroine who’s infinitely smarter than the movie she’s playing in. Both films received mixed to middling reviews, especially at home, yet wound up breaking the bank both domestically and internationally: Weddings is the #1 French film locally, and its worldwide cume is edging over $150 million; Lucy is the most successful French film ever, with a gross of $450 million.

In each case, we can safely say that quantity beats quality, though I wasn’t totally immune to the guilty pleasures of Lucy, narrative logic be damned. But Weddings, which is a farce about a country notaire whose four white Catholic daughters successively marry a Jew, an Arab, an Asian and finally, an African, just didn’t do it for me, and I found myself constantly sighing in a Paris theatre rocked with laughter. Of course, not all jokes cross borders, though a recent accusation that U.S distributors haven’t picked up the film because its racial humor is too politically incorrect, is pure baloney: it’s just not that funny. Yet the French public clearly disagrees, even if Weddings’ success also seems to be a question of socio-political wish fulfillment, right?

Read More 'Serial (Bad) Weddings': Film Review

Boyd Van Hoeij: One of the reasons Serial (Bad) Weddings -- which also has a seriously bad international title -- was such a hit, I think, is that it seemed to suggest that it was ok to be a little racist, as long as everyone gets the short end of the stick occasionally. This is of course a very comforting notion -- at least for the bourgeois majority of a nation that should be a melting pot but more than often is not. Personally, I find it rather odd to try and make a can’t-we-all-get-along comedy by admitting not that we’re all at least a little bit racist (which is probably true) but by suggesting there’s nothing wrong with that -- even better, it’s supposed to be funny!

Though technically a French film, I have a hard time considering Lucy as such. The only thing that feels foreign about this Hollywood-type action vehicle is that the star is a woman. Though often accused of Xeroxing Hollywood movies (and B movies at that), if there’s one thing we can be thankful for, it’s the fact that Besson is not afraid of producing or directing female-driven films, from Nikita to Joan of Arc, The Fifth Element to Colombiana, The Lady and now Lucy.

What’s interesting about your picks is that in terms of French domestic 2014 box-office, Weddings and Lucy place first and third, though number two is also a French production: Superchondriac from comic-turned-actor-director Dany Boon (Welcome to the Sticks). Though it made $45m in France alone, it’s considered a disappointment by many -- something that can only happen if your two previous hits made $74m and $193m. A similar fate befell a host of other titles, including Samba, a more serious comedy-drama from the makers of $166m juggernaut Intouchables that has made a very tidy $22.5m so far (it’s still in cinemas) and is also considered a disappointment. But moving on for a moment — what were some of the finest French films regardless of box-office for you this year?

JM: Before we get to the good stuff, it’s worth pointing out a major flop of 2014, which was Michel HazavaniciusThe Search. The $27m film premiered to little fanfare in Cannes, and came out late November in a version shorter by 15 minutes. Yet despite a new cut, it doesn’t look like the Warner Bros. release will make more than $1m in French theatres. I won’t opine on the movie because I haven’t seen it, but it’s an impressive slide to go from The Artist to this -- though there’s no faulting an Oscar-winning director for ambition (see Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate).

That said, there were a number of more modest French films released in 2014 that showcased the kind of innovative auteur cinema that gets exported abroad. I’m thinking of Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood, Thomas Cailley’s Love at First Fight and Thomas Lilti’s Hippocrates – all of which premiered in Cannes sidebars, revealing how true talent can sometimes be found outside the main competition. To them I would add what’s definitely my favorite French film of the year: Mia Hansen-Love’s electro epic, Eden, which was notably absent from Cannes and wound up playing Toronto. For me, Eden represents what French movies in the New Wave tradition do best: telling stories in a carefree way that’s both personal and emotional, while providing a portrait of the times that doubles as an expose on the cinematic medium itself – in this case, on the power of music in film.

Read More 'Eden': Toronto Review

BVH: I loved Hansen-Love's first three films but thought Eden was extremely disappointing. What you call carefree I would call boring, apathetic and shockingly underdeveloped. I didn’t care for the humdrum highs and lows of this slacker-druggie-DJ-person for one second. Indeed, when the character played by Laura Smet faults the protagonist for not being combative enough, she was also speaking for me. He’s such a dope, he almost literally puts the “stasis” in ecstasy. The fact his life passes him by may be the point of the movie, but it doesn’t mean it necessarily makes for an interesting one. So we’ll have to agree to disagree!

However, I totally agree with you on Girlhood, in which the Rihanna singalong scene alone is worth the price of admission, and especially Love at First Fight, which feels like one of the most uncompromising debut features of the last couple of years. There’s a certainty of vision there that’s striking. I would add to that list Breathe, the second feature-length directorial outing from Inglourious Basterds actress Melanie Laurent, which feels similarly intimate but extremely confident and also has great female energy, and two works from established filmmakers: the French-language Diplomacy by German director Volker Schlondorff and the English-language Sils Maria from French director Olivier Assayas (aka Hansen-Love’s other half). The former stars two men and the latter three women, but both make the struggles of their characters with themselves and with each other not only extremely involving, but also suggestive of the complexity behind our often very instinctive decision-making processes.

Looking at this list, it again comes to my attention how different France seems to be from the U.S.; in our short discussion of just a handful of films, three have been directed by women and a few others are about very complicated women. Perhaps if Eden’s protagonist had also been a woman, Hansen-Love would have been able to forget to a larger extent that the story is based on the life of her own brother?

Read More 'Clouds of Sils Maria': Cannes Review

JM: I think Eden works because it is about the filmmaker’s brother, which is what makes it so moving, yet also so mundane in some ways. The DJ protagonist, Paul, is far from an exceptional person, yet Hansen-Love depicts his struggles – with drugs, money, and above all with himself – in an exceptional way, using them to reveal the rise and fall of the “French Touch” electronic music generation, which yielded a few major stars (Daft Punk, Air) and lots of guys (because it’s mostly a guy thing) who never made it big. In France, Eden has been a divisive movie – always a good sign, in my opinion – and certainly not a box office success, but I think it will grow on people in years to come. To quote Daft Punk, perhaps you need to give it “One More Time.”

What you point out about female filmmakers and characters is interesting, because I feel like it’s something that’s never really discussed by the press or public here. Which isn’t to say that the French film industry is less male-dominated than the American one, but when women make movies here, they’re just considered directors, not “distaff directors.” Claire Denis is first and foremost an auteur, even if her films reveal what some may deem to be a female sensibility toward violence and genre tropes. It’s the same way that Abdellatif Kechiche (Blue is the Warmest Color) is an auteur before he is a “Tunisian-born director.” We’re all equal here before the cinematic gods – which takes us back to the Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite conceit of the box office mega-hit Serial (Bad) Weddings. Though in that case I’d add: the gods must be crazy.

To end on a high note, I think it’s worth mentioning what might be the most exciting new French film of the year, though it isn’t actually a movie at all. I’m thinking of Bruno Dumont’s L’il Quinquin, a 4-episode TV series that premiered in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight (the sidebars, again!) and aired on the Franco-German network Arte this fall. We can both agree that French serial television is generally awful with a few decent exceptions (most notably Fabrice Gobert’s The Returned). So it came as a real surprise to see Dumont – who’s directed brutal existential films like L’Humanite and Flanders – bring his auteur chops to the small-screen format, while also making his first comedy. L’il Quiquin is like True Detective meets Louis de Funes (the great French slapstick comic) by way of Brueghel: it’s dark, beautifully composed and hilarious. I’ve never seen anything like it, and neither has anyone else. Like what's happened in the U.S. over the last decade, it's possible that in France, the revolution will be televised as well.