Critics' Conversation: In a Year of Unease, French Cinema Failed to Engage

Courtesy of TIFF; Cannes Film Festival; Venice International Film Festival
From left: 'The Sisters Brothers,' 'Sauvage' and 'Mektoub My Love'

The Hollywood Reporter's Paris-based critics ponder the best, worst and most baffling of French cinema in a year that ended with upheaval but failed to produce many films that meaningfully reflected the national mood.

JORDAN MINTZER With the usual slew of strikes and scandals, not to mention all the soccer mania that happened over the summer (Allez les bleus!), things felt rather routine and even upbeat in France throughout 2018. That is until this past month.

The gilets jaunes protests, which began in the provinces and made their way to Paris at the end of November, hit the country like a socio-political sledgehammer (or more like lots of regular-sized hammers smashing the windows of Starbucks, McDonald’s and various banks around the city). Things have calmed down ever since President Macron backtracked on the gas tax hike that had initially sparked the protests, while promising other economic incentives to help retirees and low-wage earners. But the general feeling of unrest remains strong, with a growing movement fueled by the same working-class resentment that brought Brexit to the U.K. and Trump into office.

I’m providing some up-to-date context because in terms of French movies, this year’s crop was fairly tepid when it came to social or political engagement. There were not as many bleak, Dardenne-style kitchen sink dramas as usual, nor did many of the best or most intriguing films take place in the present, or even in France.

One notable exception is Stephane Brize’s At War, which starred his usual main man Vincent Lindon as a factory worker leading a long and grueling strike against management that turns, per the title, into a war of attrition and occasional violence. The movie played more like fly-on-the-wall documentary than pure fiction, and, given what’s happened in this country since At War premiered in Cannes, it feels fairly prescient. In fact, many of the strikers in Brize’s film wear symbolic red vests when they shut down their factory and fight off riot police. That’s just a few shades away from the yellow vests that have turned France on its head as the year comes to a close.

BOYD VAN HOEIJ It’s been a while since we’ve seen a film engagé really resonating in France and though At War had a splashy competition slot in Cannes, it wasn’t one of the most talked-about films there — and it also didn’t do great at the local box office, where it struggled to reach 200,000 admissions. (Brize’s previous Cannes contender, The Measure of a Man, sold around 900,000 tickets.)

In fact, I’m not convinced the director’s best works are his more politically engaged ones. His “sentimental” films — and I mean this in the French sense of being more focused on private emotions rather than necessarily being corny or maudlin — such as Not Here to Be Loved, Mademoiselle Chambon and, recently, A Woman’s Life, all feel authentic, lived-in and heartfelt. His more socio-political work, on the other hand, tends to focus so much on the minutiae of the mechanisms and processes he’s exploring that we lose track of how these things impact the character’s emotional lives.

That said, and as usual, I’m not sure that audiences are staying away because of any perceived lack of quality in this year’s French dramas; one of the major discoveries released in 2018, and one of the few other French films tackling a major social issue this year, was Xavier Legrand’s debut feature Custody. But that fine work, too, struggled to set the box office on fire last March (the 2017 Venice premiere did get sold to a lot of other countries, including the U.S., where it had a small release over the summer).

The film, inspired by an Oscar-nominated short from the same director, looks at a family where the kids suffer from the souring relationship between their divorced parents and probes such complex themes as the psychological repercussions of an acrimonious separation and domestic violence, as well as how parental love and care can be used as a shield against a former partner in a custody battle. It’s so well performed and well written — except for the ending — and announces Legrand as a major new French director on the scene.

MINTZER Over the past few years we’ve talked about what defines a “French movie” at a time when French filmmakers are working increasingly abroad in different languages. Or how directors from origins not considered français de souche ("pureblood" Frenchmen) — to employ the term adopted by right-wing nationalists here — have been making some of the better French movies of the past decade or so.

When it comes to the former, 2018 brought two interesting cases: Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers and Claire Denis’s High Life. Both are examples of well established auteurs (and one recent Palme d’Or winner) venturing into bigger-budget genre territory with the help of major stars — Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly and Jake Gyllenhaal in the Audiard, and Robert Pattinson in the Denis.

Although The Sisters Brothers played well in Venice, where it won the Silver Lion, its U.S. release was a flop that dealt another blow to distributor Annapurna Pictures. I actually think it’s Audiard’s best movie in a while: I loved how he twisted the classic Western genre into a droll and sensitive tale of shattered masculinity, and how — unlike in Dheepan — he ended his film not with a bang, but with a sense of appeasement.

High Life, on the other hand, didn’t work for me, and as someone who’s admired Claire Denis for a long time — probably since seeing I Can’t Sleep in the mid-'90s — it pains me to say so. Even if the film has some great ideas in it, including a whirligig masturbation machine known as the “fuckbox” (a very Denisian version of The Orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s Sleeper), it felt belabored and just too grim and violent in places, in the same vein as the director’s pitch-black film noir from 2013, Bastards.

VAN HOEIJ It feels like a year in which many of the more ambitious and thus potentially interesting French films either didn’t fully convince or, even when they did, didn’t manage to connect with anything beyond a small niche audience — and I’m not sure which of the two scenarios is more depressing.

Besides Custody, the most noteworthy debut for me this year was Camille Vidal-Naquet’s Sauvage, which was also widely praised after its festival bow (in the Critics’ Week in Cannes) but then failed to make much of a mark in cinemas. That said, this slice-of-life piece about a male hustler, played with arresting ferocity and deep wells of emotions by breakout star Felix Maritaud, is about as easy a sell as a film about Denis’ “fuckbox” — especially one grim scene about forced penetration with some enormous sex toys that’s impossible to watch without squirming in your seat. It’s one of those daringly cinematic moments — all off-screen anxiety and angst — that serves Vidal-Naquet’s warts-and-all portrait of a very dangerous job, but whose veracity makes it unlikely to ever be widely seen.

In terms of what the French did go to see in 2018, there’s Incredibles 2, which was the most-watched movie of the year. Numbers two and three at the box-office, Les Tuche 3 and La Ch’tite Famille, respectively, were both homemade sequels to conceptual comedies and actually weren’t as lazy as we’ve come to expect lately, though that admittedly doesn’t set the bar very high.

Indeed, French cinema seems to be profiting more than ever from the fact that audiences want to forget about everything the gilets jaunes are denouncing, with the Cannes Out of Competition title Le Grand Bain, from actor-turned-director Gilles Lellouche, also landing a spot in the top ten grossers, as did the action vehicle — excuse the pun — Taxi 5, which is more of a reboot than a straight-up sequel. Le Grand Bain was, for me, surprisingly effective as a “Full Monty in Speedos,” as our review bottom line sells it. And it’s certainly a pleasure to see serious actors like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Amalric tackle fare that’s not only lighter but also clearly aimed at a different audience than the usual group of five Left Bank intellectuals plus whoever gets to write the Cahiers du cinéma review.

MINTZER I feel like the Left Bank-Cahiers du cinéma model is something that won’t really survive the New Wave generation, with Jean-Luc Godard — who just turned 88 and unleashed his latest montage opus, The Image Book, in Cannes — probably the last major working filmmaker from that epoch. There were a few minor works this year that tried to channel some of that classic Nouvelle Vague vibe, including Jean Paul Civeyrac’s A Paris Education and Louis Garrel’s A Faithful Man. Both were decent films that also felt like they belonged to another time.

For me there was one French movie that really stood out from the pack in 2018, though I know you and many others are going to groan when I mention the title: Mektoub My Love: Canto Uno, by Abdellatif Kechiche, which premiered in Venice to middling reviews and barely made a dent at the box office in April. The film doesn’t even have a U.S. distributor, which is rare for a work by a filmmaker whose Blue Is the Warmest Color was awarded the Palme d'Or by Steven Spielberg only five years ago.

I suspect some of the backlash against the movie comes from the accusations (by actresses like Lea Seydoux) against Kechiche for being an abusive and misogynistic filmmaker — one whose male gaze can be both omnipresent and off-putting. Mektoub premiered just ahead of the Weinstein affair and the rise of #MeToo, so it’s no wonder that a film that takes on the viewpoint of a horny young wannabe director, and begins with a long and explicit sex scene, didn’t go over well.

In your review — or rather, in your pan  — you were right to question Kechiche’s gaze, as well as a few incongruities (such as the fact that people are twerking in a nightclub scene set in the early '90s). At the same time, you also said that “Kechiche is a master at creating entrancing images that feel at once naturalistic and out-of-this-world.” This is what lured me into the film, along with all the moving performances by a cast of amateurs who embodied the mystery, longing and sensuality of youth in ways I have rarely seen.

And while Mektoub didn’t play well upon release, it did appear on lots of year-end lists (including Le Monde’s) as a reminder that the French have their own, very French way of approaching gender, sexuality and the cinema. Despite a country that's increasingly globalized and constantly fears losing its identity, when it comes to movies, l’exception française still seems to exist. The question is: For how long?