Critics' Notebook: A Tough Year for France, Reflected Onscreen

French cinema wasn't all sex and cigarettes this year, THR's Paris-based critics write: Several films grappled with the issues of immigration, racial tension, terror and national identity that made headlines at home and abroad.

Jordan Mintzer: I’d love to get right down to business, but, truth be told, when the French look back on the year 2015, movies will be the last thing on anyone’s mind. The traumatic attacks that took place in January and November were unprecedented in local history — this in a country that has lived through waves of terrorist incidents dating as far back as the 1970s, if not earlier. Yet the events of this year, and particularly the Paris shootings of last month, were something frighteningly new: An unsparing assault on the French way of life, with victims chosen for their religious or political beliefs, or simply because they were out having a good time.

Films can entertain us (hopefully), but they can also inform us, and a handful of recent French movies have attempted to tackle themes directly or indirectly related to the attacks. One of them — the homegrown jihad thriller Made in France — was due out on Nov. 18, only to have its release postponed in the wake of the shootings. (It will now be distributed online in late January.) A previous essay discussed how such films, which also include Thomas Bidegain’s Islamist-themed Western, Cowboys, have explored the threat of jihadism on French soil — specifically how young men and women can turn to extremism, taking up arms against their fellow citizens.

One film not discussed in that piece was Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winner Dheepan — a movie that is not about terrorism per se, though it is about how violence in foreign lands can find its echo back in France, particularly in the multiethnic suburbs (or banlieues) surrounding Paris. Like many people, I was both impressed and moved by Audiard’s portrayal of a makeshift Tamil family trying to get by in one very dangerous housing project — that is until the film veered into Rambo territory in the closing reel. Many of Audiard’s movies have violent, and sometimes problematic, endings, but this one nearly undid all that came beforehand: It felt as if the director lost faith in his own movie and decided to blow it all to smithereens in the final act.

Boyd van Hoeij: As you know I’m a big fan of Cowboys, which was written and shot way before the most recent attacks (and at the same time as Dheepan, which Bidegain co-wrote), and watching it now is both eerie and something of a wake-up call about how what happened didn’t just occur out of the blue, but has been fermenting for years. I know Bidegain is now concentrating on his career as a screenwriter, but I do hope he’ll tackle something as complex and pertinent as this again soon.

As for Dheepan: The Palme d’Or has something of a career-prize ring to it, even if technically it is awarded for a film and not a career, and I think that is what happened this year. I have yet to meet anyone in France who thinks Dheepan is Audiard’s best film or even that it was the best film in this year’s competition. (Critical favorite Son of Saul didn’t stand a chance if the whole career of the filmmaker mattered, since it’s a debut feature.) That said, what I find most interesting about Dheepan is how it suggests that French cinema has really become more international and unafraid of stories that aren’t in French, feature French stars or are even (entirely) set in France.

The surprise French foreign-language Oscar submission, Mustang, is a second good example of this trend and another welcome case of a woman director telling a strong, female-driven story (in this case about five sisters in the Turkish hinterlands). Movies such as these exist in a kind of fascinating grey area, since they couldn’t have been made the way they were in their home countries, but certainly aren’t “franco-français,” as the local expression goes, either. Mustang feels decidedly art house-European — the director, Deniz Gamze Erguven, studied cinema in Paris — and it would surprise me if Turkish audiences responded positively toward the film, since it’s so obviously tailored to (more) Western tastes. But I’m glad it exists. Of all the films in Cannes by female directors, including opener Standing Tall and competition titles Marguerite & Julien and Mon Roi (Mustang played the Quinzaine), this was, for me, by far the most vivid and fascinating one.

Mintzer: You’re raising a very interesting point about what currently defines a “French film.” Is it a movie about five teenage girls in Turkey, or one about three characters who lounge around Parisian apartments, chain-smoke cigarettes and have tons of sex? (That would be Gaspar Noe’s Love, which is nonetheless mostly in English.) Or is it one about two white French dads vacationing in Corsica, where all is fine and dandy until one of them sleeps with the other’s 17-year-old daughter? (That would be Jean-François Richet’s misogynistic summer comedy, One Wild Moment.)

If, as the saying goes, cinema is meant to be a mirror of society, then unlike those two films, many of the more interesting movies that came out here this year seem to underscore how much French society is in the midst of an identity crisis — one that’s been reflected in such books as Eric Zemmour’s Le Suicide français and Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, both of which topped the best-seller list in 2015.

A strong illustration of this sentiment can be found in writer-director Diasteme’s underrated drama French Blood (the original title, Un français, is more subtle), where the story of a violent skinhead’s gradual redemption is set against the backdrop of a country that has veered more and more toward the extreme right in recent years. There’s a terrific scene early in the film where the main character, played by talented upstart Alban Lenoir, is riding a city bus filled with immigrants and basically has a panic attack, as if the fact that he’s not surrounded by Frenchies who look just like himself is literally making him sick. It’s a telling moment, especially in a year when the xenophobic National Front party is pulling in more votes than ever.

Van Hoeij: For me, French Blood was definitely one of the most interesting French films to screen in Toronto this year, much more pertinent and thought-provoking than the overhyped, supposedly shocking teen sex flick Bang Gang from newbie director Eva Husson, which looked as gorgeous as a high-end perfume commercial but was also just as empty.

There were French films that had a lot more interesting things to say about sex this year, including the Larrieu brothers’ recent necrophilia-themed sex comedy — yes, really! — 21 Nights with Pattie, and one of the loveliest surprises of the year for me: Catherine Corsini’s Summertime. The latter’s a romance about a country girl (Izia Higelin) who falls in love with a Parisian feminist activist (Cecile de France) in the early 1970s. Though Corsini struggles to find the right tone for the material, which veers from the political to the more personal without ever managing to fuse the two, it was refreshing to see a French film tackle same-sex attraction not as a gimmick — which is what the threesome in Love often felt like — but as something genuine and just as normal and complicated as any heterosexual love affair. In that sense, though it’s a period film, it feels contemporary and reflects the part of French society that’s embraced or at least come to terms with same-sex marriage, which is still as controversial here as it is stateside for a part of the population.

Summertime’s modern point of view bridged the gap between the 1970s and today, and two other films suspended between the past and the present deserve to be mentioned here, since they represent some of the best things made in France this year: Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days and Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women. Garrel’s isn’t actually a period film but feels like it’s set in some indefinite time between 1967 and now — at least until the lead casually pulls out a cell phone. Its use of black and white and play on themes dear to Garrel (and familiar to his viewers) suggest something about how what’s at stake in amorous entanglements hasn’t changed over time, while Golden Days actually goes back and forth between the past and the present to observe how love can blossom and wither (also one of the main themes of Garrel’s feature). These two stories feel loose and meandering, but both hide a quiet mastery on every level that allows them to build to hushed but devastating conclusions.

If such depth and control can be expected of master filmmakers, it’s almost even more of a pleasure to find it in the new work of a director who has clearly matured. Until this year’s The Sweet Escape, Bruno Podalydes was known for his comedies or comedy-dramas, though his latest is something altogether more complex, with a no-nonsense approach to sex and sly use of narrative construction that’s similar to that found in Desplechin and Garrel’s films. It also features one of the year’s loveliest shots in French cinema, involving Post-Its and the naked body of Agnes Jaoui, a merry widow that the married protagonist, played by Podalydes himself, finds on his path to self-realization.

Mintzer: You’ve given a good overview of some the best French auteur films to be released here this year, and I would add to that list Nicolas Pariser’s debut political thriller, The Great Game, starring the excellent duo of Andre Dussollier and Melvil Poupaud as a government puppet master and his younger intellectual pawn. This and the other movies mentioned are the kind that premiere stateside at the New York Film Festival and are distributed by indie labels like IFC, Kino Lorber and Cohen Media Group. But as you and I both know, these are not necessarily the types of films that the French themselves flock to see, and part of our job as correspondent-critics is to cover commercial releases that are huge hits at home but rarely make it over to the U.S.

In other words, we need to talk about Kev. That’s right: 24-year-old comic Kev Adams (whose real, much more ethnic-sounding name, is Kevin Smadja) was the number-one box-office star in 2015, even if nobody’s really heard of him outside of France. His two smash comedies, The New Adventures of Aladdin and Serial Teachers 2, have raked in a total of 8 million admissions, or about $80 million. When he shows up for a premiere, the audience is filled with screaming teenage girls and boys — a fan base he cultivates through an excessive presence on social media.

The fact that most highbrow French critics (as well as this critic) find Adams to be staggeringly unfunny has done little to hurt his massive success, and the handful of comedies he’s starred in thus far seem to be critic-proof in the same way that Marvel movies are when they’re released worldwide. He’s not unlike a younger Adam Sandler when he was rocking the box office with The Waterboy and Big Daddy, except Adams’ movies don’t even live up to the dregs of late Sandler works like Grown Ups 2.

It’s been nearly a decade that I’ve been covering French comedies like those by Adams, and I’ve always been struck by the gap between what general audiences here seem to enjoy versus what Americans like myself believe to be the “cinéma français" — that is, the very Parisian-friendly films discussed above. Every country has their own form of mass entertainment, and what’s impressive here is how movies like Aladdin and Teachers 2 tend to be hits everywhere except in Paris, as if there were an invisible wall separating the city from the rest of the country (there is, in fact, a circular highway that pretty much serves this purpose). “We’ll always have Paris,” as Bogart famously said, and many of us want to believe him despite all that's unfortunately happened this year. But when I sit through the Adams films or other such "comédies populaires," I’m often reminded of the fact that Paris and France are far from the same thing.