Critics' Notebook: A Year of Change and Resistance in French Cinema

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THR's Paris-based critics discuss the year in French movies, from Cannes favorites to the emergence of a new generation of female directors and renewed debate around Roman Polanski.

Jordan Mintzer: It seems possible to say 2019 will go down as a watershed year for French cinema. Not necessarily for the movies made, although there were some pretty good ones, but for the fact that the #MeToo movement finally crossed the Atlantic and arrived on the shores of France. As they say here: "mieux tard que jamais."

The sea change happened after two incidents that occurred only a few days apart in early November: The first was the accusation, made via a long investigative article published by Mediapart, of sexual abuse committed by director Christophe Ruggia against actress Adèle Haenel (star of Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, discussed below), which allegedly occurred when the latter was between the ages of 12 and 15 and Ruggia in his late 30s. The article sent shockwaves through the industry, with Ruggia suspended from the SRF, the director’s association behind the Cannes Directors' Fortnight that he used to co-chair, which is currently deliberating whether to permanently oust him.

The second incident is perhaps less surprising in that it involved Roman Polanski — a French and Polish citizen who has lived in Paris since he fled the U.S. in 1978 — being once again accused of rape, this time by French actress Valentine Monnier. The accusation joins a handful of others made in recent years, as well as the case of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey that sent Polanski on the run over four decades ago.

What’s perhaps different this time around is that the accusation, published in Le Parisien a few days before the release of Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy, sparked several public denunciations and a widespread debate as to whether the movie should be seen at all — that thorny question of whether it's possible to separate the art from the artist. For the latter, it seems the public here has thus far answered a resounding “oui”: The movie is a box office success that has already surpassed 1 million admissions and will likely be Polanski’s most profitable French release since 2002's The Pianist (which, as a reminder, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and three Oscars, including best director).

I’m not going to add to the art versus artist debate, because I honestly don’t know what I could add of interest. But I will say that I saw An Officer in a packed Paris cinema on a weekday afternoon and was surprisingly taken by it. Surprised because I haven't liked much of Polanski's recent output, but felt this film was, in many ways, a return to form, and one in which the form very much fit the content — the content being the Alfred Dreyfus affair of 1894, in which a Jewish officer was falsely accused of treason by the French army for what were purely anti-Semitic reasons; and the form being an intricately crafted detective story with echoes of Chinatown and The Ghost Writer, marked by an oppressive sense of claustrophobia and a general sense of human foulness. In other words, for better or worse, it felt like pure Polanski.

Boyd Van Hoeij: It's good to see that a debate has at least been started in the French film industry, specifically surrounding the #MeToo movement but also about equality in general. Though it's still slow going in some areas, things do seem to be changing and Cannes was a prime showcase for that this year. Three out of a total of four female-directed films in competition — or two more than Venice this year! — were made by French filmmakers: Sibyl by Justine Triet; Atlantics by Mati Diop, who is of Franco-Senegalese origin; and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which, as you mentioned, stars Adèle Haenel in what might be her finest performance.

Out of the French Cannes competition movies, the one that resonated most strongly for me — perhaps because I'm a queer person but more likely because the filmmaking is simply so good — was definitely Sciamma's Portrait. It's a film about women that actually uses the idea of the female gaze and turns it into a thematic concern: In the late 18th century, a female painter (played by Noémie Merlant) manages to see the titular Lady (played by Haenel) for who she really is, after the painter has been asked to secretly paint her portrait for a potential male suitor, and does so without the subject noticing it because she doesn't want to get married at all.

The beauty of Sciamma's finely chiseled historical romance is that its more intellectual concerns are never far from the surface, but instead of feeling academic or cold, the film turns the twin actions of looking and being seen into acts of defiant eroticism that are explicitly linked to who these women are. As a viewer, your act of looking in turn makes you fully complicit in the couple's increasingly burning obsession. It was without doubt the best thing I saw in Cannes this year.

Mintzer: Along with the Sciamma film, both Atlantics and Sibyl offered uniquely female-driven narratives and points-of-view, the former via an avant-garde ghost story of possession and loss in West Africa, the latter via a meta-psychological thriller that dug very deep into its heroine's frantic mind. Diop's movie, which was her first narrative feature, was a major discovery that was picked up by Netflix and launched her internationally, while Triet's third feature proved she's one of the more talented voices working in French cinema — which, as a reminder, has a higher percentage of female directors than nearly anywhere else in the world (23 percent in France between 2006 and 2016, versus 8 percent for the Top 250 films made in Hollywood in 2018).   

At the same time, it's interesting how the Polanski film has been such a big hit. Or how another French movie, Abdellatif Kechiche's Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo, caused a minor scandal on the Croisette and received scathing reviews (you called it a "terminally indulgent macho doodle") for its defiantly male gaze, but at the same time played Cannes' competition and was championed by certain French critics of both sexes. It's as if the French were willing to cede on some points of the #MeToo and equality front, but not ready to give up one iota of the politique des auteurs that has defined their cinema since the New Wave — a New Wave that, as a reminder, was entirely male-dominated save for the great Agnès Varda, who left us this year at age 90 and whose final film, Varda by Agnès, proved to be a moving, playful and very Vardian self-portrait.

Van Hoeij:  Another change this year comes from the critical and public success of Ladj Ly's Les Misérables, which, along with Diop's Atlantics, representing Senegal, has been shortlisted for the Oscars. You and I have complained in the past about how the lion's share of French films seemed quite disengaged from what's actually happening in the country (just a small example: I'm writing this on day 13 of a major transport strike that has paralyzed Paris and may last for months).

But Ly's ambitious, sprawling and (clearly intentionally) overstuffed film — about a compact crime unit patrolling the apparently lawless banlieue of Montfermeil —seems to right that wrong and then some. The fact that Les Mis was made by someone from Montfermeil lends it authenticity, even if some things do seem exaggerated for dramatic effect, as you note in your review. But the film's anger, its energy and the contradictions, the discrimination and the inequality it depicts would make it a good primer for someone who hasn't been to France in the last 20 years and would like to know what kind of issues people living here are struggling with.

Mintzer: Les Misérables not only made the Oscar shortlist, but it's been quite the hit thus far, with 1.2 million admissions (or around $9 million to $10 million) after three weeks of release. For a film without any major stars that's set rather close, yet oh so far, from the picturesque Paris typically depicted in movies, that's no small feat.

In fact, and although we don't have all the numbers yet, many theatrical releases exceeded expectations in France in 2019. Bong Joon-ho's Parasite raked in close to 1.7 million admissions, making it one of the most successful Palme d'Or winners since Pulp Fiction. And a dour agricultural drama like the Guillaume Canet starrer In the Name of the Land brought in a nearly whopping 2 million admissions, or $15 million.

I have a friend who runs Le Louxor art-house cinema in northern Paris, and, despite the threat of Netflix and other streaming services encroaching on theaters, he says 2019 might be their best year in a long time. It helped that he was able to screen Joker, a mainstream movie that received art- house pedigree after winning Venice.

Van Hoeij:  Beyond Cannes and Venice titles, a clear favorite was (also female-directed) The Mustang, a first film from Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre that's actually set in a Nevada penal institution. Her unsentimental work with Matthias Schoenaerts and Bruce Dern as sandblasted tough guys suggests she's a great director of actors and someone who can discard all sentimentality to get at sober truths.

In terms of mainstream French efforts, outside the usual duds — I'm thinking of the Marion Cotillard starrer Little White Lies 2, specifically, aka White, Bourgeois & Bored: The Sequel — a few have been surprisingly entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the Shakespeare in Love-take on the origins of the French stage classic Cyrano de Bergerac offered by Edmond, an impressively staged first feature from Alexis Michalik, who adapted his own hit play (it was released stateside as Cyrano, My Love).

Three winning, high-concept crowd-pleasers examined the intersections between love, memory and opportunity: Hugo Gelin's Love at Second Sight, a jocular walk-in-someone-else's-shoes concept that confirms the leading-man chops of François Civil (Call My Agent! and The Wolf's Call, both on Netflix); Nicolas Bedos' La Belle Epoque, in which a couple (Daniel Auteuil, Fanny Ardant) past retirement age find themselves in a rut; and lastly, Christophe Honore's On a Magical Night, which examines the life of a woman, played by Chiara Mastroianni, who comes face-to-face with her past lovers after her married life seems to have run its course.

All three are highly enjoyable films that bend the laws of time, space and logic, while their kaleidoscopic approaches offer fresh angles on age-old questions about the functioning and practicality of long-term relationships. In these uncertain times, these fluffy romantic movies seem to suggest that a bit of boring certainty isn't necessarily a bad thing — or even all that boring, depending on how you look at it.  

That said, I think perhaps the most underreported story of 2019 is how healthy and great French-directed animation for adults has been. Netflix picked up Cannes Critics' Week winner I Lost My Body, from Jérémy Clapin, a film that takes the unlikeliest of plot descriptions — a severed hand goes in search of the body it used to be attached to — and beautifully examines issues of loss and belonging. The Swallows of Kabul from Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé Mévellec looks at two couples in the Afghan capital under the Taliban, with the watercolor treatment making it possible to look such horrors in the face. And Denis Do's Funan similarly manages to tell a very harsh but important story, this time set in Khmer Rouge-era Cambodia, with a level of detail that would have been impossible in live action.

Mintzer: I mistakenly — some would say neglectfully — took my two young children to see The Swallows of Kabul in a movie theater near my apartment in Paris. In my defense, it was a Sunday, it was raining and we desperately needed to get out of the house. When we arrived at the cinema, the guy who sold us the tickets looked us up and down and then gave a warning that the film wasn't necessarily for children. Yet he did let us in and even seemed encouraging about it. And although my kids were a little freaked out by what they saw, they also had lots of questions and were definitely exposed to a part of the world they knew nothing about beforehand.

I'm saying this because in the age of Disney, where franchises and brand names rule the roost (let's not forget that the top two 2019 releases in France were The Lion King and Avengers: Endgame), and of Netflix, where everyone stays home to watch whatever movie the algorithm places atop their menu, I wonder if such discoveries will still be possible.

France continues to show some resistance to both Hollywood domination and streaming, mostly through laws and government subsidies, but you wonder how long it will last — or how long people will even want it to last. In that sense, you've got to give the Cannes Film Festival credit for remaining relevant sans Netflix, with films like Parasite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Atlantics (which Netflix bought after Cannes) turning out to be some of the most noteworthy and talked-about movies this year.

In that respect, one final film I wanted to mention was the relatively unseen whatchamacallit Just Don't Think I'll Scream, which premiered in Berlin and came out in France this fall. Made up of thousands of clips from other films that were downloaded (no doubt illegally) by the director Frank Beauvais, it takes the idea of the found-footage movie and transforms it into a very personal cinematic essay, with echoes of Michel Houellebecq and Karl Ove Knausgård. At a time where there's so much content dumped online by Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ and all the other streamers that nobody knows what to watch or when they'll find the time to watch it, Beauvais uses that glut to create a work that's entirely original and entirely his own.

His film felt like a very French acte de résistance against the powers-that-be. Or, even better, the start of something new.