Critics' Notebook: Besson Fizzled but 'Raw,' 'BPM,' 'Faces Places' Elevated Minor Year for French Films
The Hollywood Reporter's Paris-based critics reflect on French cinema in 2017, which saw a surprise presidential victory, a mostly unexceptional homegrown crop in Cannes and a major international sci-fi flop.
Jordan Mintzer: To be perfectly frank (or franc), I feel like 2017 won't go down as a great year in French cinema. There are of course some exceptions — such as critical favorite BPM (Beats Per Minute), which looked like a shoo-in for a Foreign Language Oscar nomination until it surprisingly didn't make the shortlist. But putting that and a few other movies aside, I really found this year's output average at best. Such a statement shouldn't, however, be taken as a general assessment of French film — the so-called French bashing that we and other critics are sometimes accused of. Perhaps like Bordeaux vintages, there are good years and bad, and 2017 was closer to a "drink" than to a "hold" recommendation, with lots of stuff worth forgetting.
On that account, we should probably kick off with 2017's biggest disappointment: Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which received mixed reviews (our own Todd McCarthy eviscerated it) and went on to gross $40 million in the U.S. and $225 million worldwide on a budget of $180 million, making it the costliest movie in French history.
Besson's studio EuropaCorp took a major hit with that flop and recently announced it will be scaling down operations. That said, I actually didn't hate the film, even if I definitely didn't love it, either. Sure, it's juvenile to its core, as is most of Besson's oeuvre. But it had a visual inventiveness that felt fresh compared to the annual crop of Marvel and DC fare, along with a weirdness factor you no longer find in blockbusters — such as the questionable sequence where Rihanna plays a shape-shifting alien stripper. As a whole it didn't work, but at least Besson was trying something different. One wishes the Hollywood studios would do the same.
Boyd van Hoeij: I kind of admire the gumption of someone like Besson. There are practically no others able or even trying to play in the same league as DC and Marvel. The problem with Valerian is really one of economy and scale; it was not a critical favorite but it was the second-biggest hit and the biggest locally produced title of the year in France. It simply didn't have enough international appeal to make this wildly ambitious space saga profitable.
I do think 2017 is generally lacking in big French movies of quality. Most of the box-office hits, such as R.A.I.D. Special Unit, Alibi.com, Marry me, Dude and C'est la Vie, were mainstream comedies that might generate laughs but in the end were largely forgettable. For my money, C'est la Vie, from the guys behind Intouchables, is the most efficient of the bunch.
But instead of saying it was an "off year," can we rebrand 2017 the year of the modest movie comeback? There were a lot of unpretentious, worthwhile little gems that I enjoyed, starting with Bloody Milk, a rural genre bender inspired by Mad Cow Disease. The film's not perfect but I can't wait to see what director Hubert Charuel does next. Work from more experienced filmmakers also tried to find greatness in modesty, such as Claire Denis' surprisingly funny yet touching and insightful Quinzaine opener, Bright Sunshine In and Laurent Cantet's intense The Workshop, which played in Un Certain Regard. The former finds Juliette Binoche in fine form as a woman dealing with how exhausting love — or, more precisely, the illusion of love — can be, while the latter is, like Bloody Milk, an exciting mix of genre elements, social study and psychological portrait.
Mintzer:The Workshop touches intriguingly on a phenomenon that was present in this year's rather chaotic presidential election, which is the rise of the far right in France and other European countries. Thankfully in the end, the National Front's Marine Le Pen wound up losing by a wide enough margin in her runoff against third-party candidate Emmanuel Macron, signaling that the French were not quite ready to embrace extremism. (As for Macron, it's hard for people to say exactly where he stands on the political dividing line; the only thing we can state with any certainty is that he looks an awful lot like Mindhunter star Jonathan Groff.)
Perhaps my gripe with French cinema this year is that I didn't see the country's major issues reflected in the movies, many of which seemed detached from reality. Cannes titles like Ismael's Ghosts, Rodin and Redoubtable felt like stuffy works by directors nostalgic for the artistic greatness of the past. To find films of any social or political relevance, you either had to comb the margins or look to veterans like Agnes Varda or Raymond Depardon. Both of them — aged 89 and 75, respectively — explored their troubled homeland with compassion, humor and razor-sharp awareness in their latest documentaries Faces Places and 12 Days. The former offered an unlikely road trip through France's working-class backwaters (not to mention a charming moment of Varda dancing and singing along to "Ring My Bell"); the latter provided a warm and unflinching portrait of psychiatric patients outside of Lyon.
van Hoeij: One of the most noteworthy developments this year was the meteoric ascent of Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet's screenwriter, whose third feature, BPM, played in competition in Cannes. Like The Workshop, which he co-wrote, BPM explores interpersonal relationships against the backdrop of much larger issues in society, which here are AIDS and AIDS activism in 1990s Paris. Though a period drama, the necessity for marginalized people to speak up, find allies and have their voices heard resonated strongly in these politically polarized and inequality-dominated times.
Beyond these two films by Campillo, however, the major French auteurs haven't really engaged with what's going on in the country this year. At least there's Belgian director Lucas Belvaux, whose This Is Our Land faced populism and the popularity of the sociopolitical far right in northern France, close to the Belgian border, head-on. That film was more intelligent than people gave it credit for, indirectly suggesting how, in a globalized world — everyone is constantly eating ethnic food and consuming things from the four corners of the globe, for starters — it no longer makes sense to return to an us-vsersus-them type of nationalism that is, in fact, already obsolete.
But perhaps the fact the film wasn't a huge hit suggests why more big-name auteurs aren't willing to go there nowadays: audiences don't seem to line up for this kind of material anymore. So politically charged fiction films, like This Is Our Land or last year's Nocturama, run into the same kind of problem as Besson; the economics of those stories don't make much sense.
Thankfully, documentaries are cheaper to produce. Along with Varda and Depardon there's also young talent waiting in the wings, though, it has to be said, for the moment they seem more interested in non-French subjects. Emmanuel Gras' artful Makala, about coal production in the Congo, won the top prize in the Cannes Critics' Week, a rare feat for a documentary. And in the neighboring Directors' Fortnight, rookie filmmaker Sonia Kronlund's Nothingwood, about a self-made Afghan movie star, suggested how a documentary can be both a crowd-pleaser and an insightful portrait of a country (still) in political turmoil.
But here we are again, just looking to Cannes for what happened in French film this year. Was there anything that premiered elsewhere you particularly liked?
Mintzer: On a more commercial scale, not really, although I thought that the Stand and Deliver-style dramedy Le Brio and the post-WWI thriller See You Up There were both strong specimens of cinema populaire, with the latter showcasing director Albert Dupontel's chops as a visual stylist. But neither film really seemed all that relevant or timely — even if Le Brio tried, in its own way, to be so — and I feel like the divide between benign French commercial flicks and more serious-minded art house titles grows from year to year.
The former rule the box office but are generally bottom-of-the-barrel comedies that can be excruciatingly bad, if not downright sexist and racist — witness your personal favorite this year, Gangsterdam — while, in many cases, the latter can come off as naval-gazing, pretentious and poorly made (I'm thinking of Rodin again).
I really wish there were a little more crossover going on, with the commercial movies becoming smarter and more challenging, and the artsier fare gaining a sense of craft, originality and humor.
Come to think of it, there was maybe one film last year that landed in that sweet spot between the two, which was first-time director Julia Ducournau's gory coming-of-ager, Raw. I walked into that movie not knowing what to expect, and I walked out deeply impressed by the film's melding of style, content and buckets of corn syrup.
On the surface it's a slick, extremely violent story of two cannibalistic sisters trying to survive the same veterinarian school, but deep down it's a powerful Carrie-like tale of nascent female desire, sibling rivalry and the cruelty of college life. There's no doubt some folks were turned off by the movie's high body count, and although it was a hit in Cannes last year it wound up underperforming in local theaters this past March. Yet perhaps more than any film in 2017, Raw gave French cinema the fresh blood it needs.