A Brief History: France and Film
Is it possible to beat Hollywood at its own game – or even to play on the same field? That’s the 60 million Euro question for French filmmakers, as it is for the Brits, the Germans, and anyone else with a viable industry stuck in the Americans’ cultural choke-hold.
Hollywood established its European market on the back of the Great War, when the competition was at its most vulnerable. With the deepest pockets in the business, the major studios coaxed many of the hottest talents from the continent across the Atlantic, from stars like Greta Garbo to directors like Ernst Lubitsch – a brain drain that became a flash-flood with the rise of the Nazism. Hollywood’s Golden Age was minted by European Jews.
In France, government subsidies combined with strong national pride to secure an industry that has, for most of the past century, produced well over 100 French films a year.
All the same, French cineastes are constantly looking over their shoulder at Hollywood. First, because they love movies, so naturally they love American movies. And second, because the Americans claim that those subsidies that feed the French industry are protectionist, and shouldn’t be permitted. It’s not an argument the French are willing to concede, but still, the effects of globalization in the movie business tend towards a one-way street: big budget American films make greater inroads into foreign markets, while foreign-language films get nowhere in the US.
That’s not entirely true of course. By an odd coincidence, this week brings us films from France’s two most successful movie exporters: Luc Besson, who co-wrote and produced the thriller From Paris with Love, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose latest whimsical comedy is called Micmacs.
Jeunet, born in 1953, is best known as the writer-director of Amelie – a box office sensation in France and everywhere else for that matter. Its 33 million US take remains the highest ever for a French language film; worldwide that figure jumps to $173 million.
The numbers for Besson’s thriller, Taken (which he wrote and produced) are higher still: $145 million in the US, and another $81 million elsewhere. But while Taken is predominantly set in Paris, it has a Hollywood star (Liam Neeson) and it’s mostly in English. From Paris with Love follows the same formula, with John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers stepping up to the plate.
Besson (born 1959) has always courted an international audience, casting Rosanna Arquette and Griffin Dunne in his third, and most personal, film, The Big Blue (1988), an immersive ode to the ocean that was a big hit on home soil, but sank in the States and the UK. He’s had hits with kinetic thrillers like Nikita (1990) and Leon (1994), but also struggled with big budget spectaculars like The Fifth Element (1997) and his attempt to mythologize Joan of Arc for the action movie audience (The Messenger, 1999) – not to mention his disappointingly lackluster kids’ film, Arthur And The Invisibles (2006).
Besson has also been a prolific producer – he’s nearing the hundred film mark, with The Transporter, Taxi, and District 13 among his credits, as well as such unexpected items as Nil by Mouth and The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada.
If Besson sometimes suggests a one-man film factory, mass-producing mainstream entertainments without breaking a sweat, Jeunet is more of a loner, a mad inventor who completely immerses himself in each film for years on end. Micmacs is only his sixth feature in two decades.
Even without Amelie, his filmography would be remarkable: Delicatessen (1991) and The City Of Lost Children (1995), his collaborations with production designer Marc Caro, are carnivals of dark imagining, funny and macabre, seemingly built out of discarded odds and ends: an earlobe from David Lynch, an eyeball from Terry Gilliam, maybe Jacques Tati’s nose.
Like so many before him, Jeunet tried his hand in the US, accepting an invitation to follow in the august footsteps of Ridley Scott, James Cameron and David Fincher to helm Alien: Resurrection (1997). Whatever you think of the results, the experience was sufficient to send Monsieur Jeunet straight back to Paris, where he conjured that modern day saint, Amelie Poulain.
What is it that makes Amelie irresistible, even to Americans? I think it’s the film’s fairytale feel, the combination of romance and innocence embodied by Audrey Tautou, and Jeunet’s quirky, whimsical humour, which harks back to the slapstick of silent cinema and the surrealism of children’s cartoons. Again, the great French comic auteur Jacques Tati comes to mind, but this is Tati on fast-forward. All that, and the film’s sentimental valentine to a spotless, brightly-coloured Paris.
Jeunet came close to repeating the trick with his follow up, the WWI romance A Very Long Engagement (again with Tautou), albeit with spectacular scenes of blood and violence added to the ingredients. Warner Bros picked up the tab - which led to some of his compatriots in the industry declaring the film could not be considered genuinely “French” – but the more mature subject matter didn’t find as much love at the box office, certainly in the US, where it made just $6 million.
His latest, Micmacs is more in the Amelie vein, though Tautou is no longer a significant part of the equation (Welcome to the Sticks star Dany Boon plays a maverick with a bullet in his head and a bone to pick with the arms trade).
Funnily enough, it’s not hard to imagine Luc Besson taking the same basic scenario and turning it into another slam-bang thriller, with Jason Statham or perhaps Bruce Willis in the lead. The tone would be entirely different, but Besson and Jeunet do share one thing, and this may be the key to their worldwide success: whether it’s Jeunet’s elaborate gags or Besson’s kinetic action set pieces, their films are about moving pictures, not talk-talk. Worth remembering, slapstick and action are closely related – a stunt is a “gag” according to the men and women who perform it.
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