Tangled Up In Bleu: In Defence Of French Cinema

French cinema is no longer reserved for precocious students, and as a host of directors showed in recent years, we're all finding it difficult not to be charmed...
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Recently there was an article on this website that highlighted the tropes or, more specifically, the jokes inherent in French cinema. Everyone is aware of the turgid parody of the French: gazing out of windows; smoking cigarettes on terraces; the Gallic shrug and wearing polo necks with trench coats. Nevertheless, there is a reason behind this popular archetype and the reason is that we all, be it secretly or openly, are seduced by it all. For what it's worth, in addition to French cinema I do also love Belle and Sebastian.

In 2013 French cinema was no longer reserved for A-Level film students or precocious 15 year olds who somehow stumbled upon Sartre. French cinema became pervasive. The facts are that next year will see a record number of French-made films appearing in British cinema and will attract an audience that surpasses just Sud de Kensington. Some of 2013's most eminent movies are indebted to the works of past French directors and have recycled the French penchant for, what Quentin Tarantino labelled, a “talky and uneventful” style and offered it to the English speaking demographic. Frances HaBefore Midnight and Exhibition all centred on slow, tedious yet arresting narratives that charmed critics. Stretching back earlier than 2013, directors like Woody Allen and Wes Anderson have become public Francophiles and introduced an audience to a face beneath the parody. All of this wave of interest is epitomized by the hugely successful: 'The Artist'. What could be more French than reticence, glamour and black-and-white?

Like The Artist before it, Blue is the Warmest Colour is beginning to have an equally emphatic affect on international cinema. Since grasping a triple award at the Palme d’Or the film has ascended with infamy and adoration in equal measure. To quote an article from The New Statesmen, the movie depicts a story where, “They meet. They discuss Sartre. They eat. They shag. They smoke. They fall in love...It’s all incredibly French.” Yes, all of this is true but the scope, the ambition and the topic exceeds anything coming out of Britain and its recurrent kitchen-sink-dramas or period pieces with Kiera Knightly. Blue is the Warmest Colour is a three hour long dissection of a discordant heart. There's barely any soundtrack, there are dwelling close-ups, it clearly has a low budget and it contains a seven minute long lesbian sex scene. The movie is explicit and direct and significantly more heart rendering than a depleted, archetypical Richard Curtis film. Like Michel Haneke's Amour before it, the movie is finding an audience that goes beyond the French-speaking community and finds its patrons developing their own sensibility rather than needing predictable dialogue or sweeping soundtracks to cajole them. For the French, movies are not just an accompaniment to overpriced popcorn.


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There is a habit in British cinema to lean on the nostalgia (see: Cemetery Junction, This is England, The King's Speech, Quadrophenia)or, conversely, onto “gritty” small towns where characters are abject and self-deprecating (see: Trainspotting, Withnail and I, My Beautiful Laundrette). The narrative in British movies repeatedly traces hopelessness rather than attempting to affirm a type of pride of being British. This is where the difference lies and perhaps where the critical divide settles, French cinema is happy to flaunt their joie de vivre while British cinema withdraws into borderless misery.

The 21st century has fostered a range of successful and accessible French movies that have charmed audiences: Amelie, Diving Bell and the Butterfly, L'Intouchable, La Haine, Holy Motors, Entre Les Murs and A Prophet to name some. Moreover, you could introduce yourself to the ponderous polo-neck aesthetic of Rohmer or some Truffaut. For whatever reason, the British audience and subtitles have an inflexible relationship. Granted subtitles demand more attention than a comic book movie where the characters are ready made and easily digested. Yet, are they as edifying? I'm sure that this weekend ITV4 has an engaging documentary about the largest woman in the world or about a man who married his foot but, just for one time, why not dive into the blue?