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CINEMA VERITE - Glory Days again for French cinema
Sam North 'The fact is there is a hunger for films that show Europe to ourselves'

At some point in the French movie Le Gout des Autres directed and starring Agnes Jaoui, you come to realise that this is less a comedy of manners more a social snapshot of ordinary society in France.

A crude businessman with too much money and no taste is woken up by the sudden realisation that he loves this middle-aged actress appearing in an historical drama he would normally pay good money not to see. His wife is a snob and would-be interior decorator with absolute bad taste and the meanest little dog in the world. The husband, played with affinity by Jean- Pierre Bacristar is more than just awakened. He looks about him and finds nothing he likes. His work bores him, the new partner he has hired from Paris looks down on him, his wife has lost interest in him, even his bodyguards are more interested in the barmaid than him. His long suffering sister is tormented by his wife’s instance on subjecting her taste on her new apartment. It seems no one is happy. The actress can only see 'boring businessman’ and is complaining to everyone that she cannot find a man, yet cannot see the one right in front of her face or notice he has shaved his moustache for her.

This is about provincial France, provincial theatre, the feeling of everything that is not Paris is no good. An eternal theme we can understand well in the UK as London has the same effect. Even infidelity has no joy as this is middle-aged lust and therefore fraught with disappointment. Alongside this, the two bodyguards fret over girlfriends, alternately screw the barmaid and as one laments his lost girl on an internship in America, the other is bitter about how life turned out and naturally the barmaid is attracted to the one who will do her most harm.

Life is prosperous in France now, businessmen worry about bodyguards more than business.Affairs of the heart and ‘lunch’ have always been at the heart of French life, but Le Gout des Autres hints at the vulnerability of this life, the ennui, the fragility of life. Turning 40 and finding yourself with no one or with the wrong partner is an obsession in France, if French cinema is to be believed. A small but charming movie.

When the well publicised The Crimson Rivers hits the screens it is refreshing to discover that we have an Ed Harris/ Matt Damon cop movie without either star making an entrance. Some have compared it to Se7en but it is neither as dark or sick.

The Crimson Rivers is a stylish serial killer thriller and although gruesome, the European setting makes it seem fresh and exciting. Starring Jean Reno (Leon) Vincent Cassel (L’Appartment) Nadia Fares as Fanny Fereira and directed with some vigour by Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) it is proof that European films can fill cinemas and make compelling viewing. Set in the French Alps it sets out a pretty familiar plot of intellectual arrogance, inbreeding and remnant Nazi doctrine with a pretty ambitious killing spree going on.

Of course you could argue that it is strange that it all happens so quickly and why didn’t the killer start all this years ago... you may even guess who the killer is, but it is an exciting, visually strong movie and a fast moving one at that. Nadia Fares shows she can be dynamic and more than hold her own against these two lively male stars.

Vincent Cassel, the young cop, is investigating a case of a grave desecration. Jean Reno is an experienced, weary, serial killer investigator sent from Paris to help the mountain police deal with a terrible motiveless murder where the first body found is mutilated and then suspended over a glacier. The two cops converge in their investigations and discover they are on the same case. Of course they clash, they argue, but they have to work together. We have seen this formula before, but somehow there is chemistry here and the location in the French Alps lend a sinister air.

This is the kind of film that used to be made in the seventies. They usually starred Jean-Louis Trintignant with a paranoid plot or right wing government conspiracies, great locations and terror. Z, Le Secret, Un homme est mort, le train. Costa Gravas with Z used to make the same kinds of films and they travelled well, were intense and made sense in a world that was filled with government inspired terrorism.

Kassovitz has realised that you don’t need American locations or stars. You can make damn fine European films and people will go to them if they are exciting, compelling, have great soundtracks, stylish acting and editing. His second film Le Haine was about urban deprived French youth and, drugs. The bad influence of violent American culture on immigrant kids and the like. A film about hate.

The Crimson River
is sophisticated in a different way to Les Gouts Des Autres, but they are like a balancing act, a wonderful insight into two styles, both equally valid and both equally popular. People like to claim that European cinema is dead, but right now, this week in the UK, in addition to these two films playing in London is Merci Pour Le Chocolat (Claud Chabrol back in his stylish Hichcock style with a plot and location not dissimilar to The Crimson Rivers) L’Appartment, L’Atalante (Vigo’s masterpiece from 1934), La Captive, Chocolat,(a British made film) Les Destinees Sentimentales, Les Enfants du Siecle, Harry, Un Ami Qui Vous Veut Du Bien, Sous Le Sable, Tout Va Bien (Jean luc Godard), Code Unknown. In France Crimson Rivers sold 3 million tickets in the first three months.

OK, few of these films are playing in mainstream cinemas, but The Crimson River is playing in the big screens in the UGC cinemas all over London and Les Gouts des Autres is at all the art houses. There is a new appetite for French film that will probably reach a peak when the keenly awaited new film from Jeunot Le fabuleux destin de Amelie Poulan arrives later this year. Right now his new film Amelia is playing to capacity crowds in France and his is enjoying the success he tasted with Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. (Over 4 million tickets sold so far)
Amelie star of Jeunot's hit movie

The fact is there is a hunger for films that show Europe to ourselves. In the UK, we find many who rail against the Euro and all things European, but we ARE Europeans. We have fought wars with these people for thousands of years and we are as much part of their psyche as ours and this obsession with everything American is so over.

We need to embrace French, German, Italian and Spanish cinema just like we used to in the sixties and seventies. Not only will our own films get better for the exposure but perhaps one of the reasons so many of them are so unbearable is that they are aping bad American films and bad American dialogue. It is all very well complaining that British films don’t get a chance, they don’t get distribution, when they do, they turn out to be Goodbye Charlie Bright and no more ambitious or better made than an average Eastenders episode, set in similar depressing locations (OK South London instead of North London). (We will reserve judgement on Mel Smith’s new East End gangster film starring Minnie Driver High Heels and Low Lifes which has been awaiting release for six months)
Minnie in a Brit Film

Where are our witty State and Mains? Our eccentric but poetic ‘ O Brother where art thous’ why do we not breed actresses of the calibre of Juliette Binoche or Emmanuel Beart, why can’t we make a film as funny and stylish as Girl on the Bridge or Le Cop. Why do we not use the fantastic locations and towns available to us in Cornwall or the Lake District or the East Coast beaches.

Do we have no stories apart from council estates and East End gangsters? Looking at the listing for the UK June 9th 15th I can find only Bridget Jones (albeit a good and funny film) Charlie Bright, and Very Annie Mary showing that are ‘British’. The Mummy Returns is British made but financed from the States and that’s where the fantastic profits will go. Very Annie Mary is a brave and funny film, poorly marketed which deserves distribution all over the UK, but probably won’t get it now. It has picked up American distribution and one can only hope they give it the Miramax treatment, as it deserves to be seen, deserves to find the kind of audience that likes quirky genuine Welsh humour that tells us a lot about ourselves.

I started this by talking about French cinema that a year ago everyone was saying was dead. Well it is not dead and it is still quite brilliant. Cinema began in France and I hope it will continue to thrive there. My advice to aspirant film-makers is to learn French, live there, make friends there and think hard about the kind of movies Europe should be making. We can make our own stars, we can make our own stories, we do not need to look over our shoulders to America anymore and we are more likely to have a success there if we relearn how to make good films about ourselves over here.

© Sam North 2001

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