An Umbilical Cinema

by Lissa Gibbs

Yes, this is another article about the French and their place in history. Aren't you just sick of it all? Like we haven't heard enough already on this side of the Atlantic about how great the French are, how brilliant, how smart, how tasteful, and how much more sophisticated culturally they are than we are. Especially when it comes to movies, or cinema as it is referred to by our Gallic buddies. And secretly we all know that it's more than a bit true.

Yeah, yeah, pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. Deny that you took that French class during high school, and then used what little you learned to impress your mate in a moment of passion. Tell me that you've never once watched a whole French movie only to observe the actors' clothes, hair, and the way they held their cigarettes. Deny that you went to see Truffaut's JULES AND JIM...five times. Tell me that even as a kid you didn't envy the little French boy's lusciously fat and buoyant balloon in THE RED BALLOON. Or that the Citroëns driven by Melville and Godard's oh, so cute and brooding gangster thugs weren't just the coolest. But I know the truth! You couldn't help yourself! You, like most Americans, have French envy. And deep down you know that the French are way cooler than we could ever hope to be and that their movies—great popular culture tastemaking machines they are—have almost always been more hip, more chic, more je ne sais quoi than just about anything. Worse yet, the French know this. And don't you just hate them for it?

What can I say? It's not as if they don't have the right to gloat a bit. From the inception of modern cinema—the Lumiere Brothers' turn of the century "documentaries" and Georges Méliès' 1902 TRIP TO THE MOON—to the seminal works of Louis Feuillade, René Clair, Abel Gance, Germaine Dulac, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, Max Ophüls, Jean Cocteau, Robert Bresson, Jean Pierre Melville, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Marguerite Duras, and Agnes Varda, to name but an essential few, France and the French have occupied a unique position in film history over the last 100 years, one marked by creative ingenuity, singular vision, critical acclaim, and popular success.

"Oh, yeah?" you're thinking to yourself. Well, if all that is so true and the French have such great taste in cinema then why do they think Jerry Lewis is such a genius, when everyone on this side of Greenwich Mean Time sees him for the schmaltzy Labor Day Weekend huckster he is? Tricky question to be sure, but very much a pivotal one in the ongoing love you, hate you relationship so prevalent between French and American film cultures. I mean, do you really think that the French find Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau in the PINK PANTHER movies as brilliantly hilarious as we do? Probably not, parody of the Frenchman that he is. But the French did find an appropriately revered place in their hearts and minds for Josephine Baker and Jean Seberg when American filmmakers and audiences did not. So who's to keep score? Even in a classic French film like Jean-Pierre Melville's LE DOULOS(THE FINGERMAN), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, there's an incredible sense of homage to post-war American film noir. These neo-gangsters speak French, of course, and say all of the tough guys things which American thugs do, but they are much less moralistically portrayed in their downfall than their New World counterparts. Nonetheless their direct descent from American noir icons is clear—and deliberate. It's part of what makes them so desirable, so popular—this shade of American rebelliousness embellished with French twists. You see, on a certain level the French have a bit of American envy (though they'd probably never admit it). There are, in fact, some pretty cool things about our culture and who we are—our music, our devil-may-care attitude, our industriousness, our flair for independence. The French are just a bit more in tune to these things than we are, so quintessential American institutions like jazz, gangsters, car chases, exotic African-American dancers, tough guys with a get-it-done attitude, and sensitive and wholesome art chicks from the Midwest are picked up and improved a la Français. It makes it all very sexy in that co-opted kind of way, don't you think?

But this is nothing new. In fact, the entire history of cinema is one of cross-pollination, derivation, and appropriation. So who's to say that an American film which seeks to be "European" in that generically French, self-serious and overly intellectualized, belly-button contemplating, dramatic kind of way is any less "American" than something else? I'm not saying that movies which do this—and there are a lot of them on both sides of the Atlantic—are any good, but in an age of market-driven pluralism, and within the demands of the entertainment industry, what plays best at the box office speaks loudest and broadest. Think about all of this long enough and you'll begin to understand why everyone is so up in arms about the GATT Treaties as they relate to entertainment "product." So there's art and there's commerce and most often these two don't have much to do with each other, but some of the most interesting films ever made—at least in my mind—are those which address the confluence of these two forces, particularly across cultures.

Irma Vep

IRMA VEP, a new film by French director Olivier Assayas does just that. A film about filmmaking, it touches on many of the contradictions of French culture's c'mere, go away relationship with the globally-driven, action-packed, Americanized cinema which has pretty much obliterated everything else in its path, literally and financially (think blockbuster fare starring Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and, yes, that cultural hybrid himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme). Featuring Hong Kong action pix diva Maggie Cheung as herself, the film is a clever parody of both the self-seriousness of French cinema and the rampant path of commercialized mush, which is a mainstay of global box offices. Hired by a perfectly morose and obtuse French director (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud) to play the latex-clad starring role in his remake of Feullaide's silent classic LES VAMPIRES, Cheung is a bit at a loss to decipher the mess she has encountered. The production is falling apart, critics are up in arms that a foreigner—an Asian one to be exact—is playing a seminal role in French cinematic history, and the director is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, back on the set, mainstream French media monsters descend for interviews with action star Cheung, asking her why on earth she is working on such an esoteric project. In a truly hilarious scene, a French reporter asks her opinion of the director's past films, answering instead for her: "French cinema... it is a—how shall I say—a umbilical cinema. You know?" (Here he gestures to his belly button as Cheung looks on in confusion). "It is too much of this. Too boring. Me, I like Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan." Maggie nods her head in embarrassed understanding. In a carefully constructed and highly entertaining nutshell, this scene encapsulates the irony and absurdity of the breakdown of French cinema as an institution, and of the commodified derivative culture which now dominates the whole world, and has left us all a bit bemused about who we are.

Truth be told, French cinema is an umbilical cinema. It links us back to the source of all moving images. And it does take itself far too seriously, even to the point of assuring its eventual alienation and distinction. But that's what has made it irrepressibly unique and simultaneously annoying for the last century. That's what's made it French. What else would we expect? Assayas, in a truly brilliant and cunningly French move wags his tail at us and shows us once again that those frog filmmakers really are something to be envied, clever, cool devils they are.   </end>

Lissa Gibbs is a Bay Area writer, producer, and curator specializing in independent film. She's been to France a lot, but mostly enjoys watching French films in the company of Americans or Italians.