By Robert Zaretsky
February 14th, 2013
Like an alcoholic who, his own stash of liquor having run dry, rifles madly through a neighbor’s cupboards, Hollywood has of late been rummaging through reels of French films with the notion to remake them. From the recent Dinner with Schmucks, based on Francis Veber’s Le Diner des Cons, to Point of No Return, a thin adaptation of Nikita, these desperate spasms of studios full of cash but empty of creativity usually come to bad ends.
Late last year, though, France released an adaptation of its own. But it was not of any specific American film. Instead, a remake of Hollywood itself was unveiled on the northern outskirts of Paris. The driving force behind Cité du cinéma, a vast complex of film studios, is Luc Besson, the director of the commercial hits Le Grand Bleu, The Fifth Element and, well, Nikita. That Besson, a director with far greater critical esteem in the US than in his native country, has more or less single-handedly created what has been dubbed “Hollywood sur Seine” is an irony that has not been lost on French critics. More important, though, is whether Besson’s huge gamble will also be lost: it will prove disastrous not just for Besson, but also for the future of French film.
Jean-Michel Frodon, former film critic for Le Monde, points to a paradox at the heart of French cinema. When France invented the cinema, he claims, it was to accomplish its historic role—namely, to enlighten the world’s benighted peoples. Cinema was revolutionary politics by other means. With Gallic flair (and exaggeration), Frodon concludes that if “les Lumières [the men of the Enlightenment] had triumphed, les Lumières [the brothers who invented the art] would not have been French, they might even have been unnecessary.”
There is a good deal of truth to Frodon’s quip. Cinema has long been the glory of French culture. While the Lumière brothers served as its midwife, and Georges Meliès—the hero malgré lui-même of Martin Scorcese’s Hugo—helped nurse it to a vigorous life, directors like Jean Renoir (The Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game), René Clair (Under the Roofs of Paris), Marcel Pagnol (The Baker’s Wife) and Jean Vigo (L’Atalante) maintained the flame of French cinema through the 1930s.
At the end of WWII, a liberated France found itself with a morally compromised and technologically antiquated film industry. Determined to refurbish its image as a cultural power, the newborn republic continued the centralized cultural policy of Vichy, the authoritarian and collaborationist state that ruled over France between 1940-1944, by directly subsidizing and overseeing the making of films. For the French it was little more than déjà vu all over again: ever since the 17th century and the age of Louis XIV, the French state has played a powerful role in shaping the nation’s culture. Gaullists and Socialists, fascists and Communists shared the conviction that culture was too important to be left to a market increasingly dominated by American films. With the National Center for Cinematography (CNC), which provides financial support to directors via taxes it levies on film tickets and DVD sales, and acknowledgment of the “French cultural exception” in the GATT negotiations of 1995, the French state has struggled to maintain this particular rampart of French art against the seemingly irresistible power of Hollywood.
This struggle has been remarkably intimate, however. In the 1950s, when the CNC threw its weight behind la nouvelle vague, or “New Wave” filmmakers, it funded directors for whom American cinema was not just a threat, but also an inspiration. Before he began directing films, François Truffaut immersed himself in the history of American filmmaking, while Jean-Luc Godard’s first film, Breathless, is a series of sly winks at American film clichés. These directors established the auteur approach to film, one that casts the director in the role of author. These films, which required small budgets, expressed the artistic sensibility of a director unconcerned by commercial considerations and studio pressures. In this sense, the current wave of indie filmmaking is little more than the American remake of New Wave.
Few directors seemed less New Wave—less French, really—than Besson. Along with fellow directors Leo Carax and Jean-Jacques Beineix, Besson fashioned the so-called “cinema du look.” As the name suggests, these films emphasized glossy surfaces and high production standards. Instead of the quirky and idiosyncratic voice of the auteurist director, intent on characterization and dialogue, the “look” directors privileged shimmering views and spectacular shots. Characters became part of the scenery, while dialogue gave way to the distraction of sharp editing and brilliant camera work. Besson’s films, in particular, have had tremendous commercial success not just in France, but abroad as well. But this success, far from endearing him to French critics, has instead reinforced their scorn for his work. Not only has he seemingly abandoned the French way, but actually went over to the enemy: Hollywood.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood produced, if only indirectly, the Cité du cinéma. Besson first began to contemplate the creation of the film studio when he had “exiled” himself to Hollywood in 1997 in order to direct The Fifth Element. According to Christophe Lambert, who directs Besson’s film production company EuropaCorp, this experience “sickened” the French director. For Lambert—who, by the way, is not the French actor of nearly the same name, Christopher Lambert—the situation was simply “bizarre.” Though France is Europe’s leading film producer, it is “the sole European country that does not have the infrastructure to welcome the production of films.”
Enter (once again) the French state. Rather like Nikita’s heart-stopping escapes from careening cars and billowing fireballs, Besson’s desperate scramble to find investors for the project ended with a leap into the arms of the government: the state-run Caisse des Dépôts wrote a check for 75% of the studio’s cost. (It did not hurt that Lambert was a close acquaintance of Nicolas Sarkozy, who happened to be president at the time.) At first glance, the money seems well spent. Located in the Parisian suburb of Saint Denis, the Cité du Cinema borders on the sublime. It is ensconced inside the refurbished Art Deco shell of an electricity plant dating from the 1930s whose spine is a spectacular glass nave the length of two football fields. Sprawling below it are nine film sets and a maze of editing and production rooms, replete with state of the art equipment. An entire wing, moreover, is dedicated to a film school named, bien évidemment, after Louis Lumière.
Sarkozy’s government was not alone in supporting Besson’s project: the Communist mayor of Saint Denis has also championed it. Just north of Paris, Saint Denis is the rusting buckle of the so-called ceinture rouge, or red belt of Communist-run municipalities surrounding Paris since the interwar era. Home to the region’s largest concentration of immigrants, mostly from North Africa, Saint Denis was also where the great wave of suburban riots that swept France in 2005 first began. (The spark to the riots was when two local youths, fleeing a police patrol, electrocuted themselves while clambering a fence at an electrical substation owned by Electricité de France, the same public entity that owned the Cité du cinéma site.)
With France’s economy at a standstill, the project has left some wondering about wisdom of Besson’s timing. The cultural magazine Les Inrocks reported that several luminaries in the French film industry described Besson as a “megalomaniac” with “pharaoh-like” aspirations. (The last public figure to be accused of such hubris was the Socialist president François Mitterrand, who oversaw the construction of the new National Library—a building that also borders the Seine and which fails not just aesthetically, but for those who work there, functionally as well.) One notable film producer, Thierry de Segonzac, expressed a widely shared ambivalence over the Cité du cinéma: “The idea of creating such a complex of studios is not in itself foolish. But how many producers can afford this kind of setup?” For Segonzac, Besson’s gamble has national implications: “If the project fails, it will be terrible not just for Luc Besson, but also for French cinema!”
And perhaps for French society, as well. Shortly after the inauguration of the Cité du cinéma, the actor and director Matthieu Kassowitz announced he was moving to the United States. It happens that Kassowitz has not only acted in Besson’s The Fifth Element (as well as another cinema du look success, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie), but at the same time is the auteur of Hatred: a small and remarkable film made in 1995 that traced the lives of three youths from a blighted suburb like Saint Denis and foresaw the coming riots. Kassowitz explained that he could no longer work in France, where movie-making “has become an industry.”
Herein lie the complex stakes for Besson, for French cinema, and for France. By becoming a successful industry, one that can compete with American studios, Cité du cinéma will help revive French film and Saint Denis. But at the same time, it risks losing the voice that has made it so distinctly French.
About the author: Robert Zaretsky teaches French history at the Honors College, University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War (Penn State University 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (Nebraska 2004), and with John Scott, The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding (Yale 2009). His most recent books are Albert Camus: Elements to a Life (Cornell 2010) and, with Alice Conklin and Sarah Fishman, France and its Empire Since 1870 (Oxford 2010). He is currently writing two books: Boswell’s Enlightenment (Harvard UP) and A Life Worth Living: Why Camus Matters (Harvard UP).
Film Winter 2013: Classic Hollywood