The Unbearable Lightness of French Cinema

Recent mention of the new President of France and the exotic genesis of his relationship with Mme. Macron set me to thinking what a perfect subject it would make for a bit of French cinema. Is some noted auteur at work as we speak? It would seem like a crime if he or she wasn’t.

It’s not quite as culturally dominant as it used to be, but for a long time, a person’s consumption (or lack thereof) of French cinema was seen as a pretty precise measurement of their level of cultural sophistication. If you’d seen all seven (is it seven now?) ‘Rocky’ movies but never dipped your toes into the subtle, sensual waters of a ‘Manon des Sources’ or the ‘Secret Life of the Bourgeoisie,’ then it was a safe bet that you were unlikely to enjoy one of those select soirees where smoked salmon socialists gathered to eat quiche, admire each other’s ferns and do a bit of partner swapping.

Perhaps you thought a soiree was some form of poncey pastry; perhaps you trod warily around phrases like ‘Cordon Bleu’ or ‘Saucisse Chaud,’ in case they might be code for some form of deviant practice involving hazardous sexual acrobatics.

If you are one of those people, then you’re unlikely to feel you’ve missed anything. The tropes and values of French cinema are very different to those of Hollywood.

A ‘classique’ like ‘The Hairdresser’s Husband’ might have something unique to convey about the experience of surrendering yourself to being shorn by a woman wielding dangerously sharp objects, but other than that, makes very little of what you might accept as sense.

That’s not to say the genre doesn’t have its gems. Once you get beyond the tongue in cheek convolutions of its plot, ‘Diva’ is possibly the most beautiful and eloquent love letter to Paris, to any city, ever written. ‘Un Coeur En Hiver’ is a study of romantic relationships and plain old stubborn human perversity which has a Universe of more interesting things to say than most Hollywood movies on the same subject.

One of my all time favourite sets of movies is the ‘Three Colours’ trilogy, although here is a bit of a grey area, since the director, Krystof Kieslowski, was Polish, although two thirds of the movies were shot in either France or French speaking Switzerland.

The third movie, ‘Three Colours Red,’ plays quite ironically with one of the most persistent tropes of French cinema. If Hollywood loves its guys and gals with guns, French cinema absolutely dotes on tales of late middle aged or even elderly guys gettin’ it on with nubile young females.

In Kieslowski’s film, a young model discovers a deep and mysterious affinity with a retired and embittered judge living in a suburb of Geneva. There are one or two points where you think they might start necking each other, but possibly only because you’ve seen far too much French cinema. To Kieslowski’s eternal credit, it never happens, and the relationship between Irene Jacob’s model and Jean Louis Trintignant’s Judge is consequently one of the most interesting in French cinema.

For every one of these however, there are a thousand of the truly execrable ‘Last Tango in Paris,’ or doozies like ‘Un moment d’egarment,’ later remade by Hollywood into the utterly risible ‘Blame It On Rio,’ and one of the great mysteries of cinema will always be how Michael Caine’s career managed to survive turkeys like this.

In this, as in so many others, a man in late middle age, concerned about his waning libido and inevitable procession towards death, finds himself rejuvenated by a suitably jolie fils, as happily horny as she is slightly unhinged.

The best known example is the impressively raunchy ‘Betty Blue.’ We’re never really told why poor Betty is such a bunny boiler, but at least she gets her dried up older boyfriend writing again. She is the ultimate muse: literally sacrificing her own life to get some guy’s creative juices flowing again.

You’d wonder what les feministes make of all this, although the romantic history of les Macrons would suggest that, in France, they do things very differently indeed.

Inspired by ‘Betty Blue’ and a host of others, I’ve been sort of carrying around an idea for a French movie in the back of my head for a while. Maybe it’ll make my fortune if I find myself ever forced to move there.

Its working title is ‘la vie est un trop etrange kettle du peche et non mistake.’ In its opening scene, a girl is taking part in a tennis tournament. A string on her racquet breaks, she dissolves into tears, then removes a machine gun from her kit bag and starts blasting the crowd. She flees the arena, still in tears.

In the next scene, she’s on a ferry headed across some channel or other, wearing dark glasses and a dark coat while a man on deck wearing nothing but a pink carnation carries a newspaper with a picture of a tennis player and a headline saying ‘Ou est Jackie?’

Later, in a godforsaken corner of rural Ireland, she befriends a lonely garage attendant (observe the clever mixing of two national cinematic styles here. All Irish cinema involves either lonely garage attendants or drug dealing thugs, or lonely garage attendants who also happen to be drug dealing thugs). There follows about forty seven minutes of intricately choreographed love making, following which they share a cigarette and the following pithy dialogue:

She: Life is so confusing. It has no purpose. We are simply machines creating carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. I want to walk the streets wearing nothing but tennis shoes and carrying a dark umbrella.

He: Yeah.

She: Why do you never speak? Your silence troubles me almost as much as the futility of life.

He: Well, when I was growing up, there was this girl who lived next door. Alice her name was. God I really wanted to ask her out. It was difficult because I was only seven at the time, and my mother kept me locked under the stairs until I was 25. When I got out, I discovered that she’d moved away and hadn’t left a forwarding address. I was heartbroken. I tried writing a poem about it, called ‘Alice, Alice, where the f*** is Alice?’ But some guys stole the idea.

If there are any investors out there, I’m available to start making this pretty much immediately.

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