Something surprising and wonderful has been happening in the movie theaters of France. Out of nowhere, or so it seems, a bumper crop of fresh-eyed directors, novel ideas and fine films has emerged from the dark and onto the screen.
A new nouvelle vague?
No, this trend is, well, vaguer, with one of the movie-makers--white-maned Alain Resnais, 75, a venerable figure from the original New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s--rubbing elbows these days with directors and scriptwriters half his age and younger, with whom he has little if anything in common. But there is no denying the high-voltage jolt of creativity energizing an industry that seemed stuck in the rut of below-the-belt farces, comedies about cuckolded husbands, dissections of the woes of the Paris bourgeoisie, and other tried and tired formulas.
Jean-Pierre Lavoignat, director of the Paris-based film magazine Studio, believes French cinema has entered a time of "all possible contrasts and surprises." So much is happening, in fact, that it's hard to squeeze all of the creative developments, some contradictory, into a single space. The number of new movies, for one thing, rose from 109 in 1996 to 130 last year.
When the lights dim, film watchers in France now may be transported to an Arab ghetto outside Lyons, a sun-dappled Marseilles neighborhood by the sea, the hospital room of an AIDS patient. In the past year alone, more than a dozen French female directors brought out movies--though most, it should be noted, did not meet with commercial success.
Many of the new productions have been shot for relatively paltry sums, using little-known or unknown casts.
"There always have been small-budget films, for example Eric Rohmer's," observed self-taught director Anne Fontaine, whose $3-million sexual tragicomedy revolving around a dry-cleaning outlet, "Nettoyage a Sec" (Dry Cleaning), is one recent release to have pleased critics and the public. "What's new these days is that such films are successful. It's the public that has changed."
"The audience," Fontaine said, "is just fed up with seeing Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo."
This doesn't mean that colossal "popcorn" productions, both foreign and domestic, don't still exercise enormous box-office pull. James Cameron's "Titanic" has been the country's most popular film since it opened in January. A just-released, special-effects-laced sequel to "Les Visiteurs"--an enormously successful 1993 spoof about a French knight (Jean Reno) and his entourage from the Middle Ages catapulted into the present--appears destined to score big as well.
But some of the old recipes clearly don't work anymore. For instance, director Manuel Poirier's "Western," shot for only $2 million and featuring two unknown actors, has ignited far more industry and audience enthusiasm than well-bankrolled star vehicles showcasing some of France's biggest screen names, including Gerard Depardieu ("XXL"), Sophie Marceau ("Marquise"), and Daniel Auteuil and Carole Bouquet ("Lucie Aubrac").
Jacques Martineau, a university professor of letters with a passion for music, and Olivier Ducastel, a film editor by training, admit they couldn't possibly have gotten their movie, the first for both, financed or made as recently as four or five years ago. It's a girl-loves-boy story . . . only she is a nymphomaniac switchboard operator and he is an ex-junkie with AIDS.
To push the envelope of French filmic genres even more, this picture, "Jeanne et le Garcon Formidable" (Jeanne and the Great Guy), has been made as a musical comedy. At night in a Paris park, when Olivier breaks the news to his lover that he is HIV-positive, it is by singing to the melody of a java, a popular Parisian dance.
The musical style dates from the turn of the century, but "Jeanne's" message is as contemporary as the noisy activism of the militant gay rights group ACT UP. The film, starring Virginie Ledoyen and Mathieu Demy, was chosen as one of 25 official entries at this year's Berlin Film Festival, to the nervous excitement of its creators, both in their mid-30s.
To Michel Rebichon, editor in chief of Studio, the film's frankness and daring form typify the experimentation going on in French movie-making today.
"This new generation hasn't spent a lot of time in the cinematheque," Rebichon said. "They mix genres and show the influence of comic books, music videos and B-movies as much as they do the greats of French cinema."
This melange of innovation and continuity is apparent in the Martineau-Ducastel production as soon as the credits roll, for the male lead is the son of the late Jacques Demy, maker of "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), in which the dialogue was sung, and the American-style musical comedy "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort" (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967).
In the past year, moviegoers have loved mass entertainment ventures such as Luc Besson's futuristic "The Fifth Element," the adventure of a 23rd century taxi driver out to save the world. They made it 1997's top grosser, with 7.6 million tickets sold. Besson's brainchild, however, doesn't seem any more French than its top-billed star, Bruce Willis. And the country's No. 2 hit last year, the U.S. import "Men in Black," didn't even bother to translate its title.
But alongside these pictures seemingly made for every man, woman and child on planet Earth, the French are increasingly demanding plots that revel in their Frenchness, or even in the country's specific regions and subcultures. The biggest surprise mega-hit in recent months was a sassy but affectionate celluloid voyage through the Sentier, the Jewish garment district of Paris.
In Thomas Gilou's "La Verite Si Je Mens!" (roughly, "If I'm Lying, I'm Dying!"), there is also a core love story: Juliet is Sephardic and Romeo a Gentile trying to pass as a Jew. Despite its unfamiliar locale and characters--or is it because of them?--this film gobbled up a bigger share of the 1997 French box office than Steven Spielberg's returning raptors in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park."
"I think that alongside the whole process of globalization, of seeing the same films and singing the same songs that the rest of the world does, we're also looking for ways to feel French," Samuel Blumenfeld, movie critic for Le Monde, the most respected of Paris dailies, answers when asked to analyze contemporary moviegoing trends.
That is one explanation for another surprising success, Resnais' "On Connait la Chanson" (Same Old Song), which after three months is still drawing large audiences in Paris.
Resnais, one of his country's finest postwar directors--whose 1959 "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" helped define the New Wave--used a script from top screenwriters Jean-Pierre Bacri and Angres Jaoui to shoot a tart story about love, betrayal and the Paris real estate market. The actors, including Bacri and Jaoui themselves, lip-sync their way through popular French tunes ranging from Roaring '20s material to pop singer France Gall's shouted advice for surviving the late 20th century: "Resist, prove you exist!"
The artistic conceit of combining pop tunes and dialogue has even jaded Parisians humming and singing in their seats and has handed Resnais his biggest success in a decade and a half. "This film is a real UFO--a genre that doesn't exist in French movies," marvels Blumenfeld.
Impressed as well, Resnais' colleagues in the industry have nominated the film for 12 Cesars (the French Oscars), more than any other film this year, including best picture, best director and best screenplay.
Emblematic of the recent "back to the roots" trend in French cinema is director Poirier's fourth and latest movie, which won the Prix du Jury at the 50th Cannes Film Festival. Although its title is "Western," it isn't one at all.
An out-of-work Spanish shoe salesman and a pint-size Russian emigrant are thrown together by chance and walk and hitchhike through the lush green countryside of Finistere, the westernmost tip of France. At a time when jobs and prosperity seem increasingly precarious to the French, what the two characters, Paco and Nino, are searching for is not riches, but love and friendship.
Poirier, a self-defined "loner" who lives in a village in Normandy 10 miles from the nearest movie theater, credits the success of "Western" to audiences' changing tastes. Since he made his first feature-length film eight years ago, Poirier jokes, he's basically been shooting the same film again and again. It's the public, he says, that has evolved.
"Movies can be big productions," the 43-year-old director said in a telephone interview. "But they can also be an adventure, or a film that makes you think, or one that makes you laugh or that you go to see just to feel your emotions, to cry. If too many films go in the same direction, people are going to want to change."
Another very successful regional picture is Robert Guediguian's seventh film, "Marius et Jeannette," a moving love story spiced up with the garlic-tinged accents of working-class Marseilles. Another slice of local life re-created on celluloid is Christophe Ruggia's "Le Gone du Chaaba" (The Kid From the Slums), released in January, which relates what it was like to grow up poor--and Arab--in 1960s France.
"The French cinema has started filming people again that it hadn't filmed for a long time," the 33-year-old Ruggia said. That, the young filmmaker believes, brings audiences to the theaters--so they can see people on the screen who are like themselves.
Fontaine, a former actress, has co-written and directed a kinky story of how the industrious, sober lives of a middle-class couple who own a dry-cleaning business in one of France's provincial cities are thrown into sexual and emotional disarray by their encounter with a transvestite. So far, her "Nettoyage a Sec" has been distributed in 17 countries, and its creator thinks she has seen the future for the French movie industry.
"They say French movies are hard to export," says Fontaine. "But I think that it's by being very French, and being offbeat, that you can be exportable. It's certainly not by making detective movies or comedies. Big French comedies don't sell well at all."
But inventiveness doesn't always bring people into theaters, even in the domestic market. While Hollywood's share of the French audience remained stable at about 54% last year, that of homemade films actually dropped: from 37.5% in 1996 to 31%.
People in the industry say one reason is the growing importance of multiplex theaters--France's 35th opened in the Nancy region last December. With 10 screens and more, these complexes already sell 15% of the country's movie tickets, and they prefer programming Hollywood blockbusters and other productions with mass appeal.
The makers of "Jeanne et le Garcon Formidable," however, interpret their experience as proof that a new day has dawned in the French cinema. Their film, with a cast of 14 and a shooting schedule of just nine weeks, cost $3.3 million, money that was raised through deals with three French TV channels that purchased an advance chunk of the receipts.
"In the past few years, people's first films have been successes, so the producers and TV channels have said, 'Since making a movie is always a risk, in the end it's no more risk with a first movie,' " said Ducastel, the director. "So the 'first film' aspect doesn't frighten the way it used to. People these days want to see something else at the movies, and one way to show something different is to show things by new people."