How Paris stole the formula of mainstream Hollywood film *

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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I have in the past couple of months watched a number of recent French films, and I couldn’t help but wonder: What’s up with the French film industry lately? How do they manage to make more enjoyable, far better (not to mention original) films, following what is essentially Hollywood genre formulas? I am counting among these films the thoroughly enjoyable thriller  À bout portant (2010) by Fred Cavayé (who also directed the 2008 Pour elle, remade in 2010 as the rather mediocre The Next Three Days by Paul Haggis); the unusual L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie (2010) by Eric Lartigau, that manages to grab hold of the viewer despite the successive changes of tone and genre; the superb gangster film Les Lyonnais (2011) by Olivier Marchal (whose 36 Quai des Orfèvres of 2004 and MR 73 of 2008 I have yet to see); and the heartwarming, even if a bit stereotyped, Intouchables (2011) by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, an international hit.

Are the directors better at sustaining suspense, or creating believable situations? Are the scripts better written, or the source material more fetching? Is it the responsibility of the actors, one more memorable than the other, unusual faces by Hollywood beauty standards, that you cannot take your eyes off of them? I am thinking of the mesmerizing presence of Gérard Lanvin in Les Lyonnais, the delicate, strained beauty of Marina Foïs or the nervous energy of Romain Duris in L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie, the desperation of Gilles Lellouche in À bout portant and so many others (even the supporting roles are unforgettable).

But what really prompted the writing of this post was the film Ne le dis à personne (2006), written and directed by Guillaume Canet. It’s a suspense thriller that would have made Hitchcock proud, and a deeply moving love story at the same time, crafted so seamlessly that you literally do not believe your eyes. Let me make one thing clear from the beginning. It’s not that these French films are free of clichés or that their originality is based on things never before seen. Take for example the melodramatic montage before the end of Les Lyonnais or the scene where François Cluzet reminisces about his lost love in Ne le dis à personne, while getting drunk and listening to Jeff Buckley’s rendering of Lilac Wine. None of these scenes are jarring though, and the talent of this young (or less young) generation of French filmmakers seems to lie precisely in their ability to rework tired formulas and to combine elements that have become stale in similar Hollywood productions. It’s not, of course, as if the French did not have a cinematic tradition to draw from, and I would only cite Henri-Georges Clouzot or Jean-Pierre Melville, to stick to the suspense thriller and gangster film genres.

I will try to analyze some of the elements that make Ne le dis à personne work so well. There is a number of supporting characters that no matter how small, or seemingly peripheral their part, are very well developed. From the lesbian wife of the main character’s sister, to his petty gangster of a patient (portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas and Gilles Lellouche respectively), everyone has a memorable presence and moves the story forward. The movie is also filled with little details that enhance the illusion of reality so artfully weaved by Canet, as for example when the two cops (a terrific François Berléand and his younger colleague played by Philippe Lefebvre) arrange the shopping at the house of the mother of the elder one. It’s little scenes like this one that make a real difference.

But the breathing, bleeding heart of the movie is François Cluzet (also the star of Intouchables), perhaps the most sympathetic actor to have emerged in recent memory. He makes his character, Alexandre Beck, and his plight utterly believable, while maintaining a down to earth quality. This is the everyman, caught in an extraordinary situation, and his choices will determine his moral fabric. He’s Cary Grant in North by Northwest – only without the looks, or the glamour of the sixties’ spies. When he runs to get away from men chasing him, you don’t need a publicist telling you he did his own stunts. We can tell he jumped that wall, not very ably, and that he probably hurt himself in the fall. And this very real quality that Cluzet manages to project, makes the viewer invested in the character’s future and complicit in his actions. It is a true feat.

I expect – and hope – to see a lot more of these films. While not repudiating their artistic legacy (or because of it?), French filmmakers seem to have turned energetically to a more commercially driven cinema, that does not stoop to the presumed canned tastes of their audiences. I do not know which path they will take next, but for the moment I’m happy to watch.

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* The title of the post is a paraphrase of Serge Guilbaut’s now classic How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983).

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