As it happened the majority of movies I saw in 2008 were either American or French. The first of these facts isn’t so surprising, of course – it’s probably true of almost everyone on the planet who saw many movies at all. But really, given where I live and the kind of films I like and the kind of website this is, the second isn’t too surprising either. Just as the USA has historically held a hegemonic position as a provider of filmed entertainment, so France has – since the late 1940s at least – fought to remain the premier name in art cinema. This is one of those social facts that is both a subjective value judgment (you’re free to prefer German or Spanish or Japanese or Lithuanian films, if you like) and an objective economic reality (French film really is synonymous with “cinema” around the world, just as French letters once used to be with “literature”). And if you’re a producer, or a distributor, or a filmmaker (French or otherwise), then that reality is very real indeed.
It wasn’t ever thus, but it’s been thus for quite a while now. The changes that the French film industry underwent after the second World War, when the eminent Tradition of Quality gave way to the radical Nouvelle Vague, are well known; and Richard Brody’s magisterial biography of Jean-Luc Godard, Everything Is Cinema – the best book about film I read this year 1 – offers plenty of fascinating new detail about this shift. One thing Brody’s book makes abundantly clear that it was government intervention that allowed France to dominate (or pollinate, depending on your point of view) the world cinema scene in the 60s and 70s. Government support for native filmmakers was first developed under Nazi occupation but maintained after the Liberation; by the mid-1950s, French filmmakers were accustomed to submitting scripts or outlines for potential projects to bureaucratic officials. Film in France became, to a great extent, a state rather than a market concern. (And the country’s protectionist policies wereas further strengthened in the early 1990s, in the face of French anxieties about globalization, with the imposition of quotas and trade limitations on foreign – principally American – cultural products.)
The perhaps unintended result is that France rapidly cornered the market on prestige pictures oriented toward the developing global film festival circuit, producing many movies that, while not particularly commercially popular in France, went on to win the nation considerable respect from cognoscenti all over the world. Watching (as I did for the first time this year) movies like Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, or Godard’s Pierrot le fou, or Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, or Jacques Demy’s Lola, one is often led to think, a little wistfully, “Only in France” – because of their themes and content, to be sure, but also because of their very existence, because no other country would have financed such extravagantly autonomous works of art at that time. But history, of course, has proven all of these to be sound long-term investments: all of them operate now, in part, as advertisements for France and its history and culture; for many of us, they help form the image we have of “France” as a whole.
In retrospect, this economic system explains a good deal about the way the French New Wave looks and feels, its collective commitment to a cool, unforthcoming affect that has enraptured generations of viewers as the very essence of “Frenchness.” Unlike most American filmmakers, who must pay at least some attention to a film’s commercial viability, the first concern of the Nouvelle Vague directors was living up to the internal demands of their own culture, and getting it up on screen without compromise or apology.2 As much as they loved Hollywood movies, they also wanted to compete with them, and also to change the rules of the game that their long dominance had established. This led directors like Rohmer and Godard to refuse the narrative and formal techniques of Hollywood, or to distort or detourn them, in order to create a medium more suitable for conveying their own particular strengths. One could plausibly make the argument that American cinematic maximalism – which was, quite simply, a maximization of advantages that film in the US happened to possess: money, an expanding market of filmgoers, an influx of émigré artists and technicians from Europe – engendered French minimalism as a response. But don’t forget that minimalism, too, was a maximization: of the French cultural tradition’s austerity, its erudition, and its penchant for precisely calibrated symbolic revolts. In a world now transfixed by American enormity, such dominant values could appear as countercultural, even subversive. The result is that “French film” is, still today, often synonymous with a certain cool, apparently effortless minimalism: it’s this that unites the otherwise disparate sensibilities of Bresson, Melville, Godard, Truffaut, Varda, Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol, etc., even down to more recent names like Catherine Breillat and Olivier Assayas.
I give this inadequate thumbnail sketch of French cinema history in order to set up Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, my favorite movie of the year, which despite being “French” through and through – it takes place in Paris and Roubaix and stars Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric – seems somehow to open up new vistas in French (if not world) cinema, and exceed old limits, simply by being itself. Fans of Desplechin’s previous feature Kings and Queen will recognize the style of A Christmas Tale, another elegantly various ensemble film packed full to bursting with plot, detail, antics, angst, formal stunts, literary and philosophical references, great performances, visual grace notes, and general cinematic savoir faire. Like his American counterpart Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Magnolia Desplechin has said he admires, Desplechin seems to have a frantic desire to please and to move, by any means necessary. Some of this equates to a kind of populism, at least by Nouvelle Vague standards: A Christmas Tale, as the rather generic title implies, is a good old-fashioned home-for-the-holidays movie, a not particularly distinguished subgenre of American film; it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, it’s got something for everyone.
But Desplechin is also an inveterate experimentalist, albeit one more compelled to effect his resistance to conventional narrative through maximalism rather than minimalism, more Balzac than Robbe-Grillet; so he takes that “something for everyone” literally. A recent retrospective of Desplechin’s work at the IFC Center in New York City was called “Every Minute, Four Ideas” (a quote from Truffaut), and his production company is named “Why Not Productions”: both provide clues as to the voraciousness of the sensibility at work here, if not the intelligence. In the first ten minutes of A Christmas Tale, for instance, we get a touching graveyard speech filmed from four different angles; shadow puppets against photographic projections; dissolves, jump cuts, cutaways, intertitles, irises in; and a good old-fashioned hysterical courtroom scene, as well as introductions to a half dozen characters and the plot set in motion (Junon, the matriarch of the Vuillard family, is dying of cancer; their son Henri is estranged, having been disowned and banished on the advice of his sister Elizabeth). And all throughout the camera is constantly traveling, swooping, zooming, probing, exploring. The technical and conceptual compression in these scenes is impressive, but it’s not a bravura sequence, like the extended opening of Magnolia: this is the level of invention Desplechin strives to keep up throughout the entire film. In the process, he is inverting (rather than simply setting aside) the classical restraint of even the most “revolutionary” French cinema. (Think about it: even early Godard films, usually celebrated for their liveliness and spontaneity, now seem pretty worked over: every shot is a tableau, every line an aperçu.) After decades of carefully cultivated minimalism, in other words, French film may finally have produced a major maximalist.
How much does Desplechin’s maximalism owe to a desire to make more commercial films than previous generations of French “art” filmmakers (a goal he seems to be achieving: Kings and Queen and A Christmas Tale were box office hits in France)? What does he have in common, in this connection, with other young French filmmakers forging a path between art and commercial cinema, like Laurent Cantet (The Class), Jacques Audiard (The Beat My Heart Skipped), or Guillaume Canet (Tell No One)? These are questions to ponder further in the new year, but it seems to me that a great deal of A Christmas Tale’s tonic spirit lies in the perfect storm of oft-opposed forces – state and market, art and commerce – that have produced it. That is, it suggests the merits of compromise, what you get when you avoid the false alternatives of the blockbuster and the chef-d’oeuvre. And it does this by joyfully synthesizing as much as possible, rather than excluding or condemning what doesn’t fit.
American film in the late 00s, on the other hand, may be trending toward minimalism, perhaps in preparation for lean times ahead: among the best received films of the year are Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, both lovely but tiny stories, and both, in their way, “welcome to the New Depression” pieces. Of course there are still blockbusters, but even they seem to be marshaling their resources and toning down their glitz, edging closer to what was once the province of prestige pictures, even if what they lend prestige to are mostly licensing deals. (In this respect, Iron Man, which was about rethinking the consequences of our national supremacy, was the meta-hit of the year.)
So, to sum up: as America finally – potentially – moves away from the free market ideology that has raised the specter of Planet Hollywood, France seems to be tentatively loosening its cravat, letting some cracks in the high-culture veneer show through. What should one wish for, in terms not just of the medium of the state but of the state of the medium? Directors like Desplechin and Anderson, who are capable of stretching out in either direction: the big and the small, the formal and the casual. And maybe, since I’m asking anyway, an embrace of maximalism, which doesn’t have to mean excess, or overkill, or cynicism.
For example: one of my favorite scenes in A Christmas Tale features Elizabeth’s husband Claude, a famous mathematician, calculating the probability of Junon’s continued survival depending on whether she undergoes a certain dangerous surgery or not. “Getting hurt or dying are absolute events,” he tells her. “You don’t die a 10% or 12% death. You get the entire events… The game is on, like it or not.” He proceeds to show her, on a chalkboard, the statistical advantage of having the surgery, based on this all-or-nothing logic. The scene is an impressive display of Gallic rationalism which doubles as a crucial plot point; what’s even more extraordinary is that it actually works as drama, demonstrating something ineffable about the relationship between the ailing mother and her intellectual son-in-law. “You’d rather pass,” he finishes, “your only freedom is to bet” (alluding, I’m pretty sure, to Pascal's Wager, a piece of philosophical history which also plays a key role in Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s). Well, making a movie is an absolute event too, or it can be—certainly seeing one often is. And to succeed it might be necessary to calculate up to a point, and then stop and let passion take over; or else push calculation so far that it becomes a kind of passion in itself. Either way, the game is on, like it or not: movies are expensive, and if you’re lucky enough to have your government give you the money to make one, you might as well maximize your chances of making a great one. In A Christmas Tale Desplechin wagers it all on greatness, and in my view he succeeds. But the point is, you have to bet.