Sometimes you can best appreciate the Frenchness of a film when it doesn’t appear to be all that French. Take the 2011 global success The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, which was a black-and-white silent comedy set in 20s and 30s Hollywood.
Yet it’s hard to imagine The Artist as anything other than Gallic. Who but a French director would have gone about pastiching vintage cinema with such a balance of scholarship, affection and mischief?
When we fall in love with the cinema of France, it’s not just the films that win us over, but an attitude to cinema. A famous French ad campaign proclaimed: “When you love life, you’ve been to the cinema.”
And foreigners are often surprised to see how intensely this love manifests itself as I was, one Thursday afternoon in Paris, when I witnessed people queuing round the block for a revival of a half-forgotten 1930s Hollywood comedy.
In France, cinema is taken seriously, traditionally considered an art rather than merely a form of entertainment or an industrial product. In that spirit, and in the name of “cultural exception”, the French state has long supported home-grown cinema as both art and business. The film industry benefits from huge subsidies – €700 million in 2012 – largely generated by a tax on ticket sales, while TV broadcasters are committed to investment in features. All this makes it possible for a very wide range of films to get made – a record 279 films were given the green light in 2012 – and not only those with obvious box-office potential.
This diversity is the most distinctive quality of the national output. Viewers abroad tend to associate French cinema with upmarket values, with a certain intellectualism, characterised by the moral comedies of Eric Rohmer, or with decorous, handsomely mounted romanticism, in the school of Jeande Florette.
In France, cinema is taken seriously, traditionally considered an art rather than merely a form of entertainment or an industrial product
In fact, French cinema ranges from the most arcane experimentalism to popcorn comedy as broad, and sometimes as crass, as anything emerging from Tinseltown.
French cinema is also widely identified with innovation, not least because of the so-called New Wave directors who emerged in the late-50s, their formal adventures often accompanied by militant calls to break with the past. Yet directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were deeply immersed in film history, and knowingly followed in the footsteps of revered precursors such as Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson.
In reality, French cinema today is no more regularly innovative than any other national cinema. Yet French film culture in general is marked by an openness to the possibility of the new, the expectation that something revelatory might be just around the corner; indeed, the Cannes Film Festival is fuelled by just this tantalising frisson.
France’s leading directors have always thrived on their ability to absorb and to reinvent world cinema. In the 60s, Jacques Demy transplanted the essence of the MGM musical to the French provinces in such deathless confections as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, while American crime cinema has been given distinctively Gallic twists by directors from Jean-Pierre Melville in the 50s to Jacques Audiard, with his 2009 prison thriller A Prophet.
Like any other productive film industry, France’s is necessarily fuelled by a star system and new talents emerge faster than you can keep up with them, many establishing themselves internationally while keeping a firm base at home. Most recently the likes of Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Tahar Rahim and Omar Sy, from domestic comedy hit The Intouchables to the latest X-Men episode.
France’s greatest screen stars show an astonishing durability. The biggest names in French cinema are versatile in a way that their Hollywood counterparts rarely equal. Catherine Deneuve enjoys a virtually regal status among national screen icons, yet is as likely to turn up in relatively low-budget films by art-house auteurs as she is in big prestige productions.
Indefatigably busy stars such as Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert continue to test their range in a sometimes bewildering selection of material, even if their filmographies show an uneven sense of quality control.
The same goes for Gérard Depardieu. He can seem, for years on end, to fritter away his time on throwaway stuff such as the popular Astérix comedies. But then he’ll surprise with something as daring as his role in Abel Ferrara’s new film Welcome to New York, inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, the actor’s biggest succès de scandale in years.
Of course, French cinema has never balked at scandal and its wilder directors can always be relied on to turn the air sulphurous, whether it’s a showman of extremity like Gaspar Noé (Irreversible) or a more considered taboo-breaker such as Catherine Breillat, a writer-director who since the 70s has explored female sexuality from every conceivable viewpoint.
Yet it’s not always about whipping up controversy, more a widespread willingness to confront limits, to go further than narrative convention usually allows. A prime case is Abdellatif Kechiche’s graphic, but intensely moving lesbian romance Blue Is the Warmest Colour, last year’s Palme d’Or winner in Cannes.
All may not be rosy in the national system. Film-makers have recently protested about stars’ inflated salaries and claimed that the involvement of television has entailed an increasingly bland normalisation. Yet French cinema can still blindside you with surprises as witnessed by Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, which premiered in Cannes this year. Who would have expected that the festival’s freshest, most visually electrifying film would come from an 83-year-old veteran of the New Wave – and in 3D?