I saw Michael Moore's Sicko (1 screen) yesterday. But rather than talk about Moore's good points and bad points, or the nature of propaganda, or the broken health care system, or liberals vs. conservatives, I'd like to pick one small moment from the film and expand upon it. After surveying the French health care system and finding it good, Moore asks why the American government and American media want us to hate France so much. "Is it because they're afraid we'll like it?" he wonders?
He has a point. The anti-France sentiment of the last decade or so is based mostly on stupid insults and jokes about surrendering (see last year's brain-dead Flushed Away for an example). It's the type of stuff the class bully comes up with and everyone just goes along. But if we stop for a moment and use our common sense, the French have it pretty good. Aside from the free health care depicted in Sicko, and their apparent longevity (despite their taste for wine, cigarettes and fatty foods), they've got one of the most beautiful cities in the world, great food, landmarks, music, and some of the finest filmmakers in the world.
Among the great cinema poets to have emerged from France, we have: Louis Feuillade (Les vampires), Jean Vigo (L'Atalante), Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), Jean Cocteau (La Belle et la bete), Jacques Becker (Casque d'or), Henri-Georges Clouzot (Wages of Fear), Robert Bresson (Pickpocket), Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), François Truffaut (The 400 Blows), Agnès Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7), Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), Jacques Tati (Playtime), Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai), Claude Chabrol (Le Boucher), Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee), Jean Eustache (The Mother and the Whore), Jacques Rivette (Celine and Julie Go Boating), Maurice Pialat (À nos amours), Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf), Claire Denis (Beau Travail), not to mention other filmmakers who have worked in France, like Max Ophuls (The Earrings of Madame de...), Jules Dassin (Rififi), Luis Bunuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Three Colors Trilogy), and a dozen other contemporary filmmakers whose greatness has yet to be determined.
One French master actually has a new film playing, Alain Resnais' Private Fears in Public Places (4 screens). It's fairly clear that the movie industry is built around youth, but I still can't understand why the old masters don't get more of a welcome when they crank out a new film. (Barely anyone noticed when Ingmar Bergman came out of retirement with Saraband in 2005.) Private Fears in Public Places is not really an earth-shattering film, but it's a highly skilled and wonderful piece of work, very much worth seeing. Any young filmmaker could learn a lot from it.
Eighteen directors from all over the world came together to express their appreciation of France in Paris je t'aime (164 screens), an uneven, but overall enjoyable anthology film. Among that group, Olivier Assayas is the only high-profile French director. Like the French New Wave filmmakers before him, Assayas began as a critic, absorbing film history before tackling the art of filmmaking. His output is a mixed bag, ranging from ultra-cool (Irma Vep, Demonlover) to stodgy (Les Destinées sentimentales). But he's definitely one to keep an eye on.
The screenwriter-turned-director Danièle Thompson has made a career out of lovingly lightweight, bittersweet comedies (La Bûche, Jet Lag) that leave viewers in a happy haze. Her newest film, Avenue Montaigne (15 screens), centers around an exclusive café that serves the patrons and artists of a nearby museum, theater and auction house. The main character, a spiky-haired, carefree, cutie-pie Jessica (Cécile De France) somehow makes connections with characters from all four places and helps set everything right. One American, Sydney Pollack, isn't afraid to show his love of France and joins the cast, playing a director.
I haven't seen it yet, but Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley (5 screens) has wowed the French critics. On these shores, on the other hand, Olivier Dahan's La vie en rose (118 screens) has wowed American critics by following the successfully bland American biopic formula that turned Ray and Walk the Line into award-winners. Likewise, some other lesser French films have opened here, Francis Veber's The Valet (54 screens), Luc Besson's beautiful, if empty Angel-A (11 screens), and Bruno Dumont's pretentious and depressing Flanders (2 screens). Don't let these poor examples color your view of French cinema.
Fortunately, two classics showing the best of French cinema are currently playing somewhere in the United States: Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1 screen) is often cited as the greatest film of all time, right behind Citizen Kane. And Jean-Luc Godard's wily Pierrot le Fou (1 screen) features the lovely Anna Karina (Godard's muse) and the ultra-cool Jean-Paul Belmondo as a pair of lovers on the run. If more Americans knew Belmondo and his intelligent stoicism, the joke about surrendering wouldn't be so funny anymore.