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Good French Movies (1980-85): Hey Good Looking

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GJ Cole itcherThe 80s! Big hair, shoulder pads, bad geometric wallpaper and all that. While much of the creative world was indulging in a style explosion that favoured bombast over feeling, French filmmakers (of course!) could be trusted to find an elegant balance between the two. With striking actors, dynamic camera movement, and chic, epically-lit sets, it wasn’t long before nay-saying critics nicknamed the 80s trend ‘cinéma du look’. But for audiences stuck between the beige prog-rock cinema of the 70s and the wave of brainless actioners soon to dominate Hollywood, the ‘new new wave’ was a breath of fresh air. ~ GJ Cole

Vous Got the Look

The nouvelle vague had truly run its course: the revolutionary filmmakers of the early 60s had matured and French cinema was looking bloated. The downward economic spiral of the 1970s seemed to drag French cinema’s aesthetics and vitality down with it. Some exciting, angry movies were made but got lost amongst dismal dramas and half-boiled crime flicks.

Along came the Holy Trinity of the cinéma du look: Jean-Jacques Beineix (‘Betty Blue’), Luc Besson (‘Subway’) and Leos Carax (‘The Lovers on the Bridge’). Mixing the existentially tortured characters of the original new wave with an aesthetic scope that was part New Hollywood / part fashion runway, these directors and those they inspired were able to rejuvenate French movie-making by tapping into what had made their predecessors so successful in 1959: a sense of ambition, of mischievousness, and of irreverence.

Established directors upped their game too, displaying a formal inventiveness that finally remembered its audience (recalling the fanboy zeal which inspired Godard, Malle and Truffaut). I’ve never understood how ‘cinéma du look’ could be considered an insult. It’s a movie. You want it to look good, right?


Stylish French Movie Recommendations

‘Diva’ (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981)

But… I’ve never heard myself sing!

Arguably the film that started the New Wave, ‘Diva’ is a masterfully kinetic criminal romance flick that effortlessly melds art house interests with mainstream thrills.

Jules is a chaotic postman on a moped, obsessed with opera – one singer in particular, of whom he makes an illicit recording against her wishes. Simultaneously, a cassette surfaces of a prostitute’s testimony against a top crime boss – and of course this tape also finds its way in to Jules’ possession.

Thrills, romance and musings on the mutability of identity are handed over in a fast-moving, colourful and handsome package that rediscovers some of the pure cinematic joy that went astray during the handwringing days of 70s French cinema. This is ‘Breathless’ after ‘Star Wars’.

‘L’Ange’ / ‘The Angel’ (Patrick Bokanowski, 1982)

Don’t bother looking for a story: Bokanowski’s experimental masterpiece, while composed of a sequence of (narratively unrelated) ‘scenes’, is obsessed more with motion, light, and mood, than with character or plot.

Inspired set-ups follow one after the other, variously detailing the mechanical habits of a cast of grotesque, puppet-like characters. At times perhaps a little too arch, ‘The Angel’ is at its best when the audience gets dragged into the grain, and the rhythms of ones own body – pulse, breathing, blinking – seem at one with the film (watch it in the dark!).

In many ways the antithesis to ‘Diva’, ‘The Angel’ is grubby, slow, and difficult, yet what the films share is an ecstasy of aesthetic expression and a fascination with the kinetics of the cinema screen.

‘Toute une nuit’ / ‘A Whole Night’ (Chantal Akerman, 1982)

This place is strange and spooky, there is an ominous air tonight, you feel it?

Fifty overlapping scenes of loneliness and ambiguous togetherness weave together a non-story of love in the city over one long night. Meticulously lit, framed and choreographed, ‘All Night Long’ is a true audio-visual work of art, even as it shuns the glitz and razzle that was coming to represent contemporary French film.

Comparable to (and perhaps influenced by) the work of Marguerite Duras in its contemplative pacing and objective, ‘All Night Long’ adds a humour and tenderness to the mix that make for a work which, while not slap-you-in-the-face direct, is better felt than understood. There’s no story, just moments and encounters, like a night of fragmented dreams.

‘Beau-père’ (Bertrand Blier, 1981)

I’m tired of being a hero…

Confrontational filmmaker Blier adopts a more elegant visual style than usual for his controversial story of impossible love. Ariel Besse makes an assured debut as a 14-year-old who, months after the death of her mother, announces her love and (in no uncertain terms) lust for her stepfather – played by the great Patrick Dewaere.

Exquisitely chosen locations made almost inhospitable by their sterility, self-aware asides to camera, and elegant camera moves that belie the characters’ inner turmoil, all contribute to a romantic and disturbing movie that can be difficult to watch. Blier’s trademark taboo-baiting tone finds new maturity as he finally allows for fully-rounded female characters (the lead, at least), even if he could be accused of falling back on his regular cop-out for masculinity: showing that men are terrible, but it’s because we’re weak, OK?

Aside from all the moral quandaries, the big unresolved question that ‘Stepfather’ poses is: Are all French apartments really as big as these?

‘Boy Meets Girl’ (Leos Carax, 1984)

I’m going to wind up a loser. Yet I stood a chance. I wanted to be someone outstanding: flyer, traveler, musician… Can’t I be reborn?

The first film from Leos ‘Holy Motors’ Carax is a relatively simple proposition, as its title suggests: troubled Alex meets suicidal Mireille, and they have a couple of unsatisfactory encounters before falling for each other over a long conversation at a party.

But Carax’s debut, while undoubtedly indebted to early Godard and his peers, marked an assured introduction to one of France’s most outré filmmakers. Casting the incredible, and incredibly odd-looking Denis Lavant in the lead was a masterstroke (and turbo-boosted both their careers), and the dialogue flourishes, iconic set-plays and over-wrought emotions quietly set the tone for Carax’s erratic and wonderful output to come.

It’s all wrapped up in a seductive monochrome grain that adds something between a mythical and a literary tone – an instant classic.


A Feast for the Eyes

With their angsty characters, ambitious set-pieces and lush visuals, French art movies of the early 1980s re-established Gallic cinema as the greatest in the world. Regardless of the motorbike chases and smoky sunsets, French filmmakers were engaging again with the joy of the moving image – and connecting it with meaningful stories that left an impact on their audiences and on cinema for decades to come.
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