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Good French Movies (1990-95): The Art of Cinema

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GJ Cole itcherThe most recent quarter-century of French filmmaking was ushered in with a host of well-crafted art flicks that capitalized on the nation’s great acting tradition to spin fresh, visually-arresting tales. Whether they concerned love, the soul, the meaning of art, or – well – cannibalism, these movies displayed a sophistication and arthouse accessibility that kept French filmmaking at the cutting edge of world cinema. ~ GJ Cole


The best French movies of the early nineties truly came from a wide range of filmmakers – from debutante visionaries and maturing mavericks to the ever-inventive old guard of the nouvelle vague.

We also sneak in the Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, as he made his first French productions in this period: ‘The Double Life of Véronique’ saw him literally divided between Poland and France, and he would quickly follow it up with his elegant, elegiac ‘Three Colours’ trilogy (1993-4) before his unexpected death in 1996. The colours of the title each took a stripe of the French flag – and its national symbolism – as their thematic starting point.

Meanwhile, enfant terrible Leos Carax concluded the early period of his career (which has since been frustratingly sparse) with ‘Lovers on the Bridge’, a spectacular romantic tragedy that has rarely been equalled in French cinema or elsewhere. Chantal Akerman’s ‘Nuit et Jour’ looks like a painting and sounds like poetry.

New wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette, by now in his sixties, created an uncharacteristically sober – but effective – portrait of an ageing artist. And ten years before ‘Amélie’ would find worldwide recognition, Jean-Pierre Jeunet made an astonishingly assured debut (with Marc Caro) in the form of their surreal post-apocalyptic ‘Delicatessen’.


Crafty French Movie Recommendations

‘Les Amants du Pont-Neuf’ / ‘The Lovers on the Bridge’ (Leos Carax, 1991)

My dreams sent me. People in dreams, ought to call them when you wake. Make life simpler…

A bombastic tale of amour fou between a young homeless couple in Paris, Carax’s project was an act of beautiful folly: with much of the action taking place at night, outdoors on a temporarily closed bridge, the production was forced to shift to an enormous outdoor model 700 kilometres away in the town of Lansargues. Actor injuries and a spiralling budget could not prevent this movie from happening the way Carax saw it.

Paris, both real and ersatz, looks stunning from never before seen angles. Denis Lavant returns to play yet another alter ego of Carax himself, this time as a drug-addled street performer who’s drawn to desperate measures to prolong his burgeoning relationship with Juliette Binoche’s blind painter.

‘The Lovers on the Bridge’ is expressionistic and melodramatic in the best, best way: it mainlines emotions and then spatters them across the screen in the form of blood, cheap wine, fireworks, dirty river water, messy paint and drifting trash.

‘Nuit et Jour’ / ‘Night and Day’ (Chantal Akerman, 1991)

Akerman’s carefully measured love triangle, almost a mathematical proposition in its form, locates its life and soul in the poetic dialogue and troubled, charismatic performances of its cast.

Julie and Jack are perfectly in love, their days split in two as they spend daytime in bed and night time wandering the city – Jack as a taxi driver, Julie as a kind of contemporary flâneur. When Julie unexpectedly falls in love with the daytime driver of Jack’s cab and begins to see him regularly, their diurnal rhythms assume a new balance which seems to work for everyone – but which can only stand the strain so long.

A disciplined palette of saturated colours, point-perfect framing, and camera movement, recreate a Paris built for three, where barely a stray character is allowed to walk into the shot. It’s almost a living sculpture in testament to the flawed optimism and mutability that characterizes the beginning of each obsessive love affair. Akerman’s insight is both wise and sympathetic.

‘La Belle Noiseuse’ / ‘The Beautiful Troublemaker’ (Jacques Rivette, 1991)

You can’t leave me like that, all alone in this void…

New Wave director Rivette here presents one of his more narratively coherent works, a somewhat lengthy stay with a reclusive painter and his reluctant muse (Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Béart). The former is washed-up and out of inspiration until meeting the latter by chance: he is sure she is the answer to his problems. But being observed nude for hours every day is trying for the model, and the painter’s insecurities prove a delicate balance.

It’s a thoughtful and nuanced dialogue, and if Rivette’s films usually show the audience parallel alternate worlds and timezones, here the parallel is implicit: the painter’s wife, played by Jane Birkin, is his former muse, being metaphorically and literally painted over in favour of the younger woman. It is not a simple issue of love or lust, though, and the subtlety with which the changing dynamics are portrayed makes for a masterful meditation on the analogue between art and life.

‘Delicatessen’ (Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1991)

Nobody is entirely evil: it’s that circumstances that make them evil, or they don’t know they are doing evil…

A microcosm of French society, a cross-section of an antiquated but pervasive way of life, ‘Delicatessan’ portrays the tenants of an old apartment building in a post-apocalyptic age: a gaggle of eccentrics, bullies and losers separated by thin walls and struggling for survival.

The landlord has a side-business in selling human meat, which makes a precarious position for his innocent odd-job man (rubber-faced Dominique Pinon). It may take a revolution to save him…

Aside from the plot, the joy of the film is its visuals: the apartment block as an organism, functioning and malfunctioning according to the involuntary rhythms and selfish corruption of its inhabitants.

Richly comic with a cartoonish eye for detail and caricature, ‘Delicatessen’ remains a modern classic in the French canon.

‘La double vie de Véronique’ / ‘The Double Life of Véronique’ Krzysztof KieŚlowski, 1991)

All my life I’ve felt I was in two places at the same time…

Marking the great Polish director Kieślowski’s segue into French cinema, ‘The Double Life of Véronique’ firstly follows a Polish singer and then her French doppelganger as they live their daily lives haunted by the feeling of another presence.

Shot with meticulous sensitivity and delicately evocative aesthetics, ‘The Double Life’ explores existentialist, political, and religious ideas. Kieślowski has an uncanny talent for illustrating big themes or concepts through everyday stories – his Polish ‘Decalogue’ series consisted of ten films, each inspired by the respective Ten Commandments. Refusing to give concrete answers, in ‘The Double Life of Véronique’ and beyond, he evokes a universe where the verification of spiritual or political assertions is not so important as the way our emotions process them.

Irène Jacob’s twin performance is perfectly tuned to the tale she embodies, and Zbigniew Preisner’s score is woven meaningfully throughout.


Masters of the Art

Six filmmakers presenting five astonishing movies, in each case pushing the envelope for arthouse filmmaking and finding a crossover audience hungry for spectacle as well as meaning. What a feast!

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