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Good French Movies (1995-00): Cruel World

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GJ Cole itcherProminent French filmmakers of the late nineties issued furious cries against the cruelty of the human condition in a sequence of films that tortured their characters in a variety of mundane and/or absurd circumstances. Whether suffering from romantic, economic, or existential woes – or all three at the same time – their anti-heroes were not necessarily equipped to thrive. Surrounded by similarly self-interested counterparts with little sympathy to spare, they found themselves in a world not designed for the emotional comfort of modern humanity. ~ GJ Cole

Wake up Call

It’s said that the 90s offered few new ideas, instead relying on revivalism, nostalgia and – in some quarters – the nuanced evolution of existing approaches. Perhaps this sense of ennui in western cultures that had been failed by the sixties, screwed by the seventies and mocked by the eighties was what provoked the cinematic outrage of a handful of French filmmakers as the decade progressed.

Elsewhere in European cinema, Lars von Trier was emotionally torturing various women in his ‘Hearts of Gold’ trilogy, Béla Tarr was casting his actors out into the mud or rioting through hospitals, and Michael Haneke was playing violent ‘Funny Games’ with middle class hostages held captive in their own domains.

A violent century, packed with flawed ideas and the failure to learn from society’s cataclysmic mistakes, was coming to an end – and these directors weren’t about to go quietly.

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Cruel French Movie Recommendations

‘La vie de Jésus’ / ‘The Life of Jesus’ (Bruno Dumont, 1997)

Why “The Life of Jesus”? Well… I don’t know… There’s a lot of violence in the film and all…

Establishing his trademark style – awkward, non-professional actors, grimly un-photogenic locations, and a Bressonian regard for restaging everyday life – Bruno Dumont’s first feature is a much overlooked gem of late 90s arthouse cinema.

Teenage Freddy lives in a dead-end town but is quietly content with his existence: a pretty girlfriend who seems to be his soulmate, a bike to speed around on, and a bunch of dropout mates to back him up. When an Arab immigrant moves to town and starts hitting on his girlfriend (not entirely unwelcomed), the suppressed frustrations of Freddy and his gang finally find a significant target.

Dumont’s inclusive cinema habitually unearths the absurdities of quotidian life, taking a philosophical but character-led approach to provincial stories that can be funny, unnerving and – for some – grotesque.

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‘Seul contre tous’ / ‘I Stand Alone’ (Gaspar Noé, 1998)

People think they’re free. But freedom doesn’t exist. Just laws that unknown people made to protect themselves…

Noé’s feature debut is a furious and bombastic ride through the life of a Parisian horse butcher, a damaged and violently frustrated outsider played with pulsating potentiality by Philippe Nahon.

Told largely in voiceover, with shouty intertitles and Grand Guignol tableaux adding to the highly stylized approach, ‘I Stand Alone’ expresses Noé’s frustration with the limits of conventional filmic storytelling. It is a bold argument for a new wave to favour a visceral rather than intellectual movie-making – to confront the harsh truths of the human condition through poetic, rather than pseudo-realistic visual representation.

In light of his puerile 3D movie ‘Love’ (2015), you can sense an immaturity about the filmmaker – a childish, and thus heartfelt, sense of injustice and chaos which unfortunately would come to look silly by the time of ‘Love’. But ‘I Stand Alone’ remains a vital document of 90s French cinema, and its extreme tone opened up new expressive possibilities for many filmmakers since.

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‘Beau Travail’ (Claire Denis, 1999)

That day, something overpowering took hold of my heart. I thought about the end. The end of me. The end of Forestier…

In sweltering Djibouti, Denis Lavant’s Sergent Galoup trains with the French Foreign Legion, where he is a popular figure and a successful soldier. But the arrival of a handsome new recruit stirs feelings of jealousy and latent homosexuality, and Galoup makes it a personal project to persecute the young rookie.

Claire Denis’ camera captures the natural eroticism of the scenario with grace and originality, positing the military outpost as a strange hybrid of animal and machine. Recurring scenes of military drills and exercises emphasise the heat and rhythm of their odd microcosm, and if Denis Lavant is unceasingly watchable in the lead role, Grégoire Colin as his victim was fast on his way to becoming a regular but underrated mainstay of French art filmmaking.

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‘Pola X’ (Leos Carax, 1999)

Be careful! You dream of writing a mature work, but your charm lies in your thorough immaturity…

Bonkers director Carax tortures poor Guillaume Depardieu’s Melvillian character for the duration of this strange and beguiling movie. Adapted from ‘Pierre: or, The Ambiguities’ but transposed to modern-day France, it concerns the son of a wealthy family who abandons his wedding plans to elope with a beautiful stranger claiming to be his long lost sister.

Dropping out of society, they disappear into the underground where they find themselves unable to outrun personal and family demons. The absurdity of their journey and the narrative jumps of the story make it a tough one to completely lose yourself to, but as ever, Carax pastes the emotions all over the screen and never fails to startle with his invention and ambition.

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‘Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes’ / ‘Water Drops on Burning Rocks’ (François Ozon, 2000)

If you were a woman I’d have married you…

Based on a play by the great Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ozon’s romantic triangle – perhaps even romantic square – has an emotional intelligence that raises it above much of the French director’s other work.

Bernard Giraudeau and Malik Zidi star as a gay couple with a generation gap, whose domestic life takes a melodramatic turn on the arrival of the latter’s fiancé. Giraudeau’s Léopold is cocky and manipulative as the older man who knows he holds his lovers in thrall and enjoys a little emotional torture on the side.

Bold performances and a strong, garish set capture the feel (if not spirit) of a Fassbinder movie. With all the action taking place within a single apartment, this chamber movie has a cohesiveness and spark that keep it engaging even it cannot muster the same emotional impact as the directorial work of the play’s author.

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Ouch!

Locating cruelty in the very DNA of the human animal, these great directors created works of tremendous philosophical resolve. Not always easy to watch, such torturous stories make for enlightening and insightful viewing experiences – even if catharsis is in short supply.

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