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Good French Movies (2010-15): The New French Weird

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GJ Cole itcherFrom the nation that brought you Alfred Jarry, Surrealism, and Jean Paul Gaultier, here come five modern anti-classics to bring us up to date with the essential texts of French cinema. Whether subverting narrative and structure, providing an absurdist take on the world or titillating with wild and wonderful visuals, these movies prove that half a century after the Nouvelle Vague, France retains the most inventive cinema culture on Earth. ~ GJ Cole


Something strange is occurring in western Europe. In Britain, wacko directors are being trusted with moderate budgets to make films seemingly (and commendably) intended to express the weirdest and/or stupidest film ideas possible: search for ‘Aaaaaaaah!’, ‘Couple in a Hole’, or ‘The Greasy Strangler’ (all 2015). Not to mention the recent sci-fi work of Richard Ayoade and Jonathan Glazer, while Ireland was the location for Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos recent curiosity ‘The Lobster’.

The French, of course, are not to be outdone and could even claim to have started the trend, with the extreme French cinema of the noughties segueing into an equally subversive strain of eye-bogglers that substitute weirdness for the gore of the previous decade.

It is said that there are only seven stories in the world, but these movies take several plots at once, chop them up, pull them inside out and film them with glorious levels of invention, creating compelling novelties to change how you think about cinema.


Peculiar French Movie Recommendations

‘Holy Motors’ (Leos Carax, 2012)

I am so afraid I will never die…

When I first heard the basic details of Carax’s then-unreleased fifth feature, I predicted it would be terrible and wonderful at the same time. Thankfully, it didn’t disappoint. Rarely seen since his trilogy of tragic love stories nearly two decades previously, Carax’s return to the spotlight was assured by the boldness of his new vision.

Denis Lavant, who previously appeared as the director’s boyish alter-ego in his youthful early films, returns older, craggier, but energetic as ever in a contemporary fairytale about aging and obsoleteness.

Employed as a kind of Situationist chameleon, Lavant is chauffeured by limousine from appointment to appointment, each time assuming a new (surreal and seamless) persona to perform absurd tasks – kidnapping a supermodel while dressed as a leprechaun, shooting a banker who happens to be his doppelganger, or dressing as an old lady to beg in the streets.

Full of poetic meanings and never-before-seen set pieces, some found ‘Holy Motors’ to be pretentious or self-consciously wacky: such could have been the case if Carax wasn’t some kind of genius. His natural flair for bizarre cinema is fully expressed, the exquisite casting, and set design of ‘Holy Motors’ complete a work of utterly modern art.

‘Adieu au Langage’ / ‘Goodbye to Language’ (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)

Godard made a 3D movie! He also seemed to rediscover his sense of fun. Packed full of ideas – literary, political, aesthetic, existential – ‘Goodbye to Language’ professes to be the story of a couple having an affair, but this is really just the skeleton on which to hang Godard’s experiments; in truth, it closer resembles an essay film, albeit in a an utterly original form.

Playing with 3D like a new toy, Godard has the ingenuity and the audience to bring us uses of technology that aren’t possible in the high-octane blockbusters for which it is usually employed.

Domestic settings, mundane scenarios and audience editing (at times you can cover one eye or another to see completely different pictures) contribute to a kind of existential nausea, a celebration, and weirdifying of the everyday that calls into question the political subtext of our surroundings and of our technologies.

‘Saint Laurent’ (Bertrand Bonello, 2014)

Sprawled across the ten years that marked the peak of Yves Saint Laurent’s career, ‘Saint Laurent’ is a hedonistic celebration of the neuroses, inspiration, and character that made the great designer such a hit.

Played with brooding complexity by Gaspard Ulliel, Saint Laurent is a troubled soul perpetually on the edge of burning out, surrounded by a cast of eccentrics and parasites.

While no masterpiece, ‘Saint Laurent’ is a fine box of eye candy, with a keen sense of the silliness and bombast of the French fashion scene of the seventies. And anyway, it’s worth watching for the louche, seductive appearance of Louis Garrel (in fine moustache) as Lagerfeld model Jacques de Bauscher, whose irresistible allure drives poor Yves to distraction.

‘Réalité’ / ‘Reality’ (Quentin Dupieux, 2014)

Like a Gallic Charlie Kaufman, Dupieux takes on perception, meta-narrative and concepts of reality versus dream life in this hilarious and ingenious movie within a movie within a movie (ad infinitum).

A television cameraman takes his feature film project to a big (moronic) exec and is told he can only make the film if he finds the perfect scream; a young girl discovers a mysterious video cassette in the stomach of a dead boar; and a television chef is convinced he’s caught a debilitating rash from the rat costume he’s forced to wear on-screen, but no-one else can see anything wrong.

These characters variously pass through each other’s lives in reality, in dreams, and in film-within-a-film footage, creating an M. C. Escher-effect of impossible connections.

The visual invention and surreal gags make for an infuriatingly enjoyable tour through the subconscious of a roster of neurotic characters, or perhaps more accurately, through the warped mind of Dupieux himself.

‘P’tit Quinquin’ / ‘L’il Quinquin’ (Bruno Dumont, 2014)

Li’l Quinquin, I learned something coming out here…

Undervalued maestro Dumont achieved new heights with his epic crime story ‘L’il Quinquin’ a couple of years back, whether in spite or because of two new aspects to his work: the film was first created as a 4-part TV miniseries, and then edited for cinema. This is also Dumont’s first comedy.

The film opens with the discovery of a headless corpse stuffed into a cow. Baffled police commandant Van der Weyden quickly identifies a pesky kid (Quinquin) as a witness (which he isn’t), establishing a parallel between the two characters for the remaining three hours.

While Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) struggles to make sense of the recurring murders in this strange provincial town, Quinquin unknowingly has the time of his life, roaming the countryside, constantly getting in trouble, and trying to look out for his young girlfriend (it’s one of the sweetest love affairs in cinema history).

The humour is absurd, and as grim as you would predict from Dumont, but hidden in his frustration at the corruption of human nature is a reluctant joy at the beautiful strangeness of life. As ever, his cast of non-actors is inclusive of the kind of characters and performers usually hidden from our screens – from Pruvost’s constant facial tics to background characters with various intellectual and physical disabilities.

It’s long, unconventional, and pessimistic – but ‘L’il Quinquin’ is also hilariously funny, and one of the greatest achievements in French cinema for years.


Weirded Out

These absurd spins on modern life use their inventive techniques to remind us that reality is weird and to question everything we’re expected to take for granted. While they don’t claim to represent that weird reality in literal terms, twisting things up exposes our habitual ways of thinking and of receiving ideas, inspiring invention in our daily lives and expanding our expectations of human experience.

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