Cinema is a show’, Dreyfus muses, ‘and the goal for cinema, like theatre, is to show a story that will make you think. I don’t believe in the militant cinema that would change our lives – I don’t think that’s the way our lives can be changed.’
Jean-Claude Dreyfus is a pioneering veteran of French film: a master of the capricious and quirky. He is best known to you and me for his performances in Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (2004), Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke (2001), The City of Lost Children (1995) and Delicatessen (1991) both directed by the formidable, sacrosanct and thoroughly avant-garde duo of Caro-Jeunet. Hence, it is from his credentials alone that I trust him to be my way into the enigmatic world of French film.
For the French film fan looking from the outside in, French cinema seems intangible, unparalleled and irreplicable. When Dreyfus agreed to meet me, I was eager to extract from him the magic formula that is owned and patented by French directors and that makes French films so, well, French. It seems to me almost like a closely guarded secret recipe handed down from generation to generation. Intriguingly, though, I soon learnt that their unique style is far more accessible to the British film plebeian that it may first seem. ‘I feel that both French and English films are similar’ says Dreyfus, ‘I feel that cinema is essentially just one entity and is the same everywhere’. In one fell swoop, he had completely thwarted my understanding and even appreciation of the French film genre. There was more: ‘French film might be a little more psychological and it certainly tells an interesting story, but equally there are many English films that are really very similar to French cinema. In fact, I really don’t find a lot of differences between the two.’
It’s easy to get the impression that French cinema stands apart from the rest, and its cinematic tradition is not replicated anywhere else. However, it was the recent televised follow-up episodes of Shane Meadows seminal masterpiece This is England ’86 that made me realise just what Dreyfus was getting at. Meadows’ style is slow-paced, gritty, hard-hitting in the same way as Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy or Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long. What is it, then, that is rendering British films unmistakeably French? Consider the above-mentioned Jeunet-Caro film, The City of Lost Children. Swap the honeyed timbre of the French accent for a blunt British one and right in front of you is a typical Terry Gilliam: something similar to his Brazil or Twelve Monkeys. Meadows and Gilliam: two ‘Best of British’ directors (we’ve adopted the latter as our own) displaying emblematic French cinematic devices. Once you strip back all the ‘Frenchities’ (smoky cafés, poodles, baguettes), the integral style of the two countries’ films is pretty much the same: bold, often brash, and always beautiful.
As such similar media, they therefore face similar problems ahead. With the collapse of the UK Film Council and the French Film industry new project funding deficit, the future of young Franco-British directors is in serious jeopardy: ‘We’ve got young directors and they desperately need to find the finance to achieve their goals. It’s about giving them the chance to do so. I’m afraid that without funding, some potentially incredible films will not have the power to exist.’
As both countries struggle together, instead of feeling thoroughly abandoned by my almost illicit passion for French film, I’m sensing a renewed cross-channel relationship: a partnership in cinematic crime. We both strive to create daring and daunting films, unfazed by a need to please the masses and instead content with setting an individual’s thoughts, story lines and imagery into motion: ‘you need to trust the film director, he knows his films, he knows what he wants to do and he’s got everything in his head to make his film successful and thoroughly individual’. It seems as though French and British films are united front against blanket blockbusters. Dreyfus agrees; ‘if watch a film that I find truly moving, that would overwhelm me, perhaps it would enable my heart to beat a little longer – that’s what you get from our type of film’. Even though it transpires that the illustrious illusion of the French film industry is not so elusive, Dreyfus has opened my eyes to the close and irrefutable cinematic connection to our garlicky neighbours. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, utterly brilliant that beneath their mod film façade the French still share our taste in film. Perhaps a collaboration, Dreyfus?