What is it about being French that makes something cool? French bread, French Connection, French kissing. The prefix seems to bring with it an air of sophistication and chic (with the notable exception of French and Saunders). Nowhere is this more true than with French film. Consider the sentence ‘she likes to watch films’. The individual described sounds fairly regular, possibly even a bit dull (I like films probably more than the next man but saying it in conversation can solicit eye rolling and assumption that you just loved Tranformers 2). Now just observe the wonders that ‘French’ can do – ‘she likes to watch French films’. Suddenly our mystery woman has become cultured, interesting, probably the sort to write poetry and hang about in smoky rooms listening to jazz. Its frankly unfair.
It’s not that French film never deserved this title; the Nouvelle Vague earned it in the 50’s and 60’s. The experiments with visual style, the jump cuts, the spirit of backyard film making, without it modern cinema would not be what it is in that there would be no Coppola, Scorsese or Tarantino (who dedicated Reservoir Dogs to director of À bout de soufflé, Jean-Luc Godard – I know… wikipedia can surprise us all). For a while French film was at the cutting edge.
But that time has passed. French film now is nothing to get excited about. Ok that might be a bit far; Amelie was good, so was La Haine, but they weren’t really ground breaking, nor typical of the quality of the vast bulk of French films produced. The big French release you may have heard of this summer was Heartbreaker. It was lazy, predictable and clunky, yet the plot (not startlingly dissimilar to the also terrible 2001 film Heartbreakers with Jennifer Love-Hewitt and Sigourney Weaver) was heralded by the Telegraph as recalling ‘a time in film history when rom-coms were amusing and glamorous as well as romantic’. Time Out London called it ‘instantly amusing’ and ‘hilarious’. I began to think that it might just be me until I saw the faces of the other people leaving the cinema. The smiles were fixed, the comments forced. Everyone was looking nervously at their friends, worried about being the one who didn’t get it. In my case I looked across at my friends. Did they all think that it was god’s gift to cinema?
‘What was that s***?!’
The spell was broken. Nobody had enjoyed it.
It’s not that French film can’t be good, it obviously can. But just the fact that it’s French shouldn’t afford it an air of brilliance.