In this provocative and original book, the American cultural historian Vanessa Schwartz revisits the vexed question of Franco-American cinematic relations in the postwar period. Much has been written on the subject, but Schwartz has no time for clichés about French "protectionism" or American "imperialism". Instead, the central thesis of It's so French! Hollywood, Paris, and the Making of Cosmopolitan Film Culture is that the French and the Americans were much more receptive (even affectionate) towards each other than Cold War-inspired rhetoric has made out. Furthermore, France as represented in American and French films of the 1950s and 1960s was key to the development of "cosmopolitan film culture".
Contrary to the common view that pits French art cinema against commercial Hollywood films, Schwartz claims that from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s American representations of Frenchness successfully merged high art and popular culture, and French cinema meant more than highbrow auteur films. This she demonstrates via a set of major French cultural icons, from belle époque Paris to Brigitte Bardot.
Particularly convincing is Schwartz's first chapter, devoted to what she calls the "Frenchness films" - An American in Paris, Funny Face, Moulin Rouge and Gigi - which celebrated Paris as the birthplace of modern art and of the cinema, capitalising on the role America had played half a century earlier in securing the global pre-eminence of Impressionist painting. Importantly, these visions of Frenchness pleased the Americans, the French, and indeed global audiences. As she says, in "the height of postwar American cultural imperialism, some of the most commercially successful, critically acclaimed and eventually cherished films were tributes to France rather than transparent ciphers for promoting the 'American way of life'".
Schwartz's second chapter moves to the rise of the Cannes Film Festival and its success in becoming the premier film festival because of its ability to market itself as "Hollywood on the Riviera" but also, again, because of its openness towards America.
The third chapter, on Bardot, turns the spotlight on how the American reception of the star was crucial to her global stardom. Undisputed as this is, in the process Schwartz occasionally displays a tendency towards determinism. If it is true that Roger Vadim, Bardot's husband, had a keen sense of the power of the new international mass media in the "creating" of BB, it is reductive to claim Bardot as "the result of a concerted French effort to develop a commercial film presence in the United States, aided by the American market and exhibition interests".
The last chapter, however, is highly successful in shifting perceptions of that most despised genre, the "transatlantic film", in particular through the story of Mike Todd's Around the World in 80 Days, a global travelogue with an international cast, based on Jules Verne's novel.
Although Schwartz is, at times, a little too determined to redress the balance towards transatlantic dialogue and symmetry, It's so French!, based on impressive scholarship and superbly illustrated, builds a solid case for France's role in the growth of "cosmopolitan film culture".
The book is a stimulating corrective to entrenched views of Franco-American cinematic relations as necessarily conflictual.
It's so French! Hollywood, Paris and the Making of Cosmopolitan Film Culture
By Vanessa R. Schwartz
University of Chicago Press
Published 14 December 2007