The earliest and truest language of the screen

The French Cinema Book - Jour de Fete - Les Vacances de M. Hulot - Mon Oncle - Playtime

January 14, 2005

When the enthusiasm of the French New Wave directors for the American cinema was at its height, Jean-Luc Godard declared (with more regard for quotability than accuracy): "The cinema is Nicholas Ray." In a similar spirit of intoxicated generalisation, one could bounce the compliment back and say: "The cinema is France."

For whatever the truth of François Truffaut's claim that there seemed to be a fundamental incompatibility between the terms cinema and British, there is no doubt that France and the cinema are very comfortable bedfellows indeed. It is generally accepted that the notion of paying to watch moving pictures was a French innovation in the first place, 30 or so such punters turning up to the Salon Indien at the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895, to see a series of "animated views" presented by Auguste and Louis Lumière.

Although the Lumière brothers were better technicians than artists, it was another Frenchman, Georges Méliès, who in the first years of the 20th century drew on his experience as a magician to invent a series of tricks and narrative devices that helped make the cinema what we now know. Where artists had hacked a tentative path, businessmen tarmacked a freeway, and Charles Pathé and Léon Gaumont proved adept at exploiting the invention by taking movies away from fairgrounds and cafes and into dedicated arenas - cinemas. By 1910, one learns in the British Film Institute's excellent The French Cinema Book , French companies were responsible for two of every three films shown around the world.

The Great War was one of many historical events that would over the years loosen the French stranglehold - but to offer a personal example of the persistence of the French gift for cinema, of the three best films I saw at the London Film Festival last year, two were French.

French cinema has then, not surprisingly, been the subject of numerous academic studies over the years, but I doubt if any offer quite such an accessible and arresting introduction as The French Cinema Book . Its editors, Michael Temple and Michael Witt, state that the 25 contributors pledged to avoid academic jargon and footnotes, and the approach has produced wonderful results.

Of course, not every academic is capable of observing such an injunction, and we periodically come across things such as "the heady mix of Althusserian Marxism spiced with Lacanian psychoanalysis", but Temple and Witt, leading from the front, demonstrate perfectly how intelligent, historically informed discussion can be achieved without the safety net of abstruse terminology. They introduce, with a short essay, the book's three main sections, which deal with the periods 1890-1930, 1930-60 and 1960-2004. Within each of these sections there are chapters on "People", "Business", "Technology", "Forms", "Representations", "Spectators" and "Debates" - which are what you might expect from the titles.

The great difficulty in an enterprise such as this, and an enormous frustration for the reader, is that although one reads time and again such temptations as "one of the most treasured features of France's national film heritage" (of Louis Feuillade's film serials of 1913-18), there is precious little chance of ever seeing the films concerned. Although France is visible from parts of the south coast of England, it remains a not-very-faraway country of which we know virtually nothing - like most of the world overseas. Linguistic hegemony has done us no favours.

Any attempt, then, to launch DVDs of French films on the intractable English public is to take a substantial risk. The BFI is one of those brave enough to try. It has already this year issued an outstanding series of Jean-Pierre Melville DVDs, and in its back-catalogue features Jean Cocteau, Robert Bresson, Jacques Feyder, Godard and Jean Renoir. Now it is the turn of Jacques Tati.

Tati minimises the demands made of an Anglophone audience, as the films in essence consist of a series of visual gags. Like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Tati developed an instantly recognisable screen persona, Monsieur Hulot, who appeared in his second full-length film, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953), and stumbled through an increasingly deranged modernity in Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967).

The first Tati feature, Jour de Fête (1949), set the tone. In that film, the absurdities that beset Tati's postman are relatively benign - a persistently malevolent bee, a runaway bicycle. But the threat of the modern world looms when Tati's character sees a film about the super-efficient US Postal Service and sets out (and fails) to emulate the model in his sleepy French village.

In Monsieur Hulot's Holiday , it is the French at the seaside who are the butt of the joke, and in Mon Oncle absurdity is detected in high-tech domesticity against a background of urban ugliness. Crossing a rubble-strewn wasteland, Hulot meticulously replaces a broken brick he has kicked out of place, and it is this regard for niceties that the world no longer cares about that drives the intense pathos of Tati's films. Music, too, is crucial to the atmosphere - usually a deceptively innocuous cocktail-lounge melange that is repeated obsessively until it becomes comic, sinister and finally insane.

At the end of Playtime , having unsuccessfully battled modern architecture and inhuman bureaucracy, Hulot buys a scarf for a pretty American tourist.

With an old-fashioned romantic gesture, he seems briefly to annihilate the modern age and redeem life from the madness of traffic jams, airport lounges and office buildings. Briefly. It is a touching conclusion to a lovingly presented and most welcome series of DVDs.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer on music and film.

The French Cinema Book

Editor - Michael Temple and Michael Witt
Publisher - British Film Institute
Pages - 294
Price - £48.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 1 84457 011 8 and 012 6

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