Supported by Lang, heritage cinema, which favored literary adaptation, historical topics, costume dramas, and high production values, initially appeared as though it might revitalize the theatrical release. Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (b. 1932), was a financial, critical, and popular success and was preceded by the successes of Jean de Florette (1986) and Manon des sources ( Manon of the Spring , 1986) by Claude Berri (b. 1934). But this apparent trend immediately reversed itself. Big productions, such as Jean Galmot, aventurier ( Jean Galmot, Adventurer , Alain Maline, 1990), bombed, while low-budget films, such as La Discrète ( The Discreet , Christian Vincent, 1990), were box-office successes. The most obvious trend in this period was the grouping of individual filmmakers in terms of generations, beginning with an established group of still-active directors dating from the French New Wave period that included Bresson, Chabrol, Godard, Resnais, Rohmer, Rivette, and Varda. Other groups of younger filmmakers comprised those who positioned themselves as continuing the New Wave (André Téchiné [b. 1943], Benoît Jacquot [b.1947], and Claude Miller [b. 1942]), those who saw themselves as reviving the cinema of quality (Michel Deville, Claude Sautet, Bertrand Tavernier [b. 1941]), and, finally, those who conceived of themselves as pursuing an individualist vision (Doillon, Maurice Pialat [1925–2003], Philippe Garrel [b. 1948], and Alain Cavalier [b. 1931]). Another group of very heterogeneous filmmakers is made up of directors united by their interest in social issues. Often referred to as le jeune cinéma français (young French cinema), this group includes
women directors such as Breillat, as well as directors associated with cinéma beur , also known as cinema of the Mahgreb (such as Mehdi Charef [b. 1952] and Malik Chibane [b. 1964]), the cinéma de banlieu or neighborhood (such as Mathieu Kassovitz [b. 1964]), and regional cinema (Bruno Dumont [b. 1958]). This group also incorporated directors like Varda and Tavernier, whose more recent work, such as Varda's Jane B. par AgnèsV. ( Jane B. for Agnes V. , 1987) and Tavernier's L. 627 (1992), were influenced by this new sensibility. This mulidirectional development suggests the ways in which as the millenium approached and passed, the ideal of French culture as homogeneous and grounded in French language and French heritage no longer reflected the lived experience of the younger generations of French citizens.
Perhaps the most obvious testimony to the transformation of the French cultural landscape is found in the cinéma du look (cinema of the look), a film genre influenced by cartoons, advertising, and music videos. This genre is sometimes associated with the Forum des Halles, referring to the designer chic, ultra-modern shopping complex in central Paris that became a focal point for youth culture after its opening in 1979. The obsession of the cinéma du look with style, inaugurated by Diva by Jean-Jacques Beineix (b. 1964) in 1981, repeatedly threatened to run out of steam, but it nevertheless maintained its impetus through the mid-1990s and beyond—often in the form of Hollywood productions, as in the case of Luc Besson (b. 1959). Besson, who emerged as one of the Forum des Halles directors alongside Beineix and Leos Carax (b. 1960), remained through the turn of the twenty-first century one of France's most bankable directors, even though his later films were often made abroad. In addition to slick, stylized framing, composition, lighting, and editing imported from the world of advertising, the films had in common a rejection of society and its values, emphasizing instead the individual's pursuit of happiness. Although routinely rejected by established French critics, these films and their directors proved so successful, especially in an international context, that eventually scholars of French culture were forced to take them seriously. Both heritage films—which tended toward costume super-productions, such as La Reine Margot ( Queen Marguerite , 1994) or Le Hussard sur le toit ( The Horseman on the Roof , 1995) and the cinéma du look —fall into a category often referred to as "the new spectacular cinema," which depended on big budgets, heavy marketing, and concept promotion for its success. Attempts to mobilize these strategies pepper the French cinema of the 1990s and early 2000s, achieving variable success. In fact, the big successes of the early 2000s were by and large, relatively low-budget productions by Hollywood standards, such as Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain ( Amélie , 2001) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (b. 1955), when French film outsold Hollywood film at the French box office for the first time in over a decade.
Equally significant were the number of French directors earlier in the decade, such as Jeunet and Jean-Jacques Annaud (b. 1943), who alternated between making Hollywood films for a global audience and French films for a French audience. Although heavily attacked for selling their "art," these directors maintained a profile as auteurs that can be identified as French. The consistency of their work depended upon an informal group of actors and actresses as well as crewmembers and even composers whose contributions were critical to reproducing a distinctive look and feel attributed to a given director.
While individual directors systematically represented French cinema abroad, typically the highest grossing French films at the French box office have been social comedies, such as Marriages (Catherine Martin, 2001). Comedies and romantic comedies, usually revolving around social mores and often featuring well-known actors and actresses, remained popular with French audiences; however, they were not formula-driven. These films were rarely attractive to foreign audiences, yet the increasing number of Hollywood remakes of French films since the early 1980s, usually comedies, such as Edouard Molinaro's La Cage aux folles (1978), remade by Mike Nichols as The Birdcage (1996), and Serreau's Trois hommes et un couffin (1985), remade by Leonard Nimoy as Three Men and a Baby (1987), indicate the sustained global interest in French cinema.
At the end of the twentieth century, French cinema appears to have revived. Its existence, though precarious, has been assured through vigorous state sponsorship. Films such as François Ozon's (b. 1967) Sous le sable ( Under the Sand , 2000) and The Swimming Pool (2003) have pursued the intimiste subjects that characterized French cinema of the late twentieth century; however, the critical and intellectual hegemony spawned by the New Wave was displaced in the late 1990s and early 2000s by a more popular, less angst-ridden cinema with such films as Amélie (2001), Christophe Barratier's (b. 1963) Les Choristes ( The Chorus , 2004), and Jeunet's Un long dimanche de fiançailles ( A Very Long Engagement , 2004). This movement produced box-office successes that brought French cinema out of the slump that it had experienced in the early 1990s. The major challenge that faced the French cinema at the turn of the millenium was maintaining its position in a global market while preserving its identity as a French cinema for French audiences.
France successfully upheld the status of audiovisual productions as "cultural exceptions" in General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs (GATT through 1993) and subsequent World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations. The results were favorable conditions for French film in France and in Europe through the imposition of protective tariffs as well as quotas. Because of these and other measures on the part of the State, such as cross-subsidization from the television industry, the French share of the French box office has stabilized at about one third, after a few difficult years at the beginning of the 1990s. In spite of this success within the French market, France's share of the foreign market has continued to decline, particularly in terms of television rights. French producers have countered by co-producing more English-language films, such as Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002).
The privileged status that French film has retained in the WTO negotiations might seem to be a victory for cultural purists. The French government, nonetheless, required the industry to be fiscally responsible and has directed its policies with a view to financial as well as cultural soundness. In the late 1990s, French film became more sensitive to box-office demand, producing, for example, a greater number of comedies geared toward a popular audience. Unfortunately, these films rarely did well abroad. Another strategy, more successful in terms of exportability, was the move toward higher-budget, more sophisticated films geared toward a younger audience, such as Kassovitz's Les Rivières pourpres ( Crimson Rivers , 2000) and Les Rivières pourpres: Les anges de l'apocalypes ( Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse , 2004).
The auteur directors traditionally associated with French films were forced to produce films on ever-diminishing budgets and often resorted to film shorts. Aesthetic and formal experimentation moved out of the cinema into the museum, often crossing over into video and other media, as in the case of Godard's series Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989–1998). Some critics feared that this more personal and intellectual filmmaking might permanently disappear, to be replaced by films the likes of the "Crimson Rivers" series, that is, sensationalist star vehicles. Similarly, these same critics expressed concerns about whether this commercially viable cinema was really French. The Pianist , for example, does not feature a French director, a French star, or the French language. The question remained: would a popular French cinema be able to retain its hold on the French imagination as the cultural exception, as a cinema that challenged the global dominance of Hollywood, not simply within an economic arena but as the arbitrator of taste and culture? This question was first raised in the aftermath of World War I, and it has continued to be the crucial question facing French cinema at the turn of the millenium.
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Hilary Ann Radner