Will There Ever Be a New French Cinema?

By Herpe, Noel | Film Criticism, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Will There Ever Be a New French Cinema?


Herpe, Noel, Film Criticism


In Les Enfants de la liberte [Freedom's Children, 1997], Claude-Marie Tremois praises the New French Cinema of the 1990s. The author's dream of a "new New Wave"--one that emerged with Un monde sans pitie (Eric Rochant, 1989; released in the U.S. in 1991 as Love Without Pity) and shook the pillars of an ossified establishment--is seductive. This is in fact the "eternal return" (on-going for 30 years) of a Romantic discourse that resuscitates the rhetorical flourishes of the 1950s in order to wave the flag of the "new" revolution. On one side, we find those already dismissed as "old" young filmmakers (yesterday Claude Sautet, today Jacques Audiard) who continue the tradition of a cinema of manipulation and mastery.

On the other hand, there are filmmakers who are necessarily categorized as talented to the extent that they fulfill certain expectations. These include: believing in the virtues of disorder and improvisation, privileging the single-shot sequence and the moving camera (as opposed to quick-cutting), and loving one's characters by giving them the freedom to go wherever they want. Operating here is a post-Bazinian mystique (via the mandatory reference to John Cassavetes), based on a false argument that assumes salvation can be imagined only as the result of the exclusive cult of the real. The real, a complex notion, functions as a magical incantation: as long as there is submission to the effect of the real, there is freedom (as if freedom cannot be found within a rigid structure, as if Robert Bresson's obsessions were not as creative as Renoir's availability). At least, thankfully, Tremois has not added a cult of youth as the certificate of talent. But, while she promotes Alain Resnais or Eric Rohmer, it is in the name of a developing lightness, a spirit of youth which is the mark of a mastery that abandons nothing to chance, a maturity that hides tragedy.

What is striking, in contrast, in the major filmmakers of the last ten years, is the return of a real darkness. From La Vie des morts (Arnaud Desplechin, 1991) to Petits arrangements avec les morts (Pascale Ferrin, 1994; released in the U.S. as Coming to Terms with the Dead), images of death increase as do traces of the past, avoided by a more hedonistic and vital generation. Turning our backs on hope and dynamic tomorrows, we witness a return of a self-enclosed cinema that persists in pouring salt on its wounds and tries to capture the moment at which History stops. This is obviously the drama at the heart of La Sentinelle (Arnaud Desplechin, 1992), starring Emmanuel Salinger, with its death's head like an Oedipal presence which cannot be purged. It is also true of Comment je me suis dispute ... (ma vie sexuelle) (Arnaud Desplechin, 1996; released in the U.S. as My Sex Life ... or How I Got into an Argument), starring Mathieu Amalric, which incessantly invokes the castrating moment that interrupted his life. Death is at work even in its most friendly forms, even in the apparent optimism of L'Age des possibles (Pascale Ferran, 1996) with its characters who can only play at the idea of youth through nostalgic and mimetic representations. This imitation culminates in the euphoria around the song, "Peau d'Ane," sign of a resolutely artificial acknowledgement.

In front of these pseudo-children of liberty, we feel the bitterness of a generation who arrived after the battle, after the loss of the great ideological and aesthetic stakes. This generation can but forever explore ancient forms, in a kind of cinephilic saturation. Thus, Pascale Ferran refers, with a certain fetishism, to the crossed constructions of Jacques Demy or Resnais. Thus, Desplechin reinvests in Truffauldian introspection, to the point of frustrating the autobiographical investigation of all links to this so ardently desired "real." Julien Husson notes:

 
   What is striking in [Desplechin's] work is the contraction of meaning, 
   hardly compatible with doubt (which his interviews, however, proclaim), and 
   the work that this last engenders. … 

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