[28 October 2013]
The most recent awards season highlighted once again the separationist attitude of English language, particularly American, films and the “rest”. It epitomised the increasing tendency to pin down an entire nation’s film into one “genre”. Does the fact that they are connected by language have anything to do with the contents of the film? Obviously not, yet one only needs to look at the Anglo-American film mainstream to become aware that that is precisely how “Non-English Language Films”, or “Films of a Foreign Language” (really, lumping Japanese, Indian, French and Nigerian film industries together because they don’t speak English…?) are seen.
The clash between the two was made abundantly clear in definitions of the “indie”, a genre becoming increasingly present in cinema. Les Adoptés (2011) was a small budget, charming and emotionally charged film, written, directed and starring Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds(2009). It follows the lives of three women – a mother, Millie, (Clémentine Célarié), her biological daughter Lisa, (Laurent), and her best-friend-come-adopted-sister Marine (Marie Denarnaud). After Marine’s new love Alex (Denis Menochét) drives a wedge between her and the paranoid Lisa, tragedy strikes in the form of a motorcycle accident. The accident throws the story onto new tracks, if you will, and Marine is kept in a coma to save her unborn child, before the plug is pulled.
It’s a fitting end to a film that deliberately explores the mixture of emotions beneath the umbrella of grief, with that glimmer of hope at the end that critics assumed was satisfactory. The ending, however, was black. It offered ittle solace in the birth of the child when Lisa had, to all intents and purposes, been left alone. Striking, however, was the negative feedback that Laurent’s first feature length work was “too American”, that it tried to hard to be an “American indie film”. Laurent has said that the “American indie” was a film genre that inspired her, and that she had been influenced by, and considered such criticisms a compliment.
This raises the problem of what an “indie” film is, and more specifically what the “American indie” is. Are they a genre of films not focused on the problems of every day life, with characters working at bookshops/cakeshops/cafes/as a musician? Must they offer a certain bohemian lifestyle in the modern world that makes the hearts of youths yearn to belong? Certainly, many do, or at least the stereotype would certainly suggest that. So, that would be a tick for Laurent’s film.
And then what? Money? The Independent Spirit Awards put a budget cap of $20 million on films, believing anything above this amount would not be considered “indie”. Laurent’s film was made for roughly €3,000,000, so, another tick? It certainly wasn’t a box office smash or a blockbuster by any stretch of the imagination.
What is perhaps more revealing is that the Independent Spirit awards only serve the American independent audience, placing foreign films on the back burner by reducing them to “Best International Film”. Actors in the international category do not qualify for individual nominations, unlike the bigger awards in Hollywood. Since when, then, did the independent film become the sole monopoly of America? Surely, when we consider “indie” films, they are, the freest of art forms, ones that do not succumb to the pressures of production corporations, ones that aren’t looking to make hundreds of millions in the box office.
This was fairly succinctly stated by Jennifer Lawrence recently in her Spirit Award acceptance speech, when she spoke of working overtime for free, in the freezing cold and not complaining. These films are made because there is a passion behind them shared by more than just the director, but also by the actors, that they want this film to do well. It isn’t, after all, paying the mammoth bills undoubtedly occurred by a celebrity lifestyle.
None of this seems particularly American. So where does the American element come in? The aesthetics of film are the possible insight into a change in “indie” culture. Recognised by many as a seminal “American indie”, 500 Days of Summer(2009) reveals a reliance on the already “indie”. In the case of 500 Days, the soundtrack is what has become the defining feature of the film which, ultimately, consisted of songs already defined as “indie”. It arguably lost that essential insight of the “indie” film as an art form in itself. The film uses other art forms in order to presuppose itself as being “indie”, yet in many ways lacks the authenticity needed.
The “American indie” films, now as mainstream as anything, have become increasingly reliant on preconceived notions of what “indie” is. They have effectively set an art form, which worked along the premise of being free. Laurent’s film works succinctly in its own right, it does not rely on outside cultural influence in quite the same way, the focus of the film is its construction – separated into three different, titled, chapters – and its directorial art.
More important is the essence of “indie” films. They are in effect caricatures of life. They don’t purport to be reality in the way that The Iron Lady(2011) might do, the actors don’t get into their characters in the same way as Meryl Streep. (For all her nominations Streep has never been nominated for a Spirit Award). The characters have surreal elements, they represent particular emotions, particular feelings, so that we are always aware that we are watching art, we are watching acting; something that film is becoming increasingly averse to.
The indie directorial can conjure photo-like stills nestled in the overall real,
bringing the atmosphere of film together with the posed art of photography.
As much as one can be entranced by the characters and enter the world in which they live, indie films invite you to reflect upon yourself. They present to you a flawed utopia – a world in which we long to live, so care free, but with the realism of life. This self-reflection is the essence of these films. They invite you to reflect upon your own life, on where you are and what you want. They present a fantasy, if anything.
Moreover, it’s essential to understand the director behind the independent film. In her essays on how to read a book, Virginia Woolf impresses upon the reader to try and get behind the eyes of the author themselves. Understanding that is paramount to understanding the book. Whilst there are, obviously, differences between books and films, and Woolf’s theories over half a century ago and theories today, the fundamentals remain the same.
The director of the independent film is the author. To criticise a film on the basis it doesn’t fit a particular genre is dangerous, as it negates the artistic inspirations and influences of the director. Criticism of films must reflect not what the critic wants to see, but what the director wants the critic to see. Laurent wanted to create something within the genre. It is only due to subsequent debate and her own responses that she has begun giving her film the label of “American indie”. But whose inception was that? To force a director into a genre that they did not consider themselves to belong changes the agenda and shape of a film; it flaws our interpretations as an audience.
Auteur theory has been part of a long-standing debate across the world. Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps the most famous of the golden era auteur theory directors, a man who made sure you knew that you were watching his films. Francois Truffaut took it further and penned a “politique des auteurs”, defending his art form and that of his colleagues. Arguably the most famous contemporary director who has modernised and continued the blaze of auteur theory is Quentin Tarantino, who is unapologetically unique in his style. Wes Anderson, too, belongs here as he and Tarantino undeniably mould their films to their taste, as opposed to the other way around.
Anderson particularly has become a beloved of the indie and mainstream community, straddling the two most evidently with his newest enterprise, Moonrise Kingdom(2012). Yet he has been notorious for his devotion to auteur theory, which has gathered fans all the way up to the great Martin Scorcese. His debut feature, Bottle Rocket(1996) received predominantly good reviews, with a rating of 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Even Roger Ebert, who gave the film an underwhelming two stars, ended that he looked forward “to whatever Anderson and the Wilsons do next”. It seems to be explicit endorsement of auteur theory, a reversal of the attitude that has been extended towards Laurent.
The connection of director and film has always had its criticisms. Seminal film journalist Pauline Kael warned that “repetition without development is decline”. Yet whilst there’s a slight staleness to Les Adoptés, there’s also a separation from the “American indie”. Is Laurent’s film simply repetition of the indie without development? Perhaps, yet there seems no reason why her directorial influence in a debut feature should be turned against her. This is Kael’s greatest unease with auteur theory, and thus until Laurent can produce a greater portfolio, can she be criticised in her debut feature for using her heart as much as her head?
What is perhaps more absurd is that auteur theory here has been twisted. Criticism is that Laurent followed too much a particular genre – that she belonged to a group that all drew from the same techniques to create incomprehensively identical features. The essence of indie is that in its conception it is a personal film, a film that comes from a particularly individual place, not pandering to the masses but rather to the artists. This is what a “genre” is, and it seems implausibly ridiculous to criticise a feature for belonging to a genre.
Les Adoptés was by no means infallible, yet it didn’t garner criticisms that it was some kind of immigrant film, sidling up to the American indie as a second rate and inferior being. There is no such thing as the “American indie” nor the indie being solely American. To lump together Winter’s Bone(2010), I’m Not There(2007) and 500 Days of Summer as all belonging to an easily definable genre is intolerably ignorant of the purpose and place of all three films. The indie genre itself is not definable, that contradicts its genesis as something alternative to the mainstream industry. They are films that belong to their own genre and space, the lovechild of the filmmaker’s heart and head.
Les Adoptés is an independent film, but it belongs to no one but Laurent herself, just as an independent film should. The creative force behind it should only be criticised within its own conceptual paradigms. Otherwise, rather than art being shaped by inspiration, it becomes shaped by pre-emptive criticism, and ends in being a charade, confined in a box. That would defeat everything art in film stands for.