‘French Cinema’ Is a Tangled, Rumpled Jumble of a History

For better and worse, Charles Drazin’s French Cinema is a tangled, rumpled jumble of a history: an analysis of industry economics (at its best), a celebration of French artistry over Hollywood industry (at its most questionable), a revisionist appreciation of pre-World War II French films (a worthwhile, if lopsided endeavor given the purported scope of the book), and the launching pad for a hundred ideas by the author, some of which have little to do with French cinema.

In the preface, writing about the career of the director Éric Rohmer, Drazin peaked my interested when he writes “But what seemed much more interesting to me was the attitude that had got Rohmer to this point [the success of Ma nuit chez Maud, after so many years of struggle, as well as the cultural network that was able to support him when the commercial film industry would not. It is this different operating system – which throws into such sharp relief our Hollywood-dominated, English-language cinema – that I would like to explore in this book.” Analyzing the development of the film industry in France and how the artistic and financial aspects of it intertwined is surely the most interesting aspect of the book. But the line about throwing Hollywood into sharp relief is a distraction and a distraction in too much of what follows.

He begins by describing the concurrent invention of the film camera by Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers. Drazin compares Edison’s first films, short clips of vaudeville performers in his New Jersey studio, to a “gimmick” and “crude novelties” while the Lumières’ films approach is compared to the Impressionist painters, “necessarily informed by continuity with France’s past, culture, and traditions” in documenting scenes of outdoor life. Never mind that in explaining the basics of the inventions – that Edison’s camera was heavy and cumbersome and the Lumière’s lightweight and portable – Drazin has already rationally explained how they came to radically different visual approaches. (And both were susceptible to the novelty aspect of the new medium.)

Such exasperating commentary becomes all too common as Drazin tries to shoehorn material to fit the clichéd notion of a cultured France versus a crude money mad USA.

At times Drazin shows a disturbing inability to see the world outside these terms. He writes of the French film executive Charles Pathé, “So powerful is our notion of the primacy of culture in France that Pathé’s single-minded devotion to statistics, figures and the laws of profit and loss come as something of a surprise.” Is the idea that a Frenchman may be interested in business rather than art really a “surprise”?

When Hollywood comes to the fore, the book suffers immensely, and is laughable when not infuriatingly incapable of recognizing subtlety. It reaches a nadir during a lengthy screed against the “two-dimensional” Casablanca, which Drazin accuses of being an inferior rip-off of the superior French film Pépé Le Moko even though Drazin admits he has no evidence that any of Casablanca’s creative principals ever saw Pépé, only a Hollywood remake of it. In another low point Drazin writes that “in practice, there was not much difference” between a Vichy regime propaganda film and a standard piece of Hollywood entertainment.

Yet when Drazin roots his material within France and embraces the attempts by French directors and producers to create movies with widespread appeal, and the attempts of other directors to buck the styles of Hollywood with more individualistic forms, Drazin’s analysis is skillful and enlightening.

He charts France’s little-known global domination of the film industry during the initial silent era (covered in more detail in Richard Abel’s The Red Rooster Scare). He describes how an early Cecil B. DeMille film “The Cheat” was used by French directors to codify a basic film language, rather than D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which was the touchstone in the US. He champions oft-neglected directors of the ’30s like Julien Duvivier and Sacha Guitry, who attempted to make movies that were both artistically and financially successful. He details the odd history of Continental Films during World War II, when a briefly successful and viable French film industry was allowed to flourish under a sympathetic Nazi administrator.

Drazin drops most of his anti-Hollywood fervor entirely around the time the New Wave picks up. Here the relations between Hollywood and France becomes so hopelessly tangled that his focus stays on the French film industry and the competing directors and ideas of what filmmaking should be, ranging from the Hollywood-auteur-besotted and fiercely iconoclastic Jean-Luc Godard to the shameless exploitation of Roger Vadim’s sex romps.

French Cinema is a popular history that makes its own eccentric claims on what that history should be. Many well-known directors are barely mentioned and Drazin often completely neglects to mention the names of “canonical” works of some artists. There is nothing wrong with this — mostly I found it a refreshing gloss on an oft-covered subject — but this is not anything like a definitive chronicle of French film history. While extolling the benefits of an individual voice is part of the point of the book, at times his writing and choice of subject matter can go on bizarre tangents, as when he jumps from analyzing Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante in the ’30s to a consideration of the British director Lindsey Anderson’s work 30 years later.

But for the most part, the French films that Drazin selects for more in-depth of analysis are given illuminating attention. Though the coverage of modern French film history is decidedly brief, his discussion of the works of Luc Besson, Jacques Audiard, and Olivier Assayas to cover it is satisfyingly sufficient.

He writes of Assayas’s Irma Vep that it “was an exercise in affectionate self-loathing that was itself an example of France’s navel-gazing cinema. Yet the very spontaneity with which it was made, springing out of enthusiasm and a clever idea rather than careful commercial calculation, paradoxically demonstrated France’s capacity for regeneration.” Here he reaches a sort of balance in addressing contradictions of art and commerce that will never be resolved.

RATING 5 / 10