Claude Chabrol's films break down the dubious critical barrier between
art cinema and popular cinema. Chabrol sees no shame in considering himself
a craftsman and takes pride in bringing his films in on or under budget.
Rejecting the avant-garde and the experimental, Chabrol chooses to work
within the confines of established genres. Chabrol has in fact filmed farce,
melodrama, fantasy, war films, spy films and glossy literary adaptations.
Although Chabrol wrote some of his most famous films alone, he collaborated
with his friend Paul Gégauff on many screenplays over the first twenty years
of his career. Perhaps the most productive influence within Chabrol's
crew, Gégauff was also the most destructive personality. Une partie de
plaisir dramatises, and hence exorcises, the power of Gégauff's
personality. To Chabrol, he became a close friend and a fascinating model of
cynicism and amorality.
The year 1995 saw France celebrating the centenary of cinema as a national achievement, a celebration enhanced by the recent victory over the United States regarding the exemption of films from the GATT free-trade agreement. A hundred years after the Lumières' break-through in 1895, the film industry remained the barometer by which the French measured the cultural state of their nation. The French box office of the 1960s was dominated by the popular genres of the thriller and the comedy. Although cinema-going in France declined over the decade, from 355 million spectators in 1958 to 185 million in 1970, there were notable hits, including Yves Robert's childhood comedy La Guerre des boutons. The late 1960s also saw increasing numbers of pornographic films being made in France, a trend which was to culminate in the mid-seventies with the temporary acceptance of pornography into mainstream French cinema.
In May 1968 French students, workers and professionals united briefly in a wave of demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins - known as 'the events of May '68'. Documentary film-making in France in the 1960s had been dominated by cinéma-vérité - the recording of everyday life and events. Tout va bien was an attempt to consider the legacy of 1968 from within mainstream cinema, a strategy facilitated by the box-office power of the two stars. The film that resulted has been described as 'perhaps the single best cinematic description of France in the aftermath of '68'. The question of cinematic form is a particularly fraught one for films on the Holocaust and the Occupation; these subjects are conventionally considered susceptible either to a documentary approach or to classical realism. By the late nineties, French history under the Occupation seemed to have been exhausted, and the Vichy syndrome was at an end.
If 1968 marked a watershed in French cinema's engagement with politics and history 1974 did the same for representations of sexuality. In that year, pornography entered mainstream French cinema. The gradual relaxation of censorship in the late 1960s had seen a steady increase in the number of erotic films made in France, culminating in Jean Rollin's vampire series. The photography in L'Amant de la Chine du Nord is minutely realistic and yet stylised and fetishistic. This work also inaugurated a quartet of films culminating in the controversial Je vous salue Marie which explore the role of sexuality in cinema. In Sauve qui peut pornography and cinema are brought together again, via a narrative which concerns the inter-relations between Denise, her lover Paul and Isabelle, a prostitute. It is primarily through the stunning use of stop-motion photography that Godard investigates the desires and ordeals of these three characters.
Although film-making remains male-dominated in France as elsewhere, 'more women have taken an active part in French cinema than in any other national film industry'. France claims not only the first woman film director - Alice Guy, but also the first feminist filmmaker, Germaine Dulac, a pioneer of 'impressionist' cinema or 'the first avant-garde' in the 1920s. Two of the principal auteurs in French film since the 1960s, women whose idiosyncratic styles epitomise avant-garde auteur cinema, are Marguerite Duras and Agnès Varda. Less radical, both ideologically and aesthetically, than Duras or Varda, Diane Kurys and Coline Serreau took women's film-making into the popular mainstream during the mid-1980s. Whereas during the 1970s, films set in the French colonies tended to dwell on the military or the political, it was only in the 1980s that 'the personal experience or semi-autobiographical recollection of an ex-colonial' became a common theme.
The first French thrillers date from the silent era, with Louis Feuillade's popular Fantômas and Judex series. The French thriller, also known as the polar or film policier, has been cited as 'the principal means by which the French cinema's relationship to Hollywood has been articulated' breadth of the genre thus contributed to its popularity in the subsequent decade: a quarter of all French films made in 1981 were polars, and many of those were box-office successes. At the most commercial end of the market, two kinds of polar dominated in the 1970s and 1980s: the action-packed comedy-thriller and the stylised gangster format. In 1957 Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, journalists on Cahiers du cinema, wrote Hitchcock, the first serious critical work on this seminal director to be published. Of the various film-makers who initiated la nouvelle vague, Chabrol is the one most closely associated with the polar.
French fantasy has had a particular national outlet: the bande dessinée. BD might be said to stand in place of a French fantasy cinema, rather than alongside it. Since around 2000, a new generation of fantasy film-makers has sprung up in France. Their influences include the Italian horror films of Dario Argento but also the pages of French BD. The cinéma du look was a style of film-making which came to the fore in the 1980s and remains influential in French film. As well as being an inventive and futuristic comedy, Delicatessen functions as a fantasy version of the German Occupation of France during the Second World War, a historical subject which French cinema continues to reinterpret. One of the major contributions that Le Pacte des loups makes to French fantasy cinema is to take the markers of national identity and to open them up to global influences.
The quality costume drama of the 1980s and 1990s has been termed the 'heritage film'. Classical in form, historical or literary in inspiration, the heritage genre tends to place a premium on high production values, often relying on international co-productions and famous stars in order to ensure a large audience. Although spectacle is clearly fundamental to the heritage film, it is always a supposedly authenticated spectacle, legitimised by claims to historical accuracy or cultural sources; hence the number of literary adaptations, biopics of forgotten figures, and reappraisals of revolution and empire. The heritage film often takes its subject or source from the 'culturally respectable classicisms of literature, painting, music'. Both temporally and spatially, then, Un long dimanche de fiançailles takes us on a journey into a lost France which is resolutely utopian, despite the context of the war and its aftermath.
Since Aristotle, there has been 'a long history of criticism that has viewed comedy as inferior to other genres in Western culture'. Within the French film industry, the critical denigration of genre cinema, the dominance of a realist aesthetic and the lasting influence of la politique des auteurs have all contributed to the neglect of comedy. The most important attempt to theorise the importance of comedy in Western culture is Mikhail Bakhtin's work on the sixteenth-century French writer Rabelais. In The Art of Rabelais, Bakhtin describes how a universal strand of comedy developed in the Middle Ages and continued into modern times in popular forms such as carnival and 'grotesque realism'. Verbal humour is not limited to the catchphrases which punctuate Le Père Noël as they do Les Visiteurs. During the 1980s several directors were making popular comedies with little or no connection to café-théâtre.