Saturday, October 4, 2008

Living, Dining and Philosophising - the art of French cinema

During the Cambridge Film Festival, Isabelle McNeill wrote a brilliant article about a current trend in contemporary French film: depictions of the family home. This was certainly evident in the line-up of new cinematic offerings at the Cambridge Film Festival.

During the week I saw Cyril Gelblat's new film, Les Murs Porteurs (Cycles, 2007), Philippe Claudel's fabulous Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved You so Long, 2008, starring Kristin Scott Thomas), Michel Léviant's En Souvenir de Nous (In Memory of Us, 2007), and Eric Guirado's Le Fils de L'Epicier (The Grocer's Son, 2007). They all deal with notions of the family, traditions, coming of age, memory - in particular relation to a shared living space. The films are also about a changing France and in certain ways celebrate a decidedly 'French' way of life - shared meals, philosophical discussions, setting aside time to think and reflect upon life and art.

Tom Sutcliffe on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review hosted an insightful discussion of Il y a longtemps que je t'aime last week. The presenter and his guests - Douglas Kennedy, Fay Weldon and James Runcie, enjoyed the film overall, and it was interesting to hear their observations. However, I was slightly irritated by their shared dislike for a certain crucial scene - "that damned dinner party", as one of the panel puts it. They all seem to agree that the sequence is too obvious, too contrived and of course so irredeemably French, as presenter Tom Sutcliffe says. Brits seem to have a rather contradictory attitude to the French and their attitude to meal times. On the one hand, we long for a 'civilised' dining tradition à la française while we speedily wolf down our lunchtime sandwiches over our computers.* On the other hand, we secretly despise our Gallic neighbours for having a better deal than us, and think it all rather pretentious. We also have a problem watching them 'having their cake and eating it' on screen. It doesn't make sense.

Eventually, the Radio 4 panel conceded that it's refreshing for a British audience to watch a film in which the characters talk about culture and go to art galleries (and, presumably, have long dinners). The verdict is, apparently, that the French are less scared of portraying middle class life than us Brits. "The French invented bourgeois and they practice it", concludes Douglas Kennedy. But maybe the reason why they still 'practice' this slower, more contemplative way of life - whether we label it 'bourgeois' or not - could be linked to the fact that all French students wishing to pursue further education have to pass the compulsory Philosophy module of the Baccalaureate. That means that a large proportion of the French population has been educated to think and ponder in a certain way. French cinema reflects this. I thought the dinner party scene was effective, but then I'm biased because it includes an argument between some of the characters about the filmmaker Eric Rohmer - a master when it comes to filming meal time conversations. A film which is not only a delight to watch, but also slips in a reference to one of my favourite directors of all time, definitely gets my vote.

Cycles is a slow-paced, gentle film about relationships between the generations of a Jewish family - the Rosenfelds - living in the Marais in Paris. The film centres around the old family home - an apartment on the rue de Turenne. The beautiful old flat is no longer occupied by the Rosenfelds. However, family members are drawn back to it during the course of the film. I enjoyed it all the more because it's shot just a few steps away from where I used to live, and it brought back lots of memories.

En Souvenir de Nous could almost be corny in its romanticised portrayal of a remembered youth, but it's not. Léviant weaves into his plot some more troubled, uncertain dynamics between his three female leads. It was also interesting to hear Léviant present the film, and explain how it came to fruition - it's actually two films merged into one, made twelve years apart and with the same actors, bar one. He was inspired to make it because one of the actresses died shortly after the shooting of the original film, and he observed how strange it was to watch the film, knowing she was no longer alive. He decided to frame a second film, based on the notion that the character she played has died and her friends gather together to reminisce about the summer they spent together. The opening of the film depicts them entering the house for the first time after all those years, opening cupboards, peering into drawers and uncovering old relics - echoing how the film itself delves back into the past, not only of the characters but the director and actors too.

I enjoyed watching Le Fils de L'Epicier, again a contemplation of inter-generational relationships and of old tradition. Antoine (Nicolas Cazalé), is the son of a grocer and was brought up in a rural community. The film opens in Paris, where Antoine is working as a hotel waiter, reluctant to join the family trade. Yet his father's ailing health and his relationship with a young girl, Claire (Clotilde Hesme) eventually draw him back to his childhood home. He soon becomes attached to the community he grew up in. Guirado's film is brought alive by stunning location shots and engaging central performances by Hesme and Cazalé.

* Interestingly, Angelique Chrisafis recently wrote in The Guardian how the French are slowly moving towards our mode of desktop lunching as the credit crunch sets in.

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