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Select a national cinema of your choice to examine its position in articulating a cultural identity. Attempt to present your answer by a close reading of at least two films. (2,000 words)”
Cinema in France has always been a key issue in society, the arts and culture in general. This can be understood through many different aspects. The first being the very invention of cinema in France by the Lumière brothers, with the first public projection in the world taking place in Paris in 1895. But also many other key elements such as George Méliès being considered as the first director and inventor of scenarios and special effects, until more recent features such as the ‘Nouvelle Vague’, the movement of rejection by young film-makers against more academic ways of film-making and acting, influencing cinema worldwide until this day. In other words, cinema in France is well and very active, with production, exports, viewers, talented directors being steady. The number of Art Houses and Festivals are higher than anywhere else in the world, and France has the highest number of screens per million inhabitants, as well as the ceremony of the Césars, the equivalent of the Oscars in France. This places the French movie industry third in the world, behind the USA and India, which makes it the strongest in Europe, with 22% of European films being produced and having the largest market-share of nationally-produced films in Europe. This is due to its long history in the cinema industry, but also to its more recent policies concerning French films, and what is known as ‘l’exception culturelle’.
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This French concept, basically meaning the French cultural exception, defends everything that is “cultural”, in opposition to a “product” and the “market” and protected from free enterprise and quotas. This is because French society, most culturally represented by its language, needs to protect itself against any competition that would harm the French culture and replace it by another one. Everything that refers to Culture in France; writers, musicians, film-makers, and more are protected against market laws and this is the State’s role; therefore there being a Minister of Culture. This is ultimately a reaction against globalization, seen as dangerous in this sense, and a will to maintain or reinforce a national identity. Before World War 1, Pathé and Gaumont dominated the industry and French cinema was first worldwide in terms of quality, quantity and diversity. But after the war, this cultural status was replaced by American cinema. This ‘struggle’ of course concerns the USA more than any other, as they are the leading country in the industry, and the American hegemony in the rest of the world is evident.
Therefore, France came up with a unique financing system to ‘fight’ against the main threat for French cinema; television and North American cinema. In the 1980’s the French State put in place quotas in television in favor of audiovisual and cinematographic oeuvres. The main television channels have to allocate 3.2% of their revenue to cinema, which includes 2.5%, minimum, to French films. A minimum of 50% of French films must be broadcast. And this is when the now very popular pay-channel, Canal+, helped a lot, as they must give 20% of their income to buy rights. And on each cinema ticket, a tax (11%) is billed to a support fund for foreign films, as long as they are co-produced with a French producer. In result, over 160 films per year are made, and France ranks third worldwide.
Moreover, an important factor concerning television, is the amount of broadcast cultural programs on public channels, relating to the ‘exception culturelle’ concept and that helps understand French cinema better, in the sense that, a movie in France is considered as a message made by the director, on top of the entertainment aspect of it. Compared to most countries, French audiences are very aware of their audiovisual landscape, and experience more films in cinema and on all television channels, often at primetime, giving them a very different cinematic experience, closer to culture.
In the 1980’s, the Socialist government of the time, and more particularly the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, made many efforts to help and promote a more ‘cultural’ cinema. A goal to marry popular and cultural cinema, and distribute French cinema domestically and abroad, also as a way to offset the Hollywood domination. Jack Lang wanted a ‘cultural cinema for the masses’, promoting films that were assimilated with French cultural heritage, but that could also provide popular entertainment for a wide public. These particular ‘heritage’ films, or films de ‘patrimoine’, have played an important part in the French audiovisual landscape from the late 1980’s. It was successful as the key aspects put together worked very well, not being too frankly popular nor too highly cultural. This genre, seems to dominate international perceptions of French cinema, although of course there is much more diversity.
The first prominent example of this kind, was Claude Berri’s movie, Jean de Florette, in 1986, a box office success, and the first high budget film in France, including French ‘stars’, such as Yves Montand and indicative of old-school French cinema, Gérard Depardieu, often compared as the contemporary equivalent of Jean Gabin or Maurice Chevalier, and the rising Daniel Auteuil, for which this movie marked the beginning of his career as a serious actor. It is drawn upon the very popular novels of French author, Marcel Pagnol, continuing and developing furthermore the tradition of literary adaptations. This combination of elements along with the natural locations in Provence, evoking nostalgia, and celebrating the landscape, the history and the culture of France, actually contemporizes the film as a whole.
At the same time, Jean de Florette marks continuity in French cinema, with its central locations mainly being Paris and the South, often opposing them too. In this film the focus is on the past; past values and past issues. But a past that is not so far away as it has and still marks France’s national identity, and this film was made to reinforce this by a whole aesthetic of nostalgia, tending to idealize the past and the region’s and the nation’s geography, taking part in the protectionist cultural imperatives.
France relies a lot on its past to vehicle its national identity, and that is why canonical source-texts, by the greatest French authors were and are often used as basis for films. The past, in Jean de Florette, is used as a spectacle, the nation’s territory, the landscape of Provence evokes the nation’s nostalgia, as it idealises its rural past, showing the French industry’s will to affirm itself through the representation of its past. This is because it offers a firm cultural point, marked in the nation’s history, in a time where notions of national identity were, and still are, unstable, with the globalization and issues of immigration in the 1980’s.These concerns can be found in the story itself, with questions of greed, materialism, identity, exclusion concerning the main character’s Jean, the outsider, and Papet Soubeyran and Ugolin, the established ‘peasants’, and at the time it was suggested that the way Jean was treated by the locals, represented the anti-immigration movement, growing at the time.
Now, it could be said that in the film, the past, represented by Provence itself, is the main character. Through a mix of panoramic and static ‘tableau shots’, Berri shows it as an idyllic place, providing visual sites for national identification, as not only is it one of the most symbolic regions in France, but it often speaks to the spectator who in many cases may have childhood recollections of the journeys down south, to visit family. This feeling can be experienced in the opening sequence, where a car journey is shown, without showing the character, which gives a feeling of intimacy. The spectator has a view from the window, and a feeling of return to the past, going back to nature, from urban to rural, with many elements that could be seen as stereotypical, such as the long winding roads, the crowing cock in the morning, the magnificence of the mountains. Therefore the emphasis on the geographical setting is the most important aspect in the film, but also the somewhat stereotypical images of Provence. The characters, first of all, include a patriarch, and loud southerners, an outsider, farmer, an introverted peasant, and a bad guy of course. These characters all take on traditional rural activities, and the action takes place in the most emblematic Provençal and rural places: the café, the market, the fountain, the square, as well as the main spaces of the action in the film, being Jean’s house and garden, the Soubeyran’s property, the village and the mountain, which build up a sense of place and identity.
Of course another main aspect of the region is very much reliant on dialogue, which reinforces the specificity of the film within the region. The accent of Provence is very marked, and clearly illustrates the difference between the locals and Jean, with his ‘standard spoken french’, who represents ‘frenchness’ for many foreigners through Gérard Depardieu, and marks the binary of Paris/province, meaning anywhere outside of Paris. Similarities to some of Paul Cézanne’s paintings can be found in some of the bar scenes, reminding the ‘Card players’ series and ‘The Smoker’, but also the mountain panoramas, recalling his famous paintings of ‘Mont Ste Victoire’. The background characters also provide a local color and credibility, with the game of ‘boules’ and the pastis also being typical associations.
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In essence, Berri used this film to emphasize Provence as a French, cultural, historical region, representing the past and everything the French can identify to the region. Right after Jean de Florette, the sequel, Manon des Sources, came out. They were filmed as a whole over the period of seven months. In the long term, they did much to promote tourism in the region, causing interest internationally, as the film was very successful, inspiring true authenticity of rural France.
Of course, many successful films of the kind followed, most notably, Cyrano de Bergerac, with Depardieu, also a literary adaptation, which won Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1990, and contributed to expand and revive France’s historical national identity.
Now, a binary opposition was mentioned above, and it comes with the notion of films in Paris. Paris, the capital, the city of love, arts, and of course of cinema. For many, Paris truly represents France, of course this is a more international perception, but it still maintains its position in France’s history and key elements in the nation’s culture.
A film that recently played upon many key cultural elements, giving it a worldwide success in 2001, is Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amélie Poulain, by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Again it can be said that Amélie Poulain celebrates nostalgia. The nostalgia of typically French and Parisian aspects of life. The action is set in Montmartre, a ‘quartier’ of Paris, well known for being where many artists established themselves living la ‘bohème’, also a classic setting seen in many films, such as Les 400 coups (Truffaut, 1959), French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1955), Lautrec (Roger Planchon, 1998) or Zazie dans le métro (Louis Malle, 1960). The particular element of the film is that it is seen through the eyes of the main character Amélie, which gives it a romantic and idealized aspect, picturesque and clearly serving many stereotypes, a reason for its national and international success. Many key elements are present, the grocers, the café, the metro station, the scooter, the old painter, and the different views of Paris in general. At different moments in the film, Amélie is watching ‘Jules et Jim’ on television, a classic of François Truffaut, which is a testimony of the importance of French cinema and the influence of the New Wave on current film-makers. The photography of the film is very special, and contributes to this nostalgic feeling, mainly displaying two colors, red and green. The story is very simple, and could be considered as a modern fairytale, but it is the way it is told, and the backdrop and atmosphere of the whole that give an aspect to it that can be considered French, culturally.
This very atmosphere is also majorly due to its magnificent music that accompanies Amélie everywhere she goes. The young composer, Yann Tiersen, used music from his earlier album, but also composed 19 songs and variants for the film. The main motive of the film appears in different variations, expressing different moods. Tiersen’s music, mainly includes accordion and piano, and what more can the accordion refer to than ‘frenchness’; a marker of the past, at the time of the ‘guinguettes’, open air dancing establishments outside the center. The accordion vehicles a known cliché, but also nostalgia and marginality, and is practically the real center of the film.
This retrospective to ‘guinguettes’, is reprised in different ways, with references to the ‘Moulin de la Galette’, a Montmartre guinguette, which was painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and Van Gogh in the 1870’s and 1880’s. The reference to Renoir is also repeated with the character of Dufayel, the old painter neighbour, who repeats the same painting every year, by Renoir, ‘The Luncheon of the Boating Party’ (1881). This obsession and the repetition, aim to make what was in the past, present. This is also marked in the many repetitions of the accordion which anchor the film nostalgically in the period of the guinguettes, between 1880 and 1940. The accordion signifies a national identity, but that is very specific to Paris, and the imaginary this place evokes; romanticism, and a touch of exoticism.
At the time, the two presidential candidates for 2002, Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin, publicly marked their appreciation of the film, and audiences were seen clapping eagerly at the end of the film in cinemas, a very rare happening in France, and which testifies the important role cinema has in French culture and society.
France treats cinema very seriously,
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