Wednesday, 17 March 2010

[316] Dancing With The Hollywood Hegemony: Cultural Domination and Expression in French Cinema

Here is a long-form essay I wrote for my MA a couple of months ago, on the intricate dance between pop-culture references and cultural domination, as seen in French cinema - with a cut-down bibliography and no footnotes. Enjoy!


One of the major issues affecting the international cinema community is the influence of American culture on smaller national industries. This 'hegemony of Hollywood movies', as described by David Puttnam in his book The Undeclared War, is a wing of the cultural and economic domination that the superpower has enjoyed for a significant portion of the last century. While this has had more of an acute effect on national film industries in terms of exhibition - with American product generally outweighing local works - this also provides rich material for discussion of the production and textual aspects of films from those specific cultures. In the introduction to his overview of the nation's filmmaking, Phil Powrie declares that 'of all world cinemas, it is perhaps French cinema that matters most in the struggle against Hollywood domination', citing that the country's focus on cultural specificity, its long tradition of state-sourced subsidies for native production, and its firm belief in film as the 'seventh art' make it a uniquely anti-American cinema culture.

However, it can be seen that alongside America's economic domination there exists a cultural colonisation that manifests throughout the world in the form of an international cultural language, made up of Anglophonic popular culture - such as fashion, literature, music, video games and, of course, the movies of Hollywood. This more subtle form of imperialism-through-entertainment creates a potentially nightmarish situation, where it would be, in the words of Puttnam, 'quite possible for Europeans brought up on cinema and visiting America for the first time, to feel that they were arriving home’. In this essay, I will use examples of French films to explore how pieces of art from this culture dance with Hollywood - and, by extension, Anglophonic - cultural hegemony while still retaining a semblance of ‘Frenchness’. I will spotlight a number of eras and films that illustrate this, such as the French New Wave and the 1980s Heritage Cinema movement, before using examples from early 21st Century French cinema to reveal the current, complex intertextual landscape of expression and identity.

The relationship between France and Hollywood cultural expansionism can be traced back to the early days of Hollywood's Golden Age, when, in 1930 Rene Jeanne published an essay titled 'The American Cinematic Invasion', where he spoke of 'a deliberate plan carefully nurtured and patiently put into practice by the leaders of the American film industry' to convert the French cinema-goers into a sympathetic audience for States-sanctioned concepts, starting with the re-shaping of recent history seen in a MGM depiction of the First World War. Furthermore, the film industry of France was greatly affected by post-war trade agreements with the USA - which Puttnam describes as 'little short of a disaster', as these treaties 'swamped' France with Hollywood product, indirectly causing the closure of over half the nation's film studios by 1947, and even bringing across highly visible examples of American iconography, such as Coca Cola.

It was, in part, in response to such a 'commodification of cinema' that the critics of Cahiers du cinéma developed their discourse surrounding the politiques des auteurs, which also informed the filmmaking of the critics-turned-directors - Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette - that spearheaded the French New Wave in the late 1950s. However, to define the work of these filmmakers as purely anti-American would be false, as not only did they individually find influence from certain Hollywood filmmakers, but Truffaut in particular was just as critical towards certain elements of the French film industry, as seen in his attack on le cinéma de papa in the essay 'Une certaine tendance du cinéma français'. Indeed, this is one of the many paradoxes that surround the New Wave - a movement more unified by context than by a coherent stylistic vision. Nevertheless, the treatment of Hollywood by certain New Wave auteurs is nuanced and highly intertextual, with their approach to signifiers, symbolism and whole genres of the cinema bearing the mark of acute respect and strident re-appropriation. Indeed, Forbes describes that while the New Wave work in primarily American genres - the crime thriller in particular - they, in the process, bend the generic rules to suit their expression, concluding that the 'references to Hollywood cinema have a serious point as well as being a set of winks, nods and in-jokes'.

One of the New Wave directors that most exhibits this sense of winking at the audience is Jean-Luc Godard, whose films also display a manhandling of American culture for the purpose of his art. While he was not the first French director to appropriate the styles and aesthetics of thrillers in a French context, his debut feature, À bout de soufflé (Breathless, 1960), is steeped in American culture, with Jean-Paul Bemondo's character, Michel's adulation for Hollywood star Humphrey Bogart - and his mimicry of the actor's affectations and mannerisms - being one of the more iconic and well-known elements of New Wave cinema as a whole. However, through such references, the American culture is brought under Godard's auteuristic yoke, as through the use of naturalistic acting, location shooting and other stylistic flourishes he works to create a unique aesthetic - successfully accomplishing 'the superimposition of these Americanisms on a French landscape' (Kline).

(Fig.1, ‘Bogey…’)

It is this superimposition of American techniques, citations and homages on French landscapes that often to come to define more popular examples of French cinema that captures the attention of international - as well as local - audiences and critics. Indeed, in a more contemporary sphere, this is becoming all the more relevant - where American influences can be found in a complex array of references, themes, topics and production aspects of these films, where the essence of 'Frenchness' is contested or reshaped in order to incorporate such elements of expression. The anxiety over retaining a necessarily French identity had a great influence over the film industry's character in the 1980s, where the Mitterand government introduced special legislation that would support films that 'through their narratives, locations and stars, actively celebrated traditional French values and achievements', working towards, according to Cousins, '[winning] back audiences from Hollywood blockbusters disseminating seductive but alien values'. These funding initiatives birthed an era of large budgeted, lavish 'Heritage cinema' productions that were either adapted from canonical texts of French literature, or focused on great lives or events in French history, with some of the most successful of these starring actors such as Gérard Depardieu, and being directed by Claude Berri (1986's Jean de Florette, or 1993's Germinal).

While some areas of the French film industry sought to look inwards, with Heritage cinema and other successful comedies, such as the urban buddy cop farce Les ripoux (Claude Zidi, Le cop, 1984) or the eventually Americanised Trois hommes et un couffin (Coline Serreau, Three Men and a Cradle, 1985), the period also overlapped with the rise of new French filmmakers that were unafraid to once more negotiate with Hollywood on their terms, this time specialising in specific genres, such as sci-fi, action and horror. The most prominent of these directors include Luc Besson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (working either alone or with his collaborator Marc Caro) and Christophe Gans, who play with the American/French binary in films such as Subway (Besson, 1985), Nikita (Besson, 1990), The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997), Delicatessen (Jeunet and Caro, 1991), Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Jeunet, 2001), and Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Gans, 2001).

Luc Besson, in Powrie's estimation, found lasting fame, success and respect due to the way that he 'emulated American filmmaking' in his output. Indeed, it is true that in films like Subway and Nikita, Besson, like Godard before him, utilised the American genres of the thriller and action film to create a stylish, French aesthetic that was typical of the cinema du look movement of the 1980s. Besson's success was equally local and international, which led to his films receiving as much attention in America as in France. The director's approach in the light of this is particularly interesting, especially regarding the interplay between Hollywood and French cultural influences in his work in the 1990s. Léon (1994), despite being a Gaumont production and starring Frenchman Jean Reno, was an all-English language film, a tight, bloody thriller that fit comfortably within the cinema mileu of the early 1990s, typified by the stylised, genre-bending (and, perversely, New Wave-influenced) films of Quentin Tarantino.

However, it would be Besson's follow-up to Léon where his strident, auteuristic approach to Hollywood cinema would manifest - in the ambitious The Fifth Element. Again, this was a Gaumont production, but with an American and British cast including Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich and Ian Holm, as Besson created a futuristic sci-fi adventure in a technologically advanced New York. While Besson overtly dances with Hollywood genre and filmmaking with The Fifth Element, there are major aspects of the production that are calculated to give the film an unmistakably French identity. Early on in the creative stages of the pre-production, Besson called on the design talents of the highly influential and revered French comic book (Bande Dessinée) artists Jean-Claude Mézières and Jean Giraud (also known as Moebius) to help develop the world of the film.

(Figs. 2 and 3, frames from Valerian: The New Future Trilogy that influenced The Fifth Element, art by Jean-Claude Mézières)

Likewise, The Fifth Element's costumes were designed by noted (and ever distinctive) French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. This gave the film a unique aesthetic, and presented the international audience - no doubt attracted by its spectacle and star power - with a film that, while packaged like a Hollywood blockbuster, felt - and, importantly, looked - wholly French. That the ensuing product grossed far over $200 million worldwide, comfortably recouping its inflated budget in the process, would suggest that Besson's audacity paid off. Indeed, while this is a far cry away from the New Wave's method of appropriation (by ascribing American style onto a French landscape), Besson boldly subjects Hollywood stylistics to French imagination - using the technology and production techniques of the modern blockbuster to communicate aspects of French culture.

Jeunet is another director who is skilled at using genre films and techniques of what is considered to be Hollywood filmmaking to create a very French aesthetic. His most successful film, Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (hereafter Amélie), attracted not only an impressive box office reception throughout the world, but a significant amount of discussion about the film's visual style and its use of digital filmmaking - seen to be typically American - and its reflection on the film's French identity. The debate is summed up by Ginette Vincendeau, in a contemporaneous feature for Sight & Sound, as follows: 'What's at stake is its depiction of Frenchness: is Jeunet's film virulent, reactionary populism or a postmodern celebration of grassroots identity?'. Vincendeau goes on to describe the film, which centres around the life of a young girl's living in a picture-book version of Paris, as being positioned as evoking the stylistics of 1930s French Poetic Realism, effectively '[exploiting] the latest digital technology to transport the spectator into a bubble of nostalgia'.

In this way, Jeunet is similar to Besson, albeit still working in a rigidly French framework. He uses CG technology and visual effects, such as rich colour palates, digitally-seamless edits and retouched images of the streets of Paris, in order to create an aesthetic of pure imagination and expression - something the director explored previously in the genre-bending post-apocalyptic black comedy Delicatessen (1991). Many critics have positioned Amélie as providing a firmly, boldly French form of filmmaking, opposed to all things American; indeed, both Vincendeau and Vanderschelden describe Amélie in reference to the French comic book series Asterix the Gaul - who was depicted as opposing the invading Roman Empire - as they both 'resist the pressure of dominant cultures'. Raphaelle Moine, furthermore, links Amélie's success with the film's ‘Generic Hybridity’, which is defined as: 'The practice of combining generic features drawn from a national cultural tradition with a form, references and generic paradigms that are at least perceived as belonging to a globalised Neo-Hollywood model...'.

Indeed, while it has been discussed in this essay that such a hybridity is not uncommon in the French cinematic tradition, Moine concludes with a vigorous description of Amélie's cultural profile: 'as far as the film's references go, its decor, geographical boundaries and cultural markers are exclusively French... the film's hybridity remains enclosed within a Parisian space and the French national imaginary...'. While this is a fair observation, and it is true that Jeunet creates a wholly French work, there are still examples of the writer-director playing with American cultural references throughout the film - namely during a sequence where Amélie disguises herself as the American pulp hero Zorro, or with a character (played by Marc Amyot) who is defined by his red Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers. That these intertextual elements are woven into a film that maintains a stridently French identity suggests that Jeunet's expressionistic approach to representing culture makes room for these appropriations of American iconography.

(Figs. 4 and 5, Amélie as Zorro; The Man in the Red Shoes / L'inconnu des photomatons)

Furthermore, this would suggest that the notions of 'Frenchness', especially in relation to American cultural domination, is more complex in the late 20th and early 21st centuries than in the time of the New Wave. Perhaps this is due to the passage of time, and a period of slow assimilation, as it is hard to find a modern equivalent for the anti-American symbolism of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu's treatment of Coca Cola bottles. Indeed, even the most inwardly-focused French films are now replete with Hollywood references, as Moine observes, noting that the second of the recent, highly successful, live-action movie adaptations of the Asterix comics, Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (Alain Chabat, 2002), heavily references the Star Wars franchise, in the form of musical cues and sight gags.

Another, more extreme, example of American cultural references appearing in an otherwise mainstream French film can be found in Le premier jour du reste de ta vie (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life, Rémi Bezançon, 2008), a family comedy-drama whose cultural footprint is almost entirely American - and Anglophonic by extension - in nature. While telling the story of a five-strong family in five days across a 12 year span, Bezançon uses plenty of non-French intertextual references to anchor both the film and the audience. Each family member's personality and experience are communicated through such references: daughter Fleur (Déborah François), for example, is an angst-ridden, Kurt Cobain-worshipping teenager whose boyfriend is convinced he is the reincarnation of Jim Morrison; likewise, middle child Raphael (Marc-André Grondin) has inherited his dad's (Jacques Gamblin) obsession with rock music, culminating with his entry into an air guitar competition, where father and son engage in a long debate on the greatest guitar solo of all time, which references artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bon Jovi and Black Sabbath.

(Fig.6 ‘Kurt Cobain has died…’, Le premier jour du reste de ta vie)

Equally of note is the film's soundtrack, which features musical cues taken from English language pop, such as David Bowie's 'Time', Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' and Janis Joplin's famous version of 'Summertime'. These pieces are prominently featured in long, languid montage sequences that often bookend a chapter in the story, a stylistic choice on behalf of Bezançon, editor Sophie Reine and director of photography Antoine Monod that very much foregrounds these non-French cultural markers. Conversely, the French songs on the soundtrack, such as the track 'L'Aventurier' by new wave group Indochine, are not singled out, often being used diegetically within the scenes, and the 1998 Etienne Daho song that shares its title with that of the film, reportedly not an influence on the film's creation but a happy coincidence, is saved until the end credits.

Furthermore, meaning is constructed throughout the film with other references, with the relationship between oldest child Albert (Pio Marmaï) and his siblings being illustrated through a flashback involving their re-enactment of a key scene from the Hollywood film The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960). Similarly, Bezançon uses these intertexts to further distinguish between the intended time periods of the film, with 1993 defined by Grunge music, and 1998 featuring a reference to the British-developed video game Tomb Raider, as well as footage from a news report concerning the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

(Fig. 7, ‘Playing Tomb Raider’, Le premier jour du reste de ta vie)

Indeed, this is yet another example of a writer-director using intertexts and cultural references to construct his work. Nevertheless, while Bezançon is similar to Godard, in the way that such quotations are used for a variety of ends, with each having, as Kline notes, 'particular resonances with the scenes in which it occurs as well as the larger movement of the film', there is a feeling that Bezançon's citation of American and Anglophonic culture is not serving the stridently French expression found in the work of Godard, Jeunet or Besson. However, unlike the inward-looking Heritage cinema, or the cultural specificity of French comedies such as the record-breaking, Northern France comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (Danny Boon, 2008), Le premier jour du reste de ta vie is almost self-consciously bidding for an international audience, accepting Anglophonic experience as a form of inclusive, transnational culture.

Even though Le premier jour du reste de ta vie enjoyed only a fraction of the box office success of Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, it did garner three wins out of nine nominations at the César Awards (against les Ch'tis' single nomination). This suggests a complex landscape for French film that negotiates both the insular and the transnational, as well as the critical and the popular. Indeed, the notions of French identity in the country’s film industry are not necessarily as opposed to American filmmaking techniques and Anglophonic cultural markers as in the past. Many recent productions follow Hollywood practice of adapting films from cultural texts (including the recent adaptations of the Astérix, Iznogoud and Lucky Luke comic books), or mounting lavish biopics, seen in the Edith Piaf film La môme (La vie en rose, Olivier Dahan, 2007), the two pictures about the life of gangster Jacques Mesrine (L'instinct de mort and L'ennemi public No. 1, Jean-François Richet, 2008), and Séraphine (Martin Provost, 2008).

That these films have been greeted with success and recognition at the César Awards (each being nominated in the Best Picture category, with Séraphine winning in 2009) would suggest that France is entering a period of entrenchment, harking back to the Heritage period and aligning ‘Frenchness’ closely with French subjects. Nevertheless, even this is more complex than it would initially seem, with La môme particularly rich in American cultural references (to Billie Holliday, as well as the golden era of American radio), and both Mesrine films using the crime thriller genre as a basis, thereby exhibiting the transatlantic hybridity that Moine describes.

Indeed, elements of this hybridity of aesthetics, cultural references and identity can be dated back to the brazen appropriation and subversion seen in the films of Godard and the New Wave, and can be charted through the developments and ambitious successes of Jeunet and Besson, before laying the foundations of the multi-faceted industry to be found in France today. It is an industry that can be in many ways defined by its relationship with Hollywood, and the way its writers, directors and auteurs dance with the American Empire's influence; it is just a question of who is leading.


- Cousins, Russell. 'Jean de Florette', in Powrie, Phil ed. The Cinema of France. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.
- Kline, T. Jefferson. Screening the Text: Intertextuality in New Wave French Cinema. Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.
- Kline, T. Jefferson. 'The French New Wave', in Ezra, Elizabeth, ed. European Cinema. Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Moine, Raphaelle. 'Generic Hybridity, National Culture and Globalised Cinema', trans. Hensher, Jonathan, in Waldron, Darren and Vanderschelden, Isabelle eds. France at the Flicks: Trends in Contemporary French Popular Cinema. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.
- Powrie, Phil ed. and introd. The Cinema of France. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.
- Puttnam, David. The Undeclared War. London: HarperCollins, 1997.
- Vanderschelden, Isabelle. Amélie. London: I.B.Tauris, 2007.

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