Elitist or high-quality? Or rather, a premium on quality?
The Cannes film Festival evokes not just the special place cinema holds in French perceptions of exceptionalism. It turns the mind to the position of culture in the national self-reckoning.
French cinema culture allows ‘flops’
The former Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot sparked a firestorm early this year when her memoirs took aim at the national film industry for, she claimed, its cosseted solipsism.
“The famous ‘cultural exception’ allows very many French films ‘not to find their public’, as they say, politely, or more explicitly, to be flops,” she wrote in the stinging 682 jours.
“The system also guarantees lead actors earn fabulous fees, three or four times higher than actors in American independent cinema.”
But it also enables, she might have written, the employment of multiple non-stars, as well as assorted additional ‘creatives’ and technicians. And not merely in cinema.
Artists can create rather than wait tables
A special unemployment scheme permits income cover in crises (like Covid), and through ordinary down times for arts and entertainment workers, from camera operators and musicians to sound staff in state TV.
There’s no immediate need, then, for artists and performers to wait tables, or work in hotels or dig roads, when the next gig is slow in coming. Because it’s precisely in the periods between publication that writers actually write, that composers compose, that little companies cobble together their next theatre production.
But it’s not just the artistic talent that’s provided with a buffer against the brutal selectivity of the market.
The art cinemas that mark many French regional cities wouldn’t exist were it not for the support they receive from various levels of government.
Subsidised art house cinemas flourish
As for Paris, who wouldn’t want to see films in that section of the fifth district near the Sorbonne, with its litter of art et essai movie houses in what remains of the city’s old left-wing heart?
Le Champo is probably the best-known, with Le Reflet opposite, where photos of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock look down from the walls and an image of Woody Allen famously guards the toilets.
Further along at 23 rue des Écoles the Cinéma Club has special screenings featuring encounters with directors and sometimes major actors.
I remember being entranced by Charlotte Rampling at peak gorgeous giving a special introduction to a screening of The Verdict, where she stars opposite Paul Newman’s Boston attorney, looking like every man in his later 50s wishes he did (though he’s on the grog, knocking back a raw egg in a pint of beer for breakfast). Pretty Parisiennes sat cross-legged at Ms Rampling’s feet.
Further back into the sixth, Catherine Deneuve had just done the déco and interior design at the Panthéon cinema cafe when I was a regular visitor there around 2010.
At Le Saint-Germain-des-Prés, I remember coming out of a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s For Ever Mozart and reading a Télérama review pinned to the wall delighted at the extent to which this latest perl from the Latin Quarter’s reigning secular Pope of cinema was, “actually comprehensible” (as if he needed to be!).
Well, all these cinemas are subsidised. Because Paris rents are so expensive, but also because they continue to show repertoire cinema and little films with low budgets.
Godard, not the easiest of film-makers, had a kind of open invitation at Cannes. He was perhaps the definitive example of the French auteur approach to film-making.
Culture is preserved in the face of Hollywood
But it’s not only about preserving French quality, it’s about the French as arbiters of the taste and quality of others — in cinema, in culture, in the face of Hollywood, Big Streaming and new technologies.
I would remind Madame Bachelot that there is also a lighter side.
I’ve just seen popular French director Cédric Klapisch’s En corps. Humanist, a box office triumph, it’s a film of fiction about classical ballet — an ostensibly elitist art form that is not so here — that actually features classical dancing. Much as Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight dared to feature the minority music of modern jazz.
Art forms that France and the French have helped to keep alive and make accessible to the rest of us.
And to be sure, the Cannes film festival is one of the keepers of the flame.