To say nothing of Francois Truffaut, Gerard Philippe, Vadim, Brigitte Bardot, the great Renoir, Catherine Deneuve, Arletty and so many others who wrought the magic of French cinema?
French movies are usually recalled in terms of French farce, lovers nipping in and out of closets, jealous husbands, faithless wives, saucy maids, rumpled beds. Or as policiers starring Jean Gabin and a Gauloise dangling from the corner of his mouth. Or the wonderful Truffaut stories of the little boy of "The 400 Blows," now grown but still buffeted occasionally by life. Or the hilarious Jacques Tati adventures of "Monsieur Hulot." Or B.B.'s extraordinary bosoms spilling out of a lacy bodice. Or the stinging, staying greatness of "La Grande Illusion," maybe the greatest war movie ever made that never showed a battle.
The French are more in love with movies than any people I know and more intelligently so (their affection for the work of Jerry Lewis I put down to aberration). The Champs Elysees in Paris may contain a richer, and more varied, roster of films, French and otherwise, than any similar length of street in the world. For the French, who enormously admire their own intellects, love their movie stars. But they worship their directors. A Hollywood marquee puts the star's name over the title; the French cite the director first.
Now comes Alan Riding writing from Paris in The New York Times to inform us all this is changing.
"For all too long," he writes, "French movies have been eating, drinking and chatting their way through a safe-and-tested menu of love triangles, wacky comedies, literary adaptations and historical dramas. The problem was that, for many filmgoers, the bucolic, romantic and intellectual France of the screen was no longer recognizable."
But do not despair, you American lovers of French film. Mr. Riding tells us better days, and nights, are coming.
"Now several young film makers have decided to offer their vision of a more troubled, perhaps more real France. They have taken images long familiar to television viewers-of unemployment, drug trafficking, vandalism and occasional race riots-and breathed a new dimension into them. They have gone into suburban ghettos to measure rage and despair. Their timing could not be better."
Young Americans used to go to Paris to become Hemingway or find their own Gertrude Stein or rub against Jim Jones or Irwin Shaw or Plimpton and the Paris Review crowd (did you know that Jane Fonda was a copygirl there during one of her college summer breaks?) and drink at Harry's Bar or the Ritz, depending on your wallet, and admire beautiful women and eat wonderful bread fresh-baked and drink the wine of the country and think about what it must have been like to be Andre Malraux and maybe to see Dali or Jean Cocteau across a room and to go to marvelous French movies and to try to write their first novel or, if they had the skills, to try to write or direct a first movie.
And we all thought we were happy.
What a foolish assumption! We were wasting our time along the Boul 'Mich and at La Coupole and the Deux Magots, when we could have been going into the suburban ghettos to measure rage and despair and to write about or film unemployment, drug dealing, vandalism and race riots. And, one assumes, to be sufficiently inspired to return eventually to New York to enroll in the NYU school of moviemaking and create a documentary on subway graffiti.
The most successful of these new movies these days in France, says Mr. Riding, is called "Hate." Swell. Another big hit is "Rai." In this one North Africans living in Paris "feel excluded" from jobs, respect, "even entry to glitzy nightclubs." So Djamel, a decent young man, becomes annoyed when his brother, a heroin addict and dealer, is killed by the cops. This inspires Djamel to join a riot, presumably the flick's happy ending. In "Bye-Bye" 11-year-old Mouloud flees into the drug underworld of Marseille to avoid being sent to school.
One of the cheerier new flicks coming out of France is "Situation Report," which cost only 60 grand to make, the money raised, says Mr. Riding, "by gambling unemployment benefits at a casino." The hero is a brooding young factory hand who sings "The Internationale," which not even in Russia does anyone sing anymore, and hangs a Stalin poster in his bedroom. He writhes in social resentment and sees revolution as the only way out. To ease his rage and resentment against a well-off friend, he seduces the man's wife.
Well, Charlie, it ain't "Meet Me in St. Louis," I'll grant you that.
Mr. Riding says that many of these new films use American slang, "cool" and "black" being favorite words (the French haven't gotten around to "African-American"), and feature "French rap music, which emphasizes the influence of American inner-city culture on the French ghettos....."
So here we have the most cultivated and glorious city in the world and it now dances to the rap and rage of Bed-Sty and East L.A. And you thought we only exported Coca-Cola.
In "Hate," the box-office sensation, the three protagonists, an Arab, a Jew and an African, get along just fine. "It is society that they hate." And the police are the enemy. When one Paris cop addresses Said, the Arab, as "monsieur," the young man is stunned.
Perhaps the greatest film of despair and rage and injustice ever made wasn't French, but American, "The Grapes of Wrath," product of our own dust bowl and the Great Depression. And now a bunch of French kids make angry, downbeat movies and think they're re-inventing the wheel of bitter social commentary.
Mes enfants, meet Monsieur John Ford.