Monday, July 26, 2004

The Endless Huh? of French Films

It seems that every time I see a French film, I find myself wondering, at the end, what the hell just happened. This is not a language problem, because I have not always had this same sense of bewilderment after an Italian or Spanish or German film, and I speak more French than I do Italian or Spanish or German... it's something about the French, they like to fuck with your mind and leave you wondering.

Last night I watched The Swimming Pool... and I still don't know what the ending was all about. It all made perfect sense right up to the end, and then pow... complete confusion. With a handful of oddly juxtaposed images and one piece of unexpected information, the well-laid (if slightly bizarre) plot was completely unraveled, leaving an open question of whether or not any of the preceding had actually happened (in the world of the film), or if only parts had happened, or if it had all happened, or what. After all that perfectly understandable and interesting plot, it was just mean to tack on that ending and pull the whole movie apart like that. Mean!

I don't know why, in that case, I keep watching French films. They so often do this to me, leave me wondering at the end. I get so angry at having the conceptual rug pulled out from under me at the last minute that I usually swear to never watch another French film as long as I live... but then time passes and I forget and somebody tells me about this great movie, and they don't tell me it's French, and I rent it (or more likely buy it for $4.99, which is cheaper than renting because I always forget to return rentals and have to pay late fees), and the rug gets pulled again and I get all pissed off again. It's an ugly circle.

But now, as I look at the website I just linked above, two other French films I've seen that made very little sense — 8 Women, which I really did like (Deneuve and Ardant, what's not to like?), was fabulously surreal but at least had a cogent plot; and Sitcom, which was also generally sensible, though certainly bizarre, but which ended in a way so unexpected and nonsensical that I had to watch the movie again in hopes that there was some explanation I'd missed (there was not, but the scene with Stéphane Rideau tittie-fucking the governess was well worth the second run-through, even if it was a prosthetic) — are by the same director, François Ouzon.

On the other hand, the rest of the French films that left me speechless with baffled fury at the end were not by François Ouzon... the almost unbearably freaky The City of Lost Children (practically gave me nightmares, especially Ron Perlman speaking French) and Wild Reeds (charming, but completely pointless and more than a little confusing) come immediately to mind, and then there was The Adventures of Felix (again charming and pointless though somewhat more cogent) and Artemisia (one shot of a hot naked man was not worth all the shots of an ugly naked man that followed, and it turned the life of an amazing and groundbreaking artist into a tedious codependent affair).

Let's not forget the historical things that I was forced to watch in college, like The Return of Martin Guerre (Gerard Depardieu should be banned) or Indochine (even the divine Catherine Deneuve couldn't make that turkey fly, though I do have the movie poster, and it's hot) — dare I mention that horrible short film that I suppose every child of my generation was forced to watch in elementary school, The Red Balloon? (the very memory makes me cringe and weep).

I suppose you could blame the insipidity and irrationality of La Cage Aux Folles II & III on the fact that they were sequels, but the original wasn't all that hot, either (though it was interesting that Mike Nichols practically remade it frame by frame for The Birdcage, but one must note that he also managed to inject a few drips of rationale into the script while he was at it). And let's not talk about the legions of French films that I wouldn't watch if you put a gun to my head, like Amelie or Babette's Feast (actually, I did see part of that one, but I got bored and wandered away).

On the other hand, there are a lot of French films that haven't left me in a state of baffled fury at the end... the excellent Brotherhood of the Wolf, for one, and Ridicule for another, each with well-made plots and fully explained, entirely understandable actions and motives. What about the wonderful Ma Vie en Rose? And I have to admit, there are piles upon piles of French films I haven't seen and know very little about; conversely, there are also piles and piles of films from America, Britain, and Asia that I have seen and which left me even more baffled and enraged than The Red Balloon could.

I seem to have simply fallen into the poor mental habit of hating the French... it's so trendy these days. And of the movies I've cited above, most weren't as bad as my confused emotions at the time made me think... as I look over the list, there were some entertaining (if baffling) moments involved in many of those films.

The thing is, though, that I had been an uneducated francophile practically from birth, automatically assuming that the French were culturally and intellectually superior to Americans, that their films and their clothes and their food and their art were better than everyone else's; but then when I actually started seeing French films (and studying French art and eating French food), I found that they aren't superior, they're just different. Like English-language directors, French filmmakers are in many cases complete poseurs — or even worse, are simple morons who have been deified by poseur Americans who think that, if it's completely incomprehensible and unaccessible, it must be brilliant. And when we find that our gods have feet of clay, we tend to become angrier than we were at the people whom we didn't think were gods... it's easier to forget about a stupid American film because you weren't expecting as much as you were from the stupid French film.

Well anyway... this is all very interesting, I'm sure. If any of my readers have seen The Swimming Pool, and actually understood it, please let me know. Actually, any insights into French cinema would be appreciated. In the meantime, I am going to go watch some fully-expected-to-be-stupid American television.

Á bientôt!


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