The rise of French cinema

With this week's French film releases in the UAE, more indication that the European country's filmmaking has been undergoing a renaissance.
A scene from the 2007 French film Sunny and the Elephant, which is set in Thailand and was directed by Frédéric Lepage.
A scene from the 2007 French film Sunny and the Elephant, which is set in Thailand and was directed by Frédéric Lepage.

French cinema has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past decade, going from an industry that was suffering from a severe drought of originality to one that is creating vibrant, innovative cinema featuring home-grown talent.

Intimidated by the shadow of its past, the 1990s saw a dearth of quality in French cinema, with the only exception being the seminal La Haine. This changed in the early 2000s, however, when a new crop of filmmakers began making movies that crossed over to audiences outside France, boasting both French and American influences and talent that refused to "jump ship" to Hollywood. Talent such as Audrey Tautou, star of the film Amélie, who has strayed to Hollywood only once (for 2006's The Da Vinci Code), La Haine star Vincent Cassel and actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet (Tell No One, Little White Lies).

The evidence for this has been the wide range of French-made films that are currently showing in the UAE, with the release of the much-hyped Incendies, by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, being accompanied by fellow Gallic productions Point Blank and Sunny and the Elephant. But how do the latter two releases compare with the dynamic new output we've been seeing from France since 2000?

Sunny and the Elephant is a radically different type of film. Although French-made, it is set outside the country, in Thailand, and follows a young city boy's quest to become a mahoot (an elephant driver), fighting against the prejudices of his world to achieve his dream. While the vistas of this film are amazing, the story very much relies on the less unique elements of American cinematic storytelling - somewhat cynically tugging at the heartstrings at regular intervals during the course of the film.

A movie that borrows from Hollywood in the right way is Point Blank, starring Gilles Lellouche as a paramedic. His life is turned upside down when his pregnant wife is kidnapped by criminals. If he is ever to see her again, he must break the criminals' boss, a hospitalised gangster, out of police custody and get him across Paris. Invoking the frenetic pace and intelligence of a European film with the high-concept action of a Hollywood blockbuster, the film has won praise for its accessibility and gripping storyline, and has, somewhat depressingly, led to talk of an English- language remake.

Incendies will be the most tantalising prospect for audiences, as it has enjoyed success in other territories around the world already, thanks to its nomination at this year's Oscars. It was also a crowd favourite last year at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

However, the influx of these other films shows an integration of France's output into our cinema-viewing schedules that has not been seen before. No longer the preserve of art-house cinemas or lovers of experimental film, today's industry offers a variety of genres and stars that perhaps are not as innovative as their filmmaking forefathers, but can compete on a more realistic level with the "big boys" of Hollywood.

Published: August 25, 2011 04:00 AM

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