French films: active, varied -- subsidized

Although other nations offer competition from time to time, France has the busiest transatlantic movie business. Recent French films to have notable commercial engagements in the United States include "Clair de Femme," by Costa-Gavras: "Coup de Tete," by Jean-Jacques Annaud; "Don Giovanni," gy Joseph Losey; "La Cage aux Folles," by Eduardo Molinaro; and "Un Simple Histoire," by Claude Sautet. The latter figured in the just-completed Academy Awards race.

More than any other European country, France makes an active effort to promote goodwill for its films among Americans. To this end, the French Film Office and the department of film at the Museum of Modern Art recently presented a fascinating program called "Perspectives on French Cinema." It aimed to show the diversity and quality of today's "serious" French movies. It succeeded splendidly.

Shortly before the festival began, I discussed the state of French cinema with Jean-Jacques Annaud, a young director. He has two features to his credit, and both have played successfully in the United States. The first, "Black and white in Color," even won an Oscar as best foreign-language film of the year.

According to Annaud, a central part of the French movie scene is a program of government subsidies for "interesting screenplays." Under this program, "anyone can submit a screenplay to the committee and have a chance of getting a grant -- perhaps $100,000, which could pay about half the cost of a movie." About 50 films per year are helped in this way, including Annaud's own "Black and White in Color."

Unfortunately, he continues, "what we get are mostly 'first films' by people who don't know what they're doing. Just because you can write a good screenplay doesn't mean you can make a good movie. The system is going to change soon, because too many horrible, impossible films have been made on taxpayer money."

In addition to these subsidized pictures, Annaud estimates that about 75 "popular" movies are made each year -- mostly "silly comedies that you wouldn't see in the United States, with stars like Louis de Funes and Jean-Paul Belmondo, and thrillers with Alain Delon. These pictures are negligible.

"It's a lot. It's too much for a small market like France," Annaud says. Moreover, this glut of second-rate movies (and worse) crowds out the small amount of high-quality films that manages to emerge each year. Happily, top-quality pictures do get made, and some of these find their way to the international market. But it can be a struggle for a serious young cineaste to make himself or herself heard.

Annaud lumps himself with such other younger filmmakers as Bertrand Tavernier ("The Clockmaker"), Claude Miller ("The Best Way"), Diane Kurys ("Peppermint Soda"), and Pascal Thomas ("Don't Cry With Your Mouth Full"). Says Annaud: "We feel we are a group of young people who are trying to reach the public without stooping. We are trying to pick the audience up and bring them to the stories and ideas we consider important."

In his view, French film was in "very bad shape" for a few years after the dissolution of the "New Wave" group that included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette. "Everyone wanted to recreate that marvelous time, but the situation had changed. So there was a big depression, instead." Now, Annaud continues, "There are quite a few of us between 25 and 50 years old, with similar ideas, and maybe we can change things in a positive direction with good movies that get good reviews."

To accomplish this, he says, "We must recognize the realities of our situation: We have a small, French-speaking market, and we are competing with American films. There are two solutions to this. One solution is that of Jacques Doillon, who works in 16 mm and uses screenplays that are very local -- so local they become international. The second is my solution, which is trying to interest a wide audience in your ideas, so you can reach for a big market in 35 mm. I do this through serious comedy, but there are many other paths.Kurys does intimate biography, Thomas does countryside comedy, Miller does intellectual parable.

"The big point is, all of us are about the same age, and we admire the same foreign films. We try to keep a position between highly intellectual films that critics like, on the one hand, and big successes, on the other. We have good reviews andm a good public -- though nothing extravagant, in either area."

Annaud feels that momentum is gathering. "Critics are helping us, and we're growing. We know the French cinema has to move. It can't go on as it used to be." Like the German cinema of 10 years ago, the French cinema is reacting againstm its recent past, and Annaud thinks this eruption is a wonderfully positive thing. "Even the older filmmakers are getting this idea, too," he says. "Ten years ago nobody cared about the public. Now we're filling the gap."

The "Perspectives on French Cinema" program provided good evidence for Annaud's optimism. Ten films were shown, and all were of interest. The most eagerly awaited was "Merry-Go-Round," the latest movie directed by Jacques Rivette, starring Maria Schneider and Joe Dallessandro.

Rivette is an aesthetically radical filmmaker, more interested in plastic qualities than in plot and character; as he told me recently, "I care more about the grace of the actors' gestures and the quality of their voices than what they actually do or say." His new work proved to be less compelling than such a masterpiece as "Out One: Spectre" or his recent fantastic films, "Duelle" and "Noroit." Yet it offered a fascinating glimpse of the latest twists and turns in the extraordinary Rivette mentality.

It was especially revealing to be able to see "Mary-Go-Round" in the same evening as the new film by French ethnologist Jean Rouch, called "Funerailles a Bongo: Le Vieil Anai." Like many of Rouch's most influential works, it is a documentary -- this time dealing with funeral customs -- shot in Africa. It made a perfect complement to the Rivette melodrama about a woman searching for her missing sister; Rivette is concerned with customs as much as Rouch is, only on a mre metaphorical level.

Another revelation was a trio of films by Maurice Pialat, a director hitherto little seen by American audiences. He has a restrained, meticulous, at times unorthodox visual style based on dramatic situations presented with documentary-style realism. The intensity generated by this approach was evident in all three movies at the perspectives series: "Graduate First," about students; "We Won't Grow Old Together," about a horrifying male chauvinist; and especially "The Mouth Wide Open," a compassionate meditation on the death of a woman.

A less successful drama about death was "Facing the Sun," by Pierce Kast, which

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