French Cinema: Parlez-Vous Anglais?

By Emma Ainley-Walker

Studying a year of A Level French taught me many things. Firstly, that I do not speak French well, nor will I ever understand its grammar. Nevertheless, it did teach me to love French cinema. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject or know too much about the history (when googling it, many websites were in French and we already know the trouble I have there!) But I do know that the French know how to make good films.

In recent years, French cinema has been going from strength to strength in all aspects. Most notably, Amélie in 2001 became the highest grossing French language film in the United States box office and Marion Cottilard won the 2008 BAFTA for her performance in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose.  

So why the sudden rise in popularity for French cinema? Partly, I think, it’s due to the recent influx of talented French actresses in Hollywood films: Marion Cottilard (Public Enemies); Juliette Binoche (The English Patient); Audrey Tautou (The Da Vinci Code); and Clémence Poésy (In Bruges). The versatility shown in acting in two different languages and cinematic styles is pretty impressive and I can see why, after watching In Bruges for example you’d be inclined to check out some of Poséy’s projects in her native language. However, I’d like to think it takes more than just one actress to make a film successful so what are the other pulls to French cinema?

For me, I can almost sum it up into one particular moment of genius in the first ever French film I watched aged thirteen- Belleville Rendezvous. A silent, animated film, it’s a good way for non-speakers to ease into the French cinema culture. But the moment that made the film for me was an almost irrelevant scene in a restaurant where the waiter was literally falling over backwards to help. This attention to detail is personally one of my favourite things about French cinema.

Of course, my tastes- and to some extent my language skills- have matured at least a little since then, which brings me to the wonderfully hilarious Bienvenue, Chez les Ch’tis, a comedy directed by and starring Dany Boon about a postal worker who accidentally gets transferred from the beautiful South of France to the cold far North with its incomprehensible dialect ‘Ch’tis’. Typical of any comedic film based on geography, he fears for his life and his sanity based on the disturbing things he has heard about the area but, unlike many a Hollywood blockbuster, the stereotypes are destroyed, rather than reinforced for more humour. This is what I enjoy the most about French film. We get to see the truth.

The same can be said about the French World War II film Days of Glory. It doesn’t instill a sense of brotherhood and compassion the way many Hollywood war films do. Instead, it shows us the awful conditions for the troops and how unjust the war could be. As a more dedicated French student and friend of mine Paul Simpson said: “It inspires thought, which is a statement I would definitely tie to the French cinema industry.”

So the next time you’re stuck and looking for a good film to watch, stop and give French cinema a thought. There’s something for everyone’s tastes and I promise they are excellently subtitled!


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