The relationship between cinema and television in France has mostly been fraught with tension, envy, and misunderstandings. But in recent years ARTE, a small French-German television station, has helped to mend the fracture by rethinking the role of drama in television. ARTE has developed an ambitious program of thematically linked series (most notably “All the Boys and Girls of Their Time” and the millennium-centered “2000 Seen by…”), collaborating with directors like André Téchiné, Claire Denis, Chantal Akerman, Patrice Chereau, Pascale Ferran, Hal Hartley, Olivier Assayas, Tsai Ming-liang, and Benoît Jacquot.
With just under $15 million at his disposal, Pierre Chevalier, head of ARTE’s French fiction unit, must deliver 50 hours of programming a year. Shortly after joining ARTE in 1991, Chevalier greenlighted “Boys and Girls” and “The High School Years,” the two collections that established the company’s identity. In the first case, nine directors of various ages had to set their movie during their own adolescence. In the second, the main characters in each had to be 17 and in high school. “Commission is a very traditional way to work for artists,” Chevalier says. “Without the popes, there would be no Sistine Chapel. So I thought, ‘Why can’t television be a patron as well? Why shouldn’t it be creative?’ Instead of being merely a passive transmitter of information, television can be a place where creation is taken seriously, unconcerned by ratings, and where directors may have even more freedom than in cinema.”
While some series adapted works by a particular author (Borges, Simenon), others were more conceptual. The 10 pieces in “2000 Seen by… ” all had to be set on December 31, 1999, in 10 different countries. For “Love Must Be Reinvented,” ARTE sought out scripts dealing with “homosexuality and bisexuality in the age of AIDS.” Two forthcoming collections, in various stages of completion, sound promising. In “Left/Right,” the directors use various genres to tackle postwar French politics. Chevalier notes that he’s trying to get Jean-Luc Godard to direct the last one in the series—”because I thought it couldn’t be done without him.” In “Small Cameras,” directors work with tiny digital cameras on shoestring budgets. “To avoid getting into total messes, I didn’t want to go in an experimental direction. So my first choices were experienced directors [Claude Miller, for instance]. I wanted to see what they would do in these new working conditions.”
Posing challenges in both form and content, “Small Cameras” neatly exemplifies ARTE’s philosophy. “We work in a minor mode,” says Chevalier. “With movies and regular TV networks, it’s always more: more money, more images, more cast. With us, it’s always less money, less shooting time, less cast. We work with molecules, and we love what we do.” He pauses, then adds, laughing, “I dream of a television of multiple possibilities.”