The French Conniption


Here’s another chance to have a few yucks at the expense of those neurotic, Brie-eating, beret-wearing French, who apparently feel that making films is “almost a birthright guaranteed by the government,” according to Alan Riding in his latest subtly derisive Times dispatch from Paris.

“L’Affaire Leconte,” a flash-fire round of accusations, counteraccusations, and manifesto writing, began in early October and sputtered out in early December. Of course, if you read Riding’s condescending December 14 fluff job, you probably got the idea that this was just another wacky Gallic aberration, a war of words between filmmakers and critics who refuse to accept the fact that everyone would rather see American movies anyway.

In fact, L’Affaire Leconte was the most dramatic manifestation of a conflict that’s been going on since the late ’50s, when the New Wave directors turned the French film industry upside down. And as Hollywood’s shadow keeps getting darker and longer, the question “What is cinema?” becomes more and more insistent. For many young people, as Bertrand Tavernier pointed out in a December 3 Libération interview, “a French movie is nothing but a bore,” and cinema is Titanic and The Phantom Menace. For a certain number of critics and a large portion of the theoretical community, true cinema is grounded in “ontological” inquiry, and narrative complexity is a sham—Godard is, of course, their high priest. For many post-New Wave directors, like Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné, and Benoit Jacquot, narrative complexity is a necessity, a way of moving on from the now past glory of the New Wave. For young turks like Gaspar Noe and Matthieu Kassovitz, the Godardian and the post-New Wave films amount to so much bourgeois pap. In a way, every individual becomes his own faction.

The comic high point of L’Affaire Leconte came early when the man it was named for, Patrice Leconte, gave an interview to Libération‘s Olivier Séguret, despairing of the brutal treatment accorded “popular, commercial” filmmakers by the critical establishment. By way of an example, Leconte cited the one bad review he got for the vastly overpraised Ridicule: “It was like a knife in the gut.” An otherwise perfect trip to Cannes, ruined.

In the nasty free-for-all that followed, the many reasonable and intelligent voices were drowned out by the general clamor of interviews, position pieces (including one by yours truly), and e-mails. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of all this meanness, from the “Bermuda Triangle of French film criticism” (Libération, Le Monde, and Télérama), wondered whether they were being attacked for having too much power or mocked for not having any.

Two weeks ago, ARP, the society of producers, writers, and artists to which Leconte belongs, published a rambling unsigned tirade. Apart from a vague plea for solidarity between critics and filmmakers and a quixotic proposal to hold negative reviews until after a film has opened, that letter is an unformed collection of damning accusations and critical disrepect. Its thundering rhetorical flourishes and scolding pedagogical tone (including many examples of alleged critical recklessness, the funniest of which might be translated as “a milestone in the history of absolute bullshit”) indicated Tavernier’s handiwork. Critics Fredéric Bonnaud and Serge Kaganski of the popular weekly Les Inrockuptibles (two of the letter’s prime targets) guessed as much in print, and the man has since owned up to it.

Actually, Tavernier claims never to have seen the piece in its final form; it was dispatched to the press after hasty revisions and modifications by unknown parties (there exists a much nastier, earlier version of the letter). The following day, filmmakers from all over the map signed a petition denouncing the letter as “vain and inept,” and Claude Miller, the society’s president, quickly tendered his resignation.

“The real fight is over taste,” said André Téchiné in a interview given the day of Miller’s resignation, “over affirming strange, original and singular films versus routine films. To reduce the fight to strictly economic terms seems to be out of all proportion.” It’s probably the most sensible position yet. On the other hand, some of the French desperation is understandable. You’d be neurotic too if you had Jack Valenti shoving GATT down your throat.