Cinema to dishonour France

Serious cinema, or canny commercialism? Liese Spencer examines the current French vogue for in-your-visage film violence

When, in 1995, Mathieu Kassovitz's incendiary debut La Haine opened in France, its hard-hitting tale of poverty, racism and police brutality sparked rioting in the banlieue among viewers who identified all too closely with the film's multiracial, disenfranchised anti-heroes. Now Gaspar Noe and Jan Kounen seek to provoke the same powerful reactions with their uncompromising first features Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone) and Dobermann.

But are these violent movies part of a wider attempt to reinstate social criticism into French cinema, or merely Gallic exploitation flicks, smash- and-grab calling-cards from film-makers with an eye on the international market?

Both films, though very different in style, come under the broad umbrella of Jeune Cinema Francais, a movement that Ginette Vincendeau, a lecturer in French cinema at Warwick University, describes as "an amalgam of artistic vision and issues which are about more than middle-class people having affairs in beautiful apartments".

Along with other recent releases such as Clubbed to Death, The Dream Life of Angels and La Vie de Jesus, these post-La Haine products eschew the empty cool of stylists such as Luc Besson (Nikita), Jean-Jacques Beineix (Betty Blue) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (Delicatessen), offering instead snapshots from a France riddled with unemployment and racism.

Still, while this new breed of French film broadens the country's celluloid exports beyond the traditional heritage swashbucklers and exquisite psychodramas, Vincendeau cautions against making any explicitly political claims for such movies. Indeed, the last thing these young film-makers wants is to be described as polemical.

"In France, critics use `sociological' to describe TV movies, so anyone with artistic, auteur ambitions is careful to avoid the label," says Vincendeau.

It's an argument supported by Noe's press statement for Seul Contre Tous, in which one of the reasons he cites for making the film is "to depict the France I see every day, a France that looks more like the country described in Hugo, Zola, Henri Charriere or in any other documentary about Vichy, than the vision of France depicted in the films that invade my TV screen, made by more civilised film-makers".

Edited to the sound of off-screen gunshots, interspersed with inter-titles and even featuring a sensational 30-second countdown (in which viewers are given a chance to leave the cinema before its climax), Seul Contre Tous works hard to manipulate a reaction.

"One critic said that just hearing the music made him want to call Amnesty International," recalls Noe with satisfaction, adding that he made the film to "dishonour France" and would have liked to have had it banned, since it would have shown that he "had made something shocking".

The liberal agenda behind Noe's deadpan irony is betrayed, however, by the skill with which he turns his monstrous aggressor into a pathetic victim at the film's finish. Stripping away all the physical and emotional comfort of what he calls "soft bourgeois French cinema" Noe reduces humanity to sex, shelter and animal survival, then shows how - in such conditions - tolerance and morality can be regarded as life's little luxuries.

If Seul Contre Tous is not overtly political, its in-your-face aesthetic certainly bangs home a distinctly moral message. Not so Dobermann. "Your first film shows the juvenile side of you; you just want to shake everyone up," says Jan Kounen of his debut feature. Dobermann is an ultra-violent, ultra-stylised action movie full of cartoon sex and sadism, which pits Vincent Cassel's eponymous outlaw and his feral gang against Tcheky Karyo's flamboyantly corrupt cop.

Like Noe, Kounen uses guerrilla tactics to aggressively nail the attention of his audience. And, like Noe, Kounen denies any sociological or satirical intent - the difference being that, after watching Dobermann, you believe him. Kounen's defiantly shallow romp revels in its own lack of substance, seemingly content to pastiche the action genre in a series of endless explosions and politically incorrect exchanges between two-dimensional stereotypes.

Even its star, Vincent Cassel, will admit this: "There was not much dialogue. It was like playing Batman. Playing Vinz in La Haine was different; he was a real anti-hero. I think Dobermann is a fantasy Vinz might have had of himself, someone Vinz would have loved to be."

Interestingly, while Seul Contre Tous won only praise from both left- and right-wing commentators in France, Dobermann's provocations unleashed a torrent of critical venom.

"The press were saying that it was a Nazi movie," remembers Noe. "I think what really offended them was that although the film was made in France, it looks like a Japanese Manga movie. Critics saw that as some kind of cultural betrayal."

Pushed to a comic extreme, Dobermann's crass genericism marks it out from the auteur tendencies of much Jeune Cinema Francais. But traces of its magpie commercialism are in many of the films - not least in La Haine's hommage to Taxi Driver.

"The reason La Haine was such a success was that it managed to channel French social issues into the format of an international crime thriller," says Vincendeau. "Kassowitz borrowed from John Woo, Scorsese and Spike Lee to produce a hybrid of the political movie and the more fashionable crime noir."

Cassel is confident that such a trick can be repeated. "There is this thing going on in Paris, a lot of young actors and young film-makers who are making friends with each other - Cassel's directorial debut, Crime Boulevard, is produced by the guy who produced La Haine - and feeling very confident. Gaspar Noe, Jan Kounen, Mathieu Kassowitz - suddenly, we're here, and they [the French film industry] cannot do without us. But the war is not over yet; there's a lot to do. Probably the war is to have a movie released around the world, not to be completely crushed by the US movie industry."

Indeed. Whether these young guns win or lose the war, whether they're exploiting or exposing, one thing's for sure: violence always sells.

Anthony Quinn reviews `Dobermann' on page 11

A Short

History

of Ultra

Violence

1980s: Bertrand Tavernier's L.627 is a lone slice of verite in an ocean of designer style. It investigates issues of racism in the police force and society in general.

1991: Gaspar Noe releases his short Carne, in which a butcher, mistakenly believing his daughter has been raped, exacts a terrible revenge. He drafts a screenplay for Seul Contre Tous and shows it to potential backers, who tell him to "go away and come back with a normal movie starring normal actors".

1993: Jan Kounen releases his short Vibroboy, a comedy displaying the one-time cartoonist's obsession with sex and violence - a psychopath runs amok with a phallic fertility symbol strapped to a chainsaw.

April 1995: After Kassowitz's comments that "La Haine is an anti-police film", security police turn their backs on the film's cast and crew at a Cannes preview screening.

June 1995: Following huge success, 260 copies of La Haine are made instead of the usual 50, but after riots in the suburbs the film is accused of inciting violence.

Edinburgh Festival 1998: Gaspar Noe speaking about Seul Contre Tous: "A lot of people ask me if this is a racist movie, and I say, yes, it's an anti-French movie."

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence