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."

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