Film: Aide-memoire

A retrospective of Gaumont films suggests that French cinema's mix of high art and mass appeal has been the century's biggest antidote to Hollywood. By Chris Darke
It would be no exaggeration to say that, when it comes to French cinema, a generation of British viewers cut their teeth on Eighties films such as Jean-Jacques Beneix's Diva (1979), Betty Blue (1985) and Luc Besson's Subway (1984). Subtitled sexiness shot with an ad-man's sheen was suddenly the French style. Such films were "art cinema" inasmuch as they were "foreign", non-Hollywood. But in drawing heavily on the international language of pop-promos and glossy advertising, any real auteur vision was soaked up by their lush, highly accessible visuals. French critics nicknamed this style, "le cinema du look". Previous generations of English viewers, whom one might dub "pre-Multiplex" punters, could have seen work by Godard, Rohmer, Pialat and Techine, directors whose films are less and less visible in this country. But a season of films from the legendary French production company Gaumont (which runs throughout September at the National Film Theatre and London's Institut Francais) is not just a chance to catch up. Gaumont: A Century (and more) of Cinema also represents a centennial claim on cinema history, an account from the point of view of a survivor of what David Puttnam has called "the undeclared war" between France and America over the fate of the cinema industry.

Before the First World War, the world's film industry was dominated by two French companies, Pathe and Gaumont. By 1913, Gaumont had offices all over the world and exported a range of films, from newsreels to the highly popular "serial films" such as Louis Feuillade's Fantomas (1913) which remains, to this day, remarkably spectral in its urban mystery. The war didn't destroy France's industry so much as give American companies the opportunity to move in on territories neglected by France because of its war commitments. When the French got back to the business of film exporting, they found that the field had been sewn up by Hollywood. It was by turning its attentions to the domestic audience and to the consolidation of distribution, as well as through the intervention of the state, that Gaumont survived. The 30-plus films in the season represent one account of French cinema - but with a singularly alternative history provided in the UK premiere screening of Jean-Luc Godard's video magnum opus, Histoire(s) du cinema.

The Gaumont roster is instructive, combining solid auteur appeal with a commitment to the popular, a combination that has always been characteristic of French cinema. Of the auteur works, there are French classics in Bresson's Un condamne a mort s'est echappe (1956), works by Vigo, Rohmer and Sacha Guitry and an example of that neglected genre, the French teen-movie, La Boum (1980) - French teen argot for "party" - which stars a 13-year- old Sophie Marceau and was an astonishing popular success. Much of what British audiences see of French cinema rarely includes examples of the stalwart genre of the national box-office: comedy. It's presumably for this reason that Gaumont has included the popular comic hits Cousin, Cousine (1975), and the Jean-Paul Belmondo vehicles La chevre (1981) and L'as des as (1982), rather than the broad time-travel romp Les Visiteurs (1993) which notched up 14 million spectators in France but bombed on its British release. The inclusion of one of the great classics of world cinema, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934), indicates to what extent the selection of films is a kind of corporate canon, the Gaumont Top 30, as it were. Vigo's film beguiles now partly for its modern combination of realism and dream-like lyricism, partly also because of Vigo's own myth; he died, shortly after completing L'Atalante, at the age of 29. The film had been recut to placate theatre owners fearful that the audience would not be able to cope with its aesthetic newness. It was only in 1990, when Gaumont reassembled a version of the film that came close to Vigo's original cut, that this film maudit was restored and one could see in it an approach to film-making that was to have a crucial impact on the French nouvelle vague.

During its pre-WWI heyday, Gaumont operated as a fully-fledged, vertically- integrated film studio, with actors and directors under contract, its own production studios and distribution and exhibition outlets. Film-makers like Alice Guy, the world's first female director, Louis Feuillade and the animator Emile Cohl, whose Fantasmagorie (1908) was cinema's first animated cartoon, found they had a certain creative liberty that came from Gaumont's concentration on developing new cinema technology and theatres. As an exhibitor, Gaumont remains committed to a certain monumentalism; in 1911, the company opened what was then the world's largest cinema, the Gaumont-Palace in the Place Clichy, which seated 3,400 spectators. Eighty-one years later, in 1992, Gaumont opened the Grand Ecran (Giant Screen) on the Place d'Italie in Paris and are currently developing a brace of multiplex screens throughout France. In keeping with this "bigger is better" philosophy, Gaumont have moved into the international arena with Luc Besson's Leon (1994) and The Fifth Element (1996). It's interesting to consider how Besson, one of the key "cinema du look" directors, has moved so effortlessly into the big-budget, special-effects driven territory of sci-fi actioners - how the Eighties face of French art-movies has become part of the cinematic establishment.

The Gaumont retrospective is closely followed in October by an opportunity to see a representative selection of new French cinema. Running throughout October at the Institut Francais and the new Lux Centre in London's Hoxton Square, "At Full Speed" is a survey of 14 first and second features by new directors produced by the independent French finance company Fondation GAN. With these two seasons, the coming months promise an unusually rich and varied selection of French cinema, old and new.

Booking / info: NFT, London, SE1: 0171-928 3232; Institut Francais, London, SW7: 0171-838 2144, from Monday