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October 20, 2007
The Heritage Film in France
In Britain the critical definition of the ‘heritage genre’ was first used by Andrew Higson who argued that it takes its subject from ‘...the culturally respectable classicisms of literature, painting music’ (Higson, 1993: p113). Higson also identifies this type of film with a particular aesthetic which tends towards linear narrative structures and a filmic style which is pictorialist, utilising crane shots and high angle shots which separate the spectator from the character point of view and allow for a spectacular and sumptuous mise-en-scene. The framing of these films tends to be reliant upon long takes, deep focus, long and medium shots rather than using close ups and rapid cuts. Higson’s analysis was immediately followed by many critics who readily identified a genre which was being associated with a conservative retrenchment of the 1980s. There is currently a re-evaluation of this term which was normally a disparagement. The re-evaluation is being led by the work of Claire Monk. The term is associated with a range of films which can cover historical biographies, costume dramas, canonical literary adaptations and historical re-enactments. In Britain at least, the perceived emergence of this type of film was also associated with a range of cultural industries under the term ‘Heritage industries’. Austin suggests that the heritage film is closely linked to la tradition of qualite in France and emerges in parallel to the heritage film in Britain marked by most critics by Chariots of Fire 1981.
What Created the Conditions for the French Heritage Film Industry?
It is often considered that heritage / historical type films are commonly associated with a crisis in national identity. France like Britian in the 1980s was facing the pressure of de-industrialisation. With rising unemployment as globalisation and the introduction of new informatio technologies started to take effect it certainly seems as thought the socio-cultural conditions were ripe to support an audience for this type of film.
Austen (1996) suggests that the refining of the avances sur recettes by Jack Lang made the ‘culturally respectable heritage genre the major beneficiary’, although young directors such as Beneix and Besson along with older auteurs such as Varda, Resnais and Bresson also benefited. In 1984 Lang chose the publisher Christian Bourgois to head the avance sur recettes system with a brief to target ‘culture’. This enabled Berri to fund his Pagnol adaptations. Marcel Pagnol had been highly successful as both film-maker and novelist. In 1986 over 6 million saw Jean de Florette and over four million saw the sequel Manon des sources made at the same time. Lang’s conception can be seen as one of high culture for the masses mediated through the cultural industries. In the late 1980s when the socialists were temporarily out of power Lang’s successor Francois Leotard suppressed aid for ‘artistic’ films. On his return to office Lang reintroduced the aid which included direct aid for 10-15 high quality films per year according to Predal (1991).
Two French Cinemas in the 1980s?
Powrie (1999) suggests that two types of cinema rather than genres became dominant in the French cinema of the 1980s measured by indicators of audience and media coverage. Powrie identifies these as the cinema du look which had played itself out by the early 1900s and heritage cinema. These types of films which unsettled the classic distinction of French cinema as being divided between the generic dominated by polars or thrillers alongside comedies on the one hand and the auteurs on the other. While cinema du look took a back-seat, the heritage film continued to grow in strength. Powrie argues that this type of film became hegemonic although its focus shifted from the 1980s to become ‘less idyllic and more problematically nostalgic.
Since 1991 Powrie notes that French audience figures have been rising from around 35 million to approximately 50 million by 1998. Powrie explains this by noting that a survey of audiences of over 500,000 for films showed that the average age of spectators had increased to over 31 years old breaking with the results of previous surveys which saw film going as primarily an entertainment for 15-24 age bracket. This provides at least a partial explanation for the success of cinema du look during the 1980s. Powrie argues that the popularity of the heritage film provides a partial explanation for the changing age profile of the audience. Clearly more research work needs to be done on this issue to get a better idea of the changing composition of the audiences. Perhaps those attracted into the cinema by cinema du look broadened their cinematic horizons? Perhaps those not impressed by cinema du look were attracted back into the cinema? In so far as heritage is strongly inter-linked with notions of national identity doubtless many were attracted to representations of the past from those who were not interested in standard Hollywood fare and had tired of the home-produced genre output. Powrie also notes that the comedy genre adapted to the heritage output as forms of pastiche. Powrie admits that this notion of ‘heritage pastiche’ is contentious however his edited work on French Cinema in the Nineties carries separate readings of Ridicule (Leconte, 1996) a costume comedy, Le Bonheur est dans le pre (Chatiliez, 1995) a postmodern Almodovarian style comedy and Les Visiteurs (Poire, 1993), which has a play on notions of medieval heritage and with 14 million viewers is the second most successful French film of all time.
Powrie contends that there is a ‘cartography’ of heritage cinema in which there are three broad categories: ‘official’ heritage; ‘postcolonial’ heritage; ‘Vichy’ heritage. Representative of official heritage is Germinal (Berri: 1993). In 1992 three films appear which can be read as mourning ‘the loss of an era, of a colonial empire, of a utopian world; the loss of France’s influence and prestige’ (Norindr, 1996:140). Films of this ilk are L’Amant, (Annaud), Indochine (Wargnier), Dien Bien Phu (Schoendorffer). The third type, ‘Vichy‘ heritage is like the ‘postcolonial’ ‘anchored in a move by historians to review the past which came to haunt the French with highly public trials of Vichy officials in the 1990s...’ (Powrie, 1999: p 6).
Heritage cinema is important in terms of constructions of cultural citizenship and is something which French cinema is having to come to terms with. The main focus of French cinema in the 1980s and 1990s became the ‘Heritage’ film in which Jack Lang promoted a policy of investment<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]--> which agrees with Powrie’s definition of ‘official’ heritage. This policy has run in parallel with promotion of the system of co-production which is considered in more detail in the chapter on UK cinema. The turn to the costume drama was seen as a way of utilising heritage to produce bigger budget films which could also gain a market share in the USA. There is a deep irony that many of the French directors who made this turn were originally an important part of the nouvelle vague which had rebelled against this sort of cultural conservatism in the late 1950s and 1960s. Chabrol is a good example, making the literary adaptation Madame Bovary (1990). This type of film was also encouraged in the moves towards co-production. Condron argues, albeit in an exaggerated way, that this strategy was by no means always successful with Berri’s version of Germinal (1993) being one of the most expensive French films ever made yet falling flat at the box-office released in direct competition to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). Condron’s description of the film is a little misleading for Germinal became a film embroiled in the GATT treaty debates of 1993 and was a key element in the argument advanced by Mitterrand for ‘the cultural exception’ meaning that countries had a right indeed a duty to resist the unregulated free market and be able to produce, distribute and exhibit representations of themselves.
Germinal a Case Study
Cousins (1999) considers the term ‘heritage cinema’ disparagingly and makes the following comment upon Germinal:
...Germinal embodies many of the Genre’s defining characteristics: a French literary classic as source material; a conscientious, though unchallenging rendering of the narrative; a carefully researched authentic period recreation; high production values with an emphasis on spectacle, an inherent sense of Frenchness conveyed through national stars and French locations; an anodyne account of French social history with an emphasis on aesthetic values rather than political content.’ (Cousins, 1999: p 35).
Cousins goes to reasonable lengths to compare Berri’s version with previous versions as well as the original Zola novel to show how the film has been produced as more of a consensus style of film moving away from Zola’s representations of an evil and polarising form of capitalism pervading the 19th century French coalfields. It is worth noting at this point that this argument is in slight contradiction to Cousins contention that ‘the heritage genre requires all but total submission to the literary source material, privileging author over film-maker especially where the writer enjoys canonical status’. Yet Berri argues that it was not a slavish adaptation and further more the subsequent critique by Cousins shows that to be the case noting that Zola was making a didactic case whilst Berri’s is merely mimetic, also arguing that Zola had a ‘multilayered account’ of conditions whilst Berri’s is ‘less resonant’. Cousins makes a convincing argument about this specific film however there is an important point to be made here that there is a danger of overworking the methodology of genre. Clearly Berri was not that strongly bound by the original text and makes a film which is less sharp edged about social polarisations at a time when Northern France including the coal mines have seen a process of de-industrialisation. Berri’s need to keep important financial backers on board may have compromised the film politically for it was at that time the most expensive French film ever made, upping the ante over Les Amants de Pont Neuf. As a film relaying concerns of national identity its significance is highlighted by the fact that Jack Lang sent free videos to all schools.
Whilst Condron has argued that the film didn’t do well compared with Jurassic Park in fact it made its production money back in just seven weeks attracting over 5 million spectators. It had been something of a ‘quasi-national’ project with a special TGV carrying Mitterrand, Jack Lang , Jacques Delors and other high profile leaders to the premiere. Jurassic Park which it was symbolically set against nevertheless outstripped the audience for Germinal by the end of the year. Cousins argues: ‘ The reasons for the relative failure of Germinal to see off the Hollywood super-production may lie in the undemanding narrative conventions of the heritage genre with its attendant self-serving ideology.’ (Cousins, 1999: 28). This mono-causal argument seems more motivated and aimed as a critique of the despised heritage industry rather than a proper evaluation of the reception and types of audiences that were attending these respective films. It is a case of comaring apples and pears: Jurassic Park was about family entertainment and about the most impressive CGI special effects ever produced at that time. Many young people would have gone to see the film twice, which seems unlikely with Germinal, a film which was bound to have appeal to an older and more sophisticated audience. It seems reasonable to argue that the film was remarkably successful in terms of overall box-office. What indicators ‘success’ is measured by is a problem of method which needs to be more fully developed in cinema studies, rather than pure box office alone. If for example longevity, long-term financial returns, cultural acceptance educational use etc were taken into account rather than immediate box-office success then a more accurate assessment of how successful a film is can be made.
What the criticism below highlights is the importance of placing a film within its cultural context of the time. Cousins is scathing about the quality of the film but notes how the context of the timing of its release not only epitomised Jack Lang’s policies of cultural renewal but became a tool of cultural politics as well. Whilst Cousins sees this as somewhat fortuitous the prevalent attitude of Hollywood in relation to its exports of films has been little changed at a strategic level since the 1920s. Given the levels of official backing the film received it might be better considered as being deliberately timed and designed to ‘coincide’ with GATT 1993. The position of Germinal was exceptional as it became catapulted into the limelight as it:
...had unintentionally crossed the boundaries of conformist domestic heritage cinema to enter the unmapped and dangerous domain if international cultural politics . In doing so Germinal became a political statement in itself and a rallying point for the embattled French film industry, thereby enjoying a critical attention which it scarcely merited either in terms of film-making or of the vacuity of its sanitised political content.’ (Cousins., 1998:p36)
Another film from this official heritage stable which involved Berri was La Reine Margot (1994) directed by Patrice Chereau. Adapted from a novel by Dumas this high budget ‘historical’ costume melodrama despite winning a Grand Jury prize and a best actress award was little more than using the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as a vehicle to follow the plotting and intrigues of a misogynistically portrayed Catherine de Medici salaciously spiced with implications of incest. It can be seen as a film which was retrogressive in relation to the sentiments of the new historicism of the 1970s and early 1980s. However it has been argued by its star Isabelle Adjani, as well as by Chereau, that the film was a reflection on the Bosnian war <!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]-->. Some critics linked the film to the ‘new violence’ wallowed in by Tarantino, arguably preceded by Besson. Powrie reflects that the film could also have been about the last years of the Mitterrand regime and the political troubles of the moment.
La Reine Margot
Whilst some of these films have been commercially successful some French critics have seen this as a sign of stagnation which is not only culturally conservative but has cut off sources of funding for emergent directors. Greene (1999) places this film in the framework of a range of films that have ‘continued to reveal a transformed vision of the national past.’<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]--> However what Greene describes as ‘the shock of the past’, in which bodies are piled up in the streets is more than balanced by the gruesomeness of the poisoning by arsenic and the sweating of the blood. These instances are less a ‘shock of the past’ than a cinema of ‘shock’, more an ‘auteurist’ trademark of Chereau if ‘Intimacy’ (2000) is a good example of his film-making. This shock empties out Greene’s impression of a ‘darkened vision of the national past’ instead promoting pure spectacle in a contemporary visit to the stock in trade genre of the heritage film.
The Role of Co-production
La Reine Margot was not only a co-production but managed to elicit money from the Eurimages fund. There has been an unfortunate tendency within European cultural funding to keep within a narrowly defined ‘heritage agenda’ whether this is about architecture or films. This amounts to a failure to come to terms with a wider vision of a future European culture, remaining anchored in a badly historicised past which has been unable to develop a notion of future based upon an examination of past mistakes. The treatment of the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre was a great disappointment as it failed to deal seriously with issues of difference in ways which might have been of relevance to today’s multi-faith and multicultural Europe.
Recent French cinema post 2000 includes co-productions with Italy, such as Morretti’s The Son’s Room (2002). This follows a tradition of co-productions with Italy in the post-war period to help resist the influx of American imports. Morretti’s film explores the effects of grief which break up a previously happy family after the son’s accidental death. Given the power of psychoanalysis within the intellectual and critical tradition in France there are certain ironies that the father is a psychoanalyst. The wife and daughter externalise their grief whilst the father broods on his. Philip Kemp reads the film’s ending as one which ‘holds out the possibility of grief fading and lives repairing themselves’ <!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]-->. Rather than the past being another country as suggested at the level of trauma a better understanding of psychoanalysis recognises that time can become frozen unless the talking cure of psychoanalysis can be taken. In that sense the film is about power control and masculinity.
Bertrand Tavernier’s Laisser-passer (2002) is a very recent historical film with a difference and could be seen as a late addition to the ‘Vichy’ heritage type of film. Based on the experience of members of the industry with whom he has collaborated in the past on other projects Tavernier has made a film which through the film industry itself and its relationship to Nazi occupation deals with issues of what is collaboration, survival and resistance which in previous well known films dealing with the period has not been handled. Reader <!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]--> notes that by dealing with very specific people who were criticised by the critics on Cahiers du Cinema as being stagnant and reactionary and involved with the derisively named Le Cinema de qualite. Reader considers that the film can be read as a defence of those earlier standards. Here the notion of standards needs to be considered as one incorporating ideological concerns not simply production standards and aesthetic considerations. The current Cahiers du Cinema didn’t treat the film kindly on its release, although many of those involved in the nouvelle vague had effectively taken up less modernist film-making by the 1980s. As a film dealing with the cultural history of French cinema it is also important and taken in the light of the 1970s historical films it appears to be dealing not only with ordinary people but opening up windows on a period of history which sits uncomfortably in the French cinema psyche as Malle’s Lacombe Lucien showed approximately 30 years.
Heritage and the Struggle Over History
The term heritage cinema seems overdue a revaluation for it can incorporate such a wide spectrum of films that its original formulation of being suspect of inherent conservatism is worthy of question. How far for example can the films of Visconti be described as ‘heritage’ cinema on the basis of this definition, yet films such la Terra Trema, The Leopard, Death in Venice which all conform to the heritage definition of canonical literary adaptations. In the case of The Leopard it entirely conforms to the argument that the spectacular is an important component of the genre and even utilises the Hollywood star system function as critiques of capitalism and modernity. Sally Potter’s Orlando from a classical literary text by Virginia Woolf that was radical in its time manages to also be radical.
History itself has been problematised yet again in recent years and those films which constitute representations of the past do allow audiences to be engaged in a discourse of re-evaluation and re-visioning of the past. This is inevitably going to be a contested one and thus ‘heritage film’ could be construed as a healthy activity which is no more inherently conservative than it is radical. There is much work to do on cinema and its relationship to history which is a necessary part of developing cultural citizenship itself.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->1 <!--[endif]--><!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]-->Condron, Anne Marie.1997, p 213.
2 <!--[endif]--><!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]-->Austin, Guy, 1996: p 168.
3 <!--[endif]--><!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]-->Greene, Naomi. 1999, p 23
4<!--[endif]--><!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]-->Kemp, Philip. ( 2002 ) Sight and Sound review March issue 3 p 56.
5<!--[endif]--><!--[if !supportFootnotes]--><!--[endif]-->Reader, Keith. ( 2002 ) Sight and Sound review November issue 11 p 50.