I used to be way smarter

Discuss cinéma du looks’ exploration of notions of the real.

By Georgia Clark, July 2002.

The culture of fantasy and the spectacular in art forms had always been a potent device to explore concepts of the real, and the films of the cinéma du look – mainstream, popular, pastiche-based reworkings of the urban thriller emerging from France in the 1980s – are no exception. These films from the “neo-baroque wonder boys” [Bassan 1989: 45] of Luc Besson, Leos Carax and Jean-Jacques Beineix both frustrated and delighted audience and critics alike, [the films having varying success with both audiences], and attempted to create a new cinematic language in and for a “designer- and- consumer- led” society [Haywood 1993: 223]. As supposedly a “vacuous hyper-realist” art form [Powrie 1997: 121], the films represent the changes capitalism and consumerism were making on both the visual language of society and individual’s ability to ‘read’ that language, and are important in as much as there attempt to represent a changing ‘real’ relevant for a changing generation. I will be exploring how the new had changed in relation to the avant guarde of the nouvelle vague, what that new real was, and how it emerged as a product of its time both culturally and politically. I will then discuss how the tension between reality and fantasy became aesthetic [style], narrative and plot, and look at how genre was reworked in accordance with cinéma du looks ideology. I will also comment briefly on the feminist implications of the cinéma du look.

All art forms are in one way or another a response to the socio-political climate from which they are produced. By exploring the cultural milieu of France in the 1980s, we can gain an insight into the social framework that produced this somewhat controversial cinema art.

Traditionally, French cinema’s concerns, both in a theoretical and practical sense, was the revelation of some kind of Truth, and is often conceived as a cinema of psychological realism [Powrie 1997: 82]. Cinéma du look was a movement that existed as both a legacy and a rejection of its history. If we compare it in brush strokes to the nouvelle vague of the late 50s and 1960s, another movement that produced ‘new’ cinema, we gain insights into its characteristics and how it existed as a product of its time. Consequently, we can also examine why it caused such controversy and induced such a bitter attack from critics such as the writers of Cahiers du Cinema and the critical establishments in France and even moreso in Britain. [Austin 1996: 119]

Like the nouvelle vague, cinéma du look was a movement of young male auteur directors[1] ; it examined form and style; it was a new type of cinema concerned with youth; it expressed the concerns of individuals on the outer of society. However, unlike the nouvelle vague, look cinema was ahistorical in terms of the major political issues of the time. While the anti-bourgeois films of the nouvelle vague critiqued the consumer boom, middle class values, the war in Algeria and the sanctity of the nucleur family, the primary social concerns of the 1980s – unemployment, racism, Aids, sexism, drug addiction, nucleur politics and France’s international role in the Middle East are invisible, not only in cinéma du look but the majority of popular 1980s films [Haywood 1993: 249]. In this way, it is possible to see how this lack of history places cinéma du look as a part of the general apoliticised mood prevailing in France in the 1980s. [Haywood 1993: 285]. But why was there this mood? And how was a political engagement thus replaced?

“What’s wrong with the way cinema functions is a symptom of things that are wrong with society” Olivier Assayas.

One of the most common descriptions of cinéma du look is that it was purely “surface based”, or as Haywood puts it “narcissus come of age”, a cinema that was “obsessed with and dependant on the image” [Haywood 1993: 247]. Cinéma du look developed as a trajectory of post modern culture as defined by writers such as Jameson and Baudrillard, the image as simulacrum, and reliant on pastiche, parody, intertextuality and irony [Powrie 1997: 78]. It was distrustful of grand narratives including Marxism[2] [which was seen to have “failed” post May 68] and religion[3], and was openly populist and pleasure orientated. As Beineix declared at Cannes in 1983, he “couldn’t give a shit about truth, and wanted to create a cinema of the Image which would at last correspond to the exploding of morality and dogma” [Powrie 1997: 81]. As a result, cinéma du look frustrated the old guarde of French cinema, as it was an expression of a different and changing generation, a generation similarly distrustful of politics and grand narratives[4]. Haywood points to the “centring” of politics in film in the 80s as response to the centring of politics itself – when the Left came into power in 1981 it did so on a platform of social reforms, but in the next few years the Left was instituting policies that did little to distinguish in from the Right. [Haywood 1993: 232]. The real world was an untrustworthy one and the ‘real’ of the cinéma du look was duly such. In Beineix’s films, the real world – the world outside the outsider characters is “a fallen one”, populated by vicious criminals, corrupt police [Diva], exploitative landlords, uncaring doctors-cum-murders [37,2 le Matin], brutal strongmen [Roselyn et Les Lions], poverty stricken drunks and rapists [La Lune dans le Caniveau]. Attitudes to realism are similarly antipathetic – “the degree to which Beineix is committed to a pursuit of the mythical over the real … is not in doubt” [Russell 1998: 44]. Thus the fact that the films lacked a political context and embraced a relatively ambivalent attitude to realism defined them as part of their culture as much as the earlier more politically engaged realist films did.

But it is the changes that were occurring culturally that gives us the most insight into the new ‘real’ of the cinéma du look. The visual style of the cinéma du look was clearly one of its defining features. The films embraced a similar aesthetic to that of advertising with an emphasis on beauty and colour, and a disregard for narrative. The perfect, eye catching cinematography of the clean and stylishness Besson, the unusual hallucinogenic cinematic poetry of Beineix and the excessive, extreme energy of Carax all broke with French cinema’s habitual realism. Cinéma du look expressed not just the changing style of French cinema but the changing mentality and accepted reality that the prominence of “low culture” and advances in technology had on the changing generation. It is not just that the younger generation growing up in the eighties and nineties merely ‘like’ music videos, television, advertising, as a result of American cultural imperialism and the popularity of television, it plays a major role in forming our visual, emotional and temporal psyches. Television is more than a reference point, it is a cultural drug. We, like cinema, are products of our society. This is one explanation of the popularity of cinéma du look, to the relative befuddlement of the critical establishment. Fast-paced, kinetic, a stimulating visual overload, the films mirrored the extremes of the rapid cut technicolour world France was becoming, and the Western world currently is[5]. Thus, Image as subject.

The films also represented the growing prevalence of pleasure as a desired goal. In being popular, cinéma du look films were inevitable linked with consumerism – people must want to see [and pay for] the films. Consumerism experienced a boom long before cinéma du look but was fast becoming the basis of contemporary society, and had pleasure at its psychological root. Of course the ‘pleasure’ of consumerism is a thinly veiled exercise in somewhat mindless capitalism, but this does not change the idea that consuming is meant to be fun, an enjoyable past time that one is not forced to undertake through guilt or fear, such as the basis of social organisations of the past, ie. religion. Young people were similarly beginning to form social communities around pleasure, such as the expansion in fan based and popular culture[6]. Visual culture [including drug culture] became associated with sensory experiences – images lulling spectators into almost hallucinogenic states – in order to create desire and specifically pleasure. For example the extended ‘mood’ pieces in Besson’s extremely popular film Le Grand Bleu – not a function of plot, but used in order to evoke in the viewer the dreamy, peaceful nature of the ocean. These non-narrative scenes are reminiscent of video clips, an art form that has similar ties to consumerism in that in is an advertisement for music. It is interesting to note that consumerism and video/music clips have a similar sort of narrative structure – they both rely on cyclic behaviour, short, repeatable, almost forgettable experiences that provide instant gratification in an ahistorical context. Film narrative also incorporated aspects of the clip, in the form of elliptical and rapid montage. [Powrie 1997: 82]. One author describes Carax’s Les Amants du Pont Neuf as being “a delirious and lyrical form of non-narrative consisting of cascading and overlapping poetic conceits, explosions of feeling and pure sensation” [Rosenbaum 1994: 15]. Compared to the deliberately shocking and visually disturbing nature of say, Godard’s Weekend, or the “measured” pace of Ackermans’ Je, Tu, Il, Elle, films whose images were intended to challenge viewers more cerebrally, and deconstruct and expose bourgeois film making practices, cinéma du look embraced pleasure, style and fantasy. Cinema as a conscious act of pleasurable escapism is indeed celebrated in Besson’s Léon. Léon, with a rare grin on his face, indulges in a Gene Kelly musical love story – a film so obviously different from his life [the usual prerequisite for a film to be ‘escapist’]. The scene is not an element of plot, but merely a small and sweet validation of how films can exist as pleasure for people, especially perhaps, lonely people of a limited lifestyle like Léon.

The film makers of cinéma du look was thus not merely using an advertising mis-en-scene or quoting from a commercial aesthetic, they were making films in and about this new visual language.

Not only did the films represent a changing visual culture in their aesthetics, this tension between reality and fantasy became subject matter as well, a rich area for discussion of the discourses of escapism through idealism [Beineix] and a way by which to self referentially explore the limitations of their own style [Carax]. Beineix was also interested in creating this new real aesthetically.

The films of the cinéma du look were interested in defining a new sense of the ‘real’, a real/ity that was more true to the increasingly ‘fake’ reality that an omnipresent consumerism created – the promised, perfect reality of the world of advertising. An examination of Beineix’s approach to lighting reveals how this ideological concern manifested itself aesthetically in the cinematography of his films.

Modern French cinematography is said to be distinguished by its use of and skill with natural light; “There are certain similarities in the visual style of the modern French cinema and that of the French impressionists. Both share a respect for the natural world, which is manifested in an attempt to capture the moment rather than recreate it in a studio” [Russell 1989: 44]. Thus this use of natural light is a result of the social realist concerns of French cinema – the desire to present what ‘really’ is – Raoul Coutard is quoted – “Daylight captures the real living texture of the face of the look of a man…” [Coutard, cited Russell 1989: 45].

What is striking about Beineix’s films, and indeed a fundamental aspect of creating the spectacular look of look cinema is the proliferation of artificial light instead of daylight, which is often completely filtered out. The living spaces in Diva [Jules warehouse, Gorodish’s flat] either have no windows or are often seen at night, lit by eerie blue light. In 37,2 le Matin, the film moves towards more and more daylight set ups as we progress closer and closer towards Betty’s death – a character who does not live in the real world [of daylight]. Why this choice of lighting? It is the daylight of our new pseudo-realities. The daylight of shopping centres, commercials, television shows. He uses the daylight in which the images of our culture, and by extension through escapism and identification, we as audience, live and breathe. Beineix is explicit in his reasoning – the children of today are bought up amid this light. [Russell 1989: 45]. Through this embrace of artificiality[7], Beineix has created a new ‘real’, one that is more attuned to the visual culture of the image.

The use of fantasy is further critically analysed in Carax’s third film Les Amants du Pont Neuf. The film takes as its subject matter homelessness in Paris, and through this juxtaposition with an excessive and spectacular fantasy, reveals the limitation and indulgence of the fantasy element of cinéma du look.

After opening with a signature expression of cinéma du look – a fast moving shot through neon blue tunnel- the film begins with confronting images of homeless people in a shelter in Paris. This montage of images is shot hand held, increasing our ability to read this as ‘real homelessness’, which in fact it is. This opening is a neat juxtaposition of Carax’s filmic interest – the effect of placing stark social realism in the vein of fanciful and visually arresting fantasy. No other films of the cinéma du look explores such confronting subject matter and consequently the playful, often apolitical nature of fantasy is bought into question. The excessive fantasy sequences, such as when the two lovers Michéle and Alex, race through the Seine on a speedboat to an operatic soundtrack as thousands of fireworks explode almost maniacally around them, is matched in its excessiveness to very real, squalid conditions that homelessness entails. In one particularly expressionistic sequence, this fascinating juxtaposition is neatlly shown as Michele and Alex lie drunk and incapacitated amidst enormous wine bottles and cigarette ends. The fantasy elements reminds us of a children’s story – Jack and the Beanstalk perhaps – but this is clearly no child’s play.

Thus we see how Carax uses the fantasy element of cinéma du look quite cleverly highlight its’ own indulgence and his social realist concerns.

The tension between idealism and reality are played out further in Beineix’s second film Le Lune dans le Caniveau, an explicit exploration of how a culture of consumerism is distinctly and unrealistically escapist. A stevedore Gerard [Gerard Depardieu] is haunted by the brutal rape and murder of his sister in the violent docks where he lives and works. Longing for escape from his life in the slums he meets the beautiful and mysterious Loretta Channing [Natasha Kinksi], a “rich girl slumming it” and her brother Newton. Although Gerard marries Loretta in a dreamlike marriage sequence, eventually he returns to his familiar working class life.

The idea of what lies beyond the lowly stevedore’s experience – the idealism represented by Loretta – is more explicitly played out and integrated into the narrative than in most cinéma du look films. The figure of Loretta resembles his lost sister, a woman of purity in a white dress, indeed in one dream sequence he uncovers the figure of Loretta dead on a hospital bed. Loretta becomes a physical embodiment of his lost sister, and given the unlikelihood of their pairing given the class difference, it is easy to see how Gerard has had a part in creating and mythologising the mysterious figure of Loretta – the boundary between reality and fantasy is blurred. Loretta herself is the “embodiment of spectacle”, explicitly framed as an advertisement for another life. [Austin 1996: 121]. In her shiny red sportscar, beneath the billboard encouraging the spectator to “Try Another World” she is the commodity through which Gerard [and humanity] seeks its salvation. But it is a failed and even ridiculous search. After the wedding, which takes place in a magical fairy tale like cathedral high above the sea, Gerard finds the wedding ring is broken and only plastic. It is revealed that Newton has similarly married one of the drunk women from the bar, evidently as a cruel joke, indicating Loretta’s motives may be mere maliciousness. We may seek the perfect in cinema, we may dream of another, better real, but is it attainable? Gerard wishes to escape his class position through Loretta/idealism, but as the film makes clear, this escapism is in fact, an impossible dream – perhaps the escapism we crave is only as good as our next television commercial … or movie ticket.

Thus the films of the cinéma du look critically engage with the creation of a new ‘real’, articulating it aesthetically while exploring its limitations.

The majority of cinéma du look films fall loosely into the genre of the polar film – the urban police thriller popular in mainstream cinema at the time. Here, as in most police/authority genres such as film noir, Truth is associated with modernist ideas of Law and Order. However it is through this said looseness and the ironic reworking of this genre, that the films’ expresses subversive ideas about Truth and consequently, the real. This is specifically the case with Besson’s Subway[8].

While the film is set up as a polar/Hollywood action narrative – a fantastic car chase, a man on the run, documents stolen etc. – over the course of the film, the narrative convention is deconstructed. Firstly, the nature of the documents that Fred stole, that Helena is so keen to get back, is never revealed. Besson disposes with this convention of plot – it becomes unimportant, but effectively also makes the whole chase seem rather pointless. We don’t know, and thus don’t really care if the documents are recovered or not. The desperation of the police seems silly, and we are far more on the side of the laconic, individualist Fred. There is no Truth, like in the scene in Diva where the two thugs trash Jule’s apartment talking of the need for ‘order’, irony rules supreme.

Authority figures themselves are represented as either as simple, stupid and ineffective – the very serious police pair are comically named Batman and Robin and are consistently incapable of capturing Fred [it is a hitman of Hélena’s husband who finally shoots him] – or as corrupt and on the brink of violence – the Superintendent. Law and Order is turned on its head. The State is in disorder.

Powrie talks of Subway having a double rejection of the Law; “both as social structure within the thriller narrative (what the criminals try to circumvent), and as the regulatory mechanism of the genre (the rules of the polar)”. We see the latter enacted further in the films conclusion, where Fred magically rediscovers his lost singing voice, instead of following the rules of the genre and dying, as the marginalised hero must. It is ironic and amusing!] too that this happens while the band sings “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” – heightening the mythical nature of the resurrection.

In Subway Besson manages to simultaneously mock the conventions of the polar and the State, and heighten our realisation of our dependence on them as an audience, consequently irreverently rework notions of Truth and the real.

“There are no innocent pleasures” [Diva ]

As a feminist, I feel compelled to acknowledge the possible and important feminist analysis of the construction of women in the films of cinéma du look as part of a history of misogyny of French cinema – the prevalence of women as object, and subject of the male gaze. A film like Besson’s Nikita shows us explicitly the fantasy of the construction/control of woman by placing in dichotomy and as a progression, the image of woman as untamed and animal like – a ‘creature’ to be feared, a ‘creature’ on the edge – to a woman trained, tamed and feminine, now controlled by the State/Man. “[T]he supreme male fantasy is fulfilled. Woman becomes gun [ie. phallus]. The dream of Narcissus is complete.” [Haywood 1993: 293]. Likewise in Beineix’s La Lune Dans le Caniveau, in a patriarchal context the discourses of pleasure and spectacle result in misogynistic open slather . Gratuitous nudity, eroticised and normalised violence against women and even necrophilia are played out as women are represented as jealous, nagging, erratic, sex crazed and ultimately self sacrificing. Beineix here has about as much feminist cred as Arnold Schwazeneggar. I did not undertake this study in this essay, but it has been explored by critics like Haywood and Smith. Suffice to say, the culture of consumerism and fantasy that cinéma du look engages with is very much a patriarchal one.

The films of the cinéma du look were the complex, spectacular expression of a disaffected but aesthetically driven younger French generation. In a post-68, politically regressive age, with advertising images saturating the visual culture and four decades of psychological realism before it, post modernism, playful, ironic disillusionment, the desire for pleasure in cinema and American cultural imperialism gave birth to this controversial chapter of French cinema history. It showed the real as non-static and always changing, as technology, politics and culture changes around us, revealing to us the aesthetic and political nature of the mis-en-scene of the 80s. It is both its triumph and its downfall that cinéma du look was a movement whose notion of real was simultaneously defined by and a response to what it attempted to critique – essentially both a cultural response to and an artifact of capitalist, pleasure-orientated, surface-based consumerism.

[1] While Agnes Varda was a part of the nouvelle vague, the movement was predominantly male.

[2] The characters in cinema du look films are predominantly individualist, doing what they have to survive, in an uncaring society devoid of community. Examples include Fred in Subway, Betty and Zorg in 37,2 le matin and Michéle and Alex in Les Amants du Pont Neuf.

[3] For example how religion is associated with mass production in La Lune Dans Le Caniveau. Or how in Diva it is Jules’ Nagra recorder, object/pleasure, that is passionately protected as “sacred”.

[4] It should be acknowledged that style was not the only thing that caused controversy, for example, elements of the cinema du looks’ misogyny are also bought into question.

[5] A good example of the natural extension of this type of cinema in a current context may be the films of Baz Luhrmann – post modern pastiche-based homage’s to popular culture.

[6] The immense popularity of fan culture around fantasy based television shows such as Star Trek, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and X-Files.

[7] Similarly, Moulin Rouge was shot entirely on sound stages with no natural light used at all.

[8] However the main characters of Diva, La Lune dans Le Caniveau, 37. 2 le Main, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf are all also positioned on the outer of dominant power structures.


About Georgia

I'm a young adult novelist with a weakness for hot nerds and cheese platters, not necessarily in that order. I am currently working on my third novel. I'm pretty excited about having just turned 30 because it means I can justify spending a lot of time thinking about homewares.
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