Cahiers du cinéma no. 484; October 1994.

French Regions (old) and filmmakers

In the realm of classical music, it’s commonplace to point to Germanic supremacy and English failure. Similarly, the mediocrity of Spanish cinema strikes us in comparison to the abundance of Italian or even Portuguese cinema.

These differences are even more present at the regional level. National identity remains a somewhat hollow idea, a little too recent (under Louis-Philippe, it took three weeks to go from one end of France to another), while regional identity has always existed. Its application to artistic realm is thus valid. In the United States, its creation was a moment dominated by the Midwest (Hawks, Welles, Ray, Losey) and the South (Griffith and Vidor, and also Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, Penn Warren, even Styron and Tennessee Williams), the hurt of the defeat calling for a compensatory expression. Brazillian cinema is centred around the Northeast. Transalpine cinema is, in fact, an Emilian cinema (Bertolucci, Cottafavi, Fellini, Zurlini, Baldi, Pasolini, Antonioni, etc.), opposed to the mediocrity of Tuscan cinema, which has gone down for good, and transmitted by brilliant satellites scattered in the north and the centre of the peninsula.

The regionalization of filmic space in France is less evident since film directors have to live almost compulsorily in Paris in order to work, whereas filmmakers in the neighbouring countries are spread over many metropolises and our painters, sculptors and writers can spare themselves the race to the capital. But we often notice that residential or natal Parisianism is a form of misleading disguise. Compared to the regions, moreover, Paris today has little to offer as original material for inspiration.

We have recently witnessed the burgeoning of Aquitanian cinema, with Eustache, then Téchiné, Breillat and Kané1, with at least four constants:

Childhood. It’s very apparent in Mes petites amoureuses (Eustache), even Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus if we also include adolescence. Kané remains the French filmmaker in whose work the hero is always a child (Dora, Liberty Bell, Un jeu d’enfant). A comparable frequency in the works of Breillat (Une vraie jeune fille, 36 Fillette), and of even Téchiné (J’embrasse pas, Le Lieu du crime, Les Roseaux sauvages).

Native land, in which the filmmaker rediscovers the child he was, and not just that: we find here the commune of Pessac and its two Rosière films, Mes petites amoureuses which goes from Pessac to Narbonne to meet Le Père Noël, Biarritz (Hôtel des Amériques, 36 Fillette), the Landes (Une vraie jeune fille), the Pyrénées (J’embrasse pas), Arcachon (Un jeu d’enfant) and Téchiné’s Agenais (Souvenirs d’en France, La Matiouette, Le Lieu du crime, Les Roseaux sauvages), Téchiné being the one filmmaker who emphasizes the light and the customs of the place.

Sexuality, broached upon with a candour bordering on scandal (Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain and Une sale histoire, all of Breillat of course, J’embrasse pas, Kané nevertheless maintaining his distance, perhaps because his native Angoulême is decentred with respect to Aquitania and to the other three musketeers).

Individualism. All four prefer characters estranged from their environment, their family and the society, and produce their work at the margins, close to autobiography, in occasionally difficult solitude2. Even on the margins of the other three, despite their commonalities: there is no school whatsoever to speak of.

One must perhaps find here the focal point of a regional reorientation that has been so cruelly lacking in France and which we could envy Brazil, India, Italy or the USA for.

It should, however, be noted that there has always been a point of convergence in France. Our real National Centre of Cinematography is, quite simply, the Centre, the Limagne, the Auvergne. French cinema is, above all, a rhombus with its north vertex at Commentry and its contour passing through Vichy, going till Cunlhat, Sardent and maybe Dun-le-Palestel. This rhombus thus encompasses Gance, Pialat, Bressonn, Chabrol and also filmmakers with Auvergnese affinities like Astruc and Truffaut. In contrast to Aquitanian filmmakers, the Auvergnese tend to obscure their origins (with some exceptions: Le Beau Serge and Les Noces rouges for Chabrol, L’Enfant sauvage and L’argent de poche for Truffaut and, for Pialat, La Gueule ouverte). These directors don’t like labels, which reduce their work to a place, a message, a subject or a trend.

Outside of their exceptional qualities, the Auvergnese hardly have commonalities. Except two:

An initial attraction towards more classical arts: Bresson and Pialat were first painters (and Jean Renoir is the son of Auguste, a native of Limoges). Gance started out as a poet. Astruc – like Renoir – wrote novels. Pialat and Chabrol authored one. Chabrol read every crime novel. Not to mention the importance of writing in Truffaut.

A discordant mix of media seduction and polemical virulence (Truffaut’s and Chabrol’s incisive critiques, Astruc’s camera-stylo, Bresson’s actor-models, Pialat’s raised fist at Cannes). The two are perhaps not so contradictory: iron hand and velvet gloves.

I sometimes wonder if Auvergne’s success – Pialat extols the positive influence of lava on his work – isn’t due to the social skills of children from the Centre. To make good films, you must first be able to shoot, know to manage things, solve monetary problems, beat your competition, gather support. This Auvergnese tide can be related to the “republic of the Bougnats” that France was after De Gaulle, and sometimes even before him.

We must note the inevitable character of conflict when an Auvergnese genius tries to work with an Aquitanian one (Breillat and Pialat on Police): these are two completely different worlds, just like Brittany and Auvergne (cf: the failure of Chabrol’s Cheval d’orgeuil).

Chabrol remains the most-advantaged French filmmaker: not only does he belong to the “golden rhombus”, but he is also the son of a pharmacist, like Resnais, Rivette, Nuytten, Juliet Berto and John Wayne. It helps to have a pharmacist father in cinema because it’s a middling socio-professional category, open to all walks of life, or because direction is a sort of alchemy.

Clermont-Ferrand is thus the true capital of French cinema, more than Paris. But Paris is not deprived either: there is, in fact, an Auvergne-Île-de-France axis, founded on round trips between the two regions, on “transfers” (Truffaut, Renoir etc.).

The express train between the two cities, the Bourbonnais, is the best symbol for French cinema. There are also pure Parisians, such as Autant-Lara, Becker or Doillon. But this species tends to be rare.

The distribution across other regions turns out quite even: in general, one or two great auteurs in each one: Pagnol and Allio (Provence), Feuillade and Leenhardt (Languedoc), Straub and Rohmer (the austere Lorraine), Depardon (Lyon), Stévenin (Jura), Grémillion and Rivette (Normandy) and, for Brittany, Resnais and Demy (who will recreate a little of his Nantes in all other regions).

We see that France splits into two: the Germanophone France of the two Lorrainers (Die Marquise von O, Nicht Versöhnt and the follow-up) and the Anglicist France of men from the West (Providence, Model Shop and the quartet Shakespeare/James/Tourneur/Bronte in Rivette). On the other hand, Auvergne and Aquitaine reject anything foreign (see the failure of Chabrol’s Sang des autres, and Truffaut’s problems with the English language).

Certain Frenchmen exhibit a contempt towards their native region, preferring their region of adoption instead: the Norman Rivette is the one who has shown Paris the best. But I’m overwhelmed with emotion when, in Mon oncle d’Amérique, after thirty-five years of self-denial, Resnais finally shows us “his” island near Vannes. There is a little of that in the Straubs’ Lothringen! too.

That brings me to the black holes: Alsace (unless we accept the dull Wyler as the flag-bearer), the Pyrenees (but it’s sparsely populated), the eight departments of Pays de Loire, from Angers to Nevers, and especially Nord.

This region nevertheless has a number of ambitious filmmakers (Daquin, Duvivier especially), but they seem to be tempted by academicism. And the difficult social reality of the region has oriented them towards a lazy naturalism. I can hardly believe Gilson and Pollet to have avoided this pitfall (the latter with a contrasting country of adoption: Greece and the Mediterranean, just like how the Nordist Malle made his best fiction, Lacombe Lucien, in Aquitania), but these are, alas, interrupted bodies of work, the Nordists not possessing the media genius of the Auvergnese. The supreme insult to the Nordist filmmakers, however is that the best local films were made by an Auvergnese, Pialat moving from the volcanoes to the slagheaps with L’Enfance nue, Passe ton bac d’abord, and getting closer in La Maison des bois. Perhaps Xavier Beauvois will reverse the trend3.

The periphery occupies an increasingly large space: not just recent immigrants (Iosseliani, Ruiz – currently perhaps the two best French filmmakers – Kramer, Bral, Fuller, Santiago, Polanski, late Buñuel, Ivens, Losey and the Ophüls), but also and especially a periphery closer to home: Swiss Romandy (Godard), Corsica (Vecchiali), erstwhile French Indochina (Duras) and, on the other hand, the purest Frenchmen associated, by way of reportage, with faraway lands (Marker, Rouch and Africa). The most surprising case remains Camille de Casabianca, who has made three films, one in Asia, the second in Africa and the latest in America.

Province-Paris, foreign country-France, is French film art founded on the pleasures and pains of transfers?


1 Today we can add Nolot, the Larrieu siblings, Guiraudie.

2 Besides, of the three great filmmakers to have committed suicide, two are from the Bordeaux region: Eustache and Max Linder.

3 This was written before the arrival of Dumont and Desplechin.


[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]