A Crash Course In...
Cinema du Look

David Parkinson 6th December 2013

Leon: The Director

With Jean-Jacques Beineix's cult classic Betty Blue newly released on DVD and Blu-ray, we turn the spotlight on the French film movement Cinéma du Look.

Cinéma du Look? Sounds a bit Franglas.

The term was coined by French critic Raphaël Bassan in an article entitled 'Trois néo-baroques français' in the May 1989 issue of La Revue du Cinéma, which described a certain tendency in contemporary French film that sought to break with the 'chronic naturalism' that had prevailed since Poetic Realism emerged in the 1930s.

Bassan applauded the way in which three directors in particular had switched focus away from bourgeois families in the suburbs and provincial workers to highlight the alienation of urban youth.

Who comprised this unholy trinity?

The oldest was Jean-Jacques Beineix, who had been an assistant to René Clément and Claude Berri and worked in advertising before turning to features. Having written screenplays as a teenager, Luc Besson assisted lesser lights like Claude Faraldo and Patrick Grandperret before also graduating from commercials.

Leos Carax followed the nouvelle vague path of learning from screenings at the Cinémathèque Française and writing for the journal Cahiers du Cinéma before making his first short while still in his early twenties.

Betty Blue 10868 6 1

What were their key films?

Beineix got the ball rolling with Diva (1981), which won four Césars and was hailed as 'the first French postmodernist film'. However, he was slated by the critics for The Moon in the Gutter (1983), which even star Gérard Depardieu dismissed as 'a thriller preoccupied with its own navel'.

Meanwhile, Besson made his feature bow with the post-nuclear parable Le Dernier Combat (1983), while Carax also went down the monochrome route with Boy Meets Girl (1984), an anti-drama stuffed with autobiographical detail and allusions to other films.

As Besson scored an international hit with Subway (1985) and Carax reinforced his auteur reputation with Mauvais Sang (1986), Beineix bounced back with Betty Blue (1986), a tale of doomed love that became a cult arthouse success across Europe.

Roselyne and the Lions (1989) and IP5 (1992) were less enthusiastically received than Besson's crime duo of Nikita (1990) and Léon (1994), which revived his fortunes after the aquatic odyssey Le Grand Bleu (1988) drew the same mixed reception accorded Carax's Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1991), which was then the most expensive French film ever made.

Not universally popular, then?

Cinéma du look caused something of a critical rift, with mainstream magazines like Premiere championing Besson and Beineix for bringing some glamour, vigour and escapism back to French film, while highbrow publications like Cahiers and Positif hailed Carax as the new Jean-Luc Godard and denounced Beineix and Besson for pandering to populism.

Ironically, all three frequently contrasted high and low culture in their pictures and there was more than a little parochial snobbery involved in Cahiers lauding its vieux garçon.

What about the accusations of prioritising style over substance?

This is the usual charge levelled against cinéma du look, as it took its inspiration from television, pop videos, commercials, comic strips and the Hollywood blockbuster. Moreover, it depended more on a mastery of technology than a linking ideology.

But the features had a filmic intelligence that atoned for their lack of socio-political commitment, narrative complexity and psychological depth. What's more, they harked back to the 1930s with their reliance on studio realism and married cinéma du papa's attention to the mise-en-scène with the nouvelle vague's penchant for hommage, intertextuality and generic game playing.

Thus, Besson, Carax and Beineix strove to bring a little New Hollywood elegance and energy to the typically Gallic preoccupation with the real and the ideal.

Nikita

Was it just a boys club?

No, Caroline Roboh's Clémentine Tango (1982) and Virginie Thévenet's La Nuit Porte Jarretelles (1985) are often linked to cinéma du look, but they were coolly received by domestic critics and barely seen abroad.

What's cinéma du look's legacy?

Although Quentin Tarantino borrowed the gimmick of littering pictures with pop cultural references (and his brand has been much imitated in American mainstream and independent movies and beyond), the biggest impact has been at home.

In particular, it revived interest in the fantasy cinema associated with George Méliès, Jean Cocteau and Georges Franju and not only inspired the likes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen (1991) & Amélie (2001)), but also the diverse subversives gathered under the New French Extremity banner, who answered Besson's call for a greater emphasis on genre rather than auteur film-making.

The primary beneficiary has been the prolific Besson himself, who has fashioned a veritable 'cinéma du Luc' on each side of the Atlantic, as writer, director and producer, and his latest, The Family, is currently on general release in the UK.

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