French Film Festival 2017 and the cultural-political divide (Part 1)

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French riot police in front of a burning refugee shelter in Calais, France, 2016 (image via @independent.co.uk).

The French Film Festival's depiction of a compassionate and egalitarian France is a far cry from the cultural-political interface, writes Dr Evan Jones.

WE CAN BE thankful that the French Film Festival (FFF) motors on, year after year.

A correspondent advises me that the equivalent has died a brutal death in Toronto. He surmises that this is a cultural reflection of the increasing political marginalisation of the Francophonie in Canada.

We can be thankful for the sheer scale of output of the French industry. The industry recovered and flourished after World War II when, in spite of U.S. pressure, the government representing Hollywood, screening rationing was reinstalled and, in 1948, a ticket tax was established to subsidise the domestic industry. Brilliant! So there is always much to choose from.

The FFF here we go again

The programme for 2017 has recently been posted. It’s not a programme that I would write home about — it has a certain, je ne sais quoi, déjà vu temperament.

It’s the same old religion, albeit there are compensating gems. This year, Tavernier’s A Journey Through French Cinema appears to be the standout — all 190 minutes of it. This is self-congratulation writ large but Tavernier’s status gives it legitimacy. There is a Dardenne brothers offering — La Fille Inconnue (The Unknown Girl). The Dardenne films are always hard-edged — post-industrial struggling Belgium has been their bread and butter.

I have unconventional preferences. Perhaps I share them with others, but we haven’t been surveyed.

I am allergic to rom coms. I’m not too partial to historical fashion parades, for which French history has copious raw material. I would rather watch relatively unknown actors than celebrities — especially the unpleasant Gérard Depardieu (he’s there again, from whatever tax-evading bolthole he resides in).

There’s the staple fare – manufactured love triangles, family crises, relationship sturm und drang – that gives a hard edge to the froth and bubble.

But one’s jaded spirit must be kept buoyant with the "heartwarming" factor as in this year’s offerings:

  • Médecin de Campagne (country doctor) “heartwarming”, which will leave you with a “joie de vivre”.
  • Le Fils de Jean (a kid, Canadian): “this heartwarming story”.
  • L’Avenir (things to come): “this gorgeous, heartcradling drama”.
  • Mal de Pierres (from the land of the moon): 'An intoxicating story of romance that will ignite yearning in the coldest of hearts … '
  • Réparer les Vivants (heal the living): 'Festival audiences will have their own hearts beating with intensity and anticipation as they experience this critically lauded ode to the fragility of life, love, death and everything in between.'

Quite. And we leave the cinema duly heart-warmed to death.

And this one:

  • La Vache (one man and his cow): “This is a joyous road-movie of an Algerian and his cow that paints a heart-warming portrait of a France that is caring and compassionate."

What? A France that is caring and compassionate? My arse.

France behind the FFF’s big screen

France’s refugee policy is de facto isolationist. Those who unofficially seek to help refugees are prosecuted by the authorities. 

Just recently, a farmer living near the French-Italian border has been fined €3,000 for caring for stateless minors. 

A blogger on the non-mainstream site Mediapart claims:

'His is an example of responsibility, in the face of those irresponsible responsibles. Of humanity, against the inhumanity of the public authorities. Of solidarity, in a country where solidarity is a criminal offence.'

At the same time, France has contributed to the European refugee crisis by its bipartisan amoral foreign policy — not least Sarkozy’s key role in the destruction of the stabilising Gaddafi regime, Hollande’s military and diplomatic forays into Africa and the Middle East, and the craven kowtowing to the terrorist-financing states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the arms exports factor).

The gendarmerie perennially harasses people without provocation (contrôle au faciès) or presumes people guilty (délit de faciès) by virtue of their appearance, despite popular efforts to eradicate this practice. Romani communities are treated with disdain by local authorities. The Parti Socialiste Government has established a semi-permanent state of emergency, whose dominant manifestation has been to repress political dissent rather than to quell terrorist attacks.

More generally, the French welfare state, predominantly established post-1945 (motivated by the Conseil national de la Résistance) is being steadily dismantled on a bipartisan basis.

A France that is caring and compassionate? I don’t think so.

FFF showing warts and all?

I’d like to see more "warts and all" France in FFF offerings, especially in the domains of politics and economics. I don’t just want escapes from reality; I want to be educated and cinema is an exceedingly powerful educator.

The FFF does give us occasional exposures to bigger and/or darker pictures. In 2007, we were offered Chabrol’s L’Ivresse du pouvoir(the intoxication of power), Chabrol’s antepenultimate film before he slipped his mortal coil.

Still, that was ten years ago. Corruption in politics continues apace at all levels, exemplified in the Sarkozy presidency, for which sins that little grafter has since been facing a multitude of prosecutions.

We have recently been exposed to the unseemly spectacle of accusations that the wife of presidential candidate François Fillon (AKA Thatcher plus the Church) has been the recipient of considerable income for several jobs for which she performed no, or token, work.

Ah, les emplois fictifs — a recurring theme of French political life. Vide Jacques Chirac, future prime minister and president, when mayor of Paris. It’s like a guaranteed minimum income for the well-connected. Chichikov, our hero in Gogol’s Dead Souls, appears to be their patron saint.

The FFF gave us Tavernier’s Quai D’Orsayin 2014, on the labyrinth that is foreign policy determination. Not deep, but better than nothing. French political flicks Une Affaire d’État and L’affaire Farewell, both 2009, and L’Exercice de l’État, 2011, apparently went missing. In 2016, the FFF gave us “the small screen on the big screen” — samples of series being shown on French television. The series included political (Baron Noir, Le Bureau des légendes) and criminal (The Last Panthers), skullduggery and a weepie leveraging the German Occupation (un village français). Better than more rom coms, but still ...

There are occasional offerings on the social conflict/social policy front, but economic themes are rare indeed. Les Anarchistes, shown at FFF 2016, is representative — a potentially politically powerful theme provides a thin backdrop for both angst over a man’s conscience and the essential "love" interest. Give me the 2008 Louise-Michel film, named after a genuine anarchist, any day.

Last year’s showing of La Loi du Marché (the law of the market) was an exception. Excellent stuff. No happy ending, but that’s life outside the big screen, the popcorn and the choc-tops.

The French economy is now in semi-permanent crisis. The economy has never recovered from the GFC. The Parti Socialiste President François Hollande has perennially claimed that his highest priority is the inversion of the unemployment rate. During his five-year presidency, formal unemployment has hovered in the range of 9 to 11 per cent, with no reasonable expectation of it falling. Economic growth, as conventionally measured and kowtowed to, is permanently near zero. Hollande has thrown billions of euros at the employing class, swayed by trickle-down snake oil advisers, only to enrich the recipients.

The workforce has been increasingly casualised, in spite of the establishment’s (joined by the anglosphere’s) endless denunciation of labour market “rigidity”. As elsewhere, permanent jobs (CDI) are giving way to short-term contracts (CDD). Work life is subject to greater stress, exemplified in the hysterically managerialist postal service, where suicides are a regular occurrence and management has relentlessly carried on oblivious to the carnage.

As well, France has been subject to ongoing deindustrialisation. France has its own “rust belt” in the north, where the long-term cessation of mining and dismantling of the clothing/textile sector has left a permanent hole in regional income generation and viability. But deindustrialisation is more widespread, sectorally and regionally.

In short, Brizé’s powerful La Loi du Marché is a documentary thinly disguised as fiction.

Dr Evan Jones is a retired political economist. Dr Jones' critique of the French Film Festival continues tomorrow.

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