Foreign cinema, these days, is no longer about big-name directors and acknowledged classics. And thank Dieu for that
I was invited to the Alliance Française of Madras, recently, to inaugurate a five-day French film festival that comprised showings of Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's “Poulet aux prunes” (“Chicken With Plums”), Cédric Kahn's “Une vie meilleure” (“A Better Life”), David and Stéphane Foenkinos' “La Délicatesse” (“Delicacy”), Gérald Hustache-Mathieu's “Poupoupidou” (“Nobody Else But You”) and Maïwenn's “Polisse” (“Police”). I was impressed by both the list of films and the fairly large audience that had gathered before them, and I was reminded of a time before DVDs and downloads, when I was part of such gatherings, desperate to watch good prints of foreign films other than “Goodbye Emmanuelle”, which was thus described by the venerable New York Times: “The background... is made up of lush, lazy pictures of the islands in the Indian Ocean; the foreground is made up of bodies, some of them positively acrobatic.” (To no one's surprise, it was a big hit at the local VHS rental store.)
But at the time that I used to frequent these screenings, the emphasis was on “the classics”, which meant films from the usual suspects such as Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, and so forth. I'm not complaining. Had it not been for the kindness of the strangers who procured prints and booked theatres and informed people such as me through newspaper announcements, I might never have developed a taste for foreign cinema. But for too long, the canon was all we knew and celebrated, and today, it's wonderful that a French film festival can be organised with not a single Nouvelle Vague feature in sight. (Fifty years from now, will anyone but critics remember who the original luminaries of the New Wave were?) But how, you ask, will those seeing these newer films ever know about the golden age of foreign cinema, namely the works of Bergman and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut? Why, from DVDs and downloads, of course.
Now that we have access to so much more cinema, there's so much to discover even within the timeframe of the Nouvelle Vague — say, the works of Louis Malle, whose “Murmur of the Heart” I watched a few weeks ago. The film is about a boy diagnosed with the titular condition, but it's nowhere as mournful as it sounds. The film begins with the boy horsing around with his brothers, and it is this playful quality that pervades the frames — until the boy sleeps with his mother. I know this sounds scandalous and shocking, but watch the film and the words that spring up are “loving” and “lyrical”. “Murmur of the Heart” isn't like “Lolita”, where the inappropriate affair is presented like a sickness, an obsession. (This is not to put down the book or the film. I love them both, especially the book.) The tone here is so non-judgmental, it's as if the director were saying: “Well, this happened, as things sometimes do. Let's move on.”
This is the same nonjudgmental tone we find in Almodóvar's films, where so-called perversions of human nature are presented with bottomless empathy. We may not want to be in the same room as some of these characters, but — for the duration of these films — we get a humanistic glimpse of how someone else lives life. That's a hallmark of European cinema, especially French cinema, and that's something that was too easily forgotten when the focus was only on the narrative novelties of the Nouvelle Vague. It's important to remember that there were other directors making films with stories and characters capable of attracting even those who possess little patience for experimental cinema.
The five films at this French festival were — like “Murmur of the Heart” — small in stature but large at heart. Too often, foreign cinema is treated like some sort of penance, a puzzle to be solved in order to be deemed a cinephile, and these festivals tell us that their movies too are as accessible as ours. It's just that they come with a lot less spoon-feeding.