All The More Reason

Differences between American and French cinema
July 9, 2007, 5:29 pm
Filed under: Cinema, Interesting Idea of the Week

Sometimes trying to articulate in detail stereotypes or generalisations is harder than it might first appear. It’s one thing to pick up four peaches, it’s another to try and start juggling them. For example, many a time I’ve heard someone joke about the differences between French and American humour without really nailing down any precise details. I must admit to being stumped on this one myself, apart from the fact that the French appear to be more at ease laughing at someone else’s expense, and that the art of sarcarsm must have been banished with Napoleon to the island of Elba.

Nevertheless, I will try and describe one difference between French and American cinema. For some of you, this may be so obvious as not to need mention. Upon first watching French films I can remember thinking “Where is this story going?”. All of the cues that I had learned to see in cinema were no longer there. It was at this point that one begins to understand just how tightly a story in American film is wrapped around pre–established narratives.

Here, for example, is the opening to a film called City of Angels with Meg Ryan. Within the first five minutes of the film we know the location of the movie, the main characters involved, their professions, and also whether or not we should like them or not. Meg Ryan’s character is seen riding a bike to work, and quickly demonstrates that she has a sharp eye as a doctor. Phew! This means we can root for her, and put our emotional weight in her corner without risking being betrayed. None of these actions are done in any way to slowly reveal a character.

It is the fact that the actions of characters in American cinema are largely done to reveal a general character trait which distinguishes itself from French cinema. In French films, the actions of characters reveal what they are doing at that moment and are not necessarily indicative of them always acting in this way. I guess this is a very long–winded way of saying that characters in American fims are indeed more cookie–cutter like!

Edit* These pre–established narratives can sometimes be of great service though in making a film more entertaining. Thrillers, especially, are well served by narratives known by the audience. This is where French cinema can really get bogged down in five or ten minute tangents of some minor character getting lost at the fair looking for a shoe.

Jonathan Smith


5 Comments so far
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I haven’t really seen enough films of either nationality to come to a conclusion either way on this, but would you not say that there is a certain amount of cross-pollination at play here? French cinema borrowed pretty much all of the genres that were created in Hollywood (e.g. film noir, thriller), and proceeded to ‘Frenchify’ them during the ‘nouvelle vague’ of the 1950s, employing stylistic flourishes like ‘jump cuts’ and other quirky devices. This, in turn, was quite influential on independent cinema here and in the U.S. And a lot of these things, in time, filtered through to the mainstream.

A new generation of hip French filmakers probably want to be like Quentin Tarantino, unaware that he wanted to be like Jean-Luc Godard, and that Godard wanted to be Orson Welles.

Comment by Michael P

I absolutely agree that there’s some Mendelian mixing going on here.

Comment by J.S.

Are you for real? You just exposed how woefully ignorant you are to anyone who knows anything about film in general and French cinema in particular. Why are you publishing? Do we really need you to tell us water is wet?

Comment by militanthippie

^ deuchebag

Comment by felix

I enjoyed reading this clichéd, case-in-point heavy and structurally simplistic analysis. For it was also untraditionally enlightening and it incites much thought, mon cher Americain.



Comment by Louis Planchenault

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