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French & Francophone Film: A Research Guide

Cinéma du Look

Camilo J. Vergara, photographer. Graffiti, catacombs, Paris, 2019 2019. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Francophone cinema grew from early silent film to experimentalism, then poetic realism to New Wave.

Cinéma du Look of the 1980s and 1990s was both a reaction to the New Wave's aesthetic and production methods, as well as representative of socioeconomic and cultural changes in the Francophone world, especially in France under Presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.

While New Wave films can be dialogue-heavy, demanding of audiences, and in some ways limited by low budgets, Cinéma du Look, on the other hand, is loud, bright, expensive, and stylized. It is meant to be a spectacle, in other words.

The most well-known directors of the movement include Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva, 1980; 37°2 le matin/Betty Blue, 1986), Leos Carax (Mauvais Sang/The Night is Young, 1986; Les Amants du Pont-Neuf/Lovers on the Bridge, 1991), and Luc Besson (Subway, 1985; Nikita/La Femme Nikita, 1990; Léon/The Professional, 1994).

These films are products of their time, when Europe had recovered from World War II but was rethinking the cultural, economic, and political legacies of its recovery.

The legacy of film came up for debate during the 1980s-1990s.

Another example is the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), signed in 1947. The agreement protected cultural products through strategies such as quotas on audiovisual material, meaning that a percentage of music broadcast and movies in theaters had to be French, standing in resistance to foreign--specifically, American--cultural products. During the 1993 GATT renegotiations, the French government upheld the French tradition of resisting cultural hegemony and globalization, insisting on l'exception culturelle (cultural exception). Film is not merely a "product," they argued, and must be protected so as not to be corrupted by commercial exigencies.

French film has a special role in that country's patrimony, and the French state created uniquely supportive conditions that encouraged the pursuit of film as pure art, not requiring enormous profits in order to be considered valuable. For example, after World War II, French Minister of Culture André Malraux instituted automatic subsidies for creative works.

Standards such as the above would change along with economic and social transitions.

Under President François Mitterrand (1981-1995), the Socialist government undertook several major initiatives that had far-reaching implications: Legislators raised the minimum wage, granted more paid vacation time to workers, established a 39-hour work week, and, importantly for film, ended the state's monopoly on TV and radio broadcasting.

In addition, with the introduction of private TV stations into the French market, there was suddenly pressure on companies to be profitable in order to survive in increasingly cutthroat conditions where filmmaking had become more expensive. Co-productions among TV stations such as Canal+ and TF1, or with foreign backers, was more often than not necessary.

The advent of the VCR also changed the film industry. With more potential spectators watching movies at home, this meant fewer taxes on movie tickets and thus less funding for filmmaking, creating an existential threat to the French film industry.

However, contemporary Francophone film developed as diverse voices from the Beur community and Africa began to contribute their stories, and the film world adapted, as always, to outside pressures.

The bibliography below lists films and resources covering Cinéma du Look in France.

Suggested titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.