Eric and the Cinema du Look
After the $2 Modern Noir wall we featured in August, my idea for a Vengeance wall came off as a bit too dark, so I started brainstorming for something lighter. Since Luc Besson ( THE PROFESSIONAL, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, LA FEMME NIKITA) has a new action flick coming out this month, I came up with the French New New Wave, or "cinema du look," but it's taking me a bit of time to accrue enough titles. You can look forward to it sometime in the upcoming months.
Cinema Du Look, as a movement, started with DIVA in 1981, by Jean-Jacques Beineix. Just as the original French New Wave movement of the 60's was a break from conventional standards (François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and company used techniques like extended tracking shots and improvised dialog to move beyond the norms of cinema), DIVA announced the arrival of Cinema Du Look as a break from once groundbreaking methods that had become institutionalized in the 1970s. It was, in a word: slick.
DIVA was more concerned with the sights and sounds connected to its story than with the story itself. Everything comes off well glossed -- the women beautiful, the men rogues, both colorful (watch for a mohawked Dominique Pinon, star of DELICATESSEN). It delights in a wrecked Rolls Royce and a beautiful seascape, lavishes music over the film, and makes no apologies for advertising martinis and Coca Cola. It's the blueprint for an entire movement that, at its worst, can come off a crass commercialism and soulless materialism... but at its best, Cinema Du Look is a highly evolved form of Pop Art, a celluloid and light descendant of Warhol's rendering of a Campbell's soup can.
Though Beineix also has BETTY BLUE (1986) to his name, and Carax's THE LOVERS ON A BRIDGE (1991) is an important entry, it's hard to reference the French New New Wave without rushing headlong into Luc Besson. SUBWAY (1985) has always been my benchmark for the Cinema Du Look: a pre-Highlander Christopher Lambert, a thief on the run from ambiguous villains, descends into subterranean France and wanders through pockets of surreal subcultures he finds living in the subways. I read once that the impetus of the film was simply Besson's idea of his character in a tunnel, wearing tuxedo, navigating by a fluorescent floodlight... which isn't difficult to believe. The film itself is a collection of these shots and instances, a collection of colored and oddball moments that somehow concludes simultaneously in a both a shooting and a very-1985 concert in the subway terminal.
Snobbery can dismiss this kind of thing outright-- it's difficult to argue the merit of a film like SUBWAY, of the Cinema Du Look, or even Besson himself, who has been called "The Jerry Bruckheimer of France." The easiest way to dismiss this is to do an A/B comparison of Besson's LA FEMME NIKITA and the Hollywood remake, POINT OF NO RETURN. Though the two follow the same storyline, one is a by-the-numbers action picture, and the other is a Besson entry into Cinema Du Look. John Badham (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, SHORT CIRCUIT) made a film about a female assassin, and missed the point of the film he was remaking: the Besson original was much like SUBWAY: a long journey through odd characters, sights, and sounds that start to accumulate into something surreal.
With THE PROFESSIONAL and THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Besson became an English-language director, and if arguments can be made for the films being more linear and character-driven, the same films can be argued as solid entries into the Cinema Du Look. The candy-colored FIFTH ELEMENT, complete with a diva performance and MC'd radio programs, is obvious enough, but the Cinema Du Look is still apparent in THE PROFESSIONAL's villain, who goes on a killing spree to the Beethoven he hears in his head, or the rooftop "learning to shoot" scene.
The influence of the movement is fairly widespread, from the frenetic style-over-substance of RUN LOLA RUN (which embodies everything critics hate about the Cinema Du Look) to the slick ecstasy-fueled hallucinations and musical, slow-mo disrobings of GO, the hallmarks of the New New Wave are still being used.
Strangely enough, for a movement that some consider to be commercial or empty, its influence only seems to appear in independent or non-traditional pictures. While the standard Hollywood fare tends to feature pretty stars, fashionable clothes, expensive cars, and luxurious dwellings, most of them are severely lacking in any sense of style (rent a recent Reese Witherspoon comedy or action film with Nicholas Cage to see what I mean). By comparison, 2002's CHERISH (in our Comedy section, starring O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU's Tim Blake Nelson), steeped in the French New New Wave, with its fantasy-prone female lead and obsession with pop music, bristles with personality and feels like an exciting break from the norm.