Artistic historical representations of French national identity have long been an important cultural element when it comes to the French cinema exploring its own sense of self. Indeed, the very core essence of art and art-house cinema has permanently been linked to French identity as a passionately vital and essential pastime. Within the French ‘heritage’ cinema, a national desire to reflect upon French history is appropriately solidified within the essential bond France holds with cinema, creating a significant hybrid genre that, on one hand, aims to creatively challenge and engage with French history in historical terms, yet on the other, must compete within a global market of mass cinema. Ginette Vincendeau states, “The popularity of heritage films rests on their ability to straddle art/auteur and mass cinema”. (Vincendeau, 2001, p.xxiii) In this essay, I will use examples of films from the French heritage cinema in order to highlight their ability to ‘straddle’ this line, while also reflecting upon the cinematic elements needed to do so. I will account for the films as a hybrid of both popular and artistic film genres, along the way, establishing their need to be so. The films highlighted are often extremely successful examples of historical personality and cultural artefact blending within a grand and dramatic portrait of France, as well as the individuals that shaped its global relevance throughout history.
The heritage film can often tackle historical representation from a wide- reaching range of time periods and styles, yet achieve the same dramatic tone of character representation. For example, an interesting film comparison to make in regard to the French heritage film can be found in the differences in style between Régis Wargnier’s Indochine (1992), and Claire Denis’s Chocolat (1988). Each film represents both the French and native struggles of colonial periods, primarily from a female viewpoint. However, Indochine handles its significant moments of French national identity under a style of beautifully composed camera work and craftsmanship. The grand scale of the picture is shaped by dramatic narrative beats and a universal story of love and sacrifice. The film relies on globally recognised stars such as Catherine Deneuve and Vincent Pérez, two desirable and well-composed actors who are never physically vulnerable within the film, yet are always emotionally exposed. Indochine represents the period from a highly nostalgic viewpoint, as a historical situation via which an interesting love story of grandiose scale may naturally grow out from and develop within. In effect, this filmic style allows the film to feel important; to feel as though this period of French history holds deep cultural significance within the identity of France today, yet also avoids looking back towards the period regretfully or with national shame. The film allows its French and global audience to explore the time period, but does not ask them to do so under a critical or analytical viewpoint; thereby creating a portal to which France may explore its history, yet within a largely nostalgic tone. Guy Austin points out, “A measure of the dominance of visual pleasures over narrative ones in the heritage genre is the privileging of the visual arts as a subject”. (Austin, 1996, p.142) Therefore, the historical spectacle and pristine visual nature of heritage films such as Indochine can often act as a constructed fetishized aspiration via which audiences can nostalgically look towards the past with wondrous desire. Austin has described this effect as ‘sentimental tourism’, bringing into question the spectator as a sightseer within the film’s frame, there to take in its visual atmosphere, yet never acknowledging its realistic practicality. This assessment corresponds to Phil Powrie’s definition of the ‘nostalgia film’, which he states, “could be defined at its simplest as an escape from reality and the attempt to return to a presupposed golden age.” (Powrie, 1997, p.13) Indeed, Guy Austin also connects this nostalgia to the film’s melodramatic style, stating, “By Choosing melodrama, Wargnier subordinates the heritage genre’s inherent nostalgia for another period and an exotic setting to a more primal desire.” (Austin, 1996 p.150)
To contrast this, Chocolat roots its notions of French identity on a much more personal and intimate level. Its direction maintains a core sense of realism and natural human sensibilities; the film’s narrative is driven much less by plot, and much more by character compared to Indochine in its visual pleasures. The film’s morally grounded (rather than spectacle oriented) long- held camera shots and greater focus on the effects of the human condition under colonial control emphasise the film’s more pragmatic approach to representing historical events. Nevertheless, Chocolat still maintains a strong sense of nostalgia via its central theme, which follows a now adult woman as she nostalgically re-treads the path of her childhood as a young French girl living in Africa during colonialism. On this, Phil Powrie, who links the film to childhood nostalgia, highlights that, “Denis’s film is presented as autobiographical, a factor which is further likely to increase the sense of nostalgia”. (Powrie, 1997, p.15) In this case, we are still presented with a ‘sentimental tourist’, only this time, within the film itself, and instead, looking towards memories as the ‘golden age’. Each film shares a cultural authority in depicting the ‘true-to-life’ situations in hand under the same genre of historical film, be that in opposing styles, and with contrasting cinematic aims. It could then be argued that the heritage film may often represent a wider ‘super- genre’ in film, being works of cinema with one consistent goal in representing the significance of important historical events under the overarching tone of nostalgia, while at the same time doing so in a range of often contrasting styles.
Being made under a mode of heritage film, the French historical film, particularly during the 1980s, has always offered something unique to the global movie market, especially when compared to British heritage films. Commenting on Britain’s relationship to heritage film, Andrew Higson writes, “Heritage films operate at very much the culturally respectable, quality end of the market, and are key players in the new British art cinema, which straddles the traditional art-house circuit and the mainstream commercial cinemas in Britain.” (Higson, 1993, p.110) British films such as Chariots of Fire (1981), A Passage to India (1985), and A Room with a View (1986) represent seemingly realistic portraits of the middle classes, often in order to sell a certain national identity of Britain and Englishness to an overseas audience. As Higson explains, “heritage films work as pastiches … the films turn away from modernity towards a traditional conservative pastoral Englishness; they turn away, too, from the high-tech aesthetics of mainstream popular cinema, however nostalgic and pastiche-like it may also be.” (Higson, 1993, p.112- 113) While some of this is true for French heritage cinema, it may often be viewed as being created more within the vein of a ‘prestige product’, often embodying wide scopes of French national identity, from the working-class peasant, to the ruling bourgeoisie, all within the same grand narrative. This, in part, may be due to the large amount of state funding French heritage films receive from government sources. This encourages filmmakers to tell stories about French history, and is a method of building particular notions of French national identity for global audiences via way of both mainstream and art- house cinema. An appropriate example of this is Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 film, Danton. Danton tells the story of Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution. The film was directed by Andrzej Wajda, a Polish director, and stars one of France’s most recognisable screen icons in Gérard Depardieu. Wajda had begun his directing career with films such as Ashes and Diamonds (1958), a well-respected film within the art-house cinema mode. Ashes and Diamonds was cheaply made, with unknown actors, and with a strong independent aesthetic, complete with location sets, many hand-held camera shots, and quickly edited moments of realistic violence. Given a bigger budget by state funding, Wajda could bring the foundations of this aesthetic to Danton, executing its tone within grander sets, extravagantly prepared period costumes, and with hundreds of extras in small acting roles. The film captures Danton as the hero of its story, yet frames him within the working class peasant culture of France. Danton is imperfect, loud, brash and often aggressive, but is strongly held within the film as a champion of French values. Danton represents French cultural and social revolution, an attack against the ruling classes, and a call to arms for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Danton highlights the ability of French heritage films to artistically and honestly confront their main characters, to champion them as great French historical figures, yet challenge their credibility as great human beings. Robert Darnton speaks of Danton and its characteristically ambiguous account of historical representation, commenting, “Wajda refuses to let history fall into a simple formula … (producing) plenty of incriminating evidence against Danton. When Danton meets Robespierre for dinner to discuss their differences he gets sloppily drunk … but the film is too ambiguous to provide a precise moral for the present.” (Darnton, 1995, p.106) The film is a key example of French heritage cinema’s devotion to capturing a balanced, yet dramatic account of history. The world of Danton is not glorified, but is often dirty, crowded, and violent. The film does not question its history or historical liability in terms of present day issues, but provides an imperfect window upon which to nostalgically look towards history as a dramatised version of accurate events, however unjust, brutal or grimy they may be. This is a French cinema not only unashamed of its past, but willing to expose its moments of historical vulnerability in a gloriously celebrated and artistically detailed fashion.
Stars stand at the forefront of the heritage film; they are the human faces and personalities that bridge the gap between commercial cinema and cultural artefact. Modern French stars such as Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve can often play to specific ideas and personalities associated with French national identity because of a pre-established relationship with popular film audiences. As already alluded to, Depardieu uses his hard-faced rebel- yet-comedic acting style to capture Georges Danton’s sense of rebellion and anti-establishment in Danton; a film that may not have been as successful or effective without the identity and public persona that only Depardieu could bring to the role. For many national/international audiences, Depardieu’s core persona created a sense of natural ‘Frenchness’ within his physical performance, as Ginette Vincendeau suggests, “Depardieu’s screen persona is rooted in a symbolic social national identity … this image can move out of its class context and be exported as simply ‘French’ across his body and face.” (Vincendeau, 2000, p.232) Depardieu embodies the sensibilities of Danton by relying on his large body frame, his loud brash voice, and his entertaining personality to capture a sense of wonder towards the character. Depardieu does not only realistically bring Danton to life with reliable period acting, but creates a watchable rounded character, filled with the human flaws and character traits of Depardieu himself. He embodies the character in such a way that personally and politically connects Danton as a relatable figure of modern France. Vincendeau, again, states, “Depardieu turned out to be perfect for the heritage genre … the larger-then-life aspect of his persona fits roles which are about frame, display and acting – in short, about stardom. (Vincendeau, 2000, p.231) An actor of unconventional looks and an eccentric film presence, Depardieu does not travel back in time to capture Danton as an important historical artefact held at arm’s-length, but loudly imposes the audience from the film’s opening, highlighting Danton, not as a character in a history book, or as a heroic statue in the centre of Paris, but as a living breathing human being. This is history not only being studied for its educational and social importance, but being humanised by modern personalities, while, at the same time, becoming dramatized and familiarised for its commercial film audience.
A crucial component in accounting for the hybridity of the heritage genre is the auteur, the ways in which they may choose to challenge or reinvigorate the conventions of tone, style or storytelling when creating films about the past. Earlier, it was mentioned that the heritage film could often provide commercial film audiences with a nostalgic viewpoint of which to safely view the past vicariously through popular stars. To bridge the gap with art-house cinema, this window of nostalgia can be created and presented within a wide range of creative and artistic methods. An example of this comes from Éric Rohmer’s 2001 film, The Lady and the Duke. In the film, Rohmer sets a traditional and romantic telling of the French Revolution within the foreground of painted and digitally altered sets. These sets are not meant to appear real or realistic, but are symbolic gestures towards the romanticising of the period’s style. Many of the wide exterior shots in the film are interactive, for example, on a busy Paris road, as horse carriages move in and around the film’s superimposed setting, people disappear and reappear within the film’s frame. James F. Austin discusses the effect on the audience from these film techniques, stating, “The effect is curiously ‘real/not-real’: ‘not-real’ because the decors look (like) paintings. But ‘real’ because it looks like the eighteenth century familiar to us from paintings and period engravings” (Austin, 2004, p.287) In this, audiences are faced with a cinematic dilemma in questioning their own individual perceptions on the period as both very real, yet very fabricated by art and art’s representation of history, just as the heritage film itself creates the same effect on the ways in which we engage with a perceived history from a modern point of view. Rohmer challenges style to suit the nostalgic viewpoint associated with heritage cinema. Likewise, as Rohmer with The Lady and the Duke challenges film style, heritage films also artistically benefit from an auteur willing to challenge historical narrative. Take Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010), in which director Joann Sfar creates a largely fictionalised portrait of Serge Gainsbourg from a fantastical perspective. The film is a capturing of a certain star persona found within Gainsbourg, yet not an accurate account of his life itself. However, the film still works with history and recent historical events to create a cinematic portrait of a French identity. The film uses visual symbolism, such as sequences of Gainsbourg impossibly flying through the cityscapes of Paris, or interacting with his own physical alter ego to express an artistic account of history, one that is largely unrealistic, but nevertheless brought visually to life via representation and the attempted capturing of a personality, rather than a historical figure. These techniques allow both The Lady and the Duke and Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life to feel largely traditional; to feel aesthetically pleasing for commercial audiences, yet to not cross the line into experimental cinema, but carefully tread two contrasting film styles to create a film that feels like a realistically crafted portrait of a period, only an artistically constructed version, and from within an auteur’s personal vision.
In all examples given, each filmmaker is faced with the artistic challenge of visually representing French history, yet the heritage film works to interrogate not just the accuracy of historical episodes, but our perception of them, resulting in a mismatch of conflicting audience pre-conceptions that are ultimately united within the filmmaker’s choice of style, tone, and artistic vision. Using style, stars and the innovation of auteurs, the French heritage film has built a strong reputation as a fluid genre, one that is able to recount history, acting as an important cultural artefact. In the heritage film, we account for history through an artist’s telling of it, just as we have done within poetry, painting, and music for hundreds of years. History is rarely ever separated from an individual’s point-of-view, so therefore, is rarely ever separated from art itself. Because of heritage film’s ability to find similarities in central themes like nostalgia and ‘sentimental tourism’, while also being able to communicate these concepts from a wide array of contrasting tones and styles, the genre can truly be classed as a hybrid, a ‘super-genre’ of many contributing aspects of both history and cinema, all suitably blending within and around each other.
Austin, G. (1996) Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Austin, J. (2004) “Digitizing Frenchness in 2001: On a ‘Historic’ Moment in the French Cinema”, in French Cultural Studies, Vol.15, No.3, October 2004.
Darnton, R (1995) “Danton”, in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Mark C. Carnes (ed.), New York: Henry Holt.
Higson, A. (1993) Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism, Lester D. Friedman (ed.), London: UCL.
Powrie, P. (1997) French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Vincendeau, G. (2001) Film, Literature, Heritage: A Sight & Sound Reader, London: BFI.
Vincendeau, G. (2000) Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, London: Continuum.