Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A few thoughts on French teen cinema

I kindly got asked to join a panel celebrating teen film, where - had I been able to attend it - I would have been asked to select and comment on one or two extracts from teen films of my choosing. The event is Behind The Screen: The Great Teen Movie Debate, at Somerset House on 10th August, and hosted by dear friends of mine. Go to it, it'll be fun. Since I can't be speaking at the event, here are some thoughts on French film that I've been going over.

I grew up in France between 1987 and 1999. This is where I was a teenager - and a crap one, but we'll come back to that - and this is where I started to love film. Being English, I had access to a wider selection of teen films if I wanted, and watched The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, Clueless. Alongside the American films that my friends and I watched, there was always the noble tradition of French cinema to deal with. Liking French cinema - liking the cinema of my country, damn it - meant liking grown-up cinema. It seemed quite clear to me from a young age, maybe 9 or 10, that French cinema was for grown-ups. The trick was to set out to like it from an early age, and finally to succeed after some hard graft, possibly ten years later. French film talked about marriages going wrong, about prostitution and the Revolution and small shop -owners. French film was not concerned - at least, as far as I understood it - with youth, or particularly with teenagers.

There are plenty of great French films about young people, from Truffaut's Les 400 Coups to Agnès Varda's Sans Toit Ni Loi, via L'effrontée by Claude Miller, as well as Eric Rohmer's 'seasons' quartet. But these films, at least as it seems to me now, are not what you would call teen films in the sense that they have a teenage perspective or modus operandi. Truffaut, out of these slightly haphazard selections, gets closest to the spirit of youth by seizing his hero right up close and capturing the brazen sort of hopelessness of childhood/adolescence. But there is always a problem in conveying the adolescent's own point of view: French film seemed to intellectualise adolescent experience, rob it of its particularity, its appeal, its banality also, by perceiving it as a mere step on the road to adulthood.

This is a problem from which British teen cinema suffers, too. American teen cinema rests on American teenagers having a degree of agency - being able to drive at 16, apparently having money - and going through a number of core institutions and rites of passage: the prom, your sweet sixteen (Sixteen Candles), detention (The Breakfast Club), bullying (Mean Girls), etc etc. There is also a tight structure reining all of this in: in American high school pupils are apparently swiftly aggregated into social groups (the jocks, the nerds, the bimbos, etc) and there is a ritualistic aspect to dating, with certain conventions regulating relations right down to sex, with the famous bases system. This means that American teen film comes almost pre-encoded with its own tropes, with its own language. British film struggles a little more to reproduce these patterns, and French film even more so, since - and I may be speaking a little personally about my own adolescence here - your teenage years, at least when I was growing up, were not considered to have any great importance, and were essentially seen as a slight blip on the step to grown-upness.

This is partly why in the 70s, 80s and 90s - even after the revolution of '68 which firmly created a new discontented generation - a firm staple of French 'youth' cinema would be the presence of a young ingenue (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vanessa Paradis, Julie Delpy) who, bored with the immaturity of her peers, discovers that, hang on, what she truly needs is the wise love of an older man. The man is often a teacher, but he could be a friend of her parents; he looks a little bedraggled, sometimes looks weirdly like the director of the film he's appearing in, and always projects an air of weary sagacity, a very sensual cynicism, which gets through finally to the passionate adult lying dormant within the girl. I said 'partly' above: the reason French teen cinema struggles is not just because it perceives adolescents as adults-in-waiting, but also because there is a problem about a rigid, patriarchal view of sexual relations, which sees young women as objects. This means that often, in a certain type of French cinema, the heroine is written as an unconvincing extension of directorial fantasy, a person who acts not from her inner impulsions but from a sort of shroud imposed upon her, which is the director's intent. Even recently, though French teen film has improved, a film such as Mia Hansen-Love's Un amour de jeunesse sees the heroine tire of childish things and take up with an older dude. This is of course a biographical extension of Hansen-Love's own relationship with Olivier Assayas, but it does betray the fact that the girl's youth is not really the object of the film, so much as her outcome as a woman.

I myself acted in French films a little, around the time I was starting to develop an interest. When I was ten, I appeared in a film called Le voleur d'enfants (The Child Thief). In it, an old man (Marcello Mastroianni) whose wife cannot conceive sets about stealing children from parks and foster homes, and adopting them as his own. A problem occurs when an old friend of his asks him to take care of his own daughter, who is troublesome. Mastroianni obliges, but the problem is, the girl (Virginie Ledoyen) is really hot, and a saucy minx! Will he be able to resist her advances? (Spoiler alert: no) Now, when I was ten and read the script for the film, bizarrely, I thought nothing of the film's undertones - a man stealing children, being tempted by a much younger woman. Hello? Alarm bells should have been ringing. Only later did I bother to look up Ledoyen's age at the time of filming: to me, being ten, she was just a much older girl, she smoked cigarettes and had breasts, that was the end of it. It turns out that she was fourteen at the time, and Mastroianni was 70-something. She had scenes where she was required to masturbate topless while calling his name.

All of this is a little by the by. The film is only a quarter-good and is largely forgotten now - but I wanted to get some of my ooginess at being involved in something so grubby off my chest. Mostly, it serves to illustrate my point that in France, this sort of conversation about childhood, about the place of adolescence, about an adult perspective on youth, was simply not happening while I was growing up. Later, I think as a somewhat prissy adolescent and a late-developer, I failed to recognise that some strands of French cinema were doing something like justice to the older adolescent perspective: André Téchiné's Les roseaux sauvages and Cedric Klapisch's Le peril jeune seem to me now to capture something true about rebellion, young crushes, sex - the sort of thing I didn't touch with a bargepole during my teen years and only later got a hell of a kick out of in my twenties.

In recent times I think French cinema has come round to the experience of adolescence more, and better: Sebastien Lifshitz's Presque Rien, Celine Sciamma's Water Lilies and this year's Cannes winner La vie d'Adèle by Abdellatif Kechiche all appear to me to engage honestly with the idea of youth, of seizing a different entity in their young heroes, of trying to get to the essence of the transformations at play - but these films are still highly stylised and intellectually rigorous works, in the mold of French auteur cinema, that do not have the stylistic partis-pris, the messy youthfulness of script and performance, the crucially self-centred perspective that we have come to regard as the hallmarks of teen film.