This evening we went to see a lovely recent french film “L’Heure d’ete” (the title translates to english as “Summer Hours”). I was struck, as I have been before, by how enormously different is the experience of seeing a typical french film from the experience of watching a typical Hollywood movie.
Hollywood films are structured like a pop song. There’s your three verses, your chorus, your bridge, maybe a driving back beat to propel things forward, and and a big crescendo to finish things off. Before you know it the movie is over and you’re back out of the theatre. All very efficient.
French films are a different animal entirely. Stuff happens, but not in a linear progression. Rather, it’s as though you are watching the random events of life – characters having a coffee, opening a book and looking through it, light up a cigarette or wandering into an unexpected conversation. It all seems rather non-linear, leisurely in a way.
It doesn’t make any sense, until you begin to understand that if Hollywood films specialize in a kind of heroic realism, a French flick is closer to impressionism. It doesn’t so much matter what happens, as it does how the characters feel about it. The more seemingly aimless and kanoodling the plot events up there on the screen, the greater the opportunity for characters to respond to those events in surprising and revealing ways.
The French take the principle of “Plot reveals character” to an extreme limit. The little awkward pause, the off-the-cuff remark, the telltale gesture, these are the real tools of the French auteur.
Yes, this form of filmmaking places a burden upon the audience. You can’t just ride along on the surf of relentless plot. You need to catch a hesitation or an awkward embrace, or a locking of eyes between two characters in an early scene (especially if the gesture contradicts the dialog) and use these cues to reconstruct the character arc.
And that’s really the point, isn’t it? It’s not what the characters do that we really care about, it’s who they are. Americans sometimes complain that “nothing happens” in a French film. On the contrary, the screen in a french film is often practically exploding with one revelation after another. You just have to look for it.