The broad title of Charles Drazin’s French Cinema promises a definitive overview of French film history, but the book is only half of one. Arguing that tensions over art for unprofitable art’s sake vs. commercial success have been part of France’s film industry since the beginning, Drazin provides a convincing overview of a cultural force that briefly dominated the world’s theaters, then ceded the commercial sphere to America, which repeatedly co-opted and homogenized French film’s cultural and technical innovations. Meanwhile, French film failed when trying to imitate Hollywood hits, and succeeded when it relied upon its cultural heritage.
Drazin’s overview from the 1890s up to Breathless takes up 320 pages, leaving just under 80 in which to tackle all of French film from 1959 to the present. It soon emerges why he took that approach. By and large, he has no interest in demanding, hardcore cinema, and he excludes many of the last 50 years’ most important filmmakers altogether. He would rather talk about French cinema before Jean-Luc Godard, which he does lovingly and knowledgeably. With generous extracts of translated French from relevant materials, Drazin offers concise, meaty profiles of pioneers like the admirably profit-minded businessman Charles Pathé, who proudly reflected “I did not invent the cinema, but I did industrialise it.” Where most American film histories establish The Birth Of A Nation as a key turning point for narrative film language, Drazin points out that in Paris, it was Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 sinister-Oriental-vs.-white-woman melodrama The Cheat, with its previously unseen shadowy lighting and expressionist acting, that inspired young filmmakers.
Drazin devotes equal times to thorough overviews of well-remembered milestones like The Rules Of The Game and less-discussed, once-revered directors like Julien Duvivier. But the trouble starts when he hits the New Wave. Displeased that Godard, François Truffaut, et al. lacked sufficient reverence for their predecessors, he labels them “often arbitrary dictators of taste” and posits that the New Wave’s increasing alienation of the mass audience made Americans feel like they “went to see a French film because they thought it would be important, not because they expected to enjoy it.”
The coldly unsympathetic overview of the last 50 years doesn’t even mention many big names (Arnaud Desplechin, Jean Eustache, Philippe Garrel, insert your own), which isn’t the problem: it’s that Drazin thinks pretty much everything other than Luc Besson’s blockbusters, Amélie, and middlebrow crowd-pleasers like The Crowd and Germinal are arty, audience-rejecting wastes of time. An approving citation of the Dardenne brothers (actually from Belgium) suggests Drazin is not only out of sympathy for recent foreign films in general, but out of his factual depth as well. It’s a shame he couldn’t stop while he was still in sympathy with his subject; most of his book is a thorough interview of French cinema’s art, business, and uneasy relationship with Hollywood, as authoritative as it is affectionate.