Representation and Resistance of the Provinces in Contemporary Cinema

Stéphane Pillet
University of Puerto Rico

On May 6, 2007, “change” was promised by the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who won with 53% of the votes. With a historical participation rate of 84 %, the French people expressed an unambiguous desire for radical change. In connection with this crucial event and a much touted new era for France, this article examines the social and political content of French films since 1995. It follows Susan Hayward’s assumption that “filmic narrative can be perceived as a reflection of a nation” (9) and, in part, Andrew Higson’s approach to culture and cinema:

A particular national cinema inserts itself alongside other cultural practices, […] and draws on the existing cultural histories and cultural traditions of the producing nation, reformulating them in cinematic terms. (62)

The purpose of this article is therefore to investigate how a broad range of post-1995 French films represent the French state of mind in different regions and socio-economic milieus. In my analyses of various French interests, fears, beliefs, and world-views, I suggest a possible reason for the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy.

To provide some relevant background we need to go back to the 1980s when heritage movies were the dominant French genre. Appreciation for this genre was not accidental. Since the 1980’s, the defining features of French national identity have been called into question. It is currently argued that France is in decline because of the European Union, immigration, the supremacy of the U. S., and globalization. Facing these threats, many French fear the loss of French culture and decline in living standards.

To counter these fears, many commemorations were organized during the 80s and 90s, such as the bicentennial of the French Revolution or the commemoration of Clovis’ baptism. To use the words of Proust and De Gaulle, the objective was to “remember things past” and to celebrate “a certain idea of France.”1 It is not surprising therefore that the past represented in heritage movies is an idealized vision of French people with common roots and a common destiny. The films in question are Danton, La Révolution française, Le Hussard sur le toit, and above allGerminal which was backed by the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang.2 The premiere of the movie was government sponsored, and Lang sent free copies to schools as a form of national education.3

Like Germinal, most of these movies take place in the 19th century, in other words when the notion of France as a nation was formed, or had their stories written during that period by canonic and popular writers, such as Alexandre Dumas for La Reine Margot, Balzac for Le Colonel Chabert, Flaubert for Madame Bovary, and Edmond Rostand for Cyrano de Bergerac. These historical and literary-based productions did not disappear in 1995, but now they are usually made for television. In 1997, it was Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir, followed by the subsequent mini-series: in 1998, Le Comte de Monte-Christo, in 1999 Balzac, in 2000 Les Misérables, and in 2002 Napoléon. If these official heritage movies aimed to reaffirm French identity in troubled times, it is important to mention that recent movies for cinema introduce a more problematic version of French history. Veils of lies and manipulated facts to make history noble are denounced in Un Long dimanche de fiancailles and Un Héros très discret. The myth created by De Gaulle that all French were part of the resistance has come under suspicion. Recently, French collaboration and lack of heroism can be freely expressed in films. The most recent movie Indigènes even shows that some of the true heroes were the colonized North Africans, and not the French.4

One should also mention the heritage movies nostalgic for vanished ways of life and happier times, such as the Pagnol movies, Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources, La Gloire de mon père, and Le Château de ma mère. The appeal of these films lies in their connections to memory and to an idealized and, in many ways, stereotyped representation of the past. They devote a great amount of time to the landscape and easy life in villages before the industrialization and modernization that took place during the Thirty Glorious Years (1945-1975), which ironically may have put a definitive end to the glory of France. Even more ironic is the fact that these movies take place in the 1930s during yet another period of French identity crises. France was facing political and economic crises and was uncertain about its future. People were leaving the countryside and their deplorable living conditions. Most did not have water, electricity or central heating, and they settled in cities where living conditions were not much better because of overpopulation and high unemployment (Bowles, 74). The South of France was then considered the most depressed and backward place in France. It is interesting to note that the movies supported by the government in the 1930’s to celebrate French history, identity and traditional way of life were Danton, 14 juillet, La Marseillaise, and of course the Pagnol movies with the happy villagers, who can only lose their soul if they venture into cities. On the other hand, movies such as Le Jour se lève were censured in 1939 for being too depressing (Bowles, 65).

What has changed, however, is that the countryside is nowadays favored by French people. 79% of city-dwellers and 94% of those in the country consider that life in the countryside is more agreeable than life in cities (Hervieu 20, 140). Few people consider moving to Paris, and many Parisians are dreaming of leaving the capital. If the countryside is not paradise, it is still the place of family roots for the vast majority of the French. It is the place where one visits family during week-ends, vacations, or for an event: birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and so on. The provinces are therefore a source of identity.

Searching for true identity in provinces is the theme of many so-called feel-good movies, such as L’Équipier in which Camille, a Parisian woman, comes back to Brittany to sell the family home and learn about her family history during the 1960s. In the end, as expected, the traditional family symbol, the house, will not be sold. Its sale to a Parisian couple is canceled. In the same vein, Le Passager de l’été is the story of Pierre, a Parisian searching for his past, this time in the Cotentin. The beginning and the end, as in most movies about the provinces, show us an aerial view of the region. The story brings us back to 1950 during the industrialization of France, when using horses in the fields or milking the cows by hand became dying practices. Pierre will only find tombs, the house where he was conceived, and an old picture showing the father he never knew.

In Les Enfants du marais, whose title immediately links the identity of the characters to their surroundings, Cri-Cri recalls the life of her grand-father, Pépé la Rainette. This time, the flash-back brings us to 1918, just after World War I. Pépé, a rich bourgeois, tries to find his roots and regain his happiness in the marshland, where he grew-up as a poor boy, and which nowadays has been replaced by a supermarket. In the end, he dies in the place where he belongs, next to the marshland which does not exist anymore except in the memory of a ninety-year-old woman. What seems to have disappeared from every memory is that living in a marshland was at the time most likely living in an unhealthy, humid house without water and electricity, which was why so many people left the countryside.

In any case, dying or being buried in the provincial place of origin seems to be what most people wish.5 For example, De Gaulle is buried in Colombey-les-deux-églises, and Mittérand is buried in Jarnac. Chirac is also very attached to the village Sainte-Féréole where he visits the grave of his parents on All Saints’ Day. This attachment to the land of origin, this feeling of belonging to the place of their ancestors, and this desire to be buried where one truly belongs are also represented in recent movies, such as Adieu, and Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train. I am tempted to call them neo-heritage movies. The particularity is that they are not about national heritage, but personal heritage. Furthermore, this reduction to the individual is connected to new social movies.

One should not, of course, be deceived. The countryside is an origin for French Families. But it also represents an imaginary place for which a past has been recreated; or, as Bertrand Hervieu puts it, “a place of restored archaisms to make it ‘authentic.’ It is therefore a reconstruction in the real, to recover what previous generations had left” (11).

Certainly, the perception is that the countryside has been able to conserve a traditional way of life, which is considered an asset in a world of uncertainty. There is nostalgia for a lost world. In this need to find traditional landmarks and points of reference, there is a reactivation of old stereotypes regarding the provinces, the countryside, and nature. It is an idealized refuge far from European modernization and globalization. It is a dream to go back to la douce France. This longing for an easy lifestyle of a mythical France is illustrated inL’Auberge espagnole. Xavier, who must learn Spanish to have a post in European affairs with the Ministry of Economy, is wondering how things got so complicated and what happened to the green pastures and all the animals, when life was so much simpler, just as in the children’s book series, Martine. Xavier complains:

I don’t know why the world has become such a mess. I don’t know if it’s compulsory that the world become like that. Everything is complicated, badly-made, untidy. Before there were fields with cows and chickens. Everything was much easier. Before we had a direct contact with things. In the world of Martine, we had animals. We ate what we grew. We made our clothes, our house. In the farm, the life was simple for Martine. Sometimes I wonder why we have left the world of Martine. It’s horrible, no?

Since 1995, however, new movie directors from the different French Provinces have filmed in their regions, waking people up from their dreams, breaking the utopia of a romantic life in the country, and showing from the inside all the problems their region faces.

Tradition, for example, is not necessarily a good thing in the North. More than sixty percent of the Northerners think that this notion belongs to the past (Hervieu 59).6 Considering all the changes that their industries have suffered for a century, from the closing of the mines to the slow pace of the harbor economy in Dunkerque, Dieppe and Boulogne, one can understand why they are dreaming for something new to happen. 75% percent of the French population would not consider moving to the depressing North. The countryside evokes loneliness for 59% percent of the Northerners, and death for forty-three percent of them (Hervieu 61).

More than anywhere else, they also consider that the countryside is for agricultural activities, not a place to admire and enjoy. Bruno Dumont is one of the directors from the North who makes movies in this part of France. His film La Vie de Jésus takes place in Bailleul, a small town in northern France where he was raised and continues to reside. His actors are also locally recruited. La vie de Jesus expresses the mood of many Northerners. It shows tranquil rural scenes where the loudest noises come from insects and birds. If these sounds are perceived as pastoral in Pagnol’s movies, they are used here to express the literal emptiness of the images, and the figurative emptiness of the characters’ lives. As Peter Baxter writes, “the world of La vie de Jésus is portrayed as an empty, hollowed-out wasteland” (72). Delphine Bénézet notes that “the landscape consists of the space where Freddy’s boredom, his rage, as well as his hopelessness are set loose” (168). The sound of Freddy’s moped may fill the fields, but not his life. Too deeply rooted in this desolate place due to the closing of factories, Freddy is stuck in a region devoid of economic and social vitality. If one’s place of residence is not just a backdrop, but a source of identity, then his life is just as empty and meaningless as that place.

The opposite problem of being too firmly rooted in a place is to be dislocated. In heritage movies such as the Pagnol’s, it is striking to see that there are no real outsiders. As the relation of the characters to their place of origin is of central significance, no room is left for people who do not belong to the community; they are simply excluded. Yet they exist, and are represented in contemporary cinema. But in the narration, as in real life, they remain “foreign bodies,” and are often rejected by the local population. In La Vie de Jesus, on France’s national holiday, the only Arab family in town was forced to leave a restaurant or stay and hear the racist insults hurled by the musicians, who had just played the national anthem,La Marseillaise.

For this family, the assimilation model lauded by the French Republic, or any kind of affiliation with the land will always be out of reach. They will never become “les enfants de la patrie.”

Even French natives cannot easily move from one place to another, especially if they are from Paris. In Bienvenue au gîte, a couple decided to leave Paris to run a Bed and Breakfast in the South of France. However, the wife did not leave behind her Parisian working style. She organized a medieval fair, which was very successful. But by doing so, she put too much pressure on the villagers, who strongly resented it. Her place was not among them, and she had to leave.

In Ressources humaines, the son of a worker who went to a business school in Paris returns to his native Normandy for an internship in a factory where his father has been employed as a worker for thirty years. But because of his education in Paris, he had lost touch with the way people there lived and thought. At the end of the film, one of his friends asked him if he knew where he belonged. Obviously, it was not in Normandy.

Violence des échanges en milieu tempéré is similar. Philippe Seigner, a provincial native, was an ambitious young executive at a management consulting firm in Paris. His first assignment was to audit a company outside of Paris with the hidden purpose of downsizing it. Again, this auditing from Paris to downsize a profitable company in order to reduce cost and make it an even more attractive sell to a foreign corporation was not received well among the employees.

These movies show that a strong identification to a region combined with a sense of separation among various regions strongly persists;7 therefore, they reveal that the myth of a national homogeneous France as imagined in Paris is just that: a myth. The influence of Paris is often felt with resentment. But resentment is even greater when it comes to the European Union. For many, the European Union is not an opportunity. While it may be at best an opportunity for the economic development of France, it is felt as an unwelcome challenge by its regions. Many filmmakers focus on their region as a way of not only preserving a certain identity, and a certain way of life, but also and above all, as a way of expressing disenchantment against an abstract, national France and European Union.

Regarding the EU, one of the main sources of disagreement is about the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), as it directly affects the farmers and therefore the beloved landscape of France. It is not surprising. “Nos campagnes” have a central position in the national anthem. From its landscape painters to its culinary tradition, France’s image of itself is rooted in the land.  Its gastronomy is regionally based and emerges from the varied local produce of different terroirs8

Clearly, this aspect of French identity would not exist without « les sillons » or the plowed fields also mentioned in La Marseillaise, and the farmers who plow them. The French people would never imagine the countryside without their presence. Pride in agricultural self-sufficiency, with the farmer as a folk hero, is strong. De Gaulle once said: “a country that cannot feed itself is not a great country”. Self-sufficiency allows geopolitical independence and also a landscape vastly appreciated by the French. In La Vie de Jésus, watching a well-tended field, Marie declares that “it is beautiful!” In Ça commence aujourd’hui taking place in the North, Daniel Lefebvre, a teacher and school principal, goes to the fields to forget his problems at work and reenergize himself. In Western, which takes place in Brittany, the background is often composed of pastoral landscapes occupied by cows, giving it an aspect of serenity. What would the French countryside be if it lost its bucolic look? Such concerns are widespread. Xavier Beulin of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA), a farmers union, asks “If you take the cows out of the massif central, who would go there to visit?” In fact, the 2003 CAP reform stresses farmers’ roles as rural park-keepers, not hardy producers.9 And is it not the quaint farms as much as the rugged landscape that tourists in search of authenticity want to see? Upland farmers are now counting on the tourists to survive. In Le Papillon, set in the Vercours region of the Alps, a farmer declares that soon, in order to be in his profession, one will need to go to a hotel management school. In other words, they will have to run a Bed and Breakfast. That step is taken in Une Hirondelle a fait le printemps. Sandrine, who just started to run a goat farm in the same region, decides to conjointly open a B & B. It is this activity that secures her financial stability.

Of course, the rural myth is mostly believed by those who do not work the fields, and not all farmers want to take part in such tourism. The vice-president of the FNSEA, Jean-Paul Bastian makes it clear: “We want French agriculture to be about production, not just about turning us into caretakers of the land.”10 The farmers do not see the land as a beautiful landscape to admire but as a working place. In fact, they do not define themselves through their regional location, but through their profession (Hervieu 79, 89). This position is represented in Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël. While taking place in Provence, the movie breaks with the usual stereotypes: no aerial views of olives trees and lavenders fields, no sound of cicadas, no accents. The director, Sandrine Veysset, is inspired by the memories of her childhood; there is no nostalgia of an easy and enjoyable life in an idyllic surrounding. The work in the fields is demanding and certainly the farmers would have no energy or time left to take care of tourists. In any case, no one would visit them because there is nothing special to see. They grow potatoes, lettuce, and tomatoes; in other words, products that can be grown anywhere. After all, it is the rural life and work that is important, not that it takes place in a particular region.11 As Veysset declares “it is true that the film takes place in the South, which is evoked by a few names, but it could be anywhere else…” (qtd. in Grandena 117).

The difficulty of the work is well recognized in every rural part of France, which comprises 4/5 of all its territory. Very few people consider becoming farmers, and their numbers are declining. There are 550,000 farmers, a quarter of the number in 1950. They represent 4% of the workforce and farming represents a 3% share of the GDP. A large portion of the net income comes from the CAP which is around 45% of the European budget. French farmers are the largest beneficiary; they are also the biggest overall producers of cereals, sugar beets, cattle, and poultry in Europe. But with CAP reforms and with the EU members having recently doubled, farmers worry about their share of the CAP. Without it, estimates suggest that France would lose between 1/3 and 2/3 of its farms. Given the bleak outlook in agriculture, the remaining farmers represent an endangered species. This is certainly the message of the Trilogy Profils Paysans by Raymond Depardon. The documentary is a portrait of the last farmers in the rural areas of Lozère, Ardèche and Haute-Loire: a vanishing world presented without stereotype or nostalgia. In an interview, Depardon, a son a farmers from Saône-et-Loire, said that the idea of the project started when “[he] returned to rural France, and discovered that the small farms which had passed from generation to generation were close to disappearing. Even [his] brother was selling the family farm.”12 The directors wants to capture in film the last farmers, and this objective is well illustrated in the passage in which he films two old women. One of them asks, “why do you film me?” Her friend simply answers, “because you are here.” Depardon says that he “films people who live in another world, and who have become a minority. After years of looking for locations, it is in the medium mountains that he found the most isolated people.”13

It is a vanishing world because very few young people want to be farmers and move to the deserted upland French Regions. During a discussion with Marcel Privat, a still active eighty-year-old shepherd who has not been able to find anyone to take over his farm, Depardon asks with false ingenuousness that it must be nice and healthy to work outside all the time. This view clearly irritated the old farmer:“You say it now, but if you had to do it even for two years, you would not say so afterward, sir! It is nice for the one who watches it. Lots of people are telling me that. But when one has to do it, there are no young people coming forward.” The few ones accepting the challenge and all the debts accompanying this career are usually already in the region and become farmers because there is not much else to do.

Indeed, 65% of the French people would never consider moving to the Massif Central or the “pleine campagne” (Hervieu 53). They prefer living in provincial cities, which assure socio-economic opportunities and a modern life-style. In fact, many high-tech companies are in these cities, such as Lilles, Nantes, Grenoble, and of course Toulouse. Their inhabitants are no longer farmers but employees or workers. Contemporary film makers have noticed the shift; many films have workers as central characters, and take place in every corner of France. Certainly, workers have always been on screen since 1895. But over the century, the image of working in a factory has changed. It is no longer the one depicted in Chaplin’sModern Times. As working conditions have dramatically improved, working in a factory is no longer perceived as alienating but as a way to become integrated in society and have a balanced life.

In La Vie de Jésus for example, Freddy thinks about moving to Lilles to find a job, but never leaves. In the end, he lies down in a field waiting to be incarcerated for the murder of a young Arab. On the other hand, La Vie rêvée des anges, which takes place in Lilles, presents the opposite. It relates the trajectory of two unemployed young women. While Marie will take a self-destructive path, Isabelle will find inner peace in her new factory work. Isabelle, like many other characters in similar movies, feels that as a worker she has a role in society. She becomes a responsible and happy citizen. In Zonca’s next movie, Le petit voleur, the rebellious Esse decides to quit his job in a local bakery to live a free life. After a brief stint in the dangerous underground world in Marseilles, he finally decides to go back to work as a baker in a supermarket. His new boss tells him that he is a good worker and that he will live a rewarding life. After going through Hell, Esse is redeemed through work. Their professional activities do not just reward them economically, but also and more importantly spiritually. The successful characters are the ones who are not alienated because they have a job.14

In contemporary movies, blue collar workers and low-ranking employees do not have lower intelligence and uncivilized behavior. As a result, they can rise socially or interact with people from a higher socio-economic background. In Trois-Huitfor example, Pierre is a blue collar worker married to Carole, an executive in the hotel industry. She started as a receptionist, but was able to move up in the hierarchy. In turn, Pierre acquired a home, a decent standard of living, and the taste of people belonging to a higher social class.15 In Selon Matthieu, workers and managers share some social activities during which their professional ranks are almost unperceived.

Nevertheless, new problems develop. With a shrinking working class, two things happen: a rise in individualism, and as a counter effect, a loss of collective solidarity among workers. This is illustrated in Selon Matthieu, Matthieu’s father is fired after 25 years in the company for smoking a cigarette during work. The reactions of his two sons, who also work at the same company, differ widely. Matthieu’s brother, Eric, just got married and bought a house. With a new family and mortgage, he cannot afford to back his father and complain to the management. Matthieu, who complains, will not get the support of his co-workers either because most of them have temporary contracts and risk being fired at any time. Matthieu, who wants the managers to reconsider their decision, is therefore perceived by his father, his brother, and his co-workers as a reckless and irresponsible trouble-maker.

The lack of solidarity for, or involvement with, other co-workers is also apparent in La Ville est tranquille and Drôle de Felix. Taking place in Marseilles and Dieppe respectively, both movies start with the firing of the main characters due to the slowdown of the maritime industry, and their refusing to fight with their co-workers for their jobs. But it is director Guédiguian who most regrets the disappearance of a worker identity. All his movies since 1995 have focused on this topic. In Marius et Jeannette, he tries to create a newly knit community based on family and neighbors in Marseilles, which is reminiscent of the Pagnol trilogy, Marius, Fanny and César.

In Philippe Le Guay’s Trois-huit, Pierre is building his own house and plans to work on the terrace over a week-end. His co-workers offer help, but such an offer seems unusual. As they take a break, the two oldest workers of the group nostalgically evoke this lost solidarity:

That’s what solidarity is. Before, people were helping each other, they stuck together, they were fighting against the boss; they were fighting for something. Now you fight to not lose your job. With young people today, it is every man for himself.

That this statement takes place next to a single family home being built is revealing. Just like Matthieu’s brother, Eric, Pierre wants a place he can own and call home for his family. Finding a place to live is another recurrent theme in French movies over the last ten years. In La Vie rêvée des anges, finding a place to stay was vital for Isabelle, and central to the plot in Les Apprentis. Without a place, it is hard to find a stable job, and without a job things can go wrong very quickly. Going back to the social context of these films, this fear of homelessness is great in French society and is taken very seriously by politicians. A recent poll indicates that 48% of French people think that they can become homeless one day. This fear rises to 62% among the general public between the ages of thirty-five and forty-nine, and 74% for the blue-collar workers in that same age group. Among the general population, only 17% think that being homeless will never happen to them.16 Losing a job, debts, and mortgages are the main factors that could make them become homeless. Acquiring a home symbolizes both social and financial success, but also entails financial dependency. Therefore, even upper-middle class families, who often have significant mortgages and a comfortable standard of living, feel threatened.

Many movies address this angst. In L’Emploi du temps, whose setting is a French town next to Geneva, Vincent is a married man, a father of three, who was recently fired from his middle-management job. Unable to tell his family, he starts living a life of lies until his father finds him a job to regain his identity, and his normal family life. This movie is loosely based on the story of Jean-Claude Romand, who on January 9th, 1993, killed his wife, two children, and both his parents after lying about his life and identity for 20 years. That story is related inL’Adversaire more faithfully; but the originality of the director, Laurent Cantet, is to change the narration to make it closer to contemporary anxieties. Losing a job and social status is a real fear for many people. The black comedy, Le Couperet is a similar film where the hero, Bruno Davert is a chemist for a paper mill in a French Town next to Belgium who loses his job. After two years, he is still jobless with two children to support and a mortgage. He gets the idea of killing any unemployed chemists in his field who would be his competitors for potential jobs. In Le Couperet, besides maybe the main character, there is no villain. All the characters, including the top chemist manager in his former factory, are just trying to get by in an economic system that has gotten out of control and has become too difficult for people to deal with, due to globalization, the larger Europe, and outsourcing.

In the documentary, Coûte que coûte there are no bad people either, only the struggle to maintain a company functioning in an ultra-competitive world. It is a chronicle of an inevitable downfall. Claire Simon films a French small company from Saint-Laurent-du-Var selling prepared food to local supermarkets. The quality of the products is good, and everyone from the manager to the simple employee does more than his share to keep the company running. However, all their effort and their heroic resistance are in vain; the company goes bankrupt. It must be noted that Coûte que coûte is not necessarily a lefty movie; after all the six people working in it wanted to succeed in the capitalist system. Rather, it underscores that the rules of the game have become unfair.

Certainly, this frustration was expressed with the French “No” to the European constitution referendum. It is important to realize that it was not a left-wing or right-wing rejection, or even a class issue. Only 52% of executives and professionals voted yes. Both the socialist party and UMP encouraged the French people to adopt the constitution. The No came from people of different socio-economic backgrounds who rejected, by the same token, political alignment.17 They had the opportunity to express their discontent and they did so in large numbers. In fact, 73% of the French people think that voting is the most important way to influence decisions at the political level. Although, French people are perceived by outsiders to be always on strike or demonstrating, most French people agree that doing so is costly and ineffective. Of course, demonstrations and strikes still occur.18 Chris Marker’s Chats perchés shows footage of the different protests that occurred between 2000 and 2004. But these demonstrations are very different from the ones shown in his movie Le Fond de l’air est rouge. It is no longer May 1968. Nowadays, the protesters do not propose an agenda based on the utopian dreams of a new world; there are no calls to revolution.

The 1996 documentary Reprise, based on La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder, clearly shows that a disconnection with 1968 has occurred. La Reprise aux usines is a ten-minute film shot on June 10, 1968 by students from the Parisian film school, IDHEC. They recorded the end of the strike at the Wonder Factory in Saint-Ouen, during which a young woman worker refused to go back to work. After director Hervé le Roux saw a photograph of her in the Cahiers du Cinéma he began a long search for this “heroine,” a search that charts the changes in radical French politics over the past 30 years. Reprise is a long series of interviews lasting 3 hours. It offers a re-evaluation of the tumultuous and by now mythical events of May, 1968, and their aftermath. So, in 1995, Roux sought to interview participants of the ’68 events.  However, the first reaction of those interviewed was skepticism. Roux wrote that “When we set up contacts with everyone in summer, 1995, explaining our intentions, most people including the unionists asked, ‘We would like to contribute, but who would ever be interested in these old stories?’”19 Those who were at the resumption thought that this past belonged to another time, another world with no connection to the present one. Roux says that the documentary “describes a vanished world: large industrial companies in left-wing suburbs, a kind of company culture, a sense of belonging that has disappeared and been replaced with insecurity, and the fear of losing one’s job.”

The rejection of a revolution is again expressed in Cavale. Bruno is a far left revolutionary who escapes prison after 15 years behind bars and goes back to Grenoble. He meets a former partner in crime and ex-lover, Jeanne, who has now a family and works as a schoolteacher. When asked to join the cause and go back to the fight for the liberation of the masses, she refuses and tells him that “the world has changed while you were in prison. One day, we were right, maybe, but now it is over.” Later, she tells him that “masses do not exist and that the death of by-standers during their attacks were useless.” Bruno, who still believes in his slogans, thinks that she belongs to “a world where there are only individuals, with individual houses and individual problems.” He remains completely alone with no one to follow his cause. On the other hand, Jeanne is not alone in doubting long political speeches.

Like the French people, who are no longer revolutionaries with big ideas, the new French filmmakers also distance themselves from post-68 political movies, such as the intellectual, Marxist and didactic movies of Godard: Un Film comme les autres, Le Gai-savoir, Vladimir et Rosa and Tout va bien.

Yet, the social and political films have not disappeared and have clearly made a return since 1995, but they use a different approach. Instead of a militant didactic movie of the 1970s where a narrator or a character relates his political vision, contemporary films often present social plots that are immediate, localized and individualized.20 Godard tells us only Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle. But we certainly know much more about Mimi in Marseilles in the eponymous documentary, or the personal lives of the gleaners around France in Varda’s documentary Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse. We also know about the life of a teacher in Massif Central in Être et avoir. In feature films, we know the struggles of people in Boulogne in En avoir (ou pas), the life of Etienne in Ma vraie vie à Rouen, and the life of a school principal in Ça commence aujourd’hui taking place in a real school with real pupils and parents in Anzin.

Filmmaker Claire Simon suggests that “from the militant film, we have gone to ‘what is happening here, next door’” (qtd. in O’Shaughnessy 194). Dumont wants to represent “the ordinary people, who don’t speak a lot, but who experience an incredible intensity of emotion.”21 The films explore social issues but lack clearly defined political judgments or solutions. Each of them presents a specific case that needs to be addressed. But what unites them is their refusal of the unacceptable, their resignation and apathy, and also their disbelief in a one “ideology-fits-all” type of solution. In that sense, they invite débat-citoyen or civic debates.

These civic films have the potential to play an important role in a context where 55% of the French people declare that they are not interested in politics, 65% percent don’t trust the right or the left, 63% percent are pessimistic about the economic situation, and 59% percent think that the results of the Presidential election will not make it better.22 They create social awareness rather than political agendas, and introduce a renewal of mobilization and commitment for specific issues. Some of these films have had a clear impact. After viewing Ça commence aujourd’hui, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate for the 2007 presidential election, and the then Secretary of Education, created more positions in elementary schools. After viewing Indigènes, President Chirac gave foreign veterans living in former colonies the same military pension as the one received by regular French veterans.

To conclude, it would not be enough to say that France is going through yet another identity crisis or is skeptical of ideologies or politicians. Beyond this lack of confidence and angst, it is necessary to examine how the French people deal with it; in other words, how the French live and represent their place, how they express their willingness to participate in their community and organize it, on which scale and with whom. It seems clear that the French reject decisions regarding their territories and lives when made from afar, meaning Paris and Brussels. They want a form of interactive democracy that is more localized and in which they can actively participate. In that sense, the new French cinema is very representative. The new filmmakers such as Dumont, Poirier, Zonca, Veysset, and Beauvois detach themselves from the capital to film streets, schools, fields, and factories in their own regions. They want to show their people, their daily lives, and their problems. Often, the actors are amateurs, hired locally, playing themselves. It is also important to note that on occasion, sociologists use the films to illustrate their points, or that when this type of film is introduced to the public in the media it is often accompanied with a related book of sociology, marking therefore their high degree of realism (Mariette 187). Furthermore,Ressources humaines and Violence des échanges en milieu tempéré were filmed after their directors conducted series of interviews with workers, unionists, interns, managers, and consultants.

We are therefore very far from the heritage movies presenting the past of a glorious and stereotyped France. Throughout its regions, contemporary cinema presents a France that is hurt, broken, losing its standard of living, and worried about its future.23 During the 2007 presidential campaign, Ségolène Royal wanted to give regions more decision-making power, and innovated with her proposition of a démocratie participative in French politics to make people more involved in their communities. But Nicolas Sarkozy communicated better with French people and won their hearts, if not their minds.24

It is therefore interesting to examine the communicative strategies of the two candidates, and how they parallel French cinema. Jean-Marc Mangiante, an expert on communication and advisor of Royal, analyzed their pivotal speeches that henceforth characterized all the subsequent ones. For Sarkozy, it took place in Agen on June 22nd, 2006, and for Royal, in Toulon on January 17th, 2007. Mangiante noted that Royal speech was argumentative, generalizing, and lacking references to the individual; in other words, it was a classic political discourse reminiscent of the political movies from the 1970s. Sarkozy’s speech, on the other hand, was narrative. He wanted to speak to individuals, using singular demonstrative article, and relating their lives and problems as if he knew each one of them. His speech was a series of personal stories within a collective history. To use Mangiante’s analogy, it resembled the narrative of an historic novel where regular citizens are the main characters; but far from being the proud, optimistic and leading actors in a strong state, they are affected by its numerous problems. France is contained in the destiny of each one of its inhabitants who feel lost and frustrated. Certainly, Sarkozy’s approach is much closer to the narrative of contemporary political films, and therefore more appealing to modern French than Royal’s speeches, which could have been written by the character Bruno Le Roux in Cavale.

Sarkozy’s rupture tranquille prevailed. The new president declared that the heritage of May’ 68 must be liquidated once and for all, and vows to bring back the values of work, effort, work, and merit. While this may apparently have some appeal to older voters, it did not attract the youngest voters who are more likely to take the streets. As a consequence, France is probably heading toward a turbulent time. If so, film maker veterans such as Chris Marker would have the opportunity to make a sequel of Chat Perché in the way Varda did with Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, deux ans après. Surely, if new directors can overcome the increasing financial challenges and difficulties in making films,25 French cinema will not go through a rupture even tranquille, but will remain active and keep its role to express the view and concern of French people. As proof of its relevance, in 2006 French cinema showed its capacity to unite French people, the largest cinéphiles in Europe, since French productions attracted more spectators than the movies made in Hollywood.26


Adieu. Dir. Arnaud des Pallières. 2003
L’Adversaire [The Adversary]. Dir. Nicole Garcia. 2002.
Les Apprentis [The Apprentices]. Dir. Pierre Salvadori. 1995.
L’Auberge espagnole. Dir. Cédric Klapisch. 2002.
Balzac. Dir. Josée Dayan. 1999.
Bienvenue au gîte [Bed and Breakfast]. Dir. Claude Duty. 2003.
Ça commence aujourd’hui [It All Starts Today]. Dir. Bertrand Tavernier. 1999.
Cavale [On the Run]. Dir. Lucas Belvaux. 2002.
César. Dir. Marcel Pagnol. 1936.
Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train [Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train]. Dir. Patrice Chéreau. 1998.
Chats perchés [The Case of the Grinning Cat]. Dir. Chris Marker. 2004.
Le Château de ma mère [My Mother’s Castle]. Dir. Yves Robert. 1990.
Le Colonel Chabert. Dir. Yves Angelo. 1994.
Le Comte de Monte Christo. Dir. Josée Dayan. 1998.
Le Couperet [The Ax]. Dir. Costa-Gavras. 2005.
Coûte que coûte [At All Costs]. Dir. Claire Simon. 1996.
Cyrano de Bergerac. Dir. Jean-Paul Rappeneau. 1990.
Danton. Dir. André Roubaud. 1932.
Danton. Dir. Andrzej Wajda. 1983.
Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle  [Two or Three Things I Know About Her]. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. 1967.
Drôle de Félix [The Adventures of Felix]. Dir. Olivier Ducastel and JacquesMartineau. 2000.
L’Emploi du temps [Time Out]. Dir. Laurent Cantet. 2001.
En avoir (ou pas) [To Have (or Not)]. Dir. Laetitia Masson. 1995.
Les Enfants du marais [Children of the Marshlands]. Dir. Jean Becker. 1999.
L’Équipier [The Light]. Dir. Philippe Lioret. 2004.
Être et avoir [To Be and to Have]. Nicolas Philibert. 2002
Fanny. Dir. Marcel Pagnol. 1932.
Un film comme les autres [A Film Like Any Other]. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. 1968.
Le Fond de l’air est rouge [Grin Without a Cat]. Dir. Chris Marker. 1977.
Le Gai-Savoir [Joyful Wisdom]. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. 1969.
Germinal. Dir. Claude Berri. 1993.
Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse [The Gleaners & I]. Dir. Agnès Varda. 2000.
La Gloire de mon Père [My Father’s Glory]. Dir. Yves Robert. 1990.
Un Héros très discret  [A Self-Made Hero]. Dir. Jacques Audiard. 1996.
Une Hirondelle a fait le printemps [The Girl from Paris]. Dir. Christian Carion. 2001.
Le Hussard sur le toit [The Horseman on the Roof]. Dir. Jean-Paul Rappeneau. 1995.
Indigènes [Days of Glory]. Dir. Rachid Bouchareb. 2006
Jean de Florette. Dir. Claude Berri. 1986.
Le Jour se lève [Daybreak]. Dir. Marcel Carné. 1939.
Un Long dimanche de fiançailles [A Very Long Engagement]. Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. 2004.
Madame Bovary. Dir. Claude Chabrol. 1991.
Manon des Sources [Manon of the Spring]. Dir. Claude Berri. 1986.
Marius. Dir. Marcel Pagnol. 1931.
Marius et Jeannette. Dir. Robert Guédiguian. 1997.
La Marseillaise. Dir. Jean Renoir. 1938.
Ma 6-T va crack-er  [Crack 6-T]. Dir. Jean-François Richet. 1997.
Ma vraie vie à Rouen [My Life on Ice]. Dir. Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau. 2002.
Mimi. Dir. Claire Simon. 2003.
Les Misérables.  Dir. Josée Dayan. 2000.
Napoléon. Dir. Yves Simoneau. 2002.
Le Papillon [The Butterfly]. Dir. Philippe Muyl. 2002.
Le Passager de l’été [One Summer]. Dir. Florence Moncorgé-Gabin. 2006.
Le Petit voleur [The Little Thief].  Dir. Erick Zonca. 1999.
Profils Paysans [Profiles Of Farmers]. Dir. Raymond Depardon. 2001, 2005, 2007.
Quatorze juillet [July 14]. Dir. René Clair. , 1933
La Reine Margot. Dir. Patrice Chéreau. 1994.
Reprise [Resumption]. Dir. Hervé Le Roux. 1996.
La Reprise à l’usine Wonder [Resumption of Work at the Factory Wonder]. Dir.Jacques Willemont. 1968.
Ressources humaines [Human Resources]. Dir. Laurent Cantet. 1999.
La Révolution française [The French Revolution]. Dir. Robert Enrico. 1989.
Le Rouge et le noir [The Red and the Black]. Dir. Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe. 1997.
Selon Matthieu [According To Matthieu]. Dir. Xavier Beauvois. 2000.
La Sortie des usines [Exiting the Factory]. Dir. Louis Lumière. 1895.
La Squale. Dir. Fabrice Genestal. 2000.
Tout va bien [All’s Well]. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. 1972.
Trois-Huit  [Nightshift]. Dir. Philippe Le Guay. 2001.
La Vie de Jésus [The Life of Jesus]. Dir. Bruno Dumont. 1997.
La Vie rêvée des anges  [The Dreamlife of Angels]. Dir. Erick Zonca. 1998.
La Ville est tranquille [The Town Is Quiet]. Dir. Robert Guédiguian. 2000.
Violence des échanges en milieu tempéré [Work Hard, Play Hard]. Dir. Jean-Marc Moutout. 2003.
Vladimir et Rosa. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. 1970.
Western. Dir. Manuel Poirier. 1997.
Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël ? [Will It Snow for Christmas?]. Dir. Sandrine Veysset. 1996.

Works Cited

Baxter, Peter. “Putting Characters in Place: Fom Le bonheur to La Vie de Jésusand Western.” Studies in French Cinema 2.2 (2001): 65-73.
Bénézet, Delphine. “Contrasting Visions in le Jeune Cinéma: Poetics, Politics and the Rural.” Studies in French Cinema 5.3 (2005): 163–174.
Bowles, Brett. “Representing Rural France: A Cultural History of Marcel Pagnol’s Cinema (1933-1938).” Diss. Pennsylvania State U, 1998.
Cadé, Michel. “Les ouvriers dans le cinema français des années 1993-2002.”Cinéma et engagement. Ed. Graeme Hayes and Martin O’Shaughnessy. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005. 147-161.
Chauvel, Louis. Les Classes moyennes à la dérive. Paris: Seuil, 2006.
Eades, Caroline. Le Cinéma post-colonial français. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2006.
“Europe’s farm follies.” The Economist, 10 December 2005: 25-27.
“Nostalgie de la boue,” The Economist, 29 May 2004: 51-52.
Grandena, Florian. “The provinces in contemporary French cinema: the case of Yaura-t-il de la neige à Noël?Studies in French Cinema 4.2 (2004): 113-120.
Hayward, Susan. French National Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Hervieu, Bertrand, and Jean Viard. Au bonheur des campagnes. La Tour d’Aigues: Éditions de l’Aube, 2005.
Higson, Andrew. “The Concept of National Cinema.” Film and Nationalism. Ed. Alan Williams. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002. 52-67.
Mangiante, Jean-Marc. Personal interview. 17 July 2007.
Mariette, Audrey. “Monde ouvrier et ‘réalisme social.’” Cinéma contemporain, état des lieux: Actes du colloque de Lyon, 2002. Ed. Jean-Pierre Esquenazi. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2004. 179-203.
“Les films français ont battu ceux de Hollywood en 2006 dans l’Hexagone.” Le Monde, 24 May 2007. 14 June 2007. <,1-0@2-3476,36-913592@51-839814,0.html>.
“Quatre réalisateurs disent les défis et les difficultés du cinéma d’auteur.” Le Monde, 9 February 2007. 14 June 2007 <,1-0@2-3476,36-865655@51-839814,0.html>
Oscherwitz, Dayna Lynne. “Representing the Nation: Cinema, Literature and the Struggle for National Identity in Contemporary France.” Diss. U of Texas, Austin, 2001.
O’Shaughnessy, Martin. “Post-1995 French cinema: return of the social, return of the political?” Modern & Contemporary France 11.2 (2003):189–203.
Powrie, Phil. “Heritage, History, and ‘New Realism.’” French Cinema in the 1990s. Ed. Phil Powrie. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 1-21.
Vanderschelden, Isabelle. “Les Urgences de Bertrand Tavernier, cinéaste, militant et ‘emmerdeur.’”  Cinéma et engagement. Ed. Graeme Hayes and Martin O’Shaughnessy. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005. 287-304.


1. For a more complete study, see Dayna Lynne Oscherwitz, “Representing the Nation: Cinema, Literature and the Struggle for National Identity in Contemporary France.”
2. As noted Phil Powrie, “Germinal was triply defined as indigenously French: by virtue of the status of the original novel by Zola in the French literature canon; by virtue of its major star, Depardieu; by virtue of its director Claude Berri, who had arguably launched the heritage cinema boom in the mid-1980s with its Pagnol adaptations Jean de Florette and Manon des sources” (4-5).
3. In that sense, Lang gave cinema the same cultural power than did De Gaulle who “consecrated cinema when he created the Ministry of Culture and placed cinema alongside the fine arts” (Susan Hayward 16). Sarkozy seems to remain firmly in line with policies of his predecessors. Newly elected as President, on the 20th of May, Nicolas Sarkozy promised to maintain state support for France’s cinema industry and pledged to keep up the country’s traditional notion of its own “unique cultural identity” in a statement read in his name at the Cannes film festival by new Culture Minister Christine Albanel. These interventions clearly underscore the socio-cultural importance of cinema in France.
4. Caroline Eades reminds us that “in French post-colonial cinema, only Fort Saganne and La Victoire en chantant – although in a indirect and parodic way – show the presence of back-up troups on European battle fields, particularly Senegalese infantrymen during the 1914-1918 war” (translation mine 73). Indigènes is directed by “beur” director Rachid Bouchareb, casts the four main “beur” actors, Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Sami Bouajila, Roschdy Zem, financed with French funds, and Morocco who granted full funding for all the battle scenes. Interestingly, it was nominated in the Best French film category during the French 32ème cérémonie des César, but nominated as Algerian in the foreign language film category of the 79th Annual Academy Awards.
5. Hervieu suggests that the countryside as a refuge may seen as both a wealth of tradition and a place often dreamed for burial, and that these two notions merge together with a strong feeling of belonging to a local society (78).
6. Inversely, Hervieu and Viard comment that, in the South-West, 62% of the people believe that tradition is a current notion because the region has displayed constancy in enjoying its way of life (59). That aspect is well demonstrated in the mock documentary, Les 4 saisons d’Espigoule.
7. Hervieu and Viard indicate that country dwellers want the development of local community-based services and facilities to be the priority. They ask for local academic centers and hospitals rather than big universities and hospitals, as well as secondary roads and local train services rather than highways and high-speed trains (41). Indeed, the TGV has made access to the provinces easier for the Parisians and, for many, it has created disruptive changes in local economies and real estate.
8. Behind the pseudo-rustic packaging of provençal honey or olives in cloth-topped jars, there is a genuine link between regional cuisine and national identity; hence, the brand “patrimoine de France” in the supermarket, the line “la passion des produits authentiques” at, or “découvrez ou redécouvrez vos produits” on, all celebrating France and its gastronomy.
9. “Europe’s farm follies,” The Economist 10 December 2005:26.
10. Quoted in “Nostalgie de la boue,” The Economist 29 May 2004:52.
11. Florian Grandena notices that “the portrayal of Provence in Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël? is anything but picturesque. By refusing to offer postcard-like images of the area, Veysset makes a point of not idealizing it. In other words, she de-stereotypes it” (118). Powrie also reminds us that the film is used by Garbarz as an example of his category “films du constats,” in other words films which say how things are (17).
12. http://www.cinema-
13. (my translation).
14. Michel Cadé wonders however if Zonca’s heroes are workers because they are saved, or saved because of their work. In any case, the acceptance of Isabelle and Esse of the workers’ condition marks an alternative to the persistent Marxist or anarchist analysis representations of the workers on French screens (159).
15. This situation is not isolated. Audrey Mariette notes that in Guédiguian women work more often than men and seem to be employees rather than workers (188). This position would certainly give them a better chance for promotion and more important role in families. As Cadé notices that in cinema, it is because of the women that the workers can cross social class boundaries (154).
16. BVA/Association Emmaüs study, December 2006.
17. In its report on the French defiance toward the left and right wings published in February 2007, the cevipof analyses that in the 1990’s, the crisis of the political system was a vertical crisis which opposed workers and employee to the rest of the population, and to the elite in particular. In the years 2000’s, the crisis has been generalized. It includes the middle class to the working class, and is now spreading to higher social class. http://www.cevipof.msh
18. In 2006, the students were on strike and in the streets of France against the government’s work reform and, as usual, won.
20. This new social and seemingly apolitical approach has been partly examined by Audrey Mariette, Martin O’Shaughnessy, and Isabelle Vanderschelden.
22. Le Baromètre Politique Français (2006-2007) CEVIPOF – Ministère de l’Intérieur Résultats d’ensemble 2ème vague – Automne 2006.
23. According to Louis Chauvel, for the first time since 1945, the standard of living of the new generation is inferior to the one of their parents.
24. While Royal won the votes in most cities, it is Sarkozy who overwhelmingly won in the rural areas. With the exception of Bretagne, the South-West, and theDépartments d’outre-mer, all the regions voted for the Sarkozy, including the North for the first time since 1965. 68 % of people aged 70 and more voted for Sarkozy, but he did not attract the youngest voters as 58 % of people aged between 18 and 24 voted for Royal.
25. “Quatre réalisateurs disent les défis et les difficultés du cinéma d’auteur.” Le Monde  9 February 2007. 14 June 2007 <,1-0@2-3476,36-865655@51-839814,0.html>.
26. “Les films français ont battu ceux de Hollywood en 2006 dans l’Hexagone.” Le Monde 24 May 2007. 14 June 2007 <,1-0@2-3476,36-913592@51-839814,0.html>.


#Representation and Resistance of the Provinces in Contemporary Cinema#Stéphane Pillet#Vol. 6 Issue 1 Fall 2007