PARIS — “W.,” Oliver Stone’s biopic about the outgoing American president, has just opened here. So has a French film about Coluche, the country’s most popular postwar comedian, Michel Colucci, who became a kind of anarchic candidate for president in 1981, an opponent of anti-immigrant sentiment, a champion of the poor.
The French movie hardly bothers with politics, dwelling on Coluche’s love life instead. Cultural gulfs can sometimes reveal themselves in these small details. France, it turns out, remains, even all these years later, not insignificantly caught up in the cinema spawned by the Occupation, offering diversion, self-flattery and escapist fiction about itself.
Serious-minded Americans traditionally love to idealize the French movie industry, but as French cinephiles tend to see it, it’s their own filmmakers, unlike those in the United States, who shy away from tackling head-on tough issues like contemporary French politics, scandals and unrest. Contrarians will note “La Haine” (“The Hate”), a much-talked-about movie anticipating the violence that exploded three years ago in some of France’s poor immigrant suburbs. But “La Haine” was released in the mid-1990s.
Meanwhile, never mind poor box office results, the United States keeps churning out ambitious pictures with big stars or directors, like “In the Valley of Elah,” “Lions for Lambs,” “Rendition,” “Redacted” and “Body of Lies,” questioning American policy in the Middle East or otherwise seizing on the headlines. France hasn’t made a significant movie yet about the 2005 riots.
The country has censored politically charged films, including Jean-Luc Godard’s “Petit Soldat” (made in 1960 but not released until 1963), a rare French picture about the Algerian war of independence. “The Battle of Algiers,” the greatest film about that war, was an Italian-Algerian production, not a French one, directed by an Italian. It was banned for many years after its release in 1966.
The closest thing to a French “Apocalypse Now” or “Platoon” about Algeria is “L’Ennemi Intime,” made last year, close to half a century after the war ended. As for a French version of “W.,” any film skewering a sitting French president “would be nearly impossible to make here,” said Caroline Benjo, echoing what other French filmmakers contend.
They cite a mix of politics, stylistic habits perpetuating the national “brand,” financing and a collective anxiety about postwar French identity. The problem, you might say, goes back to de Gaulle’s selling the country on the idea that it won World War II, along with the culture of denial that that mindset promoted.
Ms. Benjo is a producer of “Entre les Murs” (“Within the Walls,” marketed in English as“The Class”), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. A drama about schoolchildren from a multiethnic neighborhood of Paris, it has so far done well at the French box office. Like the promiscuously awarded “La Graine et le Mulet” (opening next month in the United States as “The Secret of the Grain”), directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, which is about a community of immigrants in a seaside town in the south of France, “Entre les Murs” is “l’exception culturelle.”
That phrase ordinarily connotes not “exception to the rule” but the exceptional status of culture here. Money for French films comes partly from a percentage of ticket sales for American blockbusters, and from French television networks, which by law must underwrite films.
This means that French movies now at the multiplex, like “Faubourg 36,” a nostalgic music hall story about bygone France, or “Le Crime Est Notre Affaire,” a nostalgic mystery based on an Agatha Christie story, are effectively supported by French revenues from American films like “Blood Diamond,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Syriana” and other news-hungry, Hollywood vehicles of precisely the sort that France doesn’t make.
Public television is government-run, of course, and the country’s most popular network, TF1, happens to be owned by Martin Bouygues, a close associate of the president, Nicolas Sarkozy. “Naturally television executives try to influence content,” Jean-Michel Frodon, the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, noted the other day.
That said, France likes to boast, for good reason, that with more than 220 films made here a year, the country’s movie industry lags behind only those of India and the United States. Among these 220 movies, a modest number of high-quality documentaries or fictional dramas detailing poverty or immigrant life here are released, but they’re generally “small films made in the shadows,” Mr. Frodon said.
As Antoine de Baecque, a film historian, put it, “French cinema since Nouvelle Vague deals with reality in a certain way.” He was talking the other afternoon about the French New Wave of the late 1950s and ’60s, led by François Truffaut and Mr. Godard. “We like to fracture, distort and romanticize — to see trauma but obliquely, abstractly. In this sense French cinema is the opposite of American cinema. It values style over realism, the small form over the epic.”
Mr. de Baecque chalked this approach up to a French “inferiority complex, a feeling that since World War II, France, despite what we like to tell ourselves, is downgraded from the front rank of history, which creates melancholy, a malaise,” he said. “The romantic comedies, the sentimental affairs, they are fictions that remove us from real life and are precisely the kind of movies that emerged out of the Occupation.”
The most popular film ever made in France was released this year, “Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis” (“Welcome to the Land of the Sh’tis”), a harmless comedy about a postal employee from the South forced to work in the North. Largely unnoted by the French, admirably or out of avoidance, was that the two main stars of the movie, imitating regional clichés, both happened to be Frenchmen of North African descent.
On the other hand, newspapers were full of stories the other week about the burning of cars belonging to Luc Besson’s film crew. In Montfermeil, a poor town outside Paris, Mr. Besson has been shooting a big-budget American-style thriller with John Travolta. But it’s not about the riots in that neighborhood in 2005.
For that, French people these days must turn to programs like “La Commune,” a dark television drama that ran this year on Canal Plus. Its inspiration was not French cinema but American cable series like “The Wire” on HBO. “La Commune,” glowingly received by French critics, was canceled when the network decided its audience wasn’t large enough; never mind that other shows on Canal Plus with similar audiences were renewed.
Mr. Dafri lately wrote the screenplay for “Mesrine,” which just opened to good reviews that noted its Americanness. About a real-life French gangster of the 1960s and ’70s, Jacques Mesrine, who became a kind of populist outlaw, a French Pretty Boy Floyd, the movie has a definite political undercurrent. Mr. Dafri said he looked to Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, to Showtime and “Prison Break,” “24” and “The Sopranos.”
“In the United States,” he said, “you know how to make films and television series that are intelligent and political and don’t forget the entertainment factor. In France we just want to be intellectual.”