Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Charlie Michael's "French Blockbusters"

Charlie Michael is Visiting Assistant Professor of Film & Media at Emory University in Atlanta. His recent research focuses on contemporary media industries with particular emphasis on the cultural politics of contemporary French cinema.

Michael applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book French Blockbusters: Cultural Politics of a Transnational Cinema, and reported the following:
Page 99 sits squarely in the middle of Chapter 3. This section of the book pivots from the more contextual accounts offered in the introduction and first two chapters to a focused study of just one title – Amélie / Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet 2001). The subsection that appears on this particular page – ‘The Initial Debate’ – begins to unpack the cascade of public responses to the film’s success in France. Notably, after the initial phase of excitement about Amélie’s box office, a controversy brewed when a prominent film critic eviscerated the film, panning its glossy aesthetic and accusing Jeunet of an irresponsible ‘whitewashing’ of the racially diverse quartier where the story putatively takes place. Rather than add to the voluminous literature on these rather specific charges, the chapter instead reads between their lines, teasing out their connections to later academic work on the film, and relating them to much longer-term ideological divisions in the French culture industries.

While it most likely does not give an accurate representation of the book’s argument as a whole, this page does in many ways encapsulate the methodological intervention of French Blockbusters, which brings together industrial history, film aesthetics and film reception in ways that few previous accounts even attempt. In so doing, the account is less concerned with unveiling a nascent genre or style than it is with measuring the consequences of French cinema’s recent commercial ‘bigness’. Since the mid-1980s, government policy reforms have gradually pushed domestic producers to pursue market-based practices attuned to the challenge of competing with Hollywood franchises. In the 2000s and 2010s, the behind-the-scenes search for a healthy balance – a ‘cultural diversity’ – between commercialized grandeur and arthouse prestige became a persistent concern across the industry. And in the meantime, French film culture became so obsessed with measuring the relative merits of its success that each breakout hit (or catastrophic failure) seemed to add fuel to the fire. From this longer perspective, the Amélie moment looks like just the first episode in an ongoing debate about the cultural legitimacy of popular cinematic forms – followed later by vigorous installments about the period piece Des Dieux et des hommes / Of Gods and Men (Beauvois, 2010), the buddy comedy Intouchables / Untouchable (Toledano and Nakache 2011) and the sci-fi epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson 2017), among many, many others. Perched as they are on a fragile terrain of ideological fissures, these recent ‘local blockbusters’ from France resonate with the unrest of a culture industry embroiled in the throes of a prolonged period of uneven transition.
Learn more about French Blockbusters at the Edinburgh University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue