Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema by Tim Palmer (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011)
I discovered this book while doing some research for my review of Diane Bertrand’s The Ring Finger. The section on The Ring Finger — and the fact that Palmer was analyzing such an obscure movie — was intriguing enough that I was curious what else he had to say. The French film industry continues to be a source of fascinating films, and Palmer’s expressed goal is to explore the dimensions of that industry in the 21st century. As much as it revolves around analysis of specific films, the most interesting thing about the book is the portrait it paints of the diversity of French film production, from harsh avant garde provocations to genial crowd-pleasers and genre movies.
Palmer states over and over again that he’s not interested in the old divisions between art films and popular films, but as an academic critic it does seem that he’s more intellectually interested in the avant gardists. He has said in interviews that the genesis of the book was a viewing of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002), which got him thinking about the so-called cinéma du corps (“cinema of the body”) of French provocateurs like Noé, Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, and Bruno Dumont. Since my tastes run more toward genre films, I would’ve preferred more of a focus on that side of the industry, but I did appreciate his willingness to at least delve into the goals of Luc Besson with EuropaCorp, which attempts to compete with Hollywood in the international action film market. Still, his analysis of genre films almost unfailingly finds them politically retrograde compared to the avant garde films, so he can’t quite avoid finding the old divisions after all.
The book has four main chapters. The first focuses on France’s encouragement of first-time film-makers, the second on the cinéma du corps, the third on popular cinema, and the fourth on female film-makers. (A higher percentage of French films are made by women than in another other country.) The concluding chapter, which is shorter than the others, covers the state film school, La Fémis (École Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de l’Image et du Son), and thus on the institutional dimension of French film culture. Palmer shows his academic background in some of his terminology and ideology, but for the most part he writes very clearly, even if not quite up to David Bordwell’s extremely high standard. He is admirably broad-minded in his approach and able to write compellingly about financing and promotion as well as shot-selection, composition, and editing.
Over the course of the book Palmer touches on many films that have been amongst my favorites in recent years: Persepolis (2007), The Ring Finger (2005) (which he lumps with the cinéma du corps, although I don’t see the confrontational aspect in it), the Mesrine duology (2008), demonlover (2002) (which he somewhat oddly covers in the section on popular cinema), and Innocence (2004). I’ve already watched one of the other films he writes about, Fissures (Ecoute le temps, 2006), which is an interesting, if somewhat muddy, attempt to use a standard thriller plot to make an unconventional personal statement about a young woman’s relationship with her mother and understanding of herself. There’s a handy “Select Filmography” at the end of the book with a list of films covered and their availability on home video. My Netflix queue has grown a bit.