by Bryan Lynch
The Cork French Film Festival is one of the city’s annual cinematic highlights. Now in its 24th year, this March will see the festival adopt the theme Noir et Blanc and the organisers have secured a good crop of black and white films from the last century of French cinema, including screenings of an episode of Louis Feuillade’s 1913 serial Fantômas and Mathieu Kassovitz’s biting social critique La Haine (1995). As I browsed through the programme, one film in particular caught my attention: Marcel Carné’s 1938 masterpiece Quai Des Brumes; and it got me thinking about cinema’s potential both as a social barometer and an agent of change.
Carné’s film is now regarded as the high-water mark of what became known as “poetic-realism,” which flourished in French cinema of the 1930s. Adapted from a novel by Pierre Mac Olan, Jacques Prévert’s wonderfully morose script told the story of an army deserter and a teenage runaway who meet in the gloomy port city of Le Harve. Both are trying to escape their past and Carné’s skillful direction perfectly captures the cynicism and apathy of inter-war France. Indeed, the film’s depiction of French society and character was so downbeat and negative that many cited it as a reason why France was defeated by Germany in 1940. Such a claim may sound like an exaggeration today; but it is certainly true that even in the 1930s, there were already examples of a film having a direct influence on society, sometimes with explosive results.
Perhaps the most extreme example is the role D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) played in the re-emergence of America’s most notorious terrorist organisation. The Ku Klux Klan had been declared illegal and disbanded in 1871, but its heroic portrayal as the saviours of White America in Griffith’s film inspired a new generation of Klansmen. By the early 1920s, the KKK’s membership was estimated at between four and six million men. The iconography and even the clothing of this second Klan were first seen in The Birth of a Nation. The crosses and white sheets had no precedent in the 19th Century Klan.
While the impact of Griffith’s film is an example cinema’s danger when employed by the hateful to deceive and corrupt, it must be stressed that cinema’s power as an agent of change has often been positive. In the year 2000, Mexico gave the world what many considered to be the first great film of the 21st Century. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, struck like a lightning bolt with its damning portrayal of contemporary Mexican society. Like Quai Des Brumes, the film’s story was filled with moral indifference and apathy, but also possessed a brutal streak which shattered Mexico’s old exoticism and replaced it with a new one defined by urban landscapes and violent death. The film’s depiction of Mexico at the turn of the century was so negative that it’s impact could be felt politically and some have gone so far as to suggest that it was responsible for ending the notoriously corrupt seventy-one year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Mexicans went to the polls just six weeks after Amores Perros was released.
Heading back to France; in thinking about Quai Des Brumes; I’m reminded of one of my favourite Jean-Luc Godard films, La Chinoise. Although it’s beautiful aesthetic is far too colourful to allow it a place in this year’s Noir et Blanc festival, it shares one very striking similarity with Carné’s film. Being one of Godard’s most political films, La Chinoise ended up being more of a barometer of the mood of French society than anyone could have predicted. Though the film was released in August 1967, the rhetoric spouted by Godard’s student leftist would-be revolutionaries turned out to be eerily similar to the battle-cries which could be herd on the Parisian barricades during the turbulent days of May ’68 when an alliance of workers and students nearly brought about the collapse of De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. Godard’s film had read the soul of the French Left better than any political analyst or government official. His fictional characters might have come to life.
There is no denying cinema’s potential as an agent of change; after all it is society’s greatest mirror and no other art has reached so many people or had such an impact. Cinema has defined fashion and style but it has also told people what is wrong with their country or their even their lives. It has shaped how we see the world and ourselves, worked as a propaganda tool for hate and served as a rallying cry for social change. Cinema can create its own “truth”, for better or worse, and as Godard himself once said, “if a photograph is truth, than cinema is truth twenty four times a second”.
The 24th Cork French Film Festival runs from March 3rd to 10th.