Style vs. Substance: Conflicting Cultures in the Cinéma du Look.

La Revue du Cinéma, issue n° 448, May 1989: French film critic Raphaël Bassan classes three filmmakers under the movement title ‘Cinéma du Look’. Luc Besson, of Leon (1994) notoriety and its predecessors Subway (1985) and Nikita (1990); Jean-Jacques Beineix of Betty Blue  (1986) cult fame and the starting point of Cinéma du Look, Diva (1981); and Leon Carax with Mauvais Sang/The Night is Young (1986), his clear homage to French New Wave.

Unlike the French New Wave, which was firmly established by a group of directors and their works created with a movement in mind, Cinéma du Look is more of an accidental occurrence. Bassan recognised a similarity between certain directors and their films of the 80s-90s, linking them together under the definition of ‘style over substance’. These films are youthful, vibrant, liberal – characters are alienated from families but make their own connections with their peers, often part of an underground society as visually indicated by the labyrinthine Paris Métro in Subway where the disenfranchised individuals reside. They govern themselves; rejecting police and casting a cynical view on administration. The aesthetic of Cinéma du Look reflects the pop culture of 1980s Paris and the post-punk movement prominent during that time, and the colours and style that express these attitudes parallel the background that both Beineix and Besson have in advertising. There’s obvious influence from New Wave’s Godard, plus the spectacle nature of big Hollywood directors.

Beineix’s Betty Blue is undeniably stylish, with its blues and pinks and colour-coordinated characters. This three-hour long episodic film follows Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and his girlfriend Betty (Béatrice Dalle), a young and tumultuous individual who slowly sinks further and further down a hole of tenacious rage that Zorg can cope with less and less. Beineix presents their blooming relationship against a backdrop of painted pastel pink and blue beach huts that the duo paint – a job which abruptly ends when Betty splashes a can of pink paint over Zorg’s boss’ car in a fit of defiance. Betty’s stubborn nature and clinging love for Zorg means many of their experiences are cut short, such as working in a restaurant when Betty stabs a fork into the arm of a very annoying customer.

Zorg (L) and Betty (R) painting the beach huts.

Betty Blue feels like the film that Bassan had in mind when he indicated the lack of intellectual substance that this self-imposed collection of films had, especially when the story is nicely wrapped up with Zorg smothering Betty in the hospital with a pillow as she lies there, tied down to the hospital bed, unmoving or feeling, one eye bandaged from where she’d personally removed it. This scene happens right after Zorg finally receives the news that his book will be published; something Betty strived and struggled to achieve for her boyfriend through the entire film. Beiniex concludes the story deftly, if undeniably unforgiving of Betty’s genuine mental health problem (a problematic element in itself, especially when noted against the original title of the film 37,2 le matin, meaning ‘37.2° in the morning’ – 37.2° being a woman’s body temperature when she is ovulating).

Subway is another great example of Cinéma du Look; it’s a fun little 80’s capsule of quirky characters residing in the Paris Underground, running away from the Métro police – or rollerblading away from the Métro police, in the case of Jean-Hugues Anglade’s character. Fred (Christophe Lambert) joins the obscure individuals when running from a burglary that didn’t go completely unnoticed by the millionaire entrepreneur whose safe he just blew up and robbed. These outcasts that the punky Fred joins, and even decides to start a rock band with, encapsulate the stylistic nature that Bassan detailed in La Revue du Cinéma. The characters here embody a transforming French society; the ‘Caviar Left’ of the new Socialist President François Mitterand and the embracing of excess and combination of pop culture and high culture. This mergence can be seen in the relationship of Fred and the entrepreneur’s wife Héléna (Isabelle Adjani), who transforms from a woman coated in diamonds to an expressive figure of backcombed hair who rejects her rich husband in favour of Fred’s subterranean lifestyle. People are often nameless – Le Roller (rollerblader), Le Batteur (drummer), Le Fleuriste (florist), Batman and Robin (two police men, and one of many pop culture references), indicating only their idiosyncrasies but not stripping them of their quintessential character.

Fred (L) and Le Roller (R) in the Paris Métro.

This quintessence is the very ‘style’ that Bassan attributes to these filmmakers. The disenfranchised youth with a cynical view of the police, living with their peers in a rejection of the norm in favour of their own ‘found family’, against the slick visual backdrop of a society they’ve made themselves beneath the norm. It’s rebellious, it’s liberal, it’s almost non-sensical; Subway doesn’t concern itself with a smooth narrative, instead divulging in convoluted side plots with no leads or ends, choosing to give the audience a fun ride that ends in a musical performance and gunfire. This is an embrace of excess that the Figuartion Libre, a French art movement of the 1980s, illustrated with its Neo-expressionist bright colours and graffiti –esque elements.

Subway’s expressive and post-modern elements are similar to those indicated in Mauvais Sang, or The Night is Young/Bad Blood, Carax’s experimental and intimate piece about a HIV-style virus infecting people who have loveless sex and the man hired to steal the cure. Carax creates an emotionally intense and sensual atmosphere that communicates something even deeper than the plot summary would signify. The film is a poem, showcasing scenes of Alex (Denis Lavant) gripping his concrete-fuelled stomach as he jerks down the painted-gray streets of Paris, eventually bursts out of himself and into dance to the David Bowie song Modern Love, all filmed in a continuous side-tracking shot. Modern Love even indicates the pandemic of the virus spreading, as young people succumb to emotionless intimacy, suggested in the romantic relationship between the young and elusive Anna (Juliette Binoche) and the much older Marc (Michel Piccoli).

This is not a critique but an opinion; an understanding of the disaffected youth as Alex slowly falls for Anna, of whom stays in love with Marc, all the while Alex’s younger ex-girlfriend Lise (Julie Delphy) remains infatuated with him and follows him on the motorcycle Alex gifted her as a break-up present. The intimacy of Mauvais Sang is found in the extreme close-ups of faces and montages of song, dance, and ventriloquist acts by Alex in an effort to cheer Anna up. The plot becomes almost irrelevant as the importance lies within the emotional states of the characters, affected by each other’s inner psychology in scenes where Carax has focused on the tempo and pace like a poet attending to each verse, painting stark whites for shaving foam and weaving Anna into vibrant blue or red clothing.

Anna lying on a vibrant red.

Cahiers du Cinéma critiqued Cinéma du Look films as producing characters that were ‘objects rather than complex individuals’. Caraxclearly shows an intelligence and understanding of emotional depth and complexity within his characters in Mauais Sang. Betty Blue is an interesting one for this argument, as Betty’s emotional state does slowly fracture throughout the narrative, becoming more and more erratic and unhinged; becoming less of the ‘desirable’ and beautiful woman she was seen as by her peers. This possibly makes her less of a two-dimensional character, less of an object, but that’s essentially ruined as Beineix decides to kill her off at the end when she becomes too much of a hindrance to Zorg. When she’s gone, Zorg can flourish with his literary career – she really does just become an ‘object’ in spite of her character development throughout the film.

The titular character Nikita in Besson’s film four years later does not, however, fall into that categorisation. Nikita does focus heavily on style and image, showcasing a very cool punk-turned-assassin Anne Parillaud who so clearly represents the ‘alienated youth versus establishment’ rooted in the politics of Cinéma du Look. She becomes entrapped and puppeteered by the government, manipulated against her will into a femme fatale-esque figure of femininity, the opposite of her drug-addicted grungy self she originally was. The narrative itself is fairly choppy, not quite an episodic feel but an up-and-down affair nonetheless, due to the nature of the film’s pacing. Besson was influenced by music videos and consumer culture, influences clearly embraced in this film as Nikita’s missions become chic little sequences in themselves, stylish and slick as she guns down political figures. This way of structuring parallels Nikita’s own construction and deconstruction of both herself (her personal identity; the alienated youth) and the establishments she must submit too and take down (the government; the norm).

The embassy that takes control of Nikita is in itself stylish; dressing Nikita in fancy evening dresses as she attends expensive dinners of red wine. This style could be a representation of ‘high culture’, with Nikita in the beginning representing ‘pop culture’ – similar to the merging of cultures in Subway between Héléna and Fred. Nikita covers her room at the embassy in band posters, wearing stylish but dirty grunge clothing that emanates the post-punk era of 80s France. The transformation of Nikita isn’t smooth; she still keeps her emotional tendencies and masculine aura that the embassy tries to cease, showing a clash of culture rather than a smooth transition – just like how Fred’s bleach-tipped spiky-hair clashes with his smart black and white tuxedo. The visual juxtapositions in the Cinéma du Look films create a fun and colourful aesthetic that the directors have clearly taken from their own environment and society; the context for their quirky characters, the substance within the style.

Nikita’s room at the embassy before she covers it in posters.

The mixture of pop and high culture is very clear in Diva. Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Fernandez) is the classy and beautiful African America opera singer that postman Jules (Frédéric Andréi) admires to the highest degree – he even holds the only known recording of Hawkins’ voice, as she refuses to record anything and only sing at live performances. Jules listens to his recording constantly; at work on his moped as he delivers mail; in his strange apartment full of totalled cars; and with the artist Alba (Thuy An Luu) with whom Jules confides in about his secret recording in the effort to make her appreciate the art of opera singing.

The misé-en-scene is utilised to its extent in Diva, with special attention paid to the living quarters of each person. Cynthia’s apartment is a beautiful French city high-rise, with large windows and decadent furniture. Jules lives in a lofty area inhabited by smashed automobiles, the walls illustrated with more flying cars and a naked woman painted onto the floor. The old machinery is his table; a Hawkins poster adorns the wall like a religious icon; recording equipment clearly laid out with special care for his cassettes. Alba lives with the quiet aloof man Serge (Richard Bohringer), who spends most of the film sitting cross-legged on the floor of the large and minimalist open-space, slowly completing the huge jigsaw puzzle of the blue and white ocean waves that match the colours of their apartment. A bath stands alone at one end, a hi-fi set at the other, and a strange blue moving art piece in the middle.

Serge starting his massive puzzle.

The style is conscientious; Beineix indicates so much about his characters through the setting, communicating what they represent very clearly. Jules is the marginalised youth of France, signifying a positive view of a multicultural society. Jules even has somewhat of a mutual friendship with a black prostitute, with whom he (questionably) pays to dress up in the dress he stole from Hawkins. Alba is of Asian descent and in love with Serge, and two Taiwanese men attempt to blackmail Cynthia into signing with them. Jean Sapatro is the white French Inspector that actually runs a drug prostitution ring, employing ‘almost all the black prostitutes on Foch Avenue’ (where Jules’ friend works). Evidently there is not a divide of race, but a divide of high and pop culture, and they become merged in the giving and taking of the cultural signifiers. Jules’ steals Cynthia’s fancy dress; Alba steals a Rolex watch and gifts it to Jules. The Rolls Royce car in Jules’ apartment is smashed; he even ‘steals’ Cynthia’s voice with his illegally-obtained recording. The narrative itself deals with the coming-and-going and mix-ups of two cassette tapes, and the budding companionship between Jules and Cynthia.

Jules (L) and Alba (R) looking at the crashed Rolls Royce.

Cynthia states the great quote ‘Commerce should adapt to art, and not art to commerce,’ which is a clear-cut indicator of what Cinéma du Look supposedly stands for: the adaption, the combination, the transformation of current culture; of embracing consumer culture and art and new attitudes, something that represents the ‘Caviar Left’ of Mitterand’s government. This combination is similar to that in Subway, but more refined and defined. The attention paid to the aesthetic style must also have influenced Besson’s film that came four years later, as Diva even has a very fun and cool motorcycle/car/foot/métro chase between Jules and a police officer, reminiscent of the many rollerblading chases of Subway – Alba, too, even rollerskates around her slick apartment.

Diva is the best example of what Cinéma du Look represents. It shows the refined high culture tastes becoming blurred with the tastes of mass society, the chosen groups of peers becoming attached to one another rather than sticking to a nuclear prescribed family. The artistic, emotional, often-criminal youth represent a time-period of growth and development in terms of the liberal attitudes and arts of a newly-Socialist society. They hold an opinion of anti-establishment, anti-norm, and anti-expected; they’re impulsive, colourful, and cynical; they are the doomed love affairs of Betty and Zorg, Fred and Héléna, Alex and Anna.

It’s unfortunate that the films of Cinéma du Look are disregarded as ‘style over substance’ when the style itself is based on the then-current culture of its country and capital city – that’s enough substance in itself. The characters express a rejection of the norm, a desire for life on the fringe and the boundaries of society – not even a desire, really, but a deviation that led them there nonetheless – and that doesn’t necessarily signify the film they’re in to be one deficient in ‘substance’. It shows they represent a development and growth, not always linear but not always required to be as such. It’s clear, really, that the substance is in the style.

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