How French Cinema Works

Evan Puschak, the video essay­ist bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, has seen a lot of movies. Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured his analy­ses of a range of pic­tures includ­ing Blade Run­ner, Reser­voir Dogs, Par­a­site, La Dolce Vita, Nos­tal­ghia, and You’ve Got Mail. When he notices some­thing spe­cial about the films com­ing out of one coun­try in par­tic­u­lar, we’d do well to lis­ten to him address why. He once devot­ed a video essay to Jean-Luc Godard­’s Breath­less, which he frames as hav­ing set off the nou­velle vague, the first move­ment most of us think of when we think of French cin­e­ma — which many of us around the world regard as occu­py­ing une classe à part. Puschak finds one rea­son we do so in his new video essay above.

That rea­son is the Cen­tre nation­al du ciné­ma et de l’image, or CNC, the gov­ern­men­tal agency tasked with pro­mot­ing not just French film but French audio­vi­su­al arts in gen­er­al. “For decades, it sat at the cen­ter of cin­e­ma in France, affect­ing every lay­er of the indus­try there,” says Puschak. Fund­ed by tax­es on cin­e­ma admis­sions, tele­vi­sion providers, and media both phys­i­cal and stream­ing, it redis­trib­utes mon­ey to the pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and exhi­bi­tion of films, tele­vi­sion shows, video games, and oth­er forms of art (as well as to the preser­va­tion of exist­ing art). As far as movies in par­tic­u­lar, the declared idea is to “sup­port an inde­pen­dent cin­e­ma that is bold in terms of mar­ket stan­dards and that can­not find its finan­cial bal­ance with­out pub­lic assis­tance.”

“In the US film indus­try, there’s only one met­ric to judge movies: com­mer­cial suc­cess,” Puschak says. “With­out par­tic­i­pa­tion by the state, there can be no oth­er met­ric. The mar­ket deter­mines every­thing,” and that holds as true for indie films as it does for broad Hol­ly­wood spec­ta­cles. The CNC also invests heav­i­ly in “the main­te­nance and ren­o­va­tion of the­aters, espe­cial­ly those that show art-house films,” all across France, and even in cin­e­ma edu­ca­tion for school­child­ren meant to encour­age an appre­ci­a­tion for “all kinds of movies, not just those that giant cor­po­ra­tions have mil­lions of dol­lars to pro­mote.” This in con­trast to the many Amer­i­cans “con­di­tioned from an ear­ly age to see only cer­tain kinds of movies in the the­ater.”

Of course, how well a CNC-style agency would work in Amer­i­ca, a world apart from the dirigiste cul­ture of France, is a mat­ter of debate. So, in fact, is the ques­tion of how well it works in France. It has “all the prob­lems you’d expect from a large bureau­cra­cy: slug­gish­ness, red tape, waste, con­tro­ver­sies over who gets to choose what films get mon­ey.” But the CNC has evolved in fits and starts with changes in tech­nol­o­gy and cul­ture, and the US has late­ly direct­ed no small amount of finan­cial sup­port to film pro­duc­tion in the form of state-lev­el tax cred­its. As any­one who vis­its the cin­e­mas of Paris will notice, France has a “pub­lic of devot­ed film­go­ers, peo­ple who want to go out to the movie the­ater and have a wide range of expe­ri­ences there.” Cinephiles the world over would sure­ly agree that any mon­ey spent to cul­ti­vate that is mon­ey well spent.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

How Anna Kari­na (RIP) Became the Mes­mer­iz­ing Face of the French New Wave

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breath­less: How World War II Changed Cin­e­ma & Helped Cre­ate the French New Wave

A Cin­e­mat­ic Jour­ney Through Paris, As Seen Through the Lens of Leg­endary Film­mak­er Éric Rohmer: Watch Rohmer in Paris

An Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Luc Godard’s Inno­v­a­tive Film­mak­ing Through Five Video Essays

RIP Jean-Paul Bel­mon­do: The Actor Who Went from the French New Wave to Action Super­star­dom

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Deborah Devedjian says:


    Com­par­ing French vs. Amer­i­can films’ sources of fund­ing is mis­guid­ed because you focused on direct gov­ern­ment sources (NEA vs. CNC). The uni­verse is far larg­er.

    You fail to rec­og­nize the likes of not-for prof­it film sup­port­ers and pro­duc­ers PBS, Sun­dance, Mas­ter­piece The­ater, NOVA, and oth­er PBS pro­duc­tions as well as the thou­sands of non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions, foun­da­tions, film insti­tutes, muse­ums, cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions, and indi­vid­ual phil­an­thropists which annu­al­ly pro­vide film­mak­ers bil­lions of dol­lars in grants.

    Addi­tion­al­ly, the not-for-prof­it nature of the above orga­ni­za­tions means that they are, in effect, “gov­ern­ment-sup­port­ed or man­dat­ed” and paid with tax­pay­er dol­lars.

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