INTRODUCTION: A row known as ‘L’Affaire Leconte’ took place in France a few months back. Director Patrice Leconte attacked French film critics (specifically those of Liberation) and suggested that all negative reviews be banned! Liberation had several international critics give their response, and Brad Stevens was asked to represent the UK.
Here is the text of the letter sent by Patrice Leconte to his ARP (Authors, Directors and Producers company) colleagues in late 1999.
For some time now, I have been worried by the attitude taken by critics towards the French cinema. I do not feel specifically singled out for attack (indeed, quite the contrary), but whenever I read what is written about our films, I have the impression that a cold-blooded assassination is being carried out. I often feel a chill running down my spine – it’s as if critics had given each other the word to kill France’s commercial cinema. I do not know what we can do about this ‘critical’ (amusing word) situation. I have a few ideas, but am not sure whether they are any good. I would like to discuss them with you in an abstract way.
Thank you for not leaving me with my anger and perplexity.
(Translated by Brad Stevens)
Although the subject of much controversy in France, ‘L’Affaire Leconte’ simply confirms something I had long suspected: that everyone hates their national cinema. In part, this is due to familiarity’s tendency to breed contempt: as Robin Wood acknowledged, “I think now that a personal motivation lay behind my reluctance to look seriously at (Hitchcock’s) British films: the British middle-class milieu in which most of them are set is simply too close to the one in which I grew up, and I recoiled from having to reenter its atmosphere and ethos” (Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, p. 231). Clearly, what the Japanese once missed in Mizoguchi (who was accused of pandering to festival audiences) is different from what Americans miss in Cimino and Ferrara, which is not to be confused with whatever it is that annoys me about Mike Leigh. The films of Takeshi Kitano must be perceived quite differently in Japan, where the director is an inescapable presence on television, and one might argue that European audiences are well-positioned to take a purer, more objective view of his work: but then how could we comprehend Kids Return (1996), which specifically refers to Kitano’s career as a stand-up comedian? The differences between national and international critics need to be treated with both respect and caution: I remain unconvinced either that French or American admirers of Mike Leigh are deluded, ot that my dislike of his films has no rational basis. In her ‘Movie Mutations’ letter, Nicole Brenez wrote “it would never occur to me to go see films that many people have assured me are so beautiful, like those of Arnaud Desplechin. They immediately repulse me, and I would rather go see Tsui Hark’s The Blade for the tenth time”, something I found completely baffling until I realized that I had precisely the same attitude towards Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Full Monty and Shakespeare in Love.
In France, the problem may be that there is no longer a clear-cut distinction between what we might call “le nouvelle cinema de papa” (of which I would guess Leconte is fully representative) and “le nouvelle nouvelle vague” (for even Godard is ‘papa’ now), thus no cause worth fighting. And if the average, or even above average, French critic cannot be certain where battle lines are drawn, the perspectives of foreign cineastes must be even more skewed. British reviewers probably have a more tolerant attitude towards French films because they are exposed to so few of them. Rivette’s Haut Bas Fragile (1995), among the masterpieces of the decade, Chabrol’s Une Affaire de Femmes (1988) and Jean-Francois Richet’s Ma 6T Va Cracker (1997), which I am assured is sublime, have yet to be released, while the last Godard shown theatrically was King Lear (1987). And, unbelievable as it may sound, not a single Philippe Garrel film has ever been distributed here. In such a context, it is easy enough to assume that Ridicule or Le Colonel Chabert are the best contemporary French cinema has to offer.
But Patrice Leconte’s argument is hardly a new one: in England, the tendency of filmmakers to describe critics as would-be artists compensating for their stifled creativity by attacking the efforts of others has become so commonplace that I suspect the idea is ceremonially handed down from generation to generation, much as Kevin Costner provided Tim Robbins with his ‘interview cliches’ in Bull Durham. Alan Parker thought the subject sufficiently fascinating to serve as the basis for a 90-minute documentary (1986’s A Turnip-Head’s Guide to the British Cinema), while Vadim Jean, perhaps the world’s worst director, regularly writes angry letters to papers that find fault with his work, always making the same point: the critics are jealous because he is making films and they are not (and it’s true – I lie awake at night wishing I could make Leon the Pig Farmer or Beyond Bedlam).
Milla Jovovich struck a similar note in an interview with Empire magazine: “Critics are just bitter people. And why? What do they do? Why do they work? To write bad things about other people…What do you do? Sit in your office. Go see movies and write about them. Hard job, man.” Which just proves that even ex-models need someone they can condescend to. Many modern directors feel obliged to pose as anti-intellectuals, adopting a facade of stupidity they are unable to carry off with any conviction (in contrast with Jovovich, who, credit where credit’s due, appears to be genuinely stupid). During a recent TV debate (in the course of which Steven Soderbergh dismissed film criticism as a “parlour game”), Mike Figgis loftily maintained that there couldn’t possibly be such a thing as ‘film noir’ (or, for that matter, an ‘auteur’) because he didn’t understand what the phrase meant, while Luc Besson likes to boast that he doesn’t even know how where the Paris Cinematheque is (as Michel Ciment pointed out, this “is strange, because it is near the Aquarium, in the Trocadero; he should have visited the Aquarium!”).
If Leconte’s complaints are clearly on a higher intellectual level (not exactly difficult), they nonetheless smack of precisely that “mauvaise foi” of which he accuses his detractors. Consider the following statement: “Et il y a une chose qui me fait peur: a flinguer ainsi le cinema francais, on n’aura bientot plus que le cinema americain a se mettre sous le dent.” (“One thing worries me a great deal; if we continue to treat the French cinema in this way, we will soon have nothing but American movies to watch.”) In other words, even if critics genuinely believe that a particular French film is bad, they should still say only good things (i.e. lie) so that paying audiences will go see it and the European cinema will be able to resist Americanization.
What we have here is simply the flip-side of Bruce Willis’ notorious outburst at Cannes in 1997. Whereas Willis sniffily insists that critics lack both relevance and influence (“nobody up here pays attention to reviews”), Leconte imbues them with a virtually demonic power, sufficient to destroy a once mighty industry on nothing more than a whim (note the paranoid tone: “comme si leurs auteurs s’etaient donne le mot pour tuer le cinema francais commercial” [“It’s almost as if critics have given each other the word to kill France’s commercial cinema”.]).
As for myself, I have always tried to analyse films by combining a degree of historical, technical and aesthetic knowledge with the childish naivety and innocence which first made me love cinema. It may well be that, as Bruce Willis claims and Patrice Leconte doubtless hopes, “the written word has gone the way of the dinosaur”, but we should recall the conclusion reached by Chris Marker in Le Dernier Bolchevik (1993): “Look what happened to dinosaurs – Kids love them”.