Those Perfidious Frenchmen

It is too early to grasp the real aftermath of 9-11 in Hollywood, but some trends are more obvious than others. Couple of last year’s major Hollywood productions indicate that the major change is afoot in American film industry, closely resembling shifts in American foreign policy resulting from 9-11.

The changes are very visible for those who paid attention to clich?s in 1990s Hollywood films, especially those dealing with films’ villains. Some films – like Braveheart, Michael Collins and Patriot ? were more explicit than others, but in those times almost all villains were British, people with heavy British accents or at least people played by renowned British actors.

It is too early to grasp the real aftermath of 9-11 in Hollywood, but some trends are more obvious than others. Couple of last year’s major Hollywood productions indicate that the major change is afoot in American film industry, closely resembling shifts in American foreign policy resulting from 9-11.

The changes are very visible for those who paid attention to clich?s in 1990s Hollywood films, especially those dealing with films’ villains. Some films – like Braveheart, Michael Collins and Patriot ? were more explicit than others, but in those times almost all villains were British, people with heavy British accents or at least people played by renowned British actors.

All that changed with 9-11 and Iraq crisis. British ceased to be nation of inbred aristocrats, evil oppressors of Ireland and incompetent losers who can’t win a single war without Uncle Sam coming to their rescue. Instead they became noble allies, proud descendants of the same stock that had defended world’s cause of liberty from tyrants like Napoleon and Hitler. In such circumstances it was difficult for Hollywood to continue with his old ways and insult America’s most precious allies.

It wasn’t difficult to see which nation would, in the end, fill the void and provide Hollywood with the reliable source of evil characters.

In Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions one of the chief villains is non-human entity with French name, played by French actor and he even explicitly expresses his French identity for those in the audience too ignorant of those facts.

In 1990s film based on O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series was impossible to be made in anti-British Hollywood, just like any other film in which the main protagonist was belonging to such criminal, oppressive organisations like Royal Navy. With 9-11 everything changed and British were allowed to be good guys for a change and even have films made about their heroes. But someone had to take their place as villains. Following the plot of O’Brian’s novels and using French as adversaries wasn’t enough ? the best way to signal this change was to take O’Brian’s novel in which protagonists had to fight American vessel. The film Master and Commander: Far Side of the World changes the nationality of villains into French and, furthermore, they are shown as dangerous, perfidious and dishonourable foes that aren’t above playing dirty tricks after they have lost in fair contest.

Even more explicitly anti-French is The In-Laws. The main villain is French arms dealer, played by David Suchet, who also happens to be effeminate and decadent. Despite all that physical and moral inferiority towards American macho protagonists, French villain in the film is sneaky and seductive enough to endanger their families and seduce few misguided Americans with his “culture” and lure of decadent lifestyle.

The examples mentioned clearly show how French could be used as perfect villains in future Hollywood productions. They are effeminate, weak, cowardly and therefore obviously inferior to machistic Americans; but they are also able to trick na?ve Americans with their cuisine, music, films and other forms of “culture”, able to seduce American women and create support among more snobbish, alienated and potentially treacherous segments of American society. Needless to say, Frenchmen are perfect because they happen to be white, male and, despite all their effeminacy, heterosexual ? therefore their villainy won’t offend “political correctness” of modern Hollywood. The example of Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can ? where protagonist’s family falls apart because of adulterous French mother ? also shows that even French women could serve the same purpose when they aren’t any Frenchmen around.

Perfidious Frenchman (or Frenchwoman) is a Hollywood clich? which is going to stay, at least until American foreign policy shifts. In the meantime, French can retaliate only by giving “Palme d’Or” and other prestigious festival to Elephant, Bowling for Columbine or any other film which explicitly portrays modern America as hyper-violent, backward, barbarous or evil.

9 thoughts on “Those Perfidious Frenchmen

  1. For what it’s worth, according to the Internet Movie Database filming on The Matrix Reloaded started in March 2001, which suggests that the character of the Merovingian doesn’t owe anything to 9/11 or Iraq-related ‘perfidy’.

    As for Catch Me If You Can,, it’s based on a true story and, if the hero’s mother is French, that makes the hero half-French…

  2. Master and Commander’s Frenchification is likely a function of money more than mores. The Far Side of the World was the cheapest of the books to film — only two ships in the whole thing, no complicated fleet maneuvers, lots of pontificating, etc. This is why they chose to do a mishmash of two books, rather than just sticking with one.

    Since they weren’t going to make the antagonist an American ship, what other choice did they have? I think this is at best a modest moment in anti-French-ness, far less anti-French than, for example, the appalling French Kiss with that renowned acteur francais Kevin Kline.

  3. I don’t think this is simply about cheese eating surrender monkeys either, although I certainly believe that villification in Hollywood has to follow the PC politcs de jour.

    But looking at the Hollywood/Paris/France relationship, it has a longstanding tradition of attraction-repulsion, one of mystical opposites drawn towards each other. It?s very cinematographic.

    And it’s all in Douglas Coupland’s Shampoo planet: American “male” honesty being betrayed and drawn onward to doom by French “female” seductive sophistication that even, every time, gets away with it. This is, in the end, very Faustian for the poor Americans, for whom the very idea of France seems to be one of the eternally female that draws poor males onward into doom.

    But ?France? (to be slightly generalising) isn?t really that feminine, as anyone who ever lived there will readily testify. It?s fare more machist, and clearly far more elitist (and far more American) than the image mostly conveyed by American cinematographic projections of their own perceived lack of cultural sophistication and beautiful cities.

    But there?s more. Being French means to this day to be pretending to be entirely self-referential, resisting assimilation or even recognition of the US as current civilatory centre to be measured against, unlike like the Brits, or the vast majority of post 1945 Germans. Asterix might have been a Gaul, but he?s certainly French. And it?s this resistance that is the most annoying and at the same time the most attractive for ?Americans? (again slightly generalising).

    Moreover, for Hollywood, the exemplification of French resistance through a ?continental barrier? of quotas on Hollywood content even adds a true price tag.

    But the French (and we Europeans) pay a high price, too, for this game of play pretend ? last Monday I talked to a film student at the national Grande Ecole for motion pictures, ?femis?, in Paris who complained about the lack of a healthy commercial motivation of French and European film students. Here it?s all about ?art?, she said. And she?s right. And that?s because in the eurosnobbish students? eyes, ?commercial? screams ?American?. They?re not exactly as self referential as they claim to be?

  4. Yeah, I’m not sure there’s much to this either, although there may be. Holywood is pretty close to France, and as much as stereotypes of the French as people who don’t even recognise Anglo culture as dominant have a shread of truth to them, it is also Holywood figures that receive the most enthusiastic acceptance in France.

  5. The overwhelming majority of Hollywood movie villains are white male Americans. I only wish the French were . . . .

  6. I think the most interesting film you’ve missed out on in all this is Bertolucci’s ‘The Dreamers’ – which has to be (along with Michael Winterbottoms ‘In This World’) one of the most accomplished films of recent years.

    There is one superb scene (and of course you need to have followed the Cahiers debates over the years to appreciate what a master B is in the film) where the principal French character explains to the American (who is enamoured with the genius of Buster Keaton) just how much more of a genius (he imagines) Chaplin was. Here we have it. The ultimate arrogance: the French intellectual, explaining to the US one the significance of American cinema. Of course he may have got it wrong, and this is the point, since at the end of the film B – apart from thumbing his nose at everyone, with a Je ne regret pas rien – sides with american pragmatism against the allure of European intellectualism.

    Brilliant: this is why we need art. To say the things which otherwise remain unsaid.

    And this is also why Hollywood doesn’t interest me at all: it simply states the obvious. (of course I leave out things like Eastwood’s mystic river, which again is clearly in another class).

    BTW two things which perhaps need to be taken into account in moving from a beta to an alpha version of the theory you present.

    1/ The changed portrayal of the Irish in US cinema (mystic river is a good case in point). Clannish and gangster like. Maybe you could argue that post 09/11 terrorism in general has been re-evaluated (since of course the IRA was never treated in the way Al Quaeda currently is) and the Irish have consequently also come under the big hammer.

    2/. That the scenes you describe are nothing new in US cinema. Back in the days of the Good Soldier Ryan Cahiers was complaining bitterly about the image of the helpless French family stuck in a ruin awaiting rescue from the brave American GI’s.

    Plus ca change.

  7. “But the French (and we Europeans) pay a high price, too”

    I would say Tobias that the final bill on this has yet to be settled.

    If you go back to the twenties, and the role of the Banque de France in making life difficult for the British and the gold standard, surely you could argue there was an economic cost in terms of an exaccerbated European depression.

    In the 1980′s you get the same picture with the undermining of the gold backing for the dollar, which lead to the Louvre and Plaza accords which are in part responsible for the mess we are about to have today.

    Then we have the vanity of vanities the euro. Somehow they managed to convince Kohl (elf???) against the better judgement of a lot of good German economists. The only raison d’etre seems to have been to try and undermine the dollar hegemony, and now we get to pay the price. And oh, what a price it may turn out to be!

    So yes: we Europeans pay a high price, too, for this Bonfire of the Vanities, and it isn’t only a cinematographic one.

  8. I’m not sure that the Frenchification of the enemy in Master and Commander is down entirely to post-9/11 American francophobia. My reaction to the film was less than unreservedly enthusiastic. Still, I’d be prepared to concede that, if one is going to make a single film from the series, the French have got to be the bad guys.

    Mark S.’s surmise — that the 10th book in the series was chosen as the primary source for the film because it was logistically the simplest — is insightful. The only problem is that, as everybody who has read the series knows, the Yanks were the villain of that piece. But viewed in the context of the entire series, turning them into Frenchmen in the film makes sense. O’Brian was clearly very favourably disposed to the Americans. Yet because he began the series rather late in the Napoleonic era (as he later had cause to regret), he couldn’t continue it for very long without running into the War of 1812. The Americans are the enemy in a few books, but the primary enemy of the series is, of course, the French.

    O’Brian portrays the British sea-officers as fighting their transatlantic ‘cousins’ only with great regret. Bt the books are francophobe (or at least, phobic of a certain type of franc) to their core. Jack Aubrey is firmly if mildly xenophobic, but seems to have trouble viewing Americans as quite properly foreign; while Stephen Maturin is forever brooding about ‘that Buonaparte’ and doing all in his power to contribute to his downfall.