La nouvelle Nouvelle Vague

A new wave of helmers crests in France

PARIS — “If it’s a movie by somebody instead of for somebody, I smell art,” helmer William Friedkin once said. Who knows what Friedkin would smell if he met Mathieu Kassovitz, Jan Kounen, Gaspar Noe and Francois Ozon — four young French helmers who are making movies by somebody and for somebody.

Representative of a new generation of Gallic helmers, the quartet looks beyond the insular French film industry for material, actors and financing.

“They all have an image of being auteurs,” says Antoine Mesnier, deputy director of development at Gallic exhib UGC. “But they’re all making dynamic films with a modern edge. In that dynamism and the manner in which they’re reinventing genre, there’s something American.”

All four are either making or have just finished their first English-lingo pic. Ozon’s “Swimming Pool,” starring Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier, will bow in competition at Cannes. Kassovitz’s “Gothika,” with Halle Berry and Penelope Cruz, is set to preem Stateside in October via Warner Bros. Kounen’s $34 million Western actioner “Blueberry,” with Vincent Cassel, Michael Madsen and Juliette Lewis, will get a sneak preview at Cannes and opens in France in November. And Noe’s project, a psychedelic, nightmarish image-driven film, is at the script stage.

“We are totally influenced by worldwide culture,” says the 39-year-old Kounen. “We are from a generation that discovered movies from the ’70s in America.”

Noe agrees. “Some directors dream of being Truffaut or Godard, and some others, like us, have seen every single movie that Brian De Palma or Martin Scorsese or Stanley Kubrick did.”

Seeking to strike a balance of art and commerce — and of Europe and America — these helmers seek a broad audience, but they’re also adamant about being true to their vision.

It’s not an easy proposition when you consider the importance placed on auteurism in France.

“I remember when Jean-Jacques Annaud first started doing his films in English –‘The Name of the Rose’ and ‘The Lover’ — and there was this whole controversy here about that,” reminds producer Marc Missonnier, whose company, Fidelite Prods., has produced every one of Ozon’s films. “Traitor is too strong a word, but people said ‘he’s only doing that for commercial reasons.’ ”

“I want to do films that I like, that suit me, not think about the audience all the time,” adds Kounen. “But you can’t be completely the artist, doing the film on your own and just forgetting about everything else.”

“Gothika” is Kassovitz’s second director-for-hire film, after the wildly successful French actioner “Crimson Rivers.” The 35-year-old helmer penned all his previous pics, but unlike the Nouvelle Vague, he is not timid about shaking the auteur mantle.

Doing an English-lingo pic is part of that push toward commercialism, one that has helped make Gallic helmers like Luc Besson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet internationally recognized instead of rarified arthouse names.

“My movie’s about drugs, so I think the subject will exist more in English,” says Noe, 39. “But also doing a film in English is like doing a film in Esperanto — the whole world can understand it.”

Still, Kassovitz, Kounen, Noe and Ozon aren’t about to shake their edgy signature styles altogether. After all, at one time or another, each has been dubbed an enfant terrible.

“In the beginning we were all doing underground movies that were rejected and that no one would finance,” Noe says. “But it’s turned out that the ones who were doing the most daring and shocking films became the most commercial.”

Noe, however, is still shocking audiences. His most recent, “Irreversible,” which competed at Cannes last year, received outraged responses for its moral ambiguity and violence, in particular for a nine-minute rape scene.

And he’s not the only one who has caused seismic tremors in the film community here. Ozon’s second feature film “Criminal Lovers,” which tells the tale of two kids who go on a killing spree after seeing “Natural Born Killers,” caused such a furor, that the 35-year-old helmer almost couldn’t get his fourth film “Under the Sand” financed.

Kounen’s first feature “Dobermann” — a highly stylized, hyperviolent “Bonnie and Clyde” — received a similar reaction. Both “Criminal Lovers” and “Dobermann” received an over-16 rating, the kiss of death for a film’s B.O. in France.

But even though the enfants may have grown up some, the appeal of these helmers’ works is that they are neither Hollywood genre movies nor French auteur pics: They are a provocative hybrid of the two.

“It’s about using the genre film to make your own film,” Kounen says. “You make a genre film because you like the genre. But what’s interesting is that you have a subject that’s very, very personal. Instead of telling your own story that you have lived, you use the genre to project the sense of that story.”

Kounen calls “Blueberry” an action adventure film, but what sets it apart from the majority of films in that category is its mystical side. It’s a new theme for the director, who spent the past few years traveling and learning about shamanism, which plays a large role in “Blueberry.”

Still, for all their international focus, these directors will always come back to France.

“If I had to choose a place to do movies nowadays I would choose France,” the Argentinian-born Noe says. “There are moments when things happen. In Italy the ’60s were great. In Berlin and New York the ’70s were great. In Paris now, things are happening.”

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