Breaking the Fourth Wall with Madame North

151MM: In your opinion, how do French films and cinematography differ from American films and cinematography?

GN: One crucial difference is that French people like comedy so we have many more French films related to comedy, which reflects the French culture. Many aspects of the French culture are not able to travel overseas because they might be overlooked or not understood. So the first [difference]  is that a large part of French cinema is comedy, [and the second difference is that] we don’t really like special effects. The best example [of French cinema] is [Mathieu] Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995)—[it has] a lot of closeups, assistant characters, a lot of emotions. A French movie is not really about action… it’s about showing a story. Action movies are more of an American type [of] movie. These are more, not romantic, because French movies are not really romantic, but it is the story of life, and we are not afraid to include, at the end of the movie, something really dramatic and surprising. The main difference is that here, in America, the main character you expect to be fine and good at the end of the movie, but in a French movie, anything can happen. The aesthetics of a French movie are very different because it has fewer special effects.


151MM: Are there any similarities between French films and American films?

GN: Yes, there are a few similarities. What is funny is that sometimes American [studios] like to make remake[s] of French movies. So a very famous movie, Le Diner de Cons (1998), was remade. There was also Les Intouchables (2011), [which] was remade into The Untouchables (2012). The similarities [are] that for some reason, the American public wanted to have a deeper connection with French movies. French cinema also loves American movies. For example, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) inspired a French musical, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). So, it’s a constant exchange, inspiration doesn’t go one way or the other.


151MM: What are some French films that you think everyone should watch? Why?

GN: The masterpiece of French cinema is La Haine (1995) by Mathieu Kassovitz, a movie about French suburbs 25 years ago. It’s a constant reference for French politics—during the French election, candidates on both sides were referring to quotes from that movie… and it is a masterpiece. Another one in France is Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001) by Jean Jeunet. It’s a romantic movie about Paris. The way that it is filmed [is wonderful]. I think everything from Jean Jeunet must be seen. Kassovitz started to work on more politically active movies, and was inspired from British cinema, and his movies are very social-political with topics such as immigration and colonization.


151MM: What are some of the different French films that your students watch in French VI A and what genres do they belong to? How are those films chosen?

GN: Every year, I plan categories of movies, [centered on] themes, so for example I started with immigration movies. In my immigration unit, I do not have one movie, I have ten of them. So two of them are features movies. Every year, all of my students watch different movies, and I make them write reviews. This was year three of my curriculum, so till now I’ve gotten reviews from year one to year three, and I try to pick the ones that got the most interest from students. We also did a unit on war, because French cinema has a lot of war, and I wanted students to know some of the dark sides of France. One of the movies, talks about how the French police were collaborating with the Nazis and giving them kids during World War II, in La Rafle (2010). Some movies talk about aspects of French society that nobody knows about, so I want students to see them. For example, soccer plays an important part in French culture, and we have a full unit on soccer.


151MM: How big of a pastime is movie watching in France?

GN: Movie watching is a constant activity in France. That’s the only thing we do. When we have time, we like to watch movies in the theater and we can buy a pass for a membership to the theater for a monthly pass and we can go to the movie theater at any time. So I used to watch movies every single day, not like here once a week. Events like the Cannes Festival, are very accessible and are not expensive, and we go with students. Cinema, in school also plays a big role. We have a selection of movies in each high school and middle school, and we take all of our students to the theater to watch them. We want to be sure that French students know about movies from France, but if they study a foreign language, [then they watch films in those languages as well].