Cinéma du look was a French film movement of the 1980s that had a slick, self-concious visual style. It focussed on young, alienated and almost invariably handsome characters. It was a thrilling blend of high and low (pop) culture and music, dealing with themes of urban loneliness and cosmetic attraction – very much taking its lead from the music videos of the day (breathing in both Punk and New Romanticism). Perhaps the most style conscious movement in the history of the medium, Cinéma du Look was a neon slap of a sub-genre, as sexy in form as maddening in content. Gentry Style pays tribute below to the best Films du Look, each one a slinky, vampirically vapid classic.
THE MOON IN THE GUTTER (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1983)
This is a film of dazzling surface and equally dazzling superficiality. Based on David Goodis’ thriller about a bloodstain on a street and a stevedore obsessed with finding the man who raped his sister and prompted her suicide, the film expands the compressed plot of the novel into a catalogue of glossy images, all of it shot in the studio. The crux of the story is the relationship between the hulking stevedore (Depardieu) and a rich femme (Kinski) who, far from being fatale, represents the impossible dream at the end of his investigative quest. Beineix does manage to charge the affair with a sense of fierce anticipation; that aside, the film seems like an exercise in the non-development of narrative. A superb, startlingly evocative hardboiled thriller.
SUBWAY (Luc Besson, 1985)
This strange combination of comedy, violence, fantasy, and suspense tells the story of Fred (Christopher Lambert), a safe cracker who is hiding in the dark tunnels of the Paris subway system after stealing documents from a shady businessman. There he meets a subterranean society of strange characters and small time crooks. He also finds love with Helena (Isabelle Adjani), robs a train, and starts a rock band. An underground film in the literal sense, the urban alienation and demented characters give the feel of a manic horror in the style of the original Mad Max. Besson was a truly renegade director before he became France’s answer to Jerry Bruckheimer.
DIVA (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981)
Part-thriller, part black comedy, part fairytale, whether viewers find Diva’s fanciful, semi-surrealistic style beguiling or infuriating largely comes down to a matter of personal taste. Beineix’s fusion of high art and pop culture wil be a turn off for some, but investigate closer and you’ll notice the rich, colour-saturated images are reminiscent of Jean Cocteau and the great-granddaddy of surrealist thrillers: Louis Feuillade. Beineix’s background as a commercials director is evident but the glorious text and textures are dizzying. The simple unwinding of the narrative is an undoubtedly joyous experience if your ability to suspend belief is functioning sympathetically.
BAD BLOOD (Leo Carax, 1986)
In a Paris of the not-too-distant future, a mysterious new disease named STBO (er…AIDS) is killing young people who make love without emotional involvement. A serum has been developed, but it is locked away in an office block, out of the reach of those who need it most. An American woman blackmails two ageing crooks, Marc and Hans, into stealing the STBO serum. Marc recruits Alex, a rebellious teenager whose father worked for him before getting himself killed. The slightly ridiculous (and obvious) plot is just a the air on which the visual ribbons flutter in this resplendent existential potboiler. Denis Lavant is shockingly intense as Alex, grimacing before the voyeuristic eye of the camera. A unique blend of science-fiction and post-noir, Bad Blood is a spectacle to be marvelled.
LA FEMME NIKITA (Luc Besson, 1990)
A strung-out sociopath sentenced to death for shooting a cop is instead turned into an assassin by the French government in this exciting, yet thoughtful slant on the “Pygmalion” story. Trained in martial arts and coached by her mentor, she is slowly transformed into a cultured, sophisticated feminine killer. But when she re-enters the real world and falls in love, she finds it impossible to reconcile her new feelings with her profession. Perhaps the most commercially successful of the Cinema du Look movement (later re-made Hollywood style as The Assassin), Besson’s film is a remarkable mixture of metaphysical quandry and martial arts muscle. Hugely enjoyable and extremely slick, many an action film has tried and failed to reach both the depth and heights of La Femme Nikita.