French Films with a Familiar Twist

Two new DVDs show that European movies aren't just art house sleepers

It used to be that foreign films were, well, foreign. The stuff that played U.S. art houses and sat sequestered in its separate section in American video stores was distinguished by more than language. There was an artfulness, a patience, a willingness to ask viewers to think more and buck ambiguity less, an overall resistance to the lowest common denominator.

Or at least that's how it seemed. What's now delightfully evident, thanks to the full flowering of the home-video revolution in the DVD/download age, is that the cinema of other countries has almost always been as full of entertaining fluff and cash-in schlock as it has brooding meditations. But Hollywood's ongoing bid for global imagination dominance has been reflected back in the films that now wash up on these shores as well. Asian and European horror films compete with, and often surpass, good old American gore, and annoying twentysomething coming-of-age indies come out of, say, Israel as well as Brooklyn. Perhaps nothing testifies more to the contemporary mutability of cinema worldwide than the number of Hollywood projects in development that are based on films from other countries. If the American films turned out better than their source material more often, then we'd be on to something.

Catching up with Francois Truffaut's 1980 The Last Metro, just reissued on DVD and Blu-ray by the obsessives at Criterion, makes for an interesting case study. It was actually something of a brash "Hollywood" move at the time, in the sense that Truffaut cast major Gallic star power, particularly Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. Set during the German occupation of France during World War II, the story involves a famous actress (Deneuve, her usual placidly brilliant self) trying to mount a play under the strictures of occupation while hiding her Jewish director husband (Heinz Bennent) from the Nazis in the theater's basement. When the production's hunky new lead (Depardieu) isn't endangering himself working for the Resistance or picking fights with the Nazis' pet French critic (Jean-Louis Richard), he's exerting an unsuspected romantic pull on Deneuve's harried beauty.

In short, The Last Metro has all the ingredients of a Hollywood potboiler, right down to the quietly urgent title, but no one races for a train here. Even in the life-or-death moments that come with keeping the director out of the camps, there is a calm, a stage-blocked grace to the proceedings. The strains and deceptions of love and war play out, but in glances, asides, dry humor, and quiet confessions, and the ending resolves the love triangle without any definitive declarations. It's perhaps not one of Truffaut's marquee films (his landmark debut The 400 Blows just got a new Criterion DVD and Blu-ray issue, too), but it proves an excellent exemplar of the sort of erudite, deft sensibility that a generation of French filmmakers brought to the table.

Which is not to say Tell No One lacks erudition or deftness or Frenchness, but the 2008 thriller emerges from a different milieu. Here actor/director Guillaume Canet lets the pot go ahead and boil over as Francois Cluzet's Alexandre loses his wife (Marie-Josée Croze) to a mysterious murder; flash forward eight years to Alexandre receiving an e-mail containing a link to a web video showing his wife, alive, on a busy street. As Alexandre tries to find her, and find out what really happened, he's forced to tangle with his conflicted family and in-laws (including Marina Hands, Kristin Scott Thomas, and André Dussollier), suspicious police, and some shadowy types that begin following him, leading to sweaty foot chases, bloody murders, big-shocker revelations, and so on.

With its themes of surveillance, technology, and unearthed skeletons, Tell No One brings to mind 2005 French art-house hit Caché. At various points it also resembles Hitchcock's "wrong man" films, The Vanishing, The Fugitive, even Marathon Man. (Cluzet resembles a tall Dustin Hoffman and there's an awful lot of running.) Truth be told, though, it's nearly identical to hundreds, possibly thousands of other twisty domestic thrillers released all around the world over the past dozen years—it's like a movie made entirely out of other movies. It's made well, no question, with good acting, relentless pacing, and tight plotting that only begins to come unsprung in the final reels, but it's ultimately just a refined version of the kind of tiresome Jodie Foster or Harrison Ford vehicle that Hollywood insists on trundling through theaters every couple of months. And while the New Wave and post-New Wave directors of Truffaut's generation were every bit as obsessed with movies, they added new wrinkles, new ideas, new sensibilities to the dialogue. Now that we're moving closer to all speaking the same cinematic language, we may be losing that sort of accent.