Book Review by Leo Collis.
When the subject of French film arises, instant connotations of art cinema, avant-garde productions and typically French subject matter emerge. As argued by Tim Palmer, French cinema is constantly evolving, incredibly varied and often paradoxical, making it one of the most ambitious and culturally important film ecosystems in the world — despite American hegemony. Brutal Intimacy investigates contemporary French cinema, French stars and directors, and the cinephilic landscape of French film education and production.
Following the death of Marcel Marceau in September 2007, a European edition of Time magazine had a headline proclaiming “The Death of French Culture.” This obviously prompted a heated reaction from the French. Palmer also disagrees with the assumption of its “death,” arguing that film is part of a culture that is very much alive. French cinema delivers a diverse range of mainstream popular cinema and obscure arthouse productions, actively developing and encouraging cinephilia within the nation, whilst also being internationally accessible and acclaimed.
In Brutal Intimacy Palmer closely studies a number of French films, ranging from the popular films of Michel Haznavicious, to the often controversial cinéma du corps films from directors such as Claire Denis and Gaspar Noé, in order to identify the varied range of subject matter and themes that are covered in French cinema, as well as its broad accessibility — both locally and internationally. Palmer also discusses the continued growth and sustainability of French cinema, from critical recognitions of first-time filmmakers, to the impact of women in cinema — in response to the history of women’s rights in France and the number of women in film globally.
Brutal Intimacy is an extremely precise study, with Palmer not only showing a vast understanding of French cinema, but also French history. The study of cinéma du corps is especially fascinating; films that exhibit such controversial and discomforting subjects as self-mutilation, aggressive sexual acts, and scenes of graphic violence. Palmer acknowledges these films’ shocking content, but evaluates them with consideration to their relevance within French film culture as a whole. Instead of dismissing these films as an attempt to cause controversy or to elicit anger, Palmer discusses the genre’s importance as a means of pushing cinematic boundaries and changing the perception of the potential of film.
Although this is not for the film novice, Brutal Intimacy is essential for anyone with an interest in studying French cinema — especially since it is one of the few scholarly publications to study French films of the last decade. Not only does it identify some of the most interesting and innovative French films, it also accepts that mainstream cinema is a part of the general landscape — artistically and commercially — and should not be neglected due to its greater popularity or lack of perceived intellectual property. In fact, Palmer argues that some popular French cinema does have strong cinephilic roots and that the chasm between art and popular film is often not that wide. The book also offers a compelling and effective argument for France’s past and present position at the forefront of the world film industry, with particular attention to young and first-time filmmakers.
Written intelligently and with great fervour, Brutal Intimacy is a successful first book from Palmer and a welcome addition to French film scholarship. Not only should it be of great help to undergraduate students, but also to existing cinema literates and teachers, looking to further their learning and understanding of the modern French film environment.
Leo Collis is a Film, Media and Journalism graduate from The University of Stirling. Now an aspiring film writer, Leo is looking for projects that will challenge him and further increase his love of film.
Read Leo Collis’s interview with Tim Palmer here.
Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema, Tim Palmer, (2011), Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 286pp., ISBN 978-0-8195-6826-7 (hbk) $80, ISBN 978-0-8195-6827-4 (pbk), $28.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-7000-0 (e-book) $22.99