The Popular French Horror Cinematographic Language

The Popular French Horror Cinematographic Language
Copyright © Photograph by Elena Samko
Traditionally, Québécois cinema has been associated with two broad practices. On one hand, we find auteur films: relatively small-scale projects that typically focus on ambivalent individuals struggling with existential angst and moving within a narrative world where realism hides deeper humanist concerns. From Gilles Groulx’s ‘Le Chat dans la sac’ (1964) to Xavier Dolan’s ‘J’ai tué ma mère’ (2009), earnest character studies solidly anchored in the conventions of art cinema have long represented Québec at film festivals and have sometimes gained genuine international recognition. On the other hand, there are light comedies emerging from the theatrical tradition of early twentieth-century burlesque, where sexual innuendo and mild political satire fuse into conservatively subversive entertainment, appealing to large audiences in Francophone Canada for at least the past forty-five years. From Claude Fournier’s ‘Deux femmes en or’ (1970) to Ken Scott’s ‘Starbuck’ (2011), juvenile romps which are occasionally quite insightful in their social commentary, have broken box-office records and have abundantly demonstrated the viability of commercial cinema in the province.

While these two parallel practices continue to dominate, the late 1990s and 2000s have witnessed the emergence of a significant diversification of genres. Historical dramas, crime thrillers, action movies, musicals, science fiction films and, more to the point of this article, cinematic tales of terror are now produced with some regularity and have enjoyed respectable success. This recent rise in the production of genre films is due in no small part to contemporary industrial shifts, mainly the greater emphasis that governmental funding agencies such as Telefilm Canada Corporation and Société de développement des entreprises culturelles have put on profitability over the past decade. As Telefilm Canada Corporation executive director Carolle Brabant indicates in an interview into the American Review of Canadian Studies, the federal agency currently prioritizes projects that are most likely to appeal to Canadian audiences. Consequently, many Canadian filmmakers (both French and English-speaking) have now undertaken to optimize their opportunity for revenue by relying on the tried-and-true formulas of genres. In fact, Telefilm Canada Corporation official guidelines highlight the importance of generic diversity: “The programs are designed to support the development and production of Canadian feature films with strong domestic box office potential. To encourage diversity in feature film production, Telefilm supports a wide range of genres and budgets.” More specifically within the Québec context, Société de développement des entreprises culturelles has also been promoting diversification. As the current President of Société de développement des entreprises culturelles, François Macerola, explains in the commentary that funding for production projects is based in part on “financial and marketing aspects with an eye to maintaining a diversity of genres.” In fact, as early as 2005, Jean Chaput, the President of Société de développement des entreprises culturelles from 2004 to 2009, already extolled the virtues of diversity. “There is no question about it — this is a good time for Québec cinema,” Jean Chaput says. “The industry has matured here, has become diversified. There is room in Québec for auteur-driven features as well as genre films. The quality of films here has vastly improved over a decade. Of course, we feel SODEC has played a role in all of this.”

From Jean Chaput’s vantage point of 2005, 1995 marks the beginning of a decade of improvement for which he takes partial credit on behalf of Société de développement des entreprises culturelles. Not coincidentally, 1995 is the year Jean-Marc Vallée’s crime thriller ‘Liste Noire’ became the first non-comedy genre film to make over one million at the box office; in the process, it helped trigger the successful diversity that we now see in Québec. Homemade genre films like the melodrama ‘Séraphin: un homme et son péché’ by Charles Binamé (2002), the odd-couple cop thriller ‘Bon Cop, Bad Cop’ by Eric Canuel (2006), the sentimental cop comedy ‘De père en flic’ by Émile Gaudreault (2009), and the adventure biopic ‘Piché: entre ciel et terre’ by Sylvain Archambault (2010) have all been box office hits at home. They are not only successful as “Québec movies;” They have also become some of the top-grossing films in Québec regardless of origin. And of course, this generic diversification has also resulted in the production of a significant number of French language horror films.

Generally, a national cinema is viewed as a thriving industry when even its genre films — and especially those in the horror genre — are flourishing, indicating that it is on the verge of maturity. The rise of the American monster movie in the early 1930s, at the dawn of the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, is the most obvious example of the appearance of horror at transitional times, when the industry is still eager to experiment with novel styles and contents, while feeling itself solid enough to survive resistance from the more conservative segments of the population. Universal Pictures production of Tod Browning’s ‘Dracula’ (1931) was spearheaded by Carl Laemmle Jr., the twenty-one-year-old son of the studio’s founder, who in 1930 was “willing to try anything” to find his place alongside the big players such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures Corporation. Along with James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1931), ‘Dracula’ was seen by Carl Laemmle as a means to break with the studio’s “rather cautious and unimaginative policies had left it some distance adrift of the giants of the industry at the end of the 1920s, namely ‘Famous Players,’ ‘Loews,’ and ‘First National’.” These two and the subsequent “streak of inventive and impressive films ranging from subtle to macabre and effects-laden extravaganza took the public by storm forcing even studios unfamiliar with the genre into the fray.”

Similarly, the significant transformations of the British film industry that occurred after World War II, “as post-war austerity evolved into affluence” fostered the advent of horror, “a genre which was especially imaginative and pertinent regarding contemporary social themes.” Struggling to attract audiences at a time of fierce competition from television, British cinema relied on horror to appeal to young spectators eager to experience the kind of naughty thrills that the new medium, still in its innocent infancy, could not possibly provide. It is no surprise that during this transitional period, as British cinema moved from the stuffy historical costume dramas of the 1930s and 1940s to James Bond and The Beatles in the 1960s, “the most commercially successful studio in the late 1950s was Hammer horror.”

In the same way, the current boom of gory horror flicks in Australia represents what Mark David Ryan has called “a growth strategy for producers,” as they seek to escape the existing limitations of “a national cinema driven by public subsidy and valuing ‘equality’ and ‘cultural content’ over ‘entertainment’ and ‘commercialism’.” Tapping into a long, gothic film tradition that emphasizes small casts and secluded locations, such as in the outback slashers ‘Wolf Creek’ by Greg McLean (2005) and ‘Storm Warning’ by Jamie Banks (2007), and relying on special effects that can be realized more cheaply than those of science-fiction, action and fantasy, “Australian horror films are produced on lean — indeed, at times very low — budgets, enabling films to recoup production budgets, some from presales alone. Consequently, Australian horror production is an example of a genre within the broader industry operating within viable budget ranges and may be a driver of sustained low-budget horror production into the future,” says Mark David Ryan. Furthermore, because successful horror depends less on expensive pyrotechnics than on a keen sense of narrative timing and a vivid audio-visual imagination, the production of scary movies can serve as a fertile training ground for young directors eager to learn the trade of proficient filmmaking and move up the ladder of their national film industry.

In these and many other instances, the emergence of horror as a successful genre reflects a set of circumstances where daring creativity mixes with shrewd entrepreneurship (and a healthy dose of sadomasochism) to produce significant artefacts that bespeak the complex inner workings of a nation’s cinematic culture. In some contexts, other genres might appear as signs of transformation and rejuvenation. The example of Italy immediately comes to mind. While horror was part of the industrial movement away from art-house neorealism in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was the “spaghetti western” that most brazenly operated the transition. But the fact remains that the evolutionary leap towards diversification always engenders an emergent genre that can thrive and flourish only under certain specific conditions, including cultural heterogeneity and economic pertinence. We argue that in Québec, horror has been the most flagrant spawn of diversification.

Sarah Genner
Editor & Proofreader
This article has been edited and proofread by Sarah Genner, a successful British Direct Response Marketing Copywriter, voice actor and artist.

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