The film, which tops many lists as the greatest film ever made, has no heroes, no villains; it has no right, no wrong; no simple lessons to be learned, no closure. It is as French as it gets, and despite Hollywood’s penchant for remakes, it could never be made in America.
On the other hand, the 1980 “Star Wars” sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” has plenty of heroes and villains: It’s the quintessential American film; it could never have been made in France. “Horizontal boosters. Alluvial dampers? Ow! That’s not it, bring me the hydrospanner.”
The difference is more than merely language; it’s sensibility. Both excellent films, they sum up the divide between European cinema and Hollywood movies, a divide filled by more than the Atlantic Ocean.
One doesn’t have to take sides. There are great films from both sides of the pond. But it is important to realize when you go into the theater that there is a difference and which kind of film you’re about to see. If you’re looking for an amusement-park ride, European cinema probably will bore you to tears; if you want intense drama about the human condition, Hollywood films will feel trivial. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
This is not to dismiss American films. First of all, they remain the most popular films worldwide. Many countries, including France, have felt the need to restrict the percentage of American films available to their citizens, to subsidize the local product. Steven Spielberg would always sell more tickets than Jacques Rivette. It doesn’t matter where you go, American films remain popular.
Second, American films remain the major influence on world cinema: The tics of Hollywood become the universal style of everyone else, too. There are the editing rhythms, the lenses and equipment, the green-screen technology, the CGI — these are all the lingua franca of movies everywhere. Even a quiet film like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s popular “Amelie” would not be possible without computer assistance: Most of its signature color was digitally added.
One should not forget that the inspiration for the French New Wave in the 1960s were the Hollywood films the movement loved. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” is his take on American films, with their gangsters and girlfriends.
We in the U.S. now are exposed to more foreign films than ever before. There are Hong Kong martial-arts films, Bollywood films, the emerging films of China and Korea, not to mention those from Iran, Israel and the Arab world.
All that is in addition to the many French, German, Italian and British films that traditionally have constituted the world of foreign films.
They’re not only in theaters but frequently available on cable channels, on DVD and from Netflix. Even Turner Classics has its percentage of foreign-language films.
It’s nearly impossible for the curious filmgoer to remain provincial in the comparative flood of world cinema.
It is true there are American indie films, but even those, no matter how gritty they are, tend to follow an American world view.
Americans see the world differently, so their films portray the world differently. We prize directness and informality; we despise hypocrisy and airs; we look for answers, not questions. We are fundamentally optimistic.
It is partly a matter of history. Because we have seldom suffered the devastation of war on our homeland, we have a different relationship with the past. Europe is haunted by history; for Americans, history is largely a matter of colorful costumes.
The American writer and director with the most European sensibility is Paul Schrader, who wrote Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and he puts it simply:
“American movies are based on the assumption that life presents you with problems, while European films are based on the conviction that life confronts you with dilemmas — and while problems are something you solve, dilemmas cannot be solved; they’re merely probed.”
The American sensibility demands we open the box to find out if the cat is dead or alive.
For American audiences, an unsolved story is profoundly unsatisfying. We demand closure.
It’s the Oprah in us.