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That these movies were treated with revulsion by the French cognoscenti was par for the course with Besson. Indeed, he evidently takes great pleasure in insulting those who seek to dictate and control the critical consensus. This locking of antlers between the art world and his broader commercial instincts is something Besson has had to put up with since his career took off in the mid-1980s.
His initial success coincided with the rise of two other French directors who shared Besson’s gift for capturing the rebel-yell of disaffected youth. Bright, bold and as stylish as an Armani commercial, their work was dismissed by the French critical aristocracy as empty, vacuous apolitical rock-videos. When critic Raphaël Bassan assembled Besson, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax together under the collective “Cinéma du Look” in 1989, he wasn’t being entirely complementary.
As well as idolising François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard or Alain Resnais, the Cinéma du Look directors emulated Hollywood directors like Spielberg, De Palma, Scorsese and Coppola. That this should have inspired such vitriol from the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd was surprising, given that respected organ’s grand tradition of rejecting stifling hegemonies.
It was Truffaut who along with André Bazin, used the auteur theory to deify such directors of populist entertainment as Robert Aldrich, Terence Fisher and most famously Alfred Hitchcock. Why should the Cinéma du Look directors feel any different about their own contemporary Hollywood idols? (It is worth noting that Leos Carax got a considerably more comfortable ride from Cahiers du Cinéma than Besson or Beineix, but then Carax was a former Cahiers writer.)
Neither Carax, Besson nor Beineix welcomed their classification as Cinéma du Look directors, and with each new film they deliberately veered in different directions avoiding stagnation and challenging their audiences. Several motifs unite their work in the 1980s, apart from the dazzling (usually) neon-heavy visuals.
There was an obsessive preoccupation with youth and the struggle to be young, a mistrust of the establishment and of the older generation. Doomed love and amour fou were prevalent themes, as was the regular appearance of motorbikes being chased through tunnels.
Both Beineix and Besson had served their apprenticeships making commercials and their movie work followed on the coat-tails of fellow ad-men like Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Hugh Hudson and Adrian Lyne. The ‘Look’ that Beineix, Besson and Carax pioneered would go on to influence mainstream directors like Tony Scott and Michael Mann – his TV show Miami Vice especially.
It is part of the ever-spinning hoop of existence that teenage children will reject the certainties of their parents’ generation, and that is what happened with the Cinéma du Look. The French Nouvelle Vague directors of the 1950s and 60s had become Gods by the 1980s. The social-realism that had defined their movement had in its own way become as clichéd as the Tradition of Quality cinema it had itself broken away from so deliberately.
Perhaps it is because the Nouvelle Vague movement is still so universally revered and has so successfully stood the test of time, that the Cinéma du Look directors have yet to attain a similar significance but now, thirty-odd years later and with the 1980s in vogue once again, the time is ripe to revisit this vibrant French phenomenon that changed the cinematic landscape so vividly.