Still from Philippe Lioret’s Welcome

Whether on a shopfront mannequin, the fashion pages of a women’s glossy, or a promising travel brochure, it seems French chic is everywhere in the Australian metropolis. Not that the European nation’s much-celebrated sophisticated, effortless, classic style ever moved from the top rank of our ladder of aspirational Eurocentrism. However, in the noughties, it seemed to temporarily shift from the spotlight, thanks largely to Sex and the City’s New York fetishism.

Ism-s aside, a certain version of Parisian chic is hitting our leisure and style pages again – in the form of stripes, berets, trench coats, Julia Child’s How to Master the Art of French Cooking, chocolate croissant moments, and numerous other tokens of mainstream and sub-stream cultures. But all these symbols of France’s enduring cultural capital fail to articulate the not-so-classical reality of contemporary French life. They almost make us forget the 2005 racial riots in Paris, often euphemistically described as ‘civil unrest’. It also almost makes us overlook that there are other races, other colours, other textures to the classical French myth that is exported to the rest of the world.

For me, a realistic representation of the nation’s multiculturalism began with The Class (entre les murs), a 2008 film directed by Laurent Cantet. Although I am a Francophile in the cinematic department, my consumption of France’s film culture was previously limited to recent soufflé films featuring the likes of Julie Delpy and Juliette Binoche, the quirkier offerings of Audrey Tautou and Michel Gondry, as well as the 1950s and 60s French New Wave led by François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy and others. The Class appropriates the French New Wave’s criticism of a classic auteur-centred style of filmmaking and its embrace of a realist aesthetic  albeit in a post-globalisation context, and with prize-winning results.

My newfound view of ‘coloured’ France was extended when I saw the program for the 2010 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, touring Australia in March. Not only was there an explicit category called ‘Resistance Films’, but the opening night offering, Micmacs, promised to be the best possible hybrid of art and politics. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, of Amelie fame, this film turned out to be kooky, lovely and very now. It centres around a character with a bullet in his head, who joins a commune of eccentrics and takes his revenge on the vagabond arms dealers behind his condition as well as his father’s death. This would have made Micmacs a good-versus-bad tale on par with George’s Bush’s axis of evil archetype, but it is saved by memorably etched characters including a trapeze artist, a maths genius, a motherly chef, a verbose ethnographer and an engineering maverick.

{Please note that the following paragraph discusses the ending of the film.}

The tricks on the warfare capitalists throughout the film are visual treats, but the best is saved for the end. In a satirical take on films set in ‘exotic’ locales, the eccentrics reproduce the smells and sounds of the North African desert in a dilapidated section of a French arms factory, and get the dealers to confess their sins. They are then let off, and the clip of their confessions is posted on YouTube in classic 21st century style. This, for me, is the political triumph of the film – not a sermon, but a viral video.

The next resistance film I watched was well-known director Claire Denis’s White Material, which is set in an unnamed African nation in the throes of a civil conflict. The overall arc of the narrative, while critical of France’s colonial impulse (particularly in North Africa), is not politically redeeming. This lack of hope, and moral degradation surprisingly comes through – not in the figures of the gun-wielding black child soldiers, but in the French son of a coffee plantation-owning family. He goes from being a lazy teenager whom his mother struggles to rouse from bed to a clean-shaven rebel without a cause who runs amok. I was reminded of the rise of militancy in Kashmir, my birth state in India, being attributed to rising youth unemployment.

The teenager’s mother, played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, tries to stay employed and insists on harvesting the crop, but increasingly comes across as stubborn rather than brave. In a postcolonial sense, she is rather like a departing colonial entrepreneur, but her will to stay on casts her in a more favourable light. She is both a native and a foreigner in Africa, and this duality is, in my eyes, the most crucial insight of the film.

Insights abound in the last film I watched at the Festival – director Philippe Lioret’s Welcome. Perhaps due to its commercial success in France, the film has been described in some blurbs as a ‘love story’. There is certainly love in the story, but not just of the romantic kind. It crosses cultural and generational borders. The depiction of Bilal, a young Iraqi trying to make his way across the English Channel to join his girlfriend, is a memorable portrait of a refugee. Loiret makes an effort to normalise him through cross-cultural signifiers like sport, and it pays off. The French swimming instructor who takes the boy in his care at great cost to his own life is one of the most poignant onscreen characters I have seen of late. I will not tell you how this dramatic tale ends, but it left me with a beginning of sorts, one that was poetically political. Perhaps this is the new French classic – one that is appropriately coloured.

The Alliance Française French Film Festival is currently touring Australia. For more details, visit the website.