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Foreign Film Friday: an introduction to the French 'cinema du look'


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Le cinéma du look was a 1980s movement of French cinema, centring on the works of a trinity of directors: Luc Besson, Jean-Jacques Beineix, and Leos Carax. Films belonging to this genre emphasise visual style over substance or narrative, with slick and aesthetic cinematography.

The movement was initially scorned by French film critics for their alleged fetishism of the image and their apparent embracement of mass consumer culture, over intellectual and psychological substance. Similar criticisms were made of le look characters, often functioning as objects rather than complex individuals, graphic representations of the alienated youth of François Mitterrand’s France.

This felt marginalisation of the younger generation translated into cinematic themes that include the dominance of peer groups over biological families, a distrust of the police, the recurring use of Paris Métro scenes as a symbol of an alternative and underground community, and doomed romantic relationships.

Those who appreciated le look movement drew links between it and the postmodern. Its creation of a new cinematic language influenced by a mixture of popular culture and ‘high’ art led one of the foremost postmodern theorists, Fredric Jameson in his 1982 essay, to assign Beineix’s Diva as France’s first postmodern film.

Regardless of one’s views of the cinéma du look, it’s difficult to negate that Besson, Beineix and Carax’s works were culturally iconic. Therefore, included below is a roundup of five films to introduce you to the French cinéma du look.

1. Diva (1981)

The atmospheric thriller film is directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix and features Jules, a mail delivery boy, who becomes spellbound by American opera diva Cynthia Hawkins’ voice. Jules’ recordings of her voice become mixed up with another tape, once which incriminates a corrupt police chief. Once the mix-up is discovered, Jules becomes a mob target intent on keeping him quiet.

2. Subway (1985)

Luc Besson’s comedy drama sees a man who, after having stolen incriminating documents, finds refuge in the dynamic and strange world of the Parisian underground metro. A man hunt ensues below ground, during which an unexpected relationship between the thief and his victim becomes exposed.

3. Mauvais sang (1986)

Also known as The Night is Young, Leos Carax’s film is set in future Paris where a disease by the name of STBO is killing young people who have sex without emotional involvement. There is a cure, but it is locked away out of the sufferers’ reach; until a woman blackmails two criminals into stealing the STBO serum for her.

4. Au revoir les enfants (1987)

This autobiographical film was written, directed, and produced by Louis Malle. Set in 1944, the film follows Julien, a student at a boarding school in Nazi-occupied France. Three new students arrive during Julien’s stay, including Jean Bonnett, with whom he will eventually form a close bond. What he does not know is that these boys are Jews evading Nazi capture.  

5. La femme Nikita (1990)

Another of Luc Besson’s creations, the is about Nikita, a teenager who is sentenced to life in prison after robbing a pharmacy and killing a police officer. Once in prison, her captors fake her death and offer her the choice either to be killed, or to become an assassin working for them.


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