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The Great Escape

Hollywood’s gloss on reality makes Olivia Glazebrook want to weep. Why can’t the Americans learn from the French?

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

9 October 2010

12:00 AM

Hollywood’s gloss on reality makes Olivia Glazebrook want to weep. Why can’t the Americans learn from the French?

When Hollywood wants to captivate an audience of ‘grown-ups’ — those who have become desperate to escape the awful dreariness and suffering of their everyday lives — it shows them an alternative soothing world into which they can be plugged, for just a few hours.

These poor suckers — we’ll call them ‘cinema-goers’ — yearn for this glossy, idealised world, which will be not a dream (because dreams can be puzzling and obtuse) but a calming vision, populated by beautiful characters who will look human, but not too human. These characters will tend to inhabit large, bare apartments to signify their isolation, or large, cluttered houses to signify their domesticity. A flashback to a golden past (featuring a woman and/or children) will alert us to their regret. Speech will be instructive: men will explain to puzzled women where they are, in a physical or emotional sense, and where they are going next — just like giving directions. Surprises — buildings exploding or cars crashing — will happen in slow motion and be accompanied by music. There may be wrongs — jeopardy, wounding or even death — but they will always be righted so that the cinema-goers need suffer no anxiety or unease beyond the walls of the multiplex. Such resonance would be most unwelcome.

This type of film is not fantasy but nor is it realism. It showcases a world that seems like ours, and is advertised as ours, but has been improved. Thanks to computer-generated imagery, not only its surfaces but also its inhabitants have been ironed of their creases, and their behaviour is correspondingly smooth: their speech is a glib shorthand and they respond to events with skilful, learned motions. We might recognise what they say not because it is familiar to our own experience but because we have seen similar films. Even the weather, in this better world, has been retuned: on sad days it rains and on happy days the sun shines.

Such films tranquillise and subdue us. Like extended commercials, they taunt us with a hyper-reality just beyond our means, our reach and our understanding. We are not expected truly to believe that the characters of Sex and the City 2 might live and breathe or walk among us on the sidewalks of the real New York City. We are expected merely to accept the likeness that the film proposes for its duration.

When we wish to see what is familiar — puzzling, tiring, grubby — on the cinema screen, we have learnt to expect that it will come with subtitles. Of the four French films I saw in July — Leaving, White Material, Rapt and Heartbreaker — three (the last being the exception) created environments that are entirely persuasive, populated by characters who might exist quite naturally outside the context of their story.

These are not ‘comedy’ or ‘action’ films but stories that contain comic and tragic incident. Romance is not offered as a reward in the final scene like a choccy drop for a good dog: relationships are already in place at the beginning of the film and marriage (rather than just a wedding ceremony) is, in two cases, integral to the story. Domestic life is not presented in soft focus as a tantalising promise, a blissful reward for a lifetime escaping from exploding buildings. Women are selfish, forthright and complicated, as are men, and children are sometimes loving but often difficult, rude and spoilt — they neither idolise nor demonise their parents.

European cinema feels a responsibility to confront and challenge its audience and Hollywood, at its best, takes its responsibility to entertain equally seriously. Nowhere is this more important than in a children’s film: children are the most watchful and least forgiving of all audiences and shoddy workmanship will not be tolerated. Because of its acute and diligent characterisation, and its confrontation of the themes of real experience, this summer’s Toy Story 3 shows us that a cartoon for kids about the secret life of toys can make an emotional connection beyond its remit, making helpless crybabies of parents and even of film critics. ‘Truly wonderful,’ proclaimed the Observer. ‘There are good reasons for being alive in these dismal days of the second decade of the 21st century.’ ‘The great weepie of the decade,’ sobbed the Sunday Times. ‘Not only a masterpiece but…the most heart-rending film I have ever seen,’ gushed the Evening Standard.

When I go to see Toy Story 3 I have volunteered to be spellbound, to make-believe. I will willingly accept the fantasy — walking, talking toys — as long as the fate of those toys concerns me. If their dilemmas are sufficiently human and familiar, I will be convinced that in this reality, just as in mine, injury will hurt and death is to be feared. A Hollywood film that takes place somewhere between truth and fiction, in that strange hyper-reality with its smooth-skinned inhabitants, does not transport (like Toy Story 3) or confront (like White Material) but deceives. It might be blatantly silly, as is Sex and the City 2, or it might be billed as grown-up entertainment. The recent Inception uses all manner of trickery to try to lend itself significance. ‘It looks amazing,’ people say of it. ‘The quality of the sound is amazing.’ Well, gosh — a display of fireworks looks and sounds amazing, and that at least is mercifully short by comparison. If only the creators of Inception had concentrated as much on making its reality convince as its fantasy astonish.

Inception even resorted to cheating, changing the rules halfway through like a bad loser during a game of Scrabble. Early in the film we learn that if a character dies in a dream he will wake up in real life, but later on someone who has been badly injured in a dream cannot be ‘killed’ to wake him because, we are told, that previous law is now out of date: if this man dies in this dream he will be dead in the real world. Outrageous! The same inconsistency would never occur in a film as accomplished as Toy Story 3 because if it did every child in the cinema would spot that they had been conned and fling down their popcorn in disgust.

Unfortunately, the urge to gloss over boring details such as story and characterisation seems to have crossed the Atlantic. Heartbreaker, a French romantic comedy also released in July, is a sinister deviation from the honest tradition of either realism or slapstick. Its intention, apparently, is to demonstrate that the French are as capable as the Americans of spoonfeeding an audience with ‘multiplex formula’, and it entirely succeeds in this aim. It is a soothing lullaby containing protagonists who have mastered the slick, structured behaviour and appearance of their Hollywood counterparts. It is located in a place similar to France, but with a touch of Las Vegas: Monaco.

It is this type of film that makes me want to throw myself to the cinema floor and sob like a film critic — not the film that is set in the real world of men, women and cloudy days, and not the film that imagines a world containing vampires, mega-piranhas or superheroes, but the film that tells lies about this world, giving it a facelift just for the sake of it. Such a world of artifice seems more distant than a far-off galaxy; its occupants less lifelike, and more lifeless, than the toys in the toybox.

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