Almost since the moment the Statue of Liberty was presented to the United States by France, these two movie-mad countries have been projecting their hopes and fears on each other's movie screens. During that time, the relationship between the French and American film industries has varied from an entente cordiale to a Cold War. Economically, if not artistically, French film has trailed American film since the First World War--even in France, often, which is particularly galling to many Gauls. The French love to point out that, in any given week, more than 350 different films can be seen in Paris, but nobody ever points out how many of those films are American. Here in this country, we've done an excellent job of stopping French films at the border, and we're getting better at it all the time. French films account for less than 1% of the American box office these days, down from 8% in the late 1970s. You hear a lot of explanations for this decline: 1) French films aren't as good as they used to be. 2) French films don't have the explosions and special effects we Americans have come to love. 3) Americans won't read subtitles. But I have my own explanation: American distributors have a stereotypical notion of what kind of French film we want to see. The stereotypical French film has some tasteful sex in it and characters who sit around talking about the je ne sais quoi of love. Or it's a historical epic involving a battle between Queen Margot and Colonel Chabert over D'Artagnan's Daughter.
If a current UW film series is any indication, these stereotypes only scratch the surface of what French directors are up to these days. "Tournees: Recent French Cinema" continues this weekend with Benoit Jacquot's 1995 film, A Single Girl, which does something American films are all but terrified of doing: shows us someone working at her job. Virginie Ledoyen's Valerie has just been hired as a room-service waitress at a posh Parisian hotel, and after an opening sequence that has her arguing with her callow boyfriend, we follow her around on her first day at work. At first, the movie's mundanely fascinating, like watching one of those Frederick Wiseman documentaries where nothing and everything happens. Then it dawns on us that Valerie is trapped in a rat's maze of hallways and elevator shafts, the customers and her fellow employees at once too intimate and cruelly distant. Jacquot, whose films have just started to catch on in this country, does a masterful job of trapping us in that maze with Valerie. Shot in something like real-time and real-space, A Single Girl could be called No Exit if this rather determined young woman didn't succeed in finding one.