C’est la couleur français ça

Words: Chelsea Haith
Images: Sourced

There is a reason that people think that the air in France looks like it’s been put through an Instagram filter. The insidious nature of French films starring the likes of Audrey Tautou into the sub-consciousness of young romantics in their mid-twenties has led those of us in the English speaking world to assume that France, and Paris in particular, is coloured with rose-water light. Mais, c’est faut. Indeed it is false (Paris is just as polluted by vehicles and amateur graffiti as any other capital). French cinema is more honest than Hollywood but apart from the occasional poetic slip, they adhere to similar colour palates.

Except when directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The colour palate in films like ‘Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain’ known simply as ‘Amélie’ to most mere mortals tends towards the Instagram filter effect, allowing the red raspberries young Amélie eats off her fingers in the opening credits to pop against the green background. Jeunet seems to have employed the same colour in his 2004 film ‘Un long dimanche de fiançailles’ or ‘A Very Long Engagement’, also, surprise, featuring Audrey Tautou.


While Jeunet’s films were particular commercial successes, French cinema is not entirely devoted to sunny afternoons and whimsical Parisian meanderings, no matter what the American tourists may long for when they lounge around on the banks of the Seine. Guillaume Canet, actor, director, scriptwriter and currently to be seen on the arm of Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, has produced some good work that featured no bizarre filters that this writer could see.


In 2006 Canet directed the thriller ‘Ne le dis à personne’, ‘Tell No One’ in English, starring the now hugely celebrated Francois Cluzet as the protagonist searching for his abducted wife. Something French cinema has in abundance is honesty and this film’s plot twist was both heart-breaking and true to life. A multilingual crossover like his partner Cotillard, Canet also directed the English-language film Blood Ties in 2013 starring Clive Owen, Mila Kunis, Billy Crudup and Cotillard. It hadn’t been put through an Instagram filter either.


That honesty that American scriptwriters seem to have no need for, French ones have embraced whole heartedly and Canet can also be seen portraying a rather unlikable chef opposite, surprise, Audrey Tautou, who refreshingly plays ‘une femme de menage’, a cleaning woman, in ‘Ensemble c’est tout’, bizarrely titled ‘Hunting and Gathering’ in English. The film follows three people who have to learn to live around one another due to circumstance and includes all of the awkward social fumbling, miscommunication and truth about human interaction that Hollywood seems to have eschewed.

The major coup d’etat for French cinema relatively recently was the 2011 Intouchables in which the formerly mentioned Cluzet finally claimed his prize as the foremost actor in the French industry. Omar Sy also benefitted from the touching film and moved from playing TV movie and series roles to the big screen on both sides of the language divide landing roles in the latest in the X-Men franchise and ‘L’ecume des jours’ or‘Mood Indigo’, alongside, surprise, Audrey Tautou. Intouchables certainly featured definite colour tones, warm and cold palates are used particularly when differentiating between the ‘banlieues’ or ghettos on the outskirts of Paris and the old money world Sy’s character moves into.

The Intouchables2

While Tautou is the darling of the French film industry, one of the major offerings of the last decade ‘Le scaphandre et le papillon’or ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ (at last, a faithfully translated title!) starred as it’s female lead Marie-Josée Croze, who played the wife in Canet’s ‘Tell No One’. This gives the reader an idea of how incestuous the French film industry is, or perhaps how small the pool is from which to draw talent. Le scaphandre et le papillon is based on the book of the same name by former editor of French Elle magazine Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby suffered a stroke in 1995 and awoke with Locked-in syndrome, unable to move any part of his body except for his left eyelid. He wrote the book using a system called partner-assisted scanning which involves blinking to indicate the desired letter. The film is told from his perspective and as his vision is limited so too is the viewer’s, light and shade playing particular roles in the cinematic retelling of Bauby’s life.

The lack of colour can also be cleverly used to particular effect and while Jules et Jim was filmed in a time when colour was not an option, The Artist, the silent film starring French actor Jean Dujardin actively opted for black and white as a sort of meta-effect on the plot. Sometimes the French are blatant about their choices regarding colour, as in the titling of the films starring Irene Jacob, Juliette Binoche (another industry favourite and international superstar) and Julie Delpy called Trois Couleurs: Rouge, Blanc et Bleu, the play of words intended to suggest the colours of the French flag and the interconnected storylines about urban French society.

Colour draws the eye and of course French cinema will always have a particular cachet. No one who has seen it will forget the gorgeousness that encapsulates Amélie. There will always be something about the different, the foreign that attracts us and if you speak the language, or read fast enough to survive the subtitles, French cinema, new and old, bright or dull, clear or Instagrammed, is a treat for the eye and the mind.