Despite the 60th Annual Cannes Film Festival jury's best director award to American Julian Schnabel last Sunday, the French have long bemoaned Hollywood's negative impact. The left decries the siren song of capitalistic culture; the right foretells the erosion of Europe's preeminent civilization. American movies have siphoned profits from the Gallic film industry, displaced local workers, and incited youthful violence. "It's the Huns all over again," said French cultural minister Fritz Rimbaud. "We will not become the 51 st state."
But here, across the Atlantic, an ominous silence reigns regarding French cinema's negative impact on American critics, many of whom only just returned to our shores from Cannes. This lesser known phenomenon -- the Jules and Jim Effect -- has a potentially poisonous impact on American audiences, who have increasingly lost faith in their reviewers. Who among the current crop has the power of a Canby, a Kael, or a Kauffman?
And what is this insidious phenomenon? French films, with their obsession with l'amour fou, have inflamed critics forced to watch film after film where disaffected middle aged men crave flesh (often young and clad in filmy dresses) outside the marital bed. Who can blame them, sitting in the dark with their penlights, for becoming dissatisfied with current encumbrances and yearning to be wild reeds in a field of libido?
Consider three critics who have abandoned family thanks to French cinema. These are men ethically superior in all other respects, who champion obscure causes -- the Iranian filmmaker, the Korean aesthete, the Spanish octogenarian director. Subtitles do not faze them.
Take Fred: While researching a Truffaut monograph, this newspaper critic realized he hadn't had his allotted 400 blows. The timing was unfortunate. The white-haired Irish Catholic had recently adopted an Ethiopian infant with his vivacious second wife. And Fred's troubled teen-aged daughter from his first marriage had even baby-sat, temporarily secure that while Dad dumped Mom -- and, by extension, her -- it had only been for true love and world peace.
But baby Francoise had a scream that would have halted Hitler at the French border. When Papa Fred escaped to the festival circuit, he gradually dovetailed with a raven-haired film programmer, the daughter of Hollywood lefties still dining out on their tales of near blacklisting. "She's my soul mate," confessed Fred in the lobby of the Toronto Intercontinental Hotel. His eyes expressed remorse, conflict, whorls of depth, but his body was newly limber: he was getting it again, and regularly. He shrugged like Daniel Auteuil and said: "Every ten years I throw my life up in the air and see where it lands."
Not so Gabriel. The influential, pension-fortified newsweekly critic had settled into round middle age when he and his wife began a year of tandem Phen Phen while renovating a Cold Spring Victorian. A season of angry rows followed (short tempers being a side effect of the slimming drug). Somewhere, along with thirty-five pounds, Gabriel had lost himself; his skin sagged off his large frame with a grayish cast giving him the look of a much older man.
Gabriel had taken to driving to Home Depot, recalling the French movie husband who loses his job and never tells his wife, preferring to drive eight hours a day rather than confront the loss of bourgeois respectability. He would wander the Depot, often returning home with nothing more than a hinge. Like Fred, he found solace on the festival circuit, professing a need to explore world cinema unsubstantiated by his editor, who suggested Gabe concentrate on getting his face on the morning shows. In Cannes, he met Stella, an empathetic celebrity booker for a men's monthly. "The marriage was already over," Gabriel confessed later over croissants, running buttery fingers through Stella's Amelie bob and sounding so Eric Rohmer, "I just hadn't left the house."
And then there was Spencer, the Oxford-educated West Indian critic for a conservative monthly. While guest lecturing at Dartmouth, he plucked a French exchange student; she confronted his chauvinism with the most charming accent he'd ever heard. They bought a cozy apartment with Gramercy Park access, but after Antoine arrived, followed by the twins, Spencer belatedly discovered he was no family man. He channeled his frustration into his work, diligently spending daylight hours in places like the Broadway Screening Room, accompanied by Columbia grad students and visiting scholars. Once the lights dimmed, he entwined his fingers around his companion's; after the opening sequence, their clasped hands disappeared, and neighboring reviewers could hear an occasional small gasp (detached from the movie's action.)
"I felt dead from the waist down," Spencer confessed over cocktails at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. How could he engage in films about passion, when he felt gelded? But his wife wasn't buying. When he flew to the Sundance Film Festival, she moved into the New Haven loft of her college roommate, a post-structuralist with an independent income. Together, the women now lived la vie francaise: Antoine had two mamans, and Spencer had become a punch line in a French farce, the cuckold.
This, then, is French cinema's untold domestic toll on American critics: broken homes, abandoned children, intense navel gazing, film festival orgies on corporate expense accounts. French cinema has adversely influenced our finest critics, transforming them into hypocrites incapable of recognizing American cinematic superiority, shelving spouses still in life's prime, crippling the psyches of untold children. These men have become disenfranchised from American family values, mouthing explanations they would criticize as stilted dialog in the most despicable melodrama -- the marriage was over, I was dead from the waist down, every ten years I toss my life in the air and see what happens.
It is, sadly, the Jules and Jim Effect. Recalling Truffaut's French New Wave chestnut, we often only remember the unbridled sexuality of Jeanne Moreau as her character ping-pongs between lovers, a siren promising a brief respite from life's responsibilities in, okay, sin. And good sin! But consider that ending: she silently drives one lover off a bridge to his untimely death. Splash!
Please, protect our domestic critics from this fate. Embargo French cinema before it destroys the American family and corrodes that most American of industries, the movies -- before we're buying popcorn with Euros. Let us preserve our national values, our nation of unhappy, but intact, marriages.