Hollywood versus the New Vague

Film - Philip Kerr considers the work of the well-known movie moguls Bush, Blair and Chirac

Writing about European film requires as a corollary that you also write about American film, because it is common to define one by contrasting it with the other. For example, it is often argued that whereas American film deals in the cinema of answers with loose ends tied into nice bows, European films allow maximum head room for ambiguity and questions. That's one way of looking at it, I suppose, but to me this kind of argument looks too neat, too much like film criticism of the kind that leaves film-makers themselves amused and bemused. And such analysis hardly reflects the ambiguity that most affects British film: just how European is it? With so many British film-makers working in Hollywood rather than at Ufa Babelsberg, Cinecitta or Canal Plus, is it realistic to think of British film as anything other than Hollywood's answer to Orwell's Airstrip One?

Watching the G8 photocall at Evian-les-Bains the other day, it occurred to me that almost everything you could say about Bush, Blair and Chirac was also true of their respective countries' film industries; all of which set me wondering how we might think of them and their films if, instead of being world leaders, they were successful movie moguls. Perhaps this is not so far-fetched. It is not so long ago that Bill Clinton was being talked up for the top job at the Motion Picture Association of America.

Naturally, a George Bush film has access to enormous budgets. You never forget when you're talking to Dubbya that this is not show friends but show business - and big business, too. But often the movies George chooses to make are criticised for being too simplistic and overreliant on special effects. Instinctively insular in his creative outlook, Bush has learned the cost of ignoring a European audience. Favourite film: Top Gun.

Almost every film that Tony Blair makes is shot with one eye on Hollywood: how will this movie play in America? He answers critics who say he is too slavishly imitative of America by saying that, with no state subsidies, these are the financial realities of making films in Britain. Despite his experience of working with smaller budgets, his enormous ambition means that he still has a tendency to overextend himself, and always seems to be teetering on the brink of a disaster. He would love to be taken more seriously as a film-maker but seems to think that winning an Oscar is the only real measure of success. Favourite film: Notting Hill.

As a film-maker, Jacques Chirac of the New Vague defines himself and his films by his very opposition to American cultural hegemony. Which explains the state subsidies. For a long time no one wanted to see Chirac's films and it was thought his career was over; but it seems that after a period in the wilderness his movies may be making a comeback. These are always perplexing - some would say infuriating - but they are always just charming enough for him to get away with it. Favourite film: Betty Blue.

There is no doubt that until Chirac vetoed Bush's war, French cinema was enjoying something of an American renaissance - Baise-moi notwithstanding. A record 60 French films were released in the US in 2001, including the hugely successful Amelie, followed by 29 more films in 2002. French films hadn't been so popular in the United States since the French nouvelle vague movement, ushered in by Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless in 1960.

But even if one discounts the current unpopularity of the French in America, occasioned by Chirac's refusal to go along with Bush's war plans, it seems unlikely that the fashion for French film in America is ever going to translate into a new golden age of cinema of the kind that existed back in the 1960s. Then the French New Wave - not to mention Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni - helped to create a very special atmosphere in American cinema, as described by Peter Biskind in his excellent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Biskind argues that, strongly influenced by European film-makers, the New Hollywood that existed between Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Heaven's Gate (1980) was the last time that Americans could be consistently proud of the films they made.

It was a revolution and, like most revolutions, it wasn't long before things were back to normal. "We had the naive notion that it was the equipment which would give us the means of production," said Francis Ford Coppola. "Of course, we learned much later that it wasn't the equipment, it was the money."

The money. It's always about the money. That is why things are back to the way they were. Because the studios have the money, bottomless pits of the stuff. For this reason alone, there could be no bigger mistake for European film-makers than to try to match the studios budget for budget. We must never forget that Charlotte Gray lost almost $20m.