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6 October 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 5:30am

What lies behind French film’s fascination with the glory days of Les Trente Glorieuses?

A recent spate of biopics focused on the cultural icons of France’s prosperous decades after World War Two prompt the question: what is it about those years that keeps French cinema harking back to them?

By Oliver Farry

France has had – and continues, in many respects, to have – such an overpowering influence in the realms of high culture, intellectual discourse and the production of art that it is often forgotten that the French are as given to flightier things as the rest of us. McDonalds’ biggest market outside the US is L’Héxagone, one of the three busiest KFC outlets in the world is the one at Les Halles in central Paris, and rap and hip-hop took hold in France long before in any other European country. The big domestic box-office successes in French cinema history have not been the more cerebral offerings of Godard, Renoir and Pialat but popular fare such as La Grande Vadrouille (1966), Bienvenue chez les Chi’tis (2008) and Intouchables (2011). For every literary-inclined chanteur such as Alains Bashung and Souchon or Benjamin Biolay, you will find a dozen purveyors of pap and trash, from Patrick Bruel to Mylène Farmer. The French bestseller charts are dominated by much the same names as elsewhere – the Dan Browns, the J K Rowlings and the Steig Larssons – along with a few local pulp writers such as Marc Lévy and his younger upstart rival Guillaume Musso. France is not a bad place to be a literary writer, and there is certainly a healthy respect afforded even young men and women who blithely announce they are “writing a novel” but the sales figures don’t lie: the French are ultimately no more highbrow than other countries.

Of course, none of this is necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, the French are incredibly generous and democratic when it comes to taking low art seriously – don’t forget that the French, intellectuals and civilians alike, love comic books (bandes dessinées) and Jerry Lewis is (rightly, in my view) a subject of serious critical study. However, even though French is possibly the least “alien” foreign language for English-speakers, much of French popular culture has failed to travel far. For decades Serge Gainsbourg was best known to Anglophones for writing a naughty song supposedly containing real sounds of him and Jane Birkin copulating and for drunkenly propositioning Whitney Houston on a talk show. Whenever the BBC wants to accompany film footage of 1960s Paris, it reaches for what seems to be the only (non-naughty) French pop song of the era in its library – Françoise Hardy’s “Comment te dire adieu?” The average British music fan’s knowledge of French rap goes no further than MC Solaar, which causes no end of amusement to French people. It is for this reason that the recent spate of biopics devoted to French pop culture icons of the post-war era has made only a limited dent in the English-speaking world.

La Vie en Rose (2007)

The one that did do well was La Vie en Rose (2007), a biography of Édith Piaf, for which Marion Cotillard won an Oscar and became Hollywood’s most bankable French woman since Juliette Binoche. The film’s success was, of course, helped by the fact that Piaf, or at least a handful of her songs, remains well-known to Anglophone audiences. Even so, the film needed to be retitled, after one of her most famous hits, to make it more requisitely French – the original title was La Môme (“the kid” or “the waif”) which is how she was known in France: though “sparrow” is a direct translation of her stage name “Piaf”, it was rarely invoked in the same way as “The Little Sparrow” was abroad. Olivier Dahan’s film was quintessentially melodramatic in the way mainstream audiences like biopics to be – and Piaf’s life provided rich material for that with a childhood of grinding poverty and illness, followed by spousal abuse, links to organised crime and alcoholism that prematurely aged her before an early death. It was prime Oscar material, providing ample opportunity for grandstanding to an actress not always known for the subtlety of her acting. It was, in short, a perfect example of a very conservative film genre – the biopic. La Vie en Rose gives us a glimpse into a world we vaguely know and tells us what we want to know. There are precious few surprises in it but it is an easily absorbed summation of a life lived and a Paris, and a France, of the imagination.

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The Piaf film was the most successful biography of a cultural icon of Les Trente Glorieuses (“the Glorious Thirty”), the three decades or so of economic growth and prosperity that France, like much of the developed world, experienced from the end of World War II till the Oil Crisis of 1973. Like many such terms, it was coined after the fact, in 1979 by the economist Jean Fourastié, and was originally intended to be applied to the world as a whole. In the French popular imagination though, it is generally held to describe the situation at home and it is often extended a decade or so to when the effects of economic crisis began to be severely felt in the early years of François Mitterand’s presidency. You might even say that Robert Guédiguian’s The Last Mitterand (or Le Promeneur du Champs de Mars) (2005) started this “cycle” of biographies. Based on journalist Jean-Marc Benhamou’s memoirs of life in Mitterand’s circle before the president’s death in 1996, the film is surprisingly generous, coming as it does from a director who is a card-carrying French Communist. Mitterand spent much of his time in office cultivating an image of gravitas intended for posterity, which has stuck despite his hapless past – he was once convicted of staging an attempt on his own life. Having been the nearly-man of French politics for so long, losing two presidential elections and failing to secure the nomination for another, and being absent from government for over two decades, Mitterand’s consecration soon proved to be ill-timed. He was forced to be the handmaiden of deindustrialisation in France’s north and the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National happened on his watch. France was blighted by terrorist attacks throughout the 1980s and perpetrated one itself, the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985.

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The Last Mitterand (2005)

Coluche, l’histoire d’un mec (2008)

There was a brief period in the run-up to the 1981 election in which Mitterand’s chances looked to be threatened by an anarchic comedian, who, even though few took his intended presidential run seriously, had already hit 16 per cent in the polls. The comedian was Coluche (real name Michel Colucci), a brilliantly witty comic of sharp one-liners and a half-scurrilous, half-naive clown stage presence. Though a man of ragingly cynical humour, he also had a clear moral streak that ultimately led to his founding of the soup kitchen charity Les Restaurants du Cœur, which remains a celebrity magnet today. Early on in Antoine de Caunes’ 2008 biopic, Coluche, l’histoire d’un mec, the comedian, played by François-Xavier Demaison, is approached backstage by Mitterand’s éminence grise Jacques Attali, who suggests that he might do the Socialist candidate a favour by dropping out of the race. Unwilling to budge too easily, and desirous of supporting a candidate who will stick up for the poor, Coluche declines to commit. Throughout the rest of the film, there are shadowy intimations of threats against him, without their provenance ever being made explicit. Coluche’s fate has always been subject to conspiracy theories, particularly his death in a motorcycle accident in 1986. De Caunes’ film doesn’t make much hay with that though, suggesting, probably correctly, that the comedian’s fondness for speeding was to blame. Coluche did eventually decide not to run, and ended up weighing in behind the man who took him so seriously as an electoral threat, even if in de Caunes’ version he is rather indifferent when the news comes in of Mitterand’s election in May, something that, for the entire French left, was a momentous historical event.

One of the more obvious reasons why figures from this era are being given the biopic treatment is the historical distance is ripe. There is also a new-found appetite among the French for the private lives of the rich and famous, something that has long been considered prurient by France’s intelligentsia (though it was ultimately not a French film, there was something inevitable that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair would make it to the screen before too long, given this eroded respect for privacy among the French). Another is a nostalgia that encompasses both left and right. The latter look on Les Trente Glorieuses as the last time when France enjoyed full prosperity, unhindered by a sluggish economy and a welfare state that struggles to pay for itself. This narrative of French déclinisme is mirrored by one of a paradise lost for the left, particularly the French Communist Party, which, as late as the 1978 legislative elections, could command as much as 20 per cent of the vote. Mitterand’s election was the start of the Communists’ slide when Georges Marchais got a disappointing 15 per cent in the first round. His and his party’s hardline Stalinism meant that, unlike its Italian counterpart, they were wrong-footed by perestroika, and the collapse of France’s coal and steel industries saw the PCF rapidly lose its core support to both the Socialists and the Front National.

Les Trentes Glorieuses were a time where French leftist discourse still held imperious sway in society, even while the country was governed by Gaullists most of the time. Indeed, though De Gaulle might have won the battle in 1968 when, after dissolving parliament in response to the May student revolt, he easily won elections that September, he lost the war. Social liberalisation soon followed with contraception and abortion being legalised and the death penalty finally outlawed in 1981. In most of the biopics of recent years, May 1968, if it features at all, is kept in the background and there are few explicit mentions of it by the protagonists. Nonetheless some folk heroes of the time are pressed into service as unlikely anti-establishment icons.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (2008)

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (2008)

One of those is bank robber Jacques Mesrine, subject of an excellent two-part film by Jean-François Richet in 2008. Mesrine, who hailed from a middle-class family, was a braqueur and prison-breaker par excellence. He also claimed, in his two memoirs, to have killed 40 people, though many think that was an exaggeration. A man of shifting political principles, he had links with both the far-right OAS and the Baader Meinhof group. Vincent Cassell plays Mesrine in Richet’s films, a role originally meant to be filled by his father Jean-Pierre, and he is physically a perfect fit for the job. The Mesrine films capture the grimy nature of Paris’ northern neighbourhoods in the 1970s and the cross-pollination of organised crime and political radicalism, as Olivier Assayas’ similar Carlos does. Mesrine, despite his capacity for viciousness, became a sort of Robin Hood figure for many French people and his death after a police ambush while on the run in 1979 is contentious to this day (the film, portrays it blatantly as an illegal execution by the police).

Gainsbourg, vie héroïque (2010)

Two of the biggest French pop icons of the era, Claude François and Serge Gainsbourg, were polar opposites, though both were pioneers in music that stood outside the tradition of chanson française. François was a skilled imitator, a man who repackaged rhythm and blues, soul, psychedelia and later disco for a French mainstream market, he became French pop’s first businessman-artist and, in his music as in life, he aimed to please. Gainsbourg was a far less obliging sort, thriving on scandal and a drug and alcohol habit that somehow never impeded his prolific output. Gainsbourg’s music was a career-long enactment of his personality and there was no French singer of his generation so instantly recognisable even as his musical style changed so frequently. It is all the more surprising then that of two recent biopics devoted to them, Gainsbourg: vie héroïque (Johan Sfar, 2010) and Cloclo (Florent Emilio Siri, 2012) it is the François one that is more compelling. Sfar, one of France’s most successful comic-book artists, adapted his own book for his first feature, and took an imaginative approach, interspersing the action with animated sequences, notably with a giant cat that accompanies Gainsbourg throughout. Though Éric Elmosnino, a 46-year-old unknown, looked and sounded the part, Sfar’s film always looks to be playing catch-up with its protagonist, suffers from sluggish pacing and is ultimately a lot less exhilarating than Gainsbourg’s music.

Cloclo (2012)

Cloclo, on the other hand, is a spirited jaunt through the life of a star whose unabashed cheesiness has never dimmed his appeal. Jérémie Rénier, in a role that is a far cry from his early days with the Dardenne brothers, is a splendid incarnation, one who goes from ever-hopeful ingénu to a sharp operator in the world of show business. Claude François was as opportunistic as he was competitive – his breakthrough came courtesy of a nationwide tour timed to coincide with Jonny Hallyday’s absence due to national service and he was wildly jealous of his then girlfriend France Gall’s collaboration with Gainsbourg to win the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest for Luxembourg, with “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”. Outside of the French-speaking world, he was best known for Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, which was adapted from François’ syrupy ballad “Comme d’habitude”. The film portrayal of him is a conventional one but it captures better than many of the rest of the other recent biopics the giddy spirit of the age and goes some of the way to explaining why Claude François’ easily mockable bonhomie was such a success. Like many a pop icon, his legend is nourished by his dying young, at the age of 39 in 1978; his death was tragicomic – electrocuted trying to fix a faulty lightbulb while standing in a wet bathtub (as with Mesrine and Coluche though, rumours abound about the “real” cause of death, which include electrocution during a bizarre orgy). Gainsbourg may have been by far the greater artist but Claude François’ life provided for the more serviceable film.

Yves Saint Laurent (2014)

Many of the icons in these movies mentioned were unknown in the English-speaking world. One who was incredibly well-known outside of France though, in spite of being a recluse in his later years was Yves Saint Laurent, the subject of two biopics released this year. The first was directed by actor Jalil Lespert and came with the imprimatur of the fashion house and Saint Laurent’s executor and former lover, Pierre Bergé. It therefore benefited from using the famous logo for its promotional material and, more significantly, the designer’s own sketches. Perhaps inevitably for an authorised work, Yves Saint Laurent falls short, though not because it presents a sanitised view of a man who had a troubled life, including mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction. If anything, it feels obliged to be so frank in dealing with those, that it forgets to do much else, and the film rarely departs from the standard biopic template. Young French actor Pierre Niney puts in a decent shift as Saint Laurent but the designer’s genius rarely bubbles to the surface and the whole thing appears to be intended to laud the brand rather than explain the man behind it.

Saint Laurent (2014)

A much better effort is Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, which was released in France two weeks ago. Where Lespert’s film was a rather mechanical trek through YSL’s life, Bonello’s is a more fragmented, diffuse and even Proustian experience (in the opening scene, a beleaguered Saint Laurent checks into a hotel under the name “Swann” and replies to the clerk’s query if he has come to Paris to work – “No, I have come to sleep”). Though he was threatened with legal action by Bergé if he used any of the house’s designs, Bonello does a far better job without them in mounting the creative process (he also foregrounds the material aspect, with several excellent scenes involving Saint Laurent’s team of seamstresses). And despite Bergé’s legal threats, he is portrayed very sympathetically (by Jérémie Rénier, again). Gaspard Ulliel, previously best known for a particularly vacuous Chanel commercial directed by Martin Scorsese, is just as mincing as Niney in the role of Saint Laurent but there is more pain, sublimated and un-signposted, there. Bonello also smartly eschews the annoying trend of getting young actors to play their characters in old age; former Visconti muse Helmut Berger is the older Saint Laurent, and the discord between his broken, mournful self and the younger man is striking. The ageing Saint Laurent looking back on a brilliant youth is more than a little reminiscent of France itself, buffeted by economic adversity and less sure of its place in the world, harking back to the glory days of Les Trente Glorieuses.