Last weekend I went to see Steven Spielberg’s hugely praised new film, The Fabelmans, nominated in seven categories for the Oscars that are coming up this weekend, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Unexpectedly, just before the film began, Spielberg himself popped up on the screen to thank us for coming out to the cinema to see this love letter to his family, that’s also a love letter to cinema, “the most personal film that I’ve made”. He wished us all a good evening.
There were three other people in the audience in the Crouch End Picturehouse. To be sure, this was the first screening of the day, never likely to be packed, yet this still felt a sorry and indicative moment. I was glad the great man couldn’t see us.
The Fabelmans has bombed at the box office, especially in the US. After four weeks of release, it had grossed just $6m domestically, “a disappointing result for a $40 million movie, especially one that hails from the most successful director of all time,” Variety commented. After a month, it became available on pay per view; by the start of March, its worldwide gross was still only $35.2m. It’s the worst financial performance for a Spielberg film ever.
On its opening weekend in the UK, The Fabelmans came fourth at the box office, not only far behind Avatar: The Way of Water, in its seventh weekend, but also trailing the week’s other debuts, the Bollywood film Pathaan, and the Gerard Butler thriller Plane.
They order this matter better in France. Well reviewed here, it may have been, but in France The Fabelmans has received more adulatory reviews than anything for years. The website allociné.fr reported that all but six of the 42 reviews it had collated were five-star ones, giving an average score of 4.9. On the day of its release, The Fabelmans attracted 65,000 viewers, well ahead of many of Spielberg’s past releases such as Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and West Side Story, and went on to become the strongest release of the week, totalling 367,332 entries.
Those reviews repeatedly hailed the movie as “magisterial”, with a full sense of the meaning of the word. “It’s a homage to the seventh art that cannot but make cinephiles vibrate,” proclaimed one writer.
The critic of Les Inrockuptibles found the film to be secretly haunted by François Truffaut. Seeing the way little Sammy Fabelman films a toy train crash in order to control and repeat the emotion it stirs in him, Jacky Goldberg says: “There’s the great Truffaldian lesson – cinema as an art of organised lying rather than wholesale truth, artifice in the service of emotion – that the film will strive both to apply and to put into crisis, in a madly poetic dialectic.” He liked it, I think.
And many of the reviewers responded particularly enthusiastically to the final scene of the aged director John Ford (played by David Lynch) giving the teenage Fabelman unforgettable advice about where to put the horizon in a picture. “He reveals to the boy that cinema is above all an art of disequilibrium and only idiots put the horizon in the middle of the frame. And if one is going to find a moral in The Fabelmans, it would probably be that,” concluded Première’s critic.
So French cinematic culture is different. When Truffaut and his colleagues defined the concept of auteurism in Cahiers du Cinéma in the mid-Fifties, they elevated films by the great Hollywood directors from the realm of popular culture to art as an integral part of their programme. And when Hollywood’s movie brats – including Spielberg and George Lucas, raised on the likes of John Ford, Samuel Fuller and Howard Hawks – as well as the new wave emerged in the Seventies, Cahiers du Cinéma responded with yet more critical adoration. In France, there is still a legacy of respect for great cinéastes, visibly at work in this enthused response to Spielberg’s belated coming-of-age movie.
Actually, Spielberg had been planning a film about his family (originally titled “I’ll Be Home”) for over 20 years. It only emerged, finally, during lockdown, like so many other emotive returns to the past (Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, and James Gray’s Armageddon Time among them).
Back in 2002, Spielberg had expressed doubts about how close the project was to his own life, saying he liked to make films that were “more analogous” than such a literal story. As he said then: “I still think I make personal movies, even if they do look like big commercial popcorn films.”
He was right then. The magic of his films may have come out of the upbringing he has now revealed to us – but it turns out that exposing that childhood directly, showing the workings, is not what mass audiences want to see, not on the big screen anyway. They want dinos, sharks and aliens; skullduggery and adventure – not Spielberg’s own story. Except, perhaps, in France.