Maybe you've seen them, maybe you haven't, but French thrillers are making a comeback in North America. That's good news for people uninterested in art houses solely for the sake of watching foreign films: You don't have to be a Francophile to appreciate smart, meticulously generated suspense, and that's exactly the appeal of several French movies hitting American theaters this year. A steady mixture of warm reviews and positive word-of-mouth appears to have helped Guillame Canet's breathlessly entertaining drama Tell No One land an impressive $240,858 at 18 locations. Earlier this year, veteran auteur Claude Lelouch, long known for his cinematic explorations of eroticism and lawbreaking, remained thematically consistent with a delightfully complex story of double-crossing novelists and dysfunctional families called Roman de Gare. The movie made over $25,000 on two New York screens when it opened in late April, and eventually pulled in more than $1.5 million after expanding to theaters around the country. It's not hard to argue that Tell No One and Roman de Gare put most recent American thrillers to shame. North America, once the haven of film noir, appears to be outsourcing.
As journalist Erica Abeel recently observed in an interview with Canet, "French filmmakers are currently making the best old-style Hollywood thrillers." It's not the first time for a country that has a long history of borrowing from American cinema, and often improving on it. At the beginning of the French New Wave in the early 1960s, former Cahiers du Cinema critics like Jean Luc-Godard discovered Hollywood genre films and decided to make their own loopy versions. The results were often strangely philosophical and experiment works, ranging from Godard's Breathless to François Truffaut's ambitious Shoot the Piano Player. Other members of the movement, particularly Claude Chabrol, took more direct approaches to the genre. Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes (released the same year as the other two aforementioned titles) pits inner city women against urban sexual predators in an adult situation few other movies explored at the time (Alfred Hitchock's Psycho was another). Thanks to a happy accident of timing, the octogenarian Chabrol contributes to this year's resurgence of French thrillers with his deliriously twisted love triangle narrative A Girl Cut in Two, which comes out in North America next month.
To a certain extent, the current popularity of French thrillers in the United States has more to do with Hollywood's decidedly greater interest in blockbuster action films (even the thriller components of Eagle Eye appear to be upstaged by large scale explosions). It's also a trend that owes a bit of its existence to coincidence, since Tell No One opened in France way back in 2006. However, the country's big hits in the United States last year were all period dramas of various types: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, La Vie en Rose and Persepolis. Now it seems that the country is filling a void for audiences interested in thoughtful entertainment with less emphasis on gunplay than calculated excitement. Hopefully, this can lead to a circular arrangement: Just as the French New Wave took cues from Hollywood, perhaps Hollywood can learn a thing or two from the French.
Top: François Cluzet takes flight in 'Tell No One.'