What to watch at LFF: French cinema’s new generation

Newness and tales of youth are baked into our idea of French cinema, and the baton is passed to a new generation in some of this year’s best French films.

The Worst Ones (2022)

The idea of newness has long been encoded into the way we think about French cinema. Ever since the advent of the French New Wave in the late 1950s, the word ‘new’ has become part of the package. We tend to operate with the conscious or unconscious assumption that there’s always a New New Wave just around the corner in French cinema, even if that wave only consists of one or two talents. France’s remarkable output in terms of debut features – and the way those films are avidly watched when they make their debut in Cannes or elsewhere – means that every year, the idea of newness in French cinema, of bright untarnished potential, receives another boost.

The possibility of the new has always gone hand in hand with the idea of youth, which has long played a central part in French cinema, given a central place that it has rarely had in British and only sometimes in American films. What Anglo-Saxon viewers might think of as the coming-of-age film tends to have a slightly different inflection in France, where – with 19th-century Romanticism casting a long shadow – such stories are often informed by a literary tradition of tales of social and emotional apprenticeships, stories of learning the ropes, losing one’s illusions, burning fast or burning out.

This year’s BFI London Film Festival brings several very different takes on blazing youth. First-time features director Lola Quivoron offers a dazzling example in Rodeo, about a young woman (compelling newcomer Julie Ledru) who wants to make her mark in the predominantly male field of illicit motocross rodeos. Another debut film, The Worst Ones, by Lise Akoka and Romane Guéret, shows a group of young people getting their start in cinema as non-professional actors in a would-be gritty-realist drama set in their northern French hometown. This too is a sort of apprenticeship story about novices getting to grips with the film industry, but this brittle comedy-drama also questions some standard preconceptions about what youth means on screen. The film’s young characters have to contend with being used as raw material by a somewhat confused Belgian auteur with his own assumptions about youth, class and film: someone who’s clearly watched too many naive films of the sort that The Worst Ones definitely is not.

Winter Boy (2022)

Christophe Honoré’s intensely moving drama Winter Boy is about youth in a different way, and puts a radiantly charismatic young actor at centre stage. It’s a classic tale of social and emotional apprenticeship, the story of a teenager who has to reevaluate his understanding of the world, and himself, after his father dies. It’s a coming-of-age story, certainly, but not a coming-out story, since young Lucas’s sexuality is a given from the start: he just hasn’t quite worked out how it fits in with the rest of his life, and with his emotions.

Sometimes the best films about youth, like Honoré’s film, are made by older directors processing memories of their own youth, or perhaps looking through a detached, ironic lens at what it means to be young: the great Éric Rohmer was already in his 70s when he made some of his finest films about young experience. Rohmer’s cinema of that period underlies the nostalgic reverie of Mikhael Hers’ feature The Passengers of the Night, set in the 1980s; its teenage characters fall in love with cinema through Rohmer’s 1984 film Full Moon in Paris, with its heroine, played by the late Pascale Ogier, embodying that era’s epitome of hip nightlife society. 

Passengers of the Night (2022)

Like Winter Boy – not to mention Mia Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Day – The Passengers of the Night also examines the relationships between parents and children. The lead casting of Charlotte Gainsbourg as the children’s mother reminds us how French cinema has often been about the passing of the cinematic baton from generation to generation. Gainsbourg herself, the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, was once the face of new French youth, in films like Claude Miller’s An Impudent Girl (1985); as was Juliette Binoche, who plays the mother in Winter Boy, and who embodied the young energies of the future in Leos Carax’s science-fiction parable Mauvais sang (1986). 

The baton passes, the generations change, but the idea of youth stays vital. But as in The Passengers of the Night and Winter Boy, the regeneration often comes with one knowing, or dreamy, eye on tradition, inheritance and the past.

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