Space, place and the past: the construction of national cinema and identity in the contemporary 'film de patrimoine' in France

Esposito, Maria (1999) Space, place and the past: the construction of national cinema and identity in the contemporary 'film de patrimoine' in France. Doctoral thesis, University of North London.


This thesis aims to identify a recent genre in French cinema, namely the film de patrimoine. Through a consideration of the social, cultural and economic context and textual features of this body of films, I intend to develop a critical language appropriate for the analysis of this genre. While the British heritage film can be used as a major filmic point of reference for high budget French costume dramas, I will argue that a separate theoretical model needs to be constructed in order to accommodate the national specificity of this form of filmmaking. My argument proceeds from the idea that the film de patrimoine can be distinguished by contextual and textual characteristics both of which respond to the demands and limitations of the film market in France. From a contextual perspective the production of the film de patrimoine is determined by the relationship between protectionist cultural imperatives and industrial strategies deployed to promote national cinema. From a textual perspective it can be said that this genre is marked by the projection of the national landscape, particularly of the South, thereby casting geography as a generic site of enunciation. In order to illustrate my argument I will examine the wider cultural discourses underpinning the film de patrimoine in the first instance and then provide close readings of three key films.

Clearly the underlying motivation outlined above demands that a multitude of concepts, which are clustered around the notion of the past, the nation and cinema, are given detailed consideration within a context relevant to France and to French cinematic production. The three primary areas of research and debate involved in the analysis of the contemporary French costume drama and its cultural and economic significance can be broadly defined as heritage, national cinema and identity. Although the logic supporting the French costume drama can be regarded as a synthesis of all three, each element will be isolated in turn for careful consideration. The main theoretical point of departure will be the notion of heritage and heritage culture. In the absence of a critical debate on this subject in France, this thesis attempts to construct a set of discursive parameters relevant to the concept of `patrimoine' which can then be considered in relation to the filmic texts analysed. Taking British heritage culture as its main referent, I analyse the significance of the past in contemporary French society, considering the recent evolution of the term `patrimoine' and its application to an increasingly wide body of artefacts. Given that the films examined here can be seen to patrimonialise elements of the national territory it is particularly important to explore the value of heritage as expressed by the spatialisation of `patrimoine'. Thus my analyses of Jean de Florette (Claude Berri, 1986), Ridicule (Patrice Leconte, 1996) and Le Hussard sur le toit (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1995) will determine to what extent geography acts as a marker of national identity. The textual analyses will also highlight the ways in which France and Frenchness are constructed and articulated by the narrative, the stars, the mise-en-scene and the period chosen for re-creation.

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