Cultural Space as Political Metaphor: the Case of the European ‘Quality’ Film


The paper uses case studies drawn from the European Cinema Yearbook to suggest a definition of a sector of the European film industry which can be defined as the ‘quality’ film. The genre has developed out of art cinema practice and represents an attempt by European filmmakers to compete with big-budget US films, at the same time as they examine serious issues arising from the European experience of life at the end of the twentieth century. The paper concludes that the ‘quality’ sector of the film industry provides a metaphor for the effects of globalization on cultural expression.
(99 words)
Dr Mary P Wood,
Senior Lecturer in Media Studies,
Faculty of Continuing Education,
Birkbeck College, University of London
26 Russell Square,
London WC1B 5DQ
home e.mail:
Curriculum vitae
Mary Wood is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Birkbeck College University of London, where she is responsible for a large programme of media studies courses offered to the London community. Birkbeck College is the College of the University of London which specializes in the teaching of adult students. She teaches Film Studies at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Her research field is the Italian film industry, and in particular the films of Francesco Rosi. She is completing a study of the Italian film and video industries, and is writing a book on contemporary European cinema to be published by Arnold in 2001. Her most recent publications include "Francesco Rosi: heightened realism" in John Boorman and Walter Donohue (eds): Projections 8 (Faber and Faber, 1998), and a chapter on Anna Magnani in Ulrike Sieglohr (ed): Heroines Without Heroes: Reconstructing Female and National Identities in European Cinema 1945-1951, to be published by Cassell in December 1999.
Cultural Space as Political Metaphor: the Case of the European ‘Quality’ Film
The approach of the new millennium suggests an opportunity to assess changes in European film production, looking back at how the European film industries carved out niches in their own market, and forward to the opportunities and dangers represented by new technological developments. This paper will consider a particular cinematic form which has evolved out of art cinema practice, which we will call the ‘quality’ film. The statistics published in the 1998 European Cinema Yearbook suggest interesting reasons for the evolution of this particular form, but also leave tantalising areas unexplored.
The experience in the immediate postwar period of the release onto the European market of the backlog of US films was a metaphor for cultural imperialism which could not but strike the attention of politicians, critics and filmmakers. It led to the formation of industry lobbies for the state to take some responsibility for protecting national cultural expression. In particular, subventions for films which would enhance national cultural prestige, and which might otherwise not be made, were regarded as important. As a result, the emphasis on prestige and 'quality', was effective in encouraging producers to identify certain directors and creative workers who would be likely to deliver the product necessary to qualify for these attractive financial incentives.
Art cinema can be seen, therefore, as an attempt by Europeans to counter US domination of the film industry in the immediate postwar period; 'art cinema' evolved its own industrial and institutional forms, such as art house circuits of distribution and exhibition, and critics who were essential to the process of defining quality. 'Quality' and 'art' came to be associated with a stress on visual style, the suppression of action in the Hollywood sense, the emphasis on character rather than plot, and the interiorisation of dramatic conflict1. The art film developed different codes and conventions from the mainstream, consistently providing marks of enunciation which revealed the guiding hand of the director/auteur. The task of the critic was to identify and explain these stylistic flourishes which also enabled a film to be marketed as a 'Rosi film', 'the latest 'Almodóvar’. The evolution of art cinema and the stress on the creativity of the individual auteur, did not, however, mean that financial pressures could be ignored.
What I would like to suggest is that many art film directors used their cultural background, and the structures of their national (and then international) film industries, in order to indicate their position as the controlling force behind the films. That is, they exploited the potential of the 'art cinema' sector and moved from art to 'quality cinema' over time. In doing this they were supported by, and took advantage of, wider developments in the media industries, such as the expansion of television, cable, satellite and video. From the 1980s onwards, we see the development of big budget films, made largely with co-production deals, directed by well-known directors (often associated with art cinema practice), but firmly directed at a mainstream, mass audience. Critics have neglected to explore this category, or to discuss the changes in narrative style and techniques that aiming at a mass audience have entailed in the work of individual directors. We can define 'quality' cinema as similar to 'art' cinema in its validation of the director as guarantor of originality in conceiving the project and of technical mastery of cinematic techniques. 'Quality' cinema differs in that it is an industrial category rather than a critical one, with all the implications of high production values, large budgets and wide distribution.
European cinema has moved from a relatively simple capitalist model of production to an increasingly fragmented and complex model as the media industries developed. The majority of returns on a film's production will not nowadays be received from film distribution, but from broadcasting co-production pre-sales, videocassette deals of various sorts, video games, dvd disks, and sponsorship. These areas are only hinted at in the European Cinema Yearbook. On the one hand we can see the development of characteristic postmodern industrial forms which Harvey calls those of "flexible accumulation"2. This is characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets and greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological and organizational innovation. On the other hand it only becomes possible to make a very individualistic, unconventional film within the low-budget sector of the media industries. High budget films have to be exploited in as many territories as possible, that is internationally, and in as many forms as possible.
In this financial climate, the choice of film project is extremely important. If you are a director who has a reputation for competence in the sphere of big budget, art or quality cinema, you need projects which are internationally exportable, because your film will not amortize its costs on the home market. You need to find a project which will find some recognition with international audiences, hence the consistent use by all European (and increasingly the American) film industries of the books of well-known or cult authors. Moreover, the author you choose must be of a status commensurate with your own.
It can also be argued that industrial constraints - the need to maximize selling opportunities of a variety of products besides the film itself, and the mass-appeal imperatives of commercial broadcasting - have resulted in the increased homogenization of prestige productions from both sides of the Atlantic. As Rossi suggested, commercial concerns have an effect on form:

"Berlusconi recently enunciated the iron principles of production as: "filmed in English, with the needs of the international market in mind and with no sequence lasting more than 7 minutes, in order to facilitate the harmonious placing of adverts when the film is broadcast"3. On the other hand, we can observe increased attempts, by individual European states, and by the European Union, to combat these accumulative tendencies by creating a space for expressions of the local, and of national identity. Germany’s subsidies for film programming and the release of prints, the tax relief scheme formerly known as Section 35 in Ireland are examples. Film directors cannot but help, therefore, having to engage with not one but many cultural industries in order to continue making films.
Examining those films which appear in national, European or overall top ten categories in the context of how film exhibition and distribution is ordered, and appears to be developing, can provide some insights into how the ‘quality’film functions, what the necessary conditions might be for its continued health.
The most consistent presence in the top ten lists is Luc Besson’s Le cinquième element (France, 1997). Besson’s film is both a science fiction blockbuster made with US stars and stunning special effects, and an example of the ‘quality’ film by virtue of its director, production company (Gaumont), and the eight César nominations which it received. Besson manages to add something to the genre with his brilliantly staged set pieces, his visual flair in the retro-tech mise en scène, humour and mastery of cinematic irony. Moreover, the original 503 prints struck for France, were augmented by a batch of new prints when the film was re-released there in February 1998 to coincide with the video launch, through which Columbia TriStar and Gaumont confidently expected to ship more than three million units4. The Gaumont company has consistently been associated with big-budget, ‘quality’ cinema by established directors associated with art film practice. Gaumont also has a music recording arm, and the necessary infrastructure to exploit its productions to the full. The film is also a wide-screen, digital Dolby stereo production which destines it for large, technologically advanced exhibition conditions.
Pedro Almodóvar’s Carne trémula was similarly a widescreen, Dolby SR digital production and, although produced by the Almodóvars’ El Deseo production company, used Spain/France co-production finance to consolidate the director’s move into bigger budget productions. Again, the guiding creative drive of the director was emphasized in the film’s round of the festivals, as were the number of metaphysical issues addressed under the guise of a melodramatic plot and Almodóvar’s use of symbol and colour.
Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (UK/USA, 1996) was another widescreen production with Dolby digital stereo, classic songs on the soundtrack and the involvement of Polygram in production and distribution. Polygram has been particularly significant in its application of the market research and niche targeting of the music industry to that of film and the company’s presence in several media fields has maximized film profits. Made by an acclaimed New Zealand director who had made the transition from experimental feminist film to the internationally successful, The Piano, the film was both praised and criticized for its interpretation of James’ book, and for the sumptuous costumes and stylistic flourishes which set it apart from other costume dramas.
Where films do not succeed in having an enormous international distribution, they may still manage to make their mark through production deals with television and satellite. Francesco Rosi’s La tregua (Italy/France/Switzerland/Germany, 1996) is a case in point. Made with the collaboration of Italian state television, RAI, and Canal plus, La tregua (The Truce) is the story of a journey home of survivors of the holocaust (based on a successful book by Primo Levi). It is listed at number ten of Italian national films but, although it opened the Jewish Film Festival in London in 1997, it has not had a cinema release in Britain. It has had wide satellite exposure, and has appeared both as a sell-through video and as an Italian newsstand video title. The marketing of the film stressed the prestige of the filmmaker, Rosi, as much as the author, Levi. Moreover, Rosi’s previous use of the investigative mode has schooled him in the simple, direct, unambiguous presentation of ideas, something which is absolutely essential to such a complex and difficult subject.
The marketing of directors and the vidéothèque phenomenon, however, tend to reinforce a director's existing profile and to militate against creative changes. Directors, therefore, rapidly become associated with a particular genre or type of film. Rosi's recent work is typified by a very postmodern nostalgia, by less critical success, and by difficulties in maintaining a convincing political agenda. All three are bound up in the crisis of metanarratives identified by Lyotard5.
Many film directors illustrate these difficulties, and the Italian cinema is no exception in its exploration of national and personal identity at the end of the millennium, or in its difficulties in exhibiting a progressive gender ideology. All of these difficulties are encapsulated in Bille August’s Fräulein Smillas Gespür für Schnee (Germany/Denmark/Sweden, 1996). The film was produced by Constantin Film which, as the European Cinema Yearbook shows, is also vertically integrated and active in film distribution. It is a widescreen, Dolby digital production with an international cast but also profited from subventions from the Eurimages programme, the Nordic Film and TV Fund, the Danish Film Institute and Bavarian FilmFernsehFonds. An adaptation of a book by a widely translated cult author, it features as number one in Denmark’s overall top ten films for 1997 and was distributed in depth in Germany and Scandinavia. The film was criticized for its difficulty in dealing with an intelligent heroine, lapsing into stereotype and, most tellingly: "Such films look spectacular, feature high-profile stars, and sometimes rake in returns at the box office… but they’re always likely to lack the conviction that filmmakers can bring to more modest projects, made in their own language and rooted in their own culture."6 Those filmmakers wishing to develop beyond the confines of national, low-budget film have the choice between the commercial, family film, or the ‘quality’ film genre. Once in the ‘quality’ sector, it appears to be difficult to return to modestly-financed production. Filmmakers become trapped by the structures of the industry in which they have had some success, with the result that they are offered big budget, international, complex projects where polemical debate and incisive critiques of society are inappropriate. These projects, characterized by technical expertise, set pieces of showy mise en scène, complex narratives, serious ideas, and the personal signature and commitment of one person, the director/author, provide definitions of the 'quality' genre.
The European Cinema Yearbook’s material on vertical integration between distribution and exhition and the analysis of the trend towards multi-screen cinemas would indicate a continued polarization in the European film industry. The ideal of the modestly financed film which brings in many times its production costs (such as The Full Monty) becomes more difficult with the development of the multiplex cinema, which is usually owned and programmed by a US company. The international, ‘quality’ cinema is one solution to the problem of maintaining European cultural presence. Its form, however, provides a metaphor for the increasing loss of national specificity in a period of rapid globalization.
Dr Mary P Wood
Senior Lecturer in Media Studies,

Birkbeck College University of London


1. See NEALE, STEVE: 'art cinema as institution' in Screen 22/1, 1981 and BORDWELL, DAVID: 'The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice' in Film Criticism v 4 no 1, Fall 1979, for an examination of the development of art cinema in the postwar period. In the 1990s the situation is much more complex, with most European films relegated by the domination of US distribution and exhibition networks to a minority position in their own cinema, video or dvd markets. The role of EU subventions, and of television or satellite co-production is crucial in maintaining a cultural space for communities to communicate with their own voices.

2. HARVEY, DAVID: The Condition of Postmodernity (Blackwell, Oxford, 1997) page 147.

3. ROSSI, UMBERTO: 'Cinema: da fenomeno di massa a fattore d'élite', Cinemasessanta 6/184, Nov/Dec 1988, page 4.

4. MEAUX SAINT MARC, FRANCOIS: ‘The New Element’, Screen International, 6.2.98.

5. LYOTARD, JEAN-FRANÇOIS: The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1987) page xxiv.

6. MACNAB, GEOFFREY: ‘Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’, Sight and Sound, November 1997, pp 52-53