Movie movements that defined cinema: Cinéma du look

A key moment for Cinema

by Phil de Semlyen, Ian Freer, Ally Wybrew |
Published on

Key filmmakers: Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson, Leos Carax

Key dates: 1980-1991

What is it? Like an '80s techno riff on poetic realism, Cinéma du Look located the exact midway point between Max Ophüls and Max Headroom in an often electrifying decade of French cinema. Its trinity of directors, Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson, Leos Carax, turned out punky visions of a French underground (literally, in the case of Besson’s Subway) filled with pop promo visuals, skittish electro scores by Eric Serra and others, and a lovelorn fatalism strangely reminiscent of Marcel Carné and Jean Vigo.

The oddball romances between Christophe Lambert’s puckish Métro-dweller and Isabelle Adjani’s mysterious siren in Subway, Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant in Carax’s Mauvais Sang, or even Anne Parillaud and her civvy boyfriend (Jean-Hugues Anglade) in Nikita betray the romantics behind the explosions, shoot-outs and amazing-bizarro visuals. Brainy types would point out that the political regime of François Mitterrand sunk the country into the kind of funk that so often breeds exciting art. We’d just point out that Nikita features several political types getting whacked.

The movement blew out like a candle flame as Besson headed to Hollywood, Beineix turned to documentaries and Carax went to ground, only resurfacing with Pola X in 1999.

What to watch: Diva (1981), The Last Battle (1983), Boy Meets Girl (1984), Subway (1985), Mauvais Sang (1986), Nikita (1990) (pictured top), Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf (1991)

What did it influence? Michael Mann’s nightscapes share a high-gloss aesthetic with Cinéma du Look films. Pop indie filmmakers like Tom Tykwer and Doug Liman have dipped into its box of editing tricks to frizz up urban flicks like Run Lola Run and Go.

Trivia: Denis Lavant injured his thumb tying his shoelace on the set of Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf causing filming to be suspended.

What to say: “It is up to industry to adapt to art, and not art to adapt to industry.” (Jean-Jacques Beineix)

What not to say: “I love that Nikita film with Bridget Fonda.”

Head to Empire's full list of essential movie movements

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