Raining Stones II: A View from Paris

By Philippe Pilard

Cannes 1993 – the small world of French film criticism rediscovers English cinema. A specialised magazine proclaims ‘Yes, English cinema is alive and well – Stephen Frears, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh prove it and with style...’[1]

With a satisfied grin but at the same time a little embarrassed, the English reply, ‘Well after all if the French still believe in the existence of British cinema – why disillusion them?’

Prizes – Naked takes the Director’s prize and the prize for the Best Actor (David Thewlis) and Raining Stones receives the Jury Prize (one will note that this is the third time Ken Loach has won a prize at Cannes).

A few months later the three films come out in Paris – a limited distribution but with interesting results. By mid-January 1994 Naked has been seen by 75,000 film-goers, Raining Stones by 170,000 and The Snapper by 230,000.[2] In a film climate where the American presence is getting to be more dominant with each passing year this success is not negligible.[3]

How to ‘explain’ this success? ‘As a trio of films they form a triptych on the working class in post-Thatcher Britain and Ireland’, we are told.[4]

Has the British ‘socially concerned’ cinema become a marketable export? Or must we admit to the fact that the French spectator, after ten years of liberal-socialism and two years of social-liberalism, having lost all capacity for social investigation, is not able to see the working class other than when it exists outside his own frontiers?

We can see, however, that the French spectator answers this question by his choice of films. It is Naked, the most bitter, disturbing and original film of the three, that obtains the lowest audience. On the other hand it is The Snapper, a well put-together but somewhat superficial comedy (and where the French spectator wanted to see the follow-up to the insipid The Commitments) which does the best business.[5]

In the area of the ‘socially concerned’ cinema Ken Loach is the film-maker whose reputation is the best established in France. The older generation of cinephiles remember Poor Cow, Kes and Family Life. For the younger generation their ‘discovery’ of Loach was made with Hidden Agenda. His TV work, including the path-finding Cathy Come Home, remains unknown.[6]

At the beginning of the 80s Looks and Smiles, which admirably foresaw the decade to come, was very badly received. The grey vision of social realism was then seen as being utterly redundant. Is this vision of the world now coming back into fashion? And will it be more than just a fashion?

It is true that if there is something lacking in contemporary French cinema, it is its lack of interest in social investigation. Not that this world is totally absent from our films, but that it exists only as a backdrop, more or less neatly drawn. One only has to see the convoluted affairs of the heart which constitute the principal subjects of our films, such as the success of Cyril Collard’s Nuits Fauves (Savage Nights) to ask whether our cineastes and our producers are at all aware that the rate of unemployment in France is over 12%.

One has to have the energy and the anger of a Coline Serreau to make La Crise (The Crisis), or the to-hell-with-it attitude of a beginner such as Malik Chibane with his film Hexagone (Hexagon) to show the lives of losers and everyday racism.

Writing about Riff Raff in Le Monde the director of the review Esprit, Olivier Mongin, wrote ‘...why is it that England (sic) after Thatcher gives the impression that individuals still have a history? Why does that country show, and in a much better way than France, that the realm of the social has not suddenly disappeared? This immediate comparison shows up a French weakness – that it sees the problems of marginalisation as being only the concern of individuals... and we thus forget that marginalisation has also a social and political meaning...’[7]

With Ken Loach’s films a certain French ‘left’ is able to find itself again, as it did when it recently demonstrated in the streets to defend state education.

Whether the scripts are signed by either Jim Allen, Barry Hines, Bill Jesse or Rona Munro, they are always at the end a Ken Loach film. In a period when the ideology of anything goes rules the roost, Ken Loach reassures: the values of generosity, equality, a civic and social sense of justice, a respect of individuals whatever their rank, a sense of responsibility, and last but not least a great sense of humour – all these and more are present.

Just recently a programme broadcast by the public channel SEPT/ARTE was entirely dedicated to L’Abbé Pierre. This worker priest had gained an enormous prestige in France with his 40-year struggle against the selfishness of the ruling class. It was revealing that this programme chose to show an excerpt of Raining Stones: that part of the film which concentrates on Father Barry. ‘Not only would I have acted like him,’ declared L’Abbé Pierre, ‘but I have acted like him’.


[1] C. M. Trémois in Télérama 26 May 1993, p. 36.
[2] Le Film Français 21 Jan 1994.
[3] Again we must relativise this success, for example Kenneth Branagh’s Peter’s Friends, 345,000 spectators; Much Ado About Nothing, 487,000 spectators (Le Film Français 21 Jan 1994).
[4] Trémois, op.cit.
[5] Stephen Frears is known in France only since his My Beautiful Launderette. Mike Leigh remains to this day largely unknown to the French public
[6] The film review POSITIF (no. 392, Oct 1993) has published a dossier on Ken Loach, organised by Françoise Audé, Hubert Niogret and Philippe Pilard.
[7] ‘L’exclusion dans les Têtes’ (‘Marginalisation In the Heads’), Le Monde 24 Jan 1992, p. 2.

Philippe Pilard collaborates with different literary and film publications. He has published books on the cinema, amongst them Le Nouveau Cinéma Britannique (1979/1988) (Editions Hatier, 1989). He is also a filmmaker.