A: “I find it difficult not to say France.
“Even if you take the French New Wave out of the equation (in which case you’re removing a lot of what influenced New Hollywood to be great – there’s a reason The French Connection is called that), you’ve got Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carne ripping it up earlier.
“You’ve got Henri-Georges Clouzot, the only man who comes close to Hitchcock as the master of the thriller and you’ve got Fantomas and Les Vampires by the great Louis Feuillade, who invented thriller techniques.
“Not to mention, of course, the great polymath that was Jean Cocteau. Or Robert Bresson, who Andrei Tarkovsky described as “perhaps the only artist in cinema.”
“You’ve got earlier uses of deep focus than Orson Welles/Greg Toland, you’ve got the jump cut, you’ve got the first science fiction film, you’ve got the cinéma vérité, you’ve got the first avant-garde, you’ve got Cinéma pur, you’ve got poetic realism (which influenced everything from Italian neorealism to British noir). It’s difficult to imagine film theory without Cahiers du cinema, or without phrases like auteur and mise en scène. Hell, the French started cinema – look up the Lumière brothers.
“You’ve got Jules Dassin and Rififi, maybe the first and certainly the best heist film and perhaps the best film noir. One of its few peers, Build My Gallows High, was also directed by a Frenchman. And Jean-Pierre Melville’s film noirs gave us Hong Kong action cinema, before Cinema du look took it all back again, and pushed the envelope for action movies. That District 13 thing has to be the benchmark for innovative post-Matrix action sequences.
“Krzysztof Kieslowski needed French money for his films, hence the Three Colours being Red, White and Blue, just like Gaspar Noé, one of the most talented contemporary filmmakers, has been accepted into today’s fold. Even when French cinema wasn’t as hugely influential, La Haine (1995) and Amélie (2001) were kind of a big deal everywhere.
“And let’s not forget Guy Debord, the outsider’s outsider, the avant garde’s avant garde.
“In recent years we’ve had the genius Olivier Assayas, or the fantastic Francois Ozon. We’ve had Bruno Dumont, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis and the rest of the New Extremity continuing to shock, amaze and press the boundaries of taste, resulting in every decent horror film in the past decade or so.
“I notice The Artist won the last Oscar. That’s French, by the way. So are some of the coolest actors ever – Alain Delon, Catherine Denevue, Brigette Bardot, Vincent Cassell, Jean Reno. The most sought after female actors on the planet – Juliette Binoche, Audrey Tautou and Marion Cotillard – are French, as are those putting in the most demanding, startling and awe-inspiring performances, like Isabelle Hupert (The Piano Teacher) and Charlotte Gainsbourgh (Antichrist, which owes a lot to the New French Extremity).
“No wonder, then, that there are more picture houses per person in France than anywhere else in the world, why their film industry is the biggest, the most self sufficient and the most successful on the continent and third biggest anywhere. As good as the U.S., Germany, Japan, Italy and Russia have been, the French take their movies very seriously, and I think France is where it’s at.
“And that’s, like I say, without mentioning the French New Wave, probably the most influential, and the best, film movement of the 20th century by a million miles.”
Not the most imaginative answer, but there you are.
I forgot to mention, when answering this question, they also had the best porn. For my sins, I watched a Channel 4 programme a while back called Eurotika, which covered how far the French sleazemerchants pushed things in the 1970s with films like Frédéric Lansac’s Pussy Talk (1975), in which a woman’s vagina literally starts speaking.
There was also one where the world ended in a nuclear explosion during a massive orgy. Sadly, I cannot presently recall the title.