Want to Tell Better Stories? Watch Foreign Films

Want to Tell Better Stories? Watch Foreign Films

Years ago, at an advertising conclave, there was a Q&A with a creative director from a French ad agency who was asked why European commercials tended to be cleverer than those done in America. Shrugging his shoulders, he sheepishly admitted that he thought advertisers in his part of the globe felt the need to work harder to garner an audience’s attention.

“The audience deserves more for their time,” he concluded.

The same thought could be said to any writer trying to get someone to pay attention to their story today, whether it’s in a book, on a big or small screen, or even in a 60-second TikTok.

Why should anyone pay attention? They’ve got literally thousands upon thousands of communications all vying for their attention. So, what are you going to do to stand out? Be worthy? Deserving of an audience’s time.

Perhaps the humbleness of those across the pond is something to consider, especially when it comes to screenwriting. Ask any studio reader or critic—heck, even the average movie fan—and they’ll tell you that so much of what’s presented to them as entertainment is either predictable or derivative. Too derivative.

Been there. Seen that.

It’s one of the reasons I often gravitate towards foreign fare. Perhaps it’s that humbleness, or maybe they simply try harder, but foreign films in particular, at least the ones that we get to see here in the States, tend to often feel so much fresher and smarter than so much of the dumbed-down movies and shows done to appeal to the widest audience possible here in America.

I understand that studios and networks want to make money, but it would behoove them to seek out foreign language movies. They just don’t seem as tethered to the clichés, tropes, and screenwriting formulas as so many American films do. And they almost never spoon feed an audience, underlining every intent or takeaway like the camera is a yellow highlighter.

Foreign language films generally assume the audience is savvier, capable of putting two and two together without having to shove things down their throat.

I noticed how foreign films often zig versus American output zagging when I was a freshman in high school. In my French class, we watched the movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the celebrated 1964 musical written and directed by Jacques Demy with an unforgettable musical score by Michel Legrand. The candy-colored visuals and stylized interiors were fizzy and fun, but they ran counterpoint to the very modern and rather tragic love story. A young woman (played by the luminescent Catherine Deneuve) is separated from her lover (Nino Castelnuovo) by war and makes some life-altering decisions that left an impressionable 15-year-old like me devastated. To say the film had a devastating ending is putting it mildly, especially compared to many of the frothy Hollywood musicals I’d grown up on. Needless to say, it was an impactful introduction to how stories through a foreigner’s lens often felt no obligation to deliver a happy ending. And The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was better for it.

Foreign films continue to surprise and delight as they refrain from too many of those tried-and-true tropes of Hollywood. Another French film that zigged instead of zagged was one I recently saw at the Chicago International Film Festival. The Taste of Things is a romantic drama between rich gourmet (Benoit Magimal) and his cook and partner (Juliette Binoche, giving Catherine Deneuve a run for her money in the luminescence department). Their love story is as much about cuisine as it is about their affection for each other, and writer/director Tran Anh Hung was so confident in shooting his script that he eschewed a dramatic underscore altogether.

It's startling, and certainly not the kind of thing you’d find in an American-made romance. But Hung’s film works brilliantly without it as he lets the dialogue and the visuals of all the incredible food on display provide the musicality. The risk paid off handsomely as Hung not only won the Cannes Film Festival prize for Best Director this past spring, but the film is France’s official entry for Best International Feature at the Oscars this season.

Spain’s foremost filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar, has been zigging while others zag for decades. The writer/director is known the world over for his vibrant characters, particularly of the female variety, as well as a bright-hued color palate that shows up in most of his movies. He also imbues his storytelling with often outrageous themes and twists in plotting that you never see coming.

Almodóvar also applies heaping helpings of irony to his work, no matter what genre he’s working in. When he goes dark and tragic in his stories, his color scheme almost always remains counter to that, often pushing candy colors to their breaking point. And because he refrains from the crutch of dark and brooding cinematography to accompany his dark and brooding themes, we in the audience get forced to stand prepared for the unexpected.

I can think of no better example of this than Almodóvar’s modern Frankenstein tale entitled The Skin I Live In from 2011. That film concerned a cosmetic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) who wreaks revenge on a male teen punk by turning him into a woman through various plastic surgeries. As Almodóvar described it himself, it was “a horror story without screams or frights.” Indeed, it’s incredibly chill, slyly sensual, and gorgeously shot, with plenty of Almodóvar’s signature color schemes. Yet, there are virtually no jump scares or dark, gloomy settings, let alone horrific violence.

None of the typical horror cliches make it into Almodóvar’s take on Frankenstein, but it worked spectacularly well. And the genre was better for it.

Another filmmaker who finds ways to zig, especially when it comes to telling or not telling an audience what they can put together on their own is New Zealand’s Jane Campion. The Power of the Dog, the Oscar-winning film she wrote and directed in 2021, was a revisionist western, one that indicted the machismo that has crippled men throughout history in so many societies.  

But in her scold of men who bury their feelings, struggle to express themselves, and berate others, Campion rarely presented her case via dialogue that was on-the-nose or set-pieces that played as too obvious. Instead, she inferred most of her wrath, never spelling things out in an obvious or insulting way.

Benedict Cumberbatch played a surly, misogynistic cowpoke and Campion inferred why—due to his closeted homosexuality—but such words are never spoken, and we get no gay love scene to make everything crystal clear. Instead, most of what Campion tells us is suggested or inferred between the lines.

She was confident that we’d understand, and it made her film all the more compelling.

Campion also wagged her finger at Jesse Plemons’ ranch supervisor character as he, too, struggled to express himself and his feelings. He wasn’t a macho prick like his bullying ranch hand brother, but he was inept at expressing emotion, be it his frustrations, deepest thoughts, or even his love for the lead female in the piece. Campion rendered the Plemons’ character’s weaknesses softly, and rather sympathetically, that lent her editorializing variation and nuances. And Campion’s direction of her script provided a wonderful counterpoint to all of the small men on screen. They’re dwarfed by the vast western vistas surrounding them, and it makes their plight more tragic.

The land was big; these men were not.

International writer/directors tend to rely less on clichéd tropes like voice-over narration or flashbacks, too. Often times, they seemed more inspired by the literary device of foreshadowing or symbolism.

South Korean Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning Best Picture Parasite had some of the best symbolism of any movie this century, especially in how he used the act of literal climbing in his story to represent the idea of social climbing. Bong’s film starts with a poor family living in a crappy, basement apartment below street level. They have to climb out of their cubby hole just to get to the street level with average folks. Then they discover a rich couple whose children need tutoring, and the family starts their climb out of their hole to the top of the hill where the elite live. From there, stairs more and more represent both the ascent and descent of this grifting family of four. A hidden staircase in the rich folks’ home bends the story toward horror, while another staircase helps flood that meager basement apartment, foreshadowing their doom.

It’s all symbolism, employed as cinematic art.

And finally, if you really want to be inspired to find new ways to approach any subject, no matter the genre, watch some of the films of one of my favorite directors of all time—Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. His "Decalogue" was a TV series masterpiece done in examining the Ten Commandments through a modern, and often incredibly ironic, lens. And his film masterpiece was Three Colors, arguably the best film triptych of all-time. It was a co-production between France, Poland and Switzerland done in 1993 and 1994 which examined the meaning of the French flag via three different films. Blue, represented liberty, White tackled harmony, and finally, Red examined fraternity.

The works, all spoken in French, were hardly the typical glowing tributes to such ideals as represented in the flag. Instead, the flag’s ideals were all but flipped on their ears as Kieslowski took a bold, moralizing view on how each of those words could be interpreted.

In Three Colors: Blue, a woman (Binoche, again) is handed the most bizarre form of liberty when her husband and child perish in a car accident, and suddenly, she has no restrictions or priorities in her life. She’s free, but the story twists in all kinds of different ways as she wrestles with what her liberation really means to her life. Three Colors: White examines the idea of equality when a sad sack husband (Zbigniew Zamachowski) plots to get even with his duplicitous wife (Julie Delpy) after she divorces him. And in Three Colors: Red, a fashion model (Irène Jacob) discovers the fraternity she shares with her neighbors when she discovers their privacy has been intruded upon by a spying retired judge.

All three films were provocative examinations of how people use and abuse those inalienable rights represented in the French flag. The storytelling could have been just a jingoistic exercise, but Kieslowski zigged and turned it into a film series, examining the condition of the human condition in an increasingly crazy world.

Writing something fresh and original is hard. After all, Voltaire once said that there were no new ideas. (And that was in the 18th century!) The truth is that originality comes from finding fresh ways to combine existing facts or scenarios.

Quite simply, find a new way to tell an old story. Foreign language films are an inspiring place to start. And so is your next script.

*Feature illustration by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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