Critical Art: the Retirement of Philip French

Criticism is a small world, but a big event took place this August.  On Sunday 25th The Observer published the last nine film reviews to be written by the eighty year-old Philip French. These last nine completed a critical oeuvre that runs to more than two and a half thousand reviews and six books. The newspaper did their best columnist proud in gathering tributes from film-makers of distinction from across the board. Their contributions cumulatively illustrated the critical art across the spectrum of different hues.

The last sequence of reviews contained all the qualities of writing that were valued by the professionals. I am a reader and, while erudition is nice to have, I look for enthusiasm. So too John Boorman: ‘Philip has never lost the love of movies and the thrill of that moment when the lights go down, so his reviews are generous and positive as well as penetrating.’

On seeing Jurassic Park this week in its new 3D version, French recants wholeheartedly his lukewarm response to the original, publicity-laden release of 1993: ‘I would like to take this last opportunity to say publicly that I loved every fascinating, suspenseful, frightening, skilfully calibrated minute of it.’    

The critic’s tool is language, and the decent critic uses it a manner that sets the art before the gaudy self-promotion of the writer. Walter Hill makes praise of the quality of the French prose: ‘Philip French’s writing has always been remarkably clear-headed and cleanly expressed.’ So, in his valedictory issue, French describes the originalDeep Throat as located in ‘a brief demented period in the early 1970s.’ Lovelace itself he calls a ‘dubious, dislikeable film’ which ‘has it both ways by telling her story as a raunchy Rashomon.’

Hugh Hudson has reason to remember The Observer critic. Revolution, one of the most panned films in cinema’s history, has to its name a single eloquent defender and champion. French calls it a ‘masterpiece – profound, poetic and original.’ Hugh Hudson warms to French’s review of the Lone Rangerreally interesting and teaches you as you read … points out the qualities, as well as some of the faults.’

Hudson sees a critic who ‘is a very truthful, very fair journalist who considers carefully what he writes, unlike many film critics who are inclined to be very hurried in their assessment, often acting like lobbyists. He never had his pet hates or favourites.’ French has been a repeated applauder of animation’s second golden age. In reviewing Elysium, he makes comparison with ‘Pixar’s animated masterwork, WALL-E.’

The making of a film is a vast, collaborative output. The credits at the end of the standard two hundred-million dollar blockbuster exceed two and a half thousand names. (French wisely advises sitting through them. Frequently a last snippet or illuminating scene is placed there. Rise of the Planet of the Apes only makes sense when its brilliant last shot is seen.) Master cinematographer Douglas Slocombe writes in a note of personal gratitude: ‘He was one of the few critics to be aware, and make audiences aware, of the work of people on a film set other than the director. He would draw attention to the work of the cinematographer, or the editor, or the art director.’ Slocombe is quite right. There is not another cinema writer who makes mention so regularly, or at all, of the contribution made by the art direction.    

‘Many critics have a vast knowledge of cinema.’ That is producer Lynda Myles. But our world is more than cinema, and Myles applauds the fact that ‘his range of cultural and historical reference is wider than virtually any other film critic writing in Britain.’ In reviewing 2013’s updated What Maisie Knew, French runs through seventy years of Jamesian adaptation for film. He ends with the sure knowledge that the nature of film itself means that ‘the authorial voice, the eloquence and nuance that inheres in the texture of the novel’s prose’ is elusive of true translation. 

Lynda Myles says of her peers in the industry, ‘I know from speaking to film-makers who have had negative reviews that they never resent it from Philip the way they do with other people because he never just dismisses them, he always engages with the film seriously.’ Criticism is mistakenly put forward, particularly in blogging commentary, as opinion pure and simple. But judgment is an emergent quality, derivative from, rather than antecedent to, engagement.

So, for Lynda Myles: ‘His reviews feel as if he’s inviting you into a conversation; he makes you feel more intelligent and is never condescending. It’s very easy to be snide and clever but Philip never is – he’s enormously generous as a critic. One can make very facile judgments about movies, but he really makes you think more rigorously about why a movie is working or not working.’ 

Last words to a film-maker of historic stature. He appreciates in French the ‘understanding of a film’s genre … never just described what was on screen, but provided the whole background, reading into the director’s intention and so forth … Whenever I read Philip French’s elegant and thoughtful criticism, I felt like I was in the company of someone who not only loved cinema but who felt a sense of responsibility toward it as an art form.’

‘When you make a movie,’ the director continues, ‘it’s nice to be appreciated. But it’s genuinely heartening, and rare, to be understood.’ If that is how Martin Scorsese reads your work, then no critic in any genre has ever had it better.