The great directors have always understood that cigarettes and the screen are inextricably linked, like movement and mortality
The French Socialist senator Nadine Grelet-Certenais has fired up a heated debate in France over the depiction of smoking in the movies. She wants it stubbed out, for good, on the basis that Gallic heroes puffing away on the silver screen makes the filthy habit seem cool and provides the evil tobacco industry with free advertising. Ban it, and everything will be made miraculously better – c’est simple. Her call has been taken up by the health minister, Agnès Buzyn, and suddenly film-makers have a fight on their hands.
The problem with this is that it totally ignores the venerable history of French cinema, which plays out as a long, drawn-out visual love letter to the act of smoking. Smoking a cigarette and cinema have always gone perfectly together – they are both ways of killing time, after all – but the moving image also captures the act of smoking so much better than other art forms, such as still photography. The flare of a match or lighter, and then the upward curl of smoke are forever seductive. All the best French film directors knew this and have exploited it endlessly.