Killing God in French Cinema

This past summer, as part of my continuing graduate work at Fuller Seminary, I studied in Paris, France, with an arts organization striving to share the gospel with the unchurched artists in the city. I spent most of my time in Paris wandering the city and ducking into every ancient cathedral I came across. They were mostly absent of worshippers, relegated to being nothing more than monuments to a bygone era or museums filled with religious relics. I puzzled over these places as I perused their alcoves. I wondered why the French people had so abandoned what seems to have once been an active if perhaps misguided faith.

One night, I went to see a film I had seen advertised all around town, Les Contes de la Nuit, the stereoscopic rendering of a collection of animated fairy tales originally released on French television in 1992. The film’s creator, Michel Ocelot, is famed for his use of silhouetted characters atop intricate, multi-colored backgrounds. The six tales of Les Contes de la Nuit are co-joined by brief sequences of three story-tellers in an old theater at night trying to decide which stories to tell the children who will make up their audience the following day. The fairy tales they decide upon are the silhouetted stories we see.

The fourth of the six tales is entitled “l’Elue de la Ville d’Or,” or “The Elect of the City of Gold.” In this story, a young warrior happens upon a city made entirely of gold. The temples are gold. The streets are gold. All of the citizens wear gold jewelry, play gold instruments, and eat off of gold plates with gold knives and forks. The young warrior is astounded at the abundance of wealth.

As he explores, he happens upon a beautiful maiden draped, of course, in gold. He falls in love. She warns him not to love her as she is likely to be chosen as her people’s sacrifice to their god later that day in their annual ceremony. The warrior vows to protect her if that happens and goes to hide until time for the sacrifice.

Later that day, the people of the city arrive following their priest who leads them all in a worshipful song. When the song ends, four beautiful young women all ornately dressed are brought before the priest. He examines each one before choosing one to be sacrificed. He chooses the young woman whom the warrior loves. She is then led to the top of a pedestal where she resolutely stands waiting for her god to consume her. The people once again begin to sing.

The god appears in the form of a huge serpent. It uncoils and looms over the maiden. Just as it is about to strike, the warrior leaps from his hiding place and calls the people to help him destroy the snake. The people refuse to help him kill their god. The serpent laughs. The warrior runs. The snake gives chase, and when it catches the young man, the serpent devours him in a single gulp. The god then slithers back to the pedestal where it prepares once again to eat the young maiden as the people sing.

The serpent strikes, but just before it consumes the maiden, the snake falls over dead. The warrior emerges from the serpent’s belly and leaps up to stand victoriously by the maiden’s side. He has killed the snake from the inside. The people are furious. They cry out in mournful agony at what the young man has done. The warrior is confused, but then, before his eyes, the golden city begins to crumble. The gleaming edifices rust. The towers topple. The ornate headpieces all the people wear first crumple and then disintegrate. All the light leaves the city, and the colors abandon the sky.

The priest begins to lead the people forward to kill the young warrior for what he has done. The warrior appeals to the maiden he just saved, but she is unsure about how to respond. As the angry populace closes in around him, he desperately argues his case. He reminds the people that their god was forcing them to kill their children. He admits that their god gave them wealth, but he asks them to consider the cost. The mob hesitates. The pregnant women place their hands on their swollen abdomens. Fathers take their little daughters’ hands. The maiden looks down upon the rotting carcass of the dead snake at her feet.

The people decide not to kill the warrior. They are grateful for what he has done. The priest is dismayed. He tries to get the people to sing again. They do not. The people lift the young warrior and his love upon their shoulders and leave triumphantly, overjoyed that they have been set free. The priest is alone, left despondent with the remains of his murdered deity.

Les Contes de la Nuit showed me that France is a place where the people believe that god is dead, not because he grew too old and was outdated by modern understanding, and not because God never existed, but because they killed God. God, by way of God’s proxies the priests, was forcing them to kill one another. Granted, God also gave them much wealth as evidenced by the hundreds of magnificent cathedrals, many of which are gilded in gold and house the golden artifacts of former ways of worship. God on the tongues of their leaders gave them purpose in plundering the peoples of the earth and elevating France to become the preeminent world power. But the price they paid for this bounty was the lives of their children and the lives of the children of the ones they conquered.

So they killed God. The French Revolution was as much a rebellion against the church as it was against the monarchy. For the French people, the two were inseparable. Forty thousand priests were either murdered or exiled from the country during the Revolution. Rejecting their kings and priests, the French people did indeed lose much of their power and wealth, but they gained their lives. Today, many French people proudly proclaim, “There is no god. We killed him, and we are better off for it.”

Of course, I don’t believe their proclamation is true, and neither do the hopeful people of the arts ministry I worked with this summer. The god the French people killed wasn’t the one true God. They killed the gods of institutionalized wealth and power. America would be wise to learn from them and do the same, albeit hopefully nonviolently. But in killing our false gods, we must not make France’s mistake and elevate ourselves to the place of prominence. In many ways we’ve already done this, but instead of creating a religiously antagonistic society, we created a religiously tolerant one in which we try to worship every god at the same time. If France is atheistic, America is pantheistic. We worship institutionalized money and power, our gods, and ourselves. Both cultures need to end their idolatry. I have hope that the people in these cultures can do just that.

A children’s movie helped me understand both French and American culture better. Like any other cultural object, films illuminate aspects of our societies we may not otherwise notice. Films, and not just documentaries, but also films made purely to entertain, help us see our world better. As we seek to embody Christ in our respective cultures, we must pay attention to the culture and think deeply about what we see.