Do you have a bunch of baguettes at home, some good Camembert, and a beret, yet can’t name a single French actor not named Timothée Chalamet? A new streaming service, Cinessance, wants to solve a simple problem — the lack of easy access to French films — while also fighting streaming fatigue via a curated library that aims to teach audiences about that category of cinema, and eventually about French culture in general.
Ahead of the launch of Cinessance, which is now available on iOS, Android, and web browser via a $6.99 monthly or a $69.99 annual subscription, Vulture tried out the Cinessance app (both in browser and Android), and talked with founder Clément Monnet about what he hopes to achieve with Cinessance, the films he’s most excited for audiences to discover, expansion plans for the future, and how this streamer stands out compared to Netflix and other juggernauts.
The App Is Trés Simple
The first thing to note when you launch the app is how similar it is to something like Netflix. Cinessance opts for simplicity and familiarity, from selecting your profile, to the scrolling carousels divided by genre. According to Monnet, this was intentional. “The user experience has been standardized, and people want the Netflix experience,” Monnet tells Vulture. “So I’m proud that we were able to bring that on web, iOS, and Android in record time because we created a company in April and we’re launching in November.” If you’ve ever played around on the Netflix app, Cinessance comes off as rather intuitive. The search function allows you to look up film titles, actors or directors’ names and genres easily and quickly. All titles come with English subtitles, but you can’t select the video quality, which automatically adjusts to the highest possible quality allowed by the source, and your internet connection.
Like its user interface, the streamer itself was created to satisfy a rather simple yet universal problem: wanting to show your American friends the latest French movie that’s all the rage back home, but never makes it to U.S. theaters without some serious awards backing. “I watch a great movie on the plane and when I tell my fiancée to watch it, we can’t find it,” says Monnet. “That’s how this whole thing started.”
It’s Pretty Well Curated …
What makes the app stand out on day one is its curation. Right below your classic category labels like Comedy, Drama, and Family movies, there are categories for best films by Gérard Depardieu, Jean Gabin, and even Le Splendid troupe.
According to Monnet, the streaming platform’s library was guided by three criteria: films selected by Monnet himself based on what he thought would resonate with the audience in the French diaspora, customer surveys from all over the world finding audiences’ favorite French movies, and an attempt to find movies that could best encapsulate French cinema for those unfamiliar, to give them a sense of it. The result is a library comprised of independent films, popular hits, and decades-old classics.
The aim is to create a curated experience that can combat decision fatigue, and avoid spending two hours trying to find something to watch before giving up and not watching anything. “Having a curation like this would be a big changer,” Monnet tells us. “We’re also going to work with movie directors and actors to have them share their favorite French movies, and share their recommendations either on the platform itself or our social media.” Cinessance isn’t alone in highlighting the queues of the stars, something niche streamers like Shudder have done to distinguish themselves from bigger players and add a more personalized touch.
These artist-specific categories keep things exciting, at least to me. Immediately, I was more drawn to these carousels than the standard genre categories, even if I was not familiar with Le Splendid or Claude Sautet, because, hey, there has to be a reason why these particular films are being highlighted.
… But the French Masters Are Missing
If there’s one downside to Cinessance, at least at the time of launch, it’s the rather limited library of about 100 films. Though the app aims to present a canon of French cinema among streaming services, at the time of launch its offerings seem lacking in terms of essential selections, at least in the way we understand the category in the United States. There are no films by Godard, Jacques Becker, Truffaut, Tati, Carax, or Varda. French horror is nowhere to be found, while animation has a rather minuscule presence, despite being prominent genres and staples of French cinematic output. Despite Monnet’s desire for this to be the go-to platform to find French films, most of the best known French films in America are missing from the platform, though perhaps prioritizing lesser-known films was intentional — or more cost-effective.
According to Monnet, the licensing negotiations were the biggest challenge in launching the platform, but rather than focus on what could have been, he’s already thinking ahead. There’s a Coming Soon section on the platform and the plan is to “increase the library up to 500 titles by 2022” with hopes to “be at 1000 by 2023.” In the meantime, though, Monnet recommended those wanting to dive into French cinema start with the crime drama Max and the Junkmen, the romantic comedy Someone, Somewhere, and the comedy Roxane, about a farmer teaching literature to his chicken.
In some ways, the launch of the streamer feels more like the hors d’oeuvres than the entrée. It’s a good taste for those who want to dip their toes into French cinema beyond Amélie but don’t know where to start. While Netflix has all but abandoned streaming films over 40 years old, that baton has been picked up by the likes of Criterion Channel or Mubi. What Cinessance is offering may not be a history lesson, or the latest buzzy titles like Portrait of a Lady on Fire or Titane, but instead a solution to Monnet’s personal yet relatable problem: wanting to show your American friends the latest French movie that’s all the rage back home, but never makes it to US theaters without some serious awards backing.
It’s Full of Nifty Features — Except Dubs
There are features on the platform that show great promise and are missing from competitors, like a dedicated “details” tab on each title with information about the cast and crew, but as of now you can’t then click on a name and see their filmography, unfortunately. Likewise, the app launches with English subtitles on each title (no dubs, so you better get over that one-inch barrier), but no French subtitles if you’re seeking to learn French, and no subtitles in other languages. That being said, more options are on the roadmap.
“Different subtitles are being added as we speak,” Monnet explains. “What is most important to us is to always have French audio plus the local language, so when we launch in South America we’ll add Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, and eventually also add French subtitles. I want Cinessance to become like a book for students when they enter the class. I want people that are teaching French to be able to have a subscription to Cinessance where they can have English subtitles, maybe at first before moving to French subtitles, and then ultimately remove the subtitles. I really want this to become a tool for people to learn French, and when you learn about the language you want to learn about the culture.”
Though Monnet doesn’t give specific dates for the expansion or the addition of non-English-language subtitles, he does say that they can work on subtitles for Spanish before launching in Latin America since it is so widely used in the U.S., and that alone puts it ahead of many of its competitors.
In spite of launching with a modest library and features still in the works, Cinessance has a lot of exciting content for those wanting to go a bit outside the “mainstream” idea of French cinema, at least in America, and the curation element does aid in making the decision of what to watch a bit easier. Besides, while Netflix has multimillion-dollar productions and Disney+ has an endless IP, where else can you watch a comedy about a chicken learning about Cyrano de Bergerac?