Film à clef, or film à clé, is a type of film based on real life but played out as fiction. The term is French for ‘film with a key’, with the ‘key’ referring to the process of swapping out real names with fictional ones. It is the film version of roman à clef, which is the literary, and presumably original, equivalent.
This type of film is different from biopics, whether they’re based on a real person or not, as they’re not played as fact; it’s told solely as fiction. A common type of film à clef is when a fiction film is based on the writer’s personal experiences.
There are countless examples of film à clef, but some of the more notable ones include:
- Citizen Kane – Kane was based on American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.
- Magnolia – apparently loosely inspired by director Paul Thomas Anderson’s experience of dealing with the death of his father from cancer.
- Lost In Translation – Scarlett Johansson and Giovanni Ribisi’s characters are believed to be based on writer/director Sofia Coppola and her ex-husband Spike Jonze.
- Saving Private Ryan – Loosely based on the story of the Niland brothers.
Do you have any others that spring to mind? Is there a film of type that’s a favourite of yours? Drop a comment below and let me know.
For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.