ARTS: FILM 2 French without tears

Dubbing films into English has always been taboo. But try telling that to the makers of 'French Twist'. Nicholas Barber reports
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The Independent Culture
ON-SCREEN in a darkened studio, Victoria Abril flounces down the stairs, laughing. An ad for her new film, Gazon Maudit, claims her earthy guffaw is the cinema's sexiest sound. But Abril is silent. Eve Karpf, a British actress, stands in the studio, laughing for her - an English laugh, not a French one. Beneath the screen is a long, thin, horizontal autocue. A strip of cursive script scrolls from right to left. "Ha haa ah ha-a," it says.

After the take, acting director Simon Stokes gauges the emotional tone of the laugh. Technical director Louis Elman checks the timing. "Was it sexy?" asks Karpf, "or was it donkey-like?" The engineer plays back the scene. In the background, French words gush from a TV. Will it stay in French on the dubbed version? "Of course," says Elizabeth Draper, who is overseeing the dubbing. "It's set in France."

So, the TV stays in French. The woman speaking French with a Spanish accent now speaks English with a Spanish accent. The other actors use English accents, except Andrew Sachs, who plays Antoine (now Antonio) as an Italian. The jolly new title, French Twist, is not much like the original (Gazon Maudit translates literally as "cursed turf" but has a sexual slang meaning). All of these decisions were the result of long debate. But the biggest decision was to dub Gazon Maudit into English at all.

"Essentially, given the prospect of releasing this film, I was facing a huge problem," Draper tells me, in her office in Guild Distributors. She heads Guild's "art-house" division, but Gazon Maudit is hardly art- house. It's a romantic comedy about a frustrated housewife, Loli (Abril), whose husband, not satisfied with being married to one of Europe's most beautiful film stars, gets through several mistresses a day. Loli wants to get her own back; the means to this end walks into her life in the shape of a tough-but-tender lesbian, Marijo (Josiane Balasko, also the director).

Not without its flaws and longueurs, as they say in France, Gazon Maudit stands up well against most Hollywood romantic comedies, and has been a Europe-wide box-office smash, selling four million tickets in its home country alone. Guild wanted to translate that success to Britain. This meant they had to translate the film. That meant sub-titles, which in turn meant art-house. "Any film that is not in English is distributed in a very limited way, in so-called art houses only," laments Draper.

There were more headaches. "I was re-writing some of the subtitles," says Draper, "and a good 30 per cent of the dialogue wasn't translated because of the speed at which people speak. The other problem is that as you are reading the subtitles you are not watching the performances, which you need to, to get some of the gags."

Dubbing was the obvious answer, and a radical one. A tradition of dubbing foreign films into English for UK cinema release is non-existent. Josiane Balasko believes that can change. "This reticence only comes from the elite, it doesn't concern everybody," she tells me - or at least her simultaneous translator does - over the phone. "Dubbing may allow all non-English-speaking cinema to come out of the ghetto."

In recent years, foreign-to-English dubbing has been reserved for videos. Recently, Nikita and City of Lost Children were subtitled in cinemas, then dubbed for the home market. Draper insists that cinema dubbing is a different story, "because it becomes extremely important to dub to a very high standard". And that's harder than it seems when Debbie Reynolds does it in Singin' in the Rain. Even once the script has been translated and altered so that each word corresponds with the original lip movements, the English actors' job has huge technical demands. Draper cast actors with backgrounds in the theatre as well as the studio, and employed two directors, in an attempt to have the quality of the English performances match that of the originals. It seems that making a whole new film may have been easier.

But everyone involved is treating French Twist as an experiment - perhaps a revolutionary one. "We're offering a choice," says Draper. "We would never release a dubbed version without also releasing a subtitled one. It's important that we don't impose limits on the market. It's too limited as it stands, and we're trying to broaden it."

In French film listings, each foreign title is followed by the abbreviation "VF" (Version Francaise, ie. dubbed) or "VO" (Version Originale, subtitled). If it catches on here, apart from giving film critics more work, it will blow open the market for European films. We've swallowed spaghetti westerns. Could this be the time to taste croissant comedies?

! 'French Twist (Gazon Maudit)' (18) is out now; the dubbed version follows on 22 March.