FILM / Entree des enfants terribles: They order things differently in France. Adrian Dannatt reports on the rapid turnover among young directors across the Channel

English cinephiles perusing the biographies of current French directors often assume there must have been a mass typographical error - all the given ages seem to have been reversed. The latest feature film was apparently made by someone aged 24 rather than 42. The excessive youth of the Gallic film profession makes Orson Welles's debut at 25 seem merely pedestrian rather than precocious. Few of these youthful movies are of the quality of Citizen Kane, of course, but then so little ever is.

Arnaud Desplechin is the very latest hot property, a 31-year-old graduate of IDHEC, the French film school. His post-Cold War thriller La Sentinelle, which begins with a medical student on a train discovering a human head in his bag, has been playing successfully in the Paris theatres since Cannes and will doubtless be honoured at this year's Cesars.

Previously it was the turn of Eric Rochant, who won a Cesar for best short in 1988 then another Cesar for his first feature, Un Monde sans pitie, which went on to be a whopping domestic hit, breaking Paris box-office records. His second feature, Aux yeux du monde, was notably less successful, but at the age of 30 perhaps he's getting on a bit.

The French film industry actively encourages first-time features by very young directors. So it's not surprising to read about the likes of Marion Vernoux, 25, who has written major scripts such as Pacific Palisades (a big budget vehicle for the sultry Sophie Marceau, shot in LA), directed a full-length TV movie and is finishing shooting her first feature for theatre release.

French directors know that, thanks to cultural and linguistic differences, the route to Hollywood is blocked to them. If they do not guard and promote their own industry nobody else will do it for them. Thus, while France pumps out regular batches of talented directors, few of them can ever break out of the local industry and move to Bel-Air.

Luc Besson's career has followed a typical pattern, beginning with a hip first feature in his early twenties (The Last Battle) followed by ambitious hits such as Subway. He is the most overtly commercial of young French directors, but he still has not managed to impress the USA. He even made a special American version of his epic The Big Blue but the film, which made a huge splash in France, sank without trace in the States. Likewise Jean-Jacques Beineix's first film, Diva, was a hit in France but in America succeeded only as an art-house cult oddity. Beineix's subsequent efforts, such as Betty Blue, have found receptive audiences in the Anglo-Saxon territories but nobody in Hollywood would think of them as 'movie', as opposed to 'cinema' culture.

Each year there is a posse of new French cinematic talent, greeted with an interchangeable fanfare - the cover of Cahiers du Cinema, a moody portrait in Liberation, cigarette dangling, and decent queues at the ticket office. Much of this talent owes its rapid access to professional release to equally youthful producers, such as Philippe Godeau and Alain Rocca, 30-year-old moguls of the nouvelle Nouvelle Vague. Godeau, who runs Pan-European Productions, has nurtured such nippers as Desplechin and Olivier Assayas who caused a stir in his turn with Paris s'eveille.

Indeed, it sometimes seems that there are enough successive new waves to make one faintly seasick.

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