FILM / Off the Continental shelf: As Francophilia runs rampant in the UK, Sheila Johnston considers France's most favoured nation status at home and abroad . . . . . . and makes her choice of films from the NFT's Boulevard Nights

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The Independent Culture
Even if you never go to the cinema, it is almost certain that you will have seen a French movie over the past week or two - or at least one of those mini- movies that are TV ads. A current commercial for Stella Artois is a pastiche of Jean de Florette (no matter that the beer is brewed in Belgium); another beer, Kronenberg, is being plugged in the manner of a mini- thriller, complete with subtitles. Then there are the cars, the wines, the perms, the perfumes, the cosmetics . . . Endless articles in the British press hymn French food, fashion and lifestyle: look at the 'passport to France' series, exploring ever more arcane corners of Gallic life, which has been running all summer in the Times - and watch out, too, for a severe bout of national Francophilia that will undoubtedly be provoked by a new TV adaptation of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence.

So it is not surprising that Britain is one of the most avid consumers of French movies. Tonight, for example, there are no fewer than six French (or part- French) films playing in the West End - a figure that compares very favourably with other imports (three films from all the other non-American countries put together) and, indeed, with British films too (four, including the Thief of Bagdad revival).

Last year France produced 156 films, so the work we see here is only the tip of the iceberg. UK audiences, though, aren't being deprived of the blue riband movies: all the films which have won the main Cesars (French Oscars) in recent years have crossed the Channel - the only exception, Tous les matins du monde, a period piece starring the ubiquitous Gerard Depardieu, was bought for the UK by Palace but was a casualty of that company's financial troubles.

The bulk of the hidden iceberg is represented by middle-brow film-making - a tradition being showcased at the National Film Theatre this month in a programme of unseen French cinema from the past 10 years entitled Boulevard Nights. It is a conservative selection, mainly from the 'tradition of quality' which, 30 years ago, was robustly attacked by the young turks of the New Wave, but which is still the spine of the industry. In fact the New Wavers are conspicuous by their absence: no Godard, no Chabrol, although both are still tirelessly making movies which aren't percolating into British distribution.

Nor, probably for reasons of availability, does the season contain recent domestic hits like Une Epoque formidable, the only local film in last year's French Top 10; Ma Vie est un enfer, a vehicle for the comedienne Josiane Balasko (who starred in Bertrand Blier's Trop belle pour toi]); or La Discrete, a recent succes d'estime for its first-time director, Christian Vincent.

The season does, however, demonstrate the ancient Pyramid Theory of Cinema: if a nation produces a tiny apex of great films, they invariably rest on a solid base of middle-of-the-road product (and, at the bottom, unpretentious pulp - the NFT season includes an opus called La boum 2 / Party 2). That base is needed both to keep talent at home (not in Hollywood), and to provide enough work for local labs and other technical facilities. In Britain, where production looks in danger of dipping into single figures, the base is almost entirely eroded. If the French cinema seems to be blooming (at least from our beleaguered perspective), the reasons are the usual ones. There is available finance, from wealthy production companies like Studio Canal Plus and Ciby 2000, as well as from the public sector. The industry enjoys protective legislation - France is the only European country to impose minimum quotas of home-produced films on TV, and the government has recently introduced tough co-production laws. And, to promote the national habit, there is funding for film festivals and regular cheap cinema ticket days, at which film nuts can see movies ad lib for the price of a single ticket.

But not everything over there is rosy. International co-productions have been on the increase: there were francs in Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and JFK. Cinema attendances have fallen by more than 60 per cent over the past 10 years and, while French films have traditionally cornered about 30 per cent of the domestic market, that figure is decreasing. Earlier this year the two major exhibitors, Gaumont and Pathe, entered into a screen- swap pact which will in effect eliminate competition between them and which is causing producers like Anatole Dauman to fear a quasi-monopoly that will (as has happened in Britain) reduce the variety of films on French screens. And there's a worrying trend towards inflated, big-budget movies - recent disappointments there have included Leos Carax's notorious Les Amants du Pont Neuf and two Vietnam movies, Indochine and Dien Bien Phu, which flopped expensively. Meanwhile, Boulevard Nights takes a brisk tour through one of the few national cinemas which can still defy the dominance of

Hollywood.

'Boulevard Nights' begins tomorrow at the National Film Theatre and runs until the end of August. For further details and bookings, telephone 071-928 3232

These aren't necessarily the five best films in the season: the selection previewed here was determined by print availability, although Mint Tea and The Innocents are recommended. Of the rest, it could be worth looking out for Pleasure of Love (Sat 8 Aug 8.30 & Sun 9 Aug 6.30), a subversive sex farce by the feminist director Nelly Kaplan, who made La Fiancee du pirate. There are two exhibits for fans of the iconoclastic Serge Gainsbourg: Charlotte For Ever (Mon 10 Aug 8.30 & Tues 11 Aug 6.15), which explores the sexually charged relationship between an alcoholic writer (Gainsbourg) and his teenage daughter (Gainsbourg's own daughter Charlotte); and Gainsbourg's last film before his recent death, Stan the Flasher (Fri 28 Aug 8.45 & Sat 29 Aug 6.15). And, for fans of the sturdy tradition of the French polar (or thriller), there are two adaptations of David Goodis novels: Descent into Hell (Descente aux enfers: Tues 11 Aug 8.45 & Wed 12 Aug 6.30) and Street of the Damned (Rue barbare: Wed 12 Aug 8.40 & Thurs 13 Aug 6.15).

The Innocents (Les Innocents) is set in an unnamed city in the South of France (in fact Toulon), although you would be forgiven for thinking it was filmed in North Africa - the images are of narrow alleys, mysterious inner courtyards, vibrant oriental interiors, sand, sea and blistering sunlight. Sandrine Bonnaire arrives from Northern France for her sister's wedding to an Arab, and becomes involved in a tragic imbroglio of sexual jealousies and racial hatred. The plot is rather overheated and melodramatic, but the visuals compensate: Andre Techine is a grand stylist and his staging makes superb, consistently surprising use of the CinemaScope frame. The Innocents, Sat 15 Aug 8.45 and Sun 16 Aug 6.30.

Mint Tea (Le The a la menthe) is a charmingly simple comedy conceived in the distinguished tradition of the Paris street-film but set in the city's Algerian community. The 20-year-old Hamou is a petty criminal barely scraping a living, while pretending to his family back home that he has made his fortune there. One day his mother arrives on his doorstep unannounced, and the film explores her brusque initiation into Western life and her son's doomed attempts to keep her in the dark. It's a fresh, likeable and very well-observed piece that makes its points without grinding axes. It's also one of the few films to move away from the season's middle-class, middlebrow territory. Mint Tea, Thurs 6 Aug 8.30 & Fri 7 Aug 6.15.

The White Queen (La Reine blanche) is the new film from Jean-Loup Hubert, who enjoyed modest success here a couple of years ago with Le Grand Chemin (the Hollywood remake, Paradise, was released recently). Set in Nantes in 1960, it's the story of a family thrown into turmoil when the mother (Catherine Deneuve) is confronted with her lover of 20 years ago. He has returned from Guadeloupe with a black wife and a beautiful mulatto daughter, who is a candidate to become the town's carnival queen - the 'white queen'. The film is a trifle dull, and doesn't really confront the racial complications of the story, but boasts seasoned, solid performances from Deneuve and Richard Bohringer as her angry husband. The White Queen, Sun 9 Aug 8.40 & Mon 10 Aug 6.20. Also by Hubert: After the War (Apres la guerre), Thurs 20 Aug 8.45 & Fri 21 Aug 6.30.

Long Live Life (Viva la vie) comes from Claude Lelouch, who will probably always bear the cross of A Man and a Woman, the kitsch mid-Sixties love story that launched a thousand toiletry ads. This film confirms that he has long since jettisoned the sub-New Wave mannerisms of his early work. In a small, inadvertent spoiling operation, it was shown on television two weeks ago, but subjected to the atrocities of dubbing, so here is the place to see it if you prefer not to listen to Jean- Louis Trintignant and Michel Piccoli speaking in expressionless, poorly lip-synched English voices. The story - a conspiracy, involving extraterrestrials, to provoke the USA and USSR into world disarmament - is very much of its period (1984) and looks a bit moth-eaten these days. And Lelouch's numerous plot twists are, frankly, pretty silly. But he has assembled a top-notch cast - it also includes Charlotte Rampling, Anouk Aimee and Charles Aznavour - and the film has a certain campy elan. Long Live Life, Mon 3 Aug 8.45 & Tues 4 Aug 6.15. Also by Lelouch: The Itinerary of a Spoilt Child (L'Itineraire d'un enfant gate) Sat 22 Aug 8.30 & Sun 23 Aug 6.10.

Love on the Quiet (L'Amour en douce) is being touted as a 'tiny gem' and one of the picks of the season. In fact it's pleasant enough, but nothing extraordinary. Signed by Edouard Molinaro, the director of La Cage aux folles, this is, like the earlier film, a semi-farcical boulevard comedy. Daniel Auteuil is caught in flagrante by his wife; turfed out, he falls for a gorgeous call-girl (Emmanuelle Beart). Eventually, they are drawn into a curious menage a quatre with Auteuil's ex- and her new lover. Much more conventional than La Cage in its sexual politics, this rather undemanding film slips down painlessly thanks to its lively quartet of central performances. Love on the Quiet, Thurs 13 Aug 8.45 & Fri 14 Aug 6.30.

(Photograph omitted)

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