Film: Ou sont les films d'antan?

Screenings of foreign-language films here are at an all-time low, so the French Film Festival, which opens today, is particularly `bienvenue'.
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU'RE still embargoing all things of French provenance, read no further. Because if there's one thing that France has an even greater facility for than culinary matters, it's cinema. But even when we Brits aren't being co-opted by our political class into phoney, nationalistic food-wars, French cinema appears to be more of a minority taste than ever.

Every so often though, a small French feature becomes a surprise success story, witness the warmth with which Erick Zonca's The Dream Life of Angels was received by critics and public alike last year. But the success of Zonca's film seems to be more the exception than the rule, so it's hardly surprising that the French should be stubbornly exploring ways around traditional distribution to get their films out to British audiences.

Now in its eighth year, the French Film Festival is one such example. Richard Mowe, the festival director, is straightforward as to why a festival such as this is crucial to breaking the distribution deadlock that has developed over the past decade regarding foreign-language cinema: "There's such a lot about French film to be discovered. The more you get into it, the more you realise how little we see in this country," he explains.

"If anything, the situation's become worse since the festival began because fewer and fewer subtitled films are shown on terrestrial television and that means fewer films come into the distribution system because of the financial package required to make it viable for the smaller distributors. So we're probably seeing less French cinema on general distribution than we used to."

It's generally acknowledged within UK film distribution circles that, despite the existence of an informed and open audience for foreign-language cinema, the increasing cultural conservatism of TV is betraying it, possibly even dumbing it down and out of existence. Take a look at the programmes for this year's London and Edinburgh Film Festivals and it's evident that French cinema is extraordinarily healthy in terms of the variety and the extent of its output.

So, the French Film Festival is building on this cinema's vibrancy as well as on other, low-level interventions within the UK that look to develop the audience. For example, the Martell-sponsored tour that took place this Autumn presented British audiences with a chance to see previews of a range of French films that have secured UK distribution, from the Luc Besson-produced action thriller Taxi to Raul Ruiz's big-budget adaptation of Proust, Le Temps Retrouve.

Also, in 1997, London's French Institute refurbished their cinema and reopened as the Cine Lumiere, in part homage to the late, lamented Lumiere Cinema on St Martin's Lane. It is now a crucial venue in the London repertory and first-run arthouse circuit.

Two things characterise the younger end of French cinema at the moment: the sovereignty of actors and actresses and the increasing visibility of women directors. "I think it's interesting that this year's Festival is so heavily dominated by women writer/directors," says Mowe "It's something we didn't set out to achieve but it came bubbling to the surface. There did seem to be an interesting body of work by women directors who were dealing with relationships and sexuality in a particular way, so the Festival almost defined its own character this year. It follows in the wake of all the publicity that was generated by Catherine Breillat's Romance which was a French film that did get seen in Britain because of its controversial nature. We were tapping into a mood in France and I think the inter-relationship between all the films and the way they look at male and female sexuality is very interesting."

That's not to say that the films by women directors in the Festival are as provocative as Romance, more to acknowledge that women are becoming increasingly visible within the French industry at many levels. However, in May 1997 the French film journal Positif published an overview of the new generation of French screen talent and noted that "Even more than the directors, screenwriters or producers, the actors are shaping the image of our cinema". Given how we increasingly inhabit a film culture defined by star-power, the sheer number of talented young French performers can be confusing, but there's little doubt that France desperately needs a new Binoche or Depardieu to come forward into the international arena.

But in France, at least they start them young. Emma de Caunes, for example, daughter of Antoine, roi d'Eurotrash, is just 22 and has already won a Cesar award for best female newcomer. She scooped this for her role in Sylvie Verheyde's Un Frere, an intense and highly sucessful example of that genre of intimiste portraiture in which the young French cinema excels and which also screens in the festival.

Given the showbiz family background, it's hardly surprising that Emma de Caunes should have acted in mainstream French comedies, but she soon became dissatisfied. "I prefer dealing with deeper issues and playing dramatic roles. I want to go deep into my characters. In the comedies it was too superficial," she has explained, and admits to making that transition that is another characteristic of the fluidity of roles that enhances the young French cinema.

The Festival also provides a chance to catch up with one of the lead actresses of The Dream Life of Angels, Elodie Bouchez. In J'aimerais pas crever un dimanche ("Don't let me die on a Sunday"), Bouchez plays a dead clubber brought to life by the amorous attentions of a porn-fixated morgue-attendant (Jean-Marc Barr) in an Abel Ferrara-styled sex'n' death extravaganza.

If sex and death sound a little too much like the staple diet of French cinema, included among the 20 contemporary films in the Festival there's also the chance to see the restored print of Jean Renoir's 1952 classic, Le carrosse d'or starring Anna Magnani.

The French Film Festival runs at the Glasgow Film Theatre, 19-28 Nov (tel: 0141-332 6535); the Edinburgh Filmhouse, 19-28 Nov (tel: 0131-228 2688); Dundee Contemporary Arts, 21 Nov-1 Dec (tel: 01382 432000); London Cine Lumiere, 26 Nov-1 Dec (tel: 0171-838 2144)