So, who's afraid of a few subtitles? We are

The Martell French Film Tour of Britain is battling some die-hard habits
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The Independent Culture

Earlier this year the newly-formed Film Council, headed by director Alan Parker and armed with a healthy wad of lottery money, vowed to take on Hollywood's dominance of our cinemas.

Earlier this year the newly-formed Film Council, headed by director Alan Parker and armed with a healthy wad of lottery money, vowed to take on Hollywood's dominance of our cinemas.

Parker et al are still establishing their policies. Meanwhile, this week sees the launch of a two-month national tour of French films, demonstrating the zeal with which our Gallic cousins are willing to take up the fight against the might of Hollywood. The French are old, bitter campaigners in the battle against American cultural imperialism. And for good reason: in France, Hollywood films have constituted two-thirds of the box office for several years now; of the 150 French films produced last year, only 20 were a financial success.

In this country, the problem for any European films is not just Hollywood, but the almost pathological British fear of sub-titles. It's a malaise exacerbated by the virtual disappearance of foreign films on terrestrial television, by the closure of many popular arthouse cinemas and, to add insult to injury, the fact that many of the regional film theatres which once screened foreign fare now support "independent" movies instead - most of which are American.

Thus the second Martell French Film Tour. Seven French films will be touring 17 towns and cities around the country, notably targeting multiplexes in a bold move to change national cinema-going habits. In the words of Xavier North, head of the cultural department at the French Embassy, which organised the tour, the aim is to persuade audiences to indulge in "less popcorn, more panache".

Daniel Toscan du Plantier, president of Unifrance, the body whose sole task is to promote French cinema around the world, says that "the British market is the most difficult of all Western markets for us, because British cinema is now part of American cinema." For a well-financed French cinema, he says, the problem is not box-office. "This is a cultural fight: for us, cinema is a mirror of the nation; it is protected as national heritage, in the same way as Shakespeare is in the UK."

The Martell tour showcases a determined cross-section of French movie output: from costume drama ( Les Enfants du Siÿcle, starring Juliette Binoche as the author George Sand, and the three-hour epic Les Destinées Sentimentales) to teen-oriented science fiction ( Peut-être); from Andrzej Zulawski's typically anarchic melodrama La Fidélité (starring Sophie Marceau) to more mainstream entertainments such as The Escort, the latter featuring Daniel Auteuil as a Frenchman working in London as a male escort.

Nevertheless, Robert Beeson, a director of stalwart foreign language distributor Artificial Eye fears that the Martell tour may be a futile exercise. "French films are the best in Europe, but audiences for them are definitely getting smaller. Even a successful movie for us, like Beau Travail, couldn't manage the figures we would have expected four or five years ago. And it's getting much more difficult outside London."

Daniÿle Thompson, the veteran screenwriter who makes her directing debut with the bitter-sweet family drama La Bûche, identifies a damaging mismatch in cultural empathy between the two countries. "Basically the French are fascinated by the English; they might not always like them, but they admire them very much. The English love being in France as tourists, but there is no fascination, no admiration." Thus it is that an English director such as Ken Loach can be revered in France, yet there is no reciprocal fan-club for any of such diverse talents, say, as Claire Denis, Patrice Leconte or Luc Besson.

"We cannot resist the American invasion alone," bemoans Daniel Toscan du Plantier. However, the French are not as alone as they think. On a fraction of Unifrance's budget (£500,000 a year), the British Council's Films and Television department has promoted British films in over 60 countries, its latest project a mammoth, five-month retrospective of British cinema history, showing some 200 films, which begins next month at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Moreover, despite jaundiced suggestions that the Film Council's remit is simply to make Hollywood-style movies, a spokeswoman insists that, like the French, "we obviously have a responsibility for getting a broader range of films into cinemas throughout the UK. It's not just about British or American films. We really believe that exhibitors need to be more creative in their programming."

In the new year the Film Council is to announce initiatives with at least two mainstream cinema chains, designed to encourage audiences to watch foreign language films. The big question is, "how?" Certainly, Xavier North is being self-defeating when he calls for "less popcorn, more panache". Why not popcorn and panache?

Martell French Film Tour: information and booking hotline: 0870 50 50 007

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