The French vision loses its appeal

The world's favourite foreign-language cinema used to be French. Pas encore. Sheila Johnston sees an industry in crisis
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Last month hundreds of film distributors and journalists from across Europe converged on Paris at the behest and invitation of the French government. Their missions, respectively: to buy movies, and to report on the current state of the nation's cinema. France is highly protective of its film industry, bullish about promoting it and proud of its product. Its movies travel around the world, the distribution executive Antoine Mesnier told Variety recently, for a simple reason: "Their charm, their classic regard of France - the man with a beret and a baguette - is appealing."

Last month hundreds of film distributors and journalists from across Europe converged on Paris at the behest and invitation of the French government. Their missions, respectively: to buy movies, and to report on the current state of the nation's cinema. France is highly protective of its film industry, bullish about promoting it and proud of its product. Its movies travel around the world, the distribution executive Antoine Mesnier told Variety recently, for a simple reason: "Their charm, their classic regard of France - the man with a beret and a baguette - is appealing."

From the golden oldies of the Thirties and Forties, such as Les Enfants du Paradis and La Règle du Jeu, to Nouvelle Vague hits such as L'Enfant Sauvage or A Bout de Souffle and Eighties and Nineties phenomena like Cyrano de Bergerac, Jean de Florette and Diva, French movies have always been one of Britain's leading art-house attractions.

Not any more: now the Far East, Spain and Latin America are the countries that everyone is talking about. In 2004, the UK's top 10 foreign-language releases contained only one French film. Agnès Jaoui's elegant comedy of manners, Comme une Image ( Look At Me), sat in seventh place behind Hero, Zatoichi, Bad Education and The Motorcycle Diaries (with an eccentric one-off, Mel Gibson's Aramaic-language The Passion of the Christ, far ahead in the lead).

A strong contingent of four French films played in competition in Berlin this month. Not one bagged a prize, and only Jacques Audiard's De Battre Mon Coeur s'est Arrêté , a remake of James Toback's 1978 American thriller Fingers, looks likely to reach Britain in the short term. And some of the most successful directors of yesteryear have disappointed with their recent work. Régis Wargnier's Indochine won an Oscar in 1993 as well as a nomination for its star, Catherine Deneuve. But when his new film, another colonial drama, called Man To Man and shot in English, opened Berlin, it attracted only brickbats.

Claude Berri once fuelled a million male fantasies when he launched Emmanuelle Béart's career in Manon des Sources. But critics in Paris last month were left underwhelmed by his feeble romantic comedy L'un Reste, l'Autre Part. Even the normally reliable Bertrand Tavernier seemed well off-form with Holy Lola, about a group of tediously bickering French couples who travel to Cambodia to adopt orphans.

French cinema needs a big international-breakthrough blockbuster. But nothing has come close to the remarkable success of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie four years ago, including Jeunet's own follow-up, Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles. (Because of the involvement of Warner Brothers, the new film is not even officially French, though that hasn't stopped it from being the front runner at the French Oscars, or Césars, this Saturday).

"In the Seventies and Eighties, everyone wanted to see French films," concedes Margaret Menegoz, an experienced producer and the president of Unifrance, the organisation which promotes French cinema abroad. "I knew a lot of directors then who were in ivory towers. Now they are trying to reach out to the public. But, paradoxically, the films are not getting through."

Menegoz says some countries, like Russia, which released 80 French movies last year, are still enthusiastic customers, but "the UK market has become much more difficult to penetrate. We need to be in the multiplex, otherwise we'll never move forward." It's an ambition unlikely to be furthered by the sale of the previously French-owned UGC cinema chain to an American company.

Despite all these difficulties, French films continue to pour into Britain: four titles open here over the next month, and a further four will play around the country at the end of March as part of the French Film Tour. Some belong to the wave of dark, graphic, morbid sex, beloved of such directors as Catherine Breillat, films whose timeless charm and appeal involves flick-knives, whips and corsets.

Based on a novel by Georges Bataille, the controversial writer sometimes known as the "metaphysician of evil," Ma Mère features a violent affair between a dissolute mother, played by Isabelle Huppert, and her mixed-up teenage son. Wild Side grittily depicts the ménage à trois between a male-to-female transsexual prostitute and her two lovers.

Other movies, like Comme une Image, embody a kind of aspirational savoir vivre, a vision of life as, in the words of The New York Times's Stephen Holden, "a movable feast in which good food, fine wine, elegant fashions, sexual sophistication and literary erudition together equal civility." Not by chance, surely, is the French Film Tour sponsored by Renault, which milked that stereotype to perfection in its classic-kitsch Papa and Nicole television campaign.

A typical example of this is the Tour's opening film, Arnaud Desplechin's Rois et Reine, a sprawling, novelistic story of an extended family of artists and intellectuals. It inspired French critics to break out their finest purple prose: "A stroke of genius," gushed Le Monde, while for Libération the film "imprints itself like a flash of lightning on the viewer's retina." It's a technically dazzling piece, but, like another forthcoming movie, François Ozon's 5x2, a tale of marital collapse told in reverse chronological order, lacks the star power to pull in a wide international audience.

On the other hand, French cinema has also so far failed to incorporate its very lively and fertile generation of beurs (French people of North African origin) into the mainstream. Britain, the US and even Germany (including Head-On, by the Turkish-German film-maker Fatih Akin), routinely produce high-profile, world-class work exploring questions of culture-clash and immigrant and refugee experiences. But, while beurs have given French pop music a powerful and sorely needed shot in the arm, their films remain on the fringes.

Two interesting but extremely small-scale examples, La Fille de Keltoum and Le Grand Voyage, open here later this year. By far the best of the current crop, Abdel Kechiche's L'Esquive, is about council-estate kids whose lives are affected when they stage a classic play by the 18th-century writer Marivaux. A sleeper-hit in France last year, it's nominated for six Césars, but has been sold to only a handful of countries, which Menegoz puts down to the problems of subtitling the distinctive "slanguage."

At the moment, all France's hopes are riding on an unlikely little film of the beret-and-baguette tendency: Les Choristes ( The Chorus), a debut feature about a visionary music teacher who sets up a boys' choir at a provincial reform school just after the Second World War. This gentle fable has been an Amélie-scale hit on its home turf, clocking up more than 8.5 admissions and selling five million CDs. In America, where Les Choristes opened last month, many critics declined to warm to a sentimental tale in which "children lift their voices in song to wash away their troubles in a flood tide of bathos," as one representative review in The New York Times described it. "I really think you can surprise people by giving them what they expect," counters the director, Christophe Barratier. "Everyone knows how Les Choristes will end as soon as it starts. But, even though you know what's going to happen, you wait to see how it will happen."

No-one would dispute that the French excel at subtle, intimate stories. Innocence, a sensual, eerie - and thoroughly unpredictable - drama set in a girls' boarding school, is an outstanding example; it's released in Britain this summer. What's lacking, perhaps, is the larger picture. In The New York Times, Holden argues that the difference between French and American movies is that the former savour the game of life. The latter, by contrast, are obsessed with winning it. "The Gallic tradition is sweeter and more realistic," Holden writes. "But there is something to be said for epic, heroic visions, even wrong-headed, belligerent ones. They think and at least try to feel big. You can't change the world, for better or worse, without that enormity of purpose."

Most people will heave a sigh of relief that the world is still waiting for a Gallic Star Wars. But there are signs that even the French are feeling a sense of dissatisfaction with their cinema. In Le Promeneur du champ de Mars, for example, Robert Guediguian portrays the final days of President Mitterand. When the film opened in France last week, critics there noted how it skirted around Mitterand's political significance, and the scandals surrounding him, in order to focus on an individual staring at death.

Regrets have been expressed at the French cinema's reluctance to tackle broader social themes and public figures, compared to both Britain and America. According to Le Monde, Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars is the first time a contemporary head of state has been depicted in a fiction movie. In a survey in the same newspaper, some film-makers put this down to the polarisation of political opinion in France and the absence of a consensual middle ground.

Others, like Constantin Costa-Gavras, who had unsuccessfully tried to mount his own production about Mitterand, believe that the French have an excessive, fetishistic reverence towards power and those who hold it. Costa-Gavras's own new film Le Couperet, a black comedy about a man who resorts to desperate measures when made redundant, opens in France next Wednesday to strong advance word. Its political subject would, once again, make this director the exception who proves the rule - except that it's based on an American novel, The Ax, by Donald Westlake.

Yet another theory is advanced by Olivier Assayas, whose latest movie, Clean, shot mainly in English and set in several countries, earned Maggie Cheung the Best Actress award in Cannes last year. "Broadcasting institutions like Canal+ have become more conservative," he says. "They want much more mainstream films.

"Film culture in France is very strong and deep," he continues. "Cinema is taken much more seriously than in many European countries - films are reviewed in the culture section of magazines, rather than the entertainment one. France defined independent film-making with the Nouvelle Vague in the Sixties, and ultimately any film-maker in the world has some connection with that notion. But French cinema can also be a limited and little provincial. Certainly, I don't feel totally at ease within it."

'Ma Mère' opens on 4 March, 'Les Choristes' on 11 March, '5x2' on 18 March and 'Wild Side' on 15 April. 'Rois et Reine' and 'Clean' play in the French Film Tour (30 Mar - 1 Apr). 'Innocence' and 'De Battre Mon Coeur S'est Arrêté' are out later this year

Comments