The French cry: 'Vive le cinéma, vive la différence!'

With its movie industry thriving, France fights off Hollywood's influence

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The Independent Culture

Whatever happens to The Artist and its 10 nominations at tonight's Oscar ceremony, it has been an extraordinary 12 months for French cinema.

The jury for the "French Oscars", or Césars, in Paris on Friday were spoiled for choice. Should the most glittering prizes go to a French-made, silent, black and white film about Hollywood which has conquered the world and even, er, Hollywood?

Or should they go a heart-warming comedy about physical handicap, Intouchables, which has been shattering box-office records in France?

The French film academy split the spoils, giving six Césars to The Artist, including Best Film and Best Director to Michel Hazanavicius. But the César for Best Actor went not to the star of The Artist, Jean Dujardin, but to Omar Sy, 34, the comedian-turned-actor who plays a minor criminal turned nurse and carer in Intouchables. No black actor had won the prize before.

Even leaving aside The Artist and Intouchables, it has been a remarkable cinematic year in France. Ticket sales in 2011 – €216m (£183m) – were the highest since 1967. Just over two-thirds of all French people went to the movies at least once. More than two-fifths of all seats sold last year were for French-made movies. There was a string of other critical and modest commercial successes, including Polisse, a movie about a police squad investigating child crime which won two Césars. There were also several expensive bides (flops), including big-budget films by supposedly bankable "stars" such as Luc Besson and Mathieu Kassovitz.

Last year was a powerful advertisement for the often-decried, public-and-private French approach to financing film-making – a unique model. Since much of the "public" investment comes from a 12 per cent tax on cinema tickets, success should, in theory, breed success.

The French industry, the third largest in the world, received €1.5bn from the state last year. It should be even more flush with public cash to fund films in 2012/13.

Some important figures in French cinema are, however, unimpressed by what the industry does with its money. Kassovitz, stung by the failure last year of his complex, anti-colonialist movie, L'Ordre et la Morale, posted a tweet last month stating, roughly speaking: "Screw French cinema. Go and fuck yourselves with your shit films."

There is a growing tendency, Kassovitz and other critics say, for French films to ape the worst of American styles and tastes. The Artist, a French movie made without words and about Hollywood, might seem to be the perfect target for their barbs. In fact, Kassovitz and other critics of the French industry, have saluted the wit and "Frenchness" of The Artist – even though the last quality has been disguised by its distributors in the US.

Their complaints are mostly directed at the uninspiring middle ground of French comedies, thrillers and rom-coms. The safety net of public subsidy, critics say, too often makes the film-making lazy and predictable.

Public funding also allows so-called experimental or director's movies (films d'auteur) to see the light of day in France – but not always the light of the cinema screen. Almost half of the 260 French films made each year are scarcely given public showings. A move to "digital" projection will make it even easier in future for a few films to dominate the market.

Other senior figures in the French industry reject the criticism as manifestly unfair or exaggerated. They point out that Hazanavicius cut his teeth on Hollywood-style, crowd-pleasing comedies. They also point out that the defining characteristic of French cinema in recent years has been its lack of defining characteristics, with a mix of successful films that don't conform to formats.

Who would have predicted the runaway popularity in 2008 of a comedy about the fact that people in northern France talk oddly (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis)? Or the triumph last year of Intouchables, a buddy comedy about a rich man in a wheelchair and a wiseacre from a troubled, multi-racial suburb? Or the global success of a silent movie made in 2011?

At least, unlike Britain, France still has a complete cinema industry, which makes French thrillers, French comedies, French adventure stories, French rom-coms, French silent movies – and French flops.