Cinemas strike back as fading star cries foul

Mary Dejevsky on claims of US cultural imperialism which have not helped Jean-Paul Belmondo

THE veteran French film star with the indiarubber face, Jean- Paul Belmondo, last week came up with a novel way of celebrating his 40 years in the cinema and promoting his latest film at the same time: complaining about how few people would be able to see it. It was being discriminated against, he claimed, because it was French.

The big guns of French culture rushed to his aid, with the culture minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, flailing about with the old cliches about the threat of American cultural hegemony, the risk to the French way of life and so on. If France did not watch out, Mr Douste-Blazy warned, its film industry would go the way of Italy's - to ruin.

Belmondo's initial complaint was that his latest film, Desire, had been scheduled for release in only four Paris cinemas, none of them on the Champs Elysees,the showcase location. "My film has been totally killed," he told a newspaper, and blamed French cinema chains for "kowtowing" to the big American producers. "When they say that Desire has coincided with 10 other new films and tell me that it should have been released instead in May or June, I ask why it shouldn't be Casino that comes out in May or June."

French film actors and producers - most of a certain age and 1960s background - chorused their approval for Belmondo's patriotic stand. The star himself had the satisfaction of welcoming the culture minister to last week's premiere. By then, 10 cinemas in the Paris area had been found to show the film, one on the Champs Elysees.

Belmondo, though, may have done his career more harm than good. Instead of taking the criticism lying down and mouthing their support for French culture, the distributors and cinemas fought back. They said the star's complaints were "unjustified", noting that the film's producer, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, had been satisfied with the distribution arrangements.

Nor did they leave it there. In what appeared to be a caustic comment on the potential audience for Desire, and perhaps on the style of 63- year-old Belmondo as well, the spokesman for the federation of French cinemas, Antoine Mesnier, said it was not in Paris that the film would succeed or fail, but in the provinces.

"We are accused of sabotaging a film," he said, "but that is crediting us with powers we do not have. If it had been up to us, the film would not be coming out now. There are always too many films released between February and May." Responding to Belmondo's criticism that Disney's Toy Story was showing at 500 cinemas, Mr Mesnier sniped: "Toy Story is aimed at a different audience. If Belmondo makes a children's film, he can have 500 cinemas too."

Whatever else it is, Desire isnot a children's film. It is a stylised and very French comedy, with elements of Feydeau-style farce, slapstick, verbal wit, primitive characterisation and some embarrassing cinematic cliches. Its hero, a manservant calledDesire, played by Belmondo, specialises in seducing the lady of whatever house he works in.

The day after it was released this week, at the Champs Elysees cinema Belmondo had fought so hard to get, there were no queues worth speaking of, and the early evening showing was barely half full. The staid Parisian couples and ladies in their sixties who predominated appreciated the film's ambience and sporadic wit, but it seemed a matter of "Never mind the quality, feel the Frenchness".

Perhaps the distributors' judgement was not so very wrong. Patriotism may turn out to have been the last refuge of a fading French star.

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