One of these films is officially French - but it's not the one in French, shot in France, by a Frenchman

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Which of these statements seems least likely to be true?

An "American" movie, made in France, about France, with French actors, is being shown in America in French with English subtitles. The film, Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) is wowing American critics and audiences.

A "French" blockbuster epic film, Alexander, filmed in English with mostly English-speaking actors, made in North Africa by the well-known "French" director, Olivier Caillou (better known as Oliver Stone), will open in Britain this month.

Both statements are true - if you accept the Byzantine logic of the French law on film subsidies, as interpreted by a recent French court judgment. The French culture minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, last week called on all sections of the French film industry to come together to untangle their spools of jealousy, greed and politics and edit some kind of common sense back into the system.

The first film - the so-called "American" movie - is an epic of love and war, made by the director of and leading performer in the film Amélie, which triumphed all round the world in 2001. Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles, which has already attracted nearly four million cinema-goers in France, is a love story about the First World War and its aftermath.

It comes to Britain in January and stars Audrey Tautou (star of Amélie) as Mathilde, a young woman who refuses to believe the official story that her fiancé was killed "on the field of honour" in January 1917. For the first time in French cinematic history, the film tackles the subject of desertion and deliberate self-mutilation among soldiers of the Great War - the subject of a 1957 Stanley Kubrick film, Paths of Glory, which was banned in France until 1975.

Fiançailles has received rave reviews in the US. Despite the fact that it is being shown with subtitles - a rarity across the Atlantic - early box-office returns suggest that it may yet oust Amélie as the most successful French film ever in America. Except that it is officially "not French".

The film was made in France with French actors and technicians and a French director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, Alien: Resurrection, Amélie). Nonetheless, it has been declared "American" by a French court because it was partly funded by a French company, 32 per cent of which is owned by the Hollywood studio Warner Brothers. Under the terms of the French film subsidy law, all production companies eligible for state aid must be European.

The ruling follows a complaint by a handful of French movie production companies, which did not like Warners moving into their territory and creating a French subsidiary.

One of those production companies - Pathé - is a co-producer of the Oliver Stone movie Alexander, which opens in Britain shortly, starring Angelina Jolie (American), Colin Farrell (Irish) and Val Kilmer (American). The movie was made in English, mostly in Tunisia, but was edited in France, backed by French money and directed by a man with a French passport. Oliver Stone's mother was French.

As a result, the movie has been cleared to receive a subsidy from the public funds created in France to subsidise the domestic film industry (partly from a tax on the box office). As a further result, Jeunet has publicly renamed Oliver Stone "Olivier Caillou". A caillou is a pebble or stone in French.

The vast majority of people working in the French movie industry support Jeunet and Warner Brothers. They say that it is absurd that a subsidy should be denied to a film which is so utterly French and which employed so many French technicians and actors.

The dog-in-a-manger French production companies say that Hollywood has been trying for years to have the French cinema subsidies banned. It cannot now expect to share in them.

The argument goes on ...