Nicholas Lezard: Honey, the kids must see this film

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Sometimes you have to admit that the French do things better than us. The news that their Education Ministry is to put 200 classic films on an online database so that their children can be educated in what they call the Seventh Art should be a rebuke to us.

It is a blindingly simple idea, and one that should be adopted by this country as well. It won't be, because we are both stingy and stupid – but it should.

The problem is that, even bearing in mind their weird devotion to the films of Jerry Lewis, the French are so much more cinematically literate than us. I gather that one of the 200 films they plan to put online is Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris.

Not only could no one in this country have made it, hardly anyone apart from a small minority of diehard cineastes would want to watch it, even if you explained carefully that you get to see Brigitte Bardot's bottom in its prime.

The unreflectivity of the British cinema audience is just one facet of the general cultural uncuriousness, and it would be wonderful if something could be done about it. This is a country, remember, where if you go to Blockbusters and want to find a British film not falling within the Bond franchise, you have to look in the "World Cinema" section.

I try and do my bit. On the weekends when I have the kids I try and educate them in the ways of righteousness, ie instil in them an awareness that a film can still qualify as entertainment even if it is in black and white and does not have any of the following elements: a cyborg, a car chase, a talking animal, an alien, a scientific impossibility, eg time travel, or elves.

This is not, of course, hard and fast. One can stretch a point and afford classic status to the first two Terminator films, the first Back to the Future, the first Matrix, 2001, and so on, but few and far between are the films which unequivocally grip the young by the lapels and can also be called worthy and undying classics.

The modus operandi we've settled on is to alternate our choices. This causes me monthly vexation at Video City in Notting Hill Gate, which for decades has been the best film-rental shop in the country, but there's a scary girl who works there who looks at me in a thoroughly disapproving way when I ask for You Don't Mess with the Zoltan or some other dreck I am too weary to refuse my children. (Incidentally, if I admit to letting them watch Borat, do I go to prison?)

So I have to raise my game. Recent surprise successes have included the first four Marx Brothers films, Dr Strangelove ("Eurgh! I don't want to see a love film!" said the nine-year-old. "It's about nuclear war, ignorant and wretched child," I said, which shut him up) and Harvey, which I think held their attention because they like drunks on screen. They remind them, perhaps, of their dear father. You can also do worse than North By Northwest and A Matter of Life and Death.

But I can't wait to see the full French list of 200 essential films when it comes out. You could get some good tips there, although I suspect that their own cinema will, with good reason, be very well represented. One wonders what would happen if we tried a similar exercise.

On the one hand, there is a strong possibility that it would be screwed up either through worthiness or crassness. On the other hand, the fact that we don't really have a rich movie heritage apart from Ealing, Hitchcock and Powell-Pressburger means that any attempt to make our children cinema-conscious can spread its net wide. Who knows? We might even get a Godard film or two.

But heaven help the parents who try to get their children to watch a film with subtitles.

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