Our Man In Paris: How can you ignore this woman?

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France is blessed by a handful of great actors and an extraordinary glut of great actresses. Many of these have carried their reputations abroad, such as the indestructible Catherine Deneuve, the elusive Emmanuelle Béart, the versatile Juliette Binoche...

My favourite, however, is a wonderful comic actress who is little known outside her own country. Has anyone, apart from accredited film buffs, ever heard of Catherine Frot (pronounced with a silent "t", as in "to and fro")?

In the past seven years, Mme Frot, 47, has made an enormous reputation in France, playing a series of plucky-unconventional or dippy-conventional, fortysomething women, in films that have succeeded at home but barely troubled the box office abroad.

She was magnificent as the sweet, silly wife of a provincial bully in Un Air de Famille (1996), and funny and moving as a wealthy, rebellious nuisance in La Dilettante (1999). Both were pleasant, unexceptional films (illuminated by the presence of Frot). Both were satires on modern French life, in which French writers and directors were talking rather comfortably to French audiences.

Occasionally, films of this kind - Le Dîner des Cons, for example, or Amélie Poulain - strike a chord abroad and enjoy huge, international success. Most of them make a modest impression in France and then disappear (except for endless reprises to fill up the wastelands of the TV schedules).

With my family away, I went along the other night to watch my heroine in her latest movie: Sept Ans de Mariage, a kind of French remake of The Seven Year Itch. Frot plays a prudish banker, wife and mother, who is drawn by her bored, sexually frustrated husband into the world of Parisian "clubs échangistes", or wife-swapping clubs.

The subject is a good one and deserves a better film. Wife-swapping clubs - where you can participate, or simply gawp - are one of the French social phemonena of the last two decades. There are four pages of listings devoted to them in Pariscope, the French capital's equivalent of Time Out. Judging by the ads, they range from the cheap and nasty to the deluxe, elaborate and pompous. ("Thursday gang-bang soirée... Reservation recommended. Smart dress only.")

Clubs échangistes have, in a sense, replaced the maisons closes, or authorised brothels, which were banned in France more than half a century ago, except, of course, that hubby would have gone alone to the maisons closes. This is social progress.

None of these topics is explored very deeply by the film, which is neither especially sexy, nor especially witty. The screenplay is pleasant but predictable: the wife is turned on despite herself; the husband grows alarmed. True love is rediscovered.

None the less, Sept Ans de Mariage, thanks mostly to another of Frot's great performances, has shot to the top of the film charts in France (second only to the monster hit Hulk).

It is customary abroad to mock the run-of-the-mill productions of modern French cinema as being too Franco-French, and therefore undeserving of the public subsidies lavished upon them. This misses the point.

Thanks to these subsidies (now under threat), France is the only country in Europe still to have a fully-functioning cinema, producing everything from comedies to cartoons. (More than 200 films a year, compared to fewer than 100 in Britain.)

While the system lasts, French cinema can still afford to make pleasant little movies about modern French life, in which French writers and directors talk comfortably to French audiences. Would that we still had the same in Britain.

On the other hand, Frot is too good for the French alone. She deserves - and the world deserves - a role in a movie that will travel better than Sept ans de Mariage.

Eric Cantona: the worldÿs fattest football legend

Another French movie which comes out tomorrow seems certain to cause great amusement in Britain, except among my fellow Manchester United fans. It features a version of the Hulk who is red rather than green.

Eric Cantona, the former Le Dieu of Old Trafford, appears inside a fat suit, which turns him - rather grotesquely, judging by the advance pictures - into a 25-stone Marseilles detective. Cantona, 37, retired from football in 1997 to make a career in the cinema, without enormous success.

In his first starring part in 1998, in Mookie, he was comprehesively out-acted by the chimpanzee in the title role. However, he did recently win a small award from an obscure French festival for his role in a short film.

Could L'Outremangeur ("The Excessive Eater") be his cinematic breakthrough? The advance publicity has unnamed critics describing his performance as "marvellous" and "breathtaking". He plays a murder squad detective whose only hobby is eating, until he falls in love with a young woman who has killed her uncle.

Cantona has let it be known recently that he is available for a job in football management.

Clams for the memories

A friend told me that he had seen advance publicity for the movie Sinbad: la Légende des Sept Mers (Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas) spelled out in the moveable type outside a Paris cinema as Sinbad: la Légende des Sept Mères or Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Mothers.

In Ireland, a couple of weeks ago, I saw a cinema which had advertised Charlie's Angels as Charlie's Angles. A couple of years ago, the same cinema showed a film called My Big Fat Geek Wedding.

My all-time favourite observation remains, however, at the small movie theatre in Georgetown, Washington DC, which for several days in the early 1990s advertised the movie Dead Calm as Dead Clam. The cinema stood opposite the Georgetown Seafood Restaurant.

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