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Falling out of love with French cinema?

Britain is considered to be one of the most difficult markets for French films

Geoffrey Macnab
Monday 02 November 2015 13:24 GMT
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Bond girl Léa Seydoux in Diary of a Chambermaid
Bond girl Léa Seydoux in Diary of a Chambermaid

The French film director François Truffaut famously remarked that there was “no such thing as British cinema.” His admiration for the work of Alfred Hitchcock notwithstanding, he, like many of his compatriots, felt that the British just didn’t get film-making.

The British, by contrast, have generally always admired French films. Truffaut’s own movies, and those of his fellow New Wave directors like Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer were always distributed in the UK. Stars like Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve and then, a little later, Gerard Depardieu and Juliette Binoche were instantly recognisable to British film fans.

French movies had an allure for British audiences that other foreign language films couldn’t match. Whether sumptuous, middle-brow costume dramas from Claude Berri or cult movies like Betty Blue and Diva, it seemed that British cinephiles couldn’t get enough of them. Even comparatively recently, French films such as Amélie and Tell No One did bumper business.

Now, while it may be overstating it to say the Brits have fallen out of love with French cinema entirely, Gallic fare is becoming harder to find on British screens. Next week sees the launch of the 23rd French Film Festival, which runs all over the country. Festival director Richard Mowe estimates that around 53,000 British cinemagoers will see French movies during the festival. One reason for the festival’s popularity is that so few French movies are available elsewhere.

“Currently, the British attitude to French cinema is causing some angst, certainly in France. Britain is considered to be one of the most difficult markets for French films to make an impression,” says Mowe.

Whereas the Italians and the Germans continue to lap up French movies, the Brits seem to have lost the taste almost entirely.

Jean-Paul Salomé, president of French cinema’s promotional body uniFrance, accepts that Britain is a problem that French movies currently can’t crack.

“We don’t know why, now it is more and more difficult every year,” he says. No one can pinpoint precisely why there has been this decline in appetite. Some point to the lack of new big name auteurs with the stature and appeal of Godard, Truffaut et al. Others worry about the lack of new stars. Léa Seydoux may be in the Bond film and have a movie in the French Film Festival (Diary of a Chambermaid) but she isn’t yet a name who can draw cinemagoers on her own. Even the lack of foreign language teaching in British schools is cited as a factor. When French company UGC owned multiplexes in Britain, French movies were regularly programmed on its screens. That doesn’t happen any more. What is more, when French films are released in Britain, they tend to go out on very few screens and to make minimal impact at the box office.

There is a perception, shared by some of the French themselves, that French movies are just too arty and that French film-makers don’t like to dirty their hands with populist, genre fare. What can be done to make the Brits re-embrace French cinema? “It’s a good question but we don’t have the answer right now,” sighs Salomé.

The French Film Festival UK, 5 Nov to 13 Dec (www.frenchfilmfestival.org.uk)

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