French model a star
France is managing to make films its people want to see, writes Lynden Barber
LAST year was disastrous for Australian films at the local box office, with only 3.5 per cent of cinema tickets sold for local stories, less than 1 per cent if the US studio movie Australia is excluded. But if, as some argue, Hollywood domination and competition from pay TV and downloads is to blame, how is it that certain European countries are able to generate such healthy ticket sales for their films?
In 2008, German and Danish films accounted for 27 per cent and 30 per cent of total cinema admissions in their respective markets. But for a truly spectacular success, look to France, whose cinema is riding a massive wave of popularity at home and overseas.
In French cinemas, locally produced films beat Hollywood films last year by selling a mighty 47.3 per cent of all tickets, compared with 45.4 per cent for US productions.
Figures for 2008 are expected to show that French films attracted a record 80 million admissions worldwide. In Australia, audiences for French films have grown strongly in the past three years, with 2.6 million admissions in 2008, compared with less than 500,000 in 2005.
For several decades the popular stereotype of the French film has been the sophisticated bourgeois story. At their best mounted with cleverness, sexiness and wit, films were ideally set in elegant cafes, restaurants and homes and directed by a well-regarded auteur. Those who longed for a more commercial, less solidly middle-class French industry have long thrown brickbats at the auteurs for making films they felt were boring and seen by relatively few.
In recent years, there’s been plenty of room for more obviously commercial filmmaking in France. Big domestic hits have included not only broad comedies ( such as Welcome to the Sticks ) and true-life biographies of French national figures ( the Oscar-winning Edith Piaf tale La Vie En Rose ), but also populist fare such as the Taxi and Asterix series whose appeal is enormous at home, albeit much less so overseas.
Yet it’s clear that these lowbrow successes, including last year’s Asterix at the Olympics , have not been achieved at the expense of the auteurs, for French art cinema is also thriving.
Veteran directors from the 1960s such as Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette are still producing work and younger talents such as Arnaud Desplechin ( A Christmas Tale ) and Olivier Assayas continue to thrive. The latter’s neo-Chekhovian Summer Hours recently scored 400,000 admissions in France, aided by the casting of the popular Juliette Binoche.
Jean-Jacques Garnier, French cultural attache in Australia and curator of the annual Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, points out that many auteur directors have large, dedicated followings among cinemagoers. He names Summer Hours as one of several recent films that make it hard to draw the line between commercial and arthouse titles. Even Welcome to the Sticks was not seen as commercial when it was in production or even when it was initially released, he points out.
Not only is French cinema scoring one or two blockbuster hits a year; a greater number of less expected titles are registering at least one million admissions, Garnier says, including the recent I’ve Loved You So Long . The latter’s success shows that even a subtle French art film can put bums on seats, especially when aided by big international stars, in this case Kristin Scott Thomas.
Several factors underpin the French industry’s health. As veteran director Bertrand Tavernier told Australian journalists recently, filmmakers and unions have fought vigorously against free trade concessions to the US and to preserve a government funding system that, significantly, does not come directly from general tax revenue. It draws instead on a tax on cinema tickets, and a legal requirement that TV stations invest a certain percentage of funds on film production. This makes film funding less politically sensitive than it can be here.
Another key is the French cinema’s extensive star system. The number of actors that can help to open a French film is huge. The list includes stars such as Catherine Deneuve, Binoche and Gerard Depardieu, newer talents such as Cecile de France, and a huge range of highly regarded actors such as Charles Berling, Valeria BruniTedeschi and Virginie Ledoyen.
This is not to forget a handful of hugely popular celebrities not well-known outside France, including comedians such as Dany Boon ( Welcome to the Sticks ), Franck Dubosc ( hit comedy Disco ) and Gerard Jugnot. The latter stars in the 2009 French Film Festival’s opening night film Paris 36 , a Luhrmann-esque tribute to cabaret during the politically polarised ’ 30s from the filmmaker behind worldwide hit Les Choristes , Christophe Barratier.
The strength and sophistication of France’s cultural and cinematic traditions are obvious factors behind the industry’s health, as are the pride and protective attitudes taken by the French towards their language. French audiences often like to see films that aren’t dubbed or subtitled, and successful French filmmakers and actors tend not to be immediately sucked up by Hollywood in the way they are here. Consider, too, a high level of production: usually more than 200 titles and last year more than 300, including many co-productions that pull major global talent into French orbit.
Finally France produces a consistently diverse range of styles and genres. This is reflected in the French Film Festival program, which spans not just those polar opposites, the commercial and arthouse strands, but showcases two other longstanding French traditions still garnering audience approval: comedies and crime stories, the latter including Jean-Francois Richet’s twopart hit, Public Enemy Number One, starring Depardieu, de France and Vincent Cassel.
Among the comedies are Catherine Castel’s 48 Hours a Day ( a businesswoman pretends to get a job in Japan to make her husband take over parenting chores), Baby Love ( gay man tries to become a dad) and master farceur Francis Veber’s uproarious A Pain in the Ass ( suicidal loser and contract killer in adjacent hotel rooms), remade from a 1973 version also scripted by Veber. The French Film Festival opens on March 5 on screens in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. Lynden Barber travelled to Paris courtesy of UniFrance.