French model a star

France is manag­ing to make films its peo­ple want to see, writes Lyn­den Bar­ber

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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.

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