French eye US audiences

What do the French enjoy when they go to the movies? Just what Americans enjoy: Hollywood entertainment.

This preference for American fare over homegrown productions has irked France's film industry for ages. But the current season could mark a change. French spectators have flocked to theaters in record numbers so far this year, and they've chosen to see domestic pictures over American imports by a wide margin, with 60 percent of ticket sales going to French movies, according to Variety, the entertainment trade paper.

This doesn't mean French moviegoers are more enamored of "art films" than their American cousins are. Top winners at French box offices in recent weeks include an action thriller called "Brotherhood of the Wolf," a gay farce called "The Closet," and a buddy comedy called "Would I Lie to You 2," coproduced by Warner Bros., a major Hollywood studio. These pictures are clearly in a very different league from the Gallic classics by Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer that dominate books about the art of cinema.

But their success proves French auteurs can please a crowd as deftly as their Hollywood counterparts can. If that's true, French movies should enjoy similar popularity in America.

Sure enough, an unusually large number of French pictures have made their way to US theaters over the past year, and the best of them - "Venus Beauty Institute," "Seventh Heaven," "La Buche" - have won kudos from critics and audiences alike.

Now another wave of French productions is arriving in the United States, courtesy of the annual "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema" program, running today through March 18 at New York 's Lincoln Center.

Selections from this event frequently go on to wider distribution, and this year's lineup of 13 movies should do well, since it features such international stars as Daniel Auteuil, Isabelle Huppert, and Nathalie Baye, not to mention directors like Benoit Jacquot, Robert Guediguian, and Chantal Akerman.

Also notable is the fact that for the third year in a row, no fewer than five female filmmakers are represented - a trend Hollywood would do well to emulate.

If any film on the bill grabs a disproportionate share of attention, it's likely to be "Sade," a French equivalent of "Quills," one of last year's most controversial Hollywood releases.

Just as the producers of "Quills" called on respected star Geoffrey Rush to play the infamous Marquis, the "Sade" filmmakers recruited the hugely popular Auteuil to do the same. Rush has snagged an Academy Award nomination for his performance, and Auteuil won a Lumiere - the French equivalent of an Oscar - for his. Auteuil is a fine actor, but he lacks the off-kilter undertones that Rush brings to this character, and the fundamental blandness of his portrayal is compounded by Jacquot's directing, which turns Sade into a sort of eccentric old uncle who's stronger on scandalous talk than subversive action.

As worrisome as movie morality often is nowadays, it's interesting that both "Sade" and "Quills" end up sanitizing their subject, taming Sade's aggressively nasty life and work to the point where it's ultimately hard to recognize.

A rising number of French producers are filming their productions with English dialogue, hoping to boost their chances of reaching the large American market. The recent "Vatel" was one such movie, and the new "Esther Kahn" is another, shot in English by director Arnaud Desplechin, whose earlier "La Sentinelle" and "My Sex Life (How I Got Into an Argument...)" earned international acclaim.

Summer Phoenix plays the title character, a Jewish girl in London who turns to acting as a way of carving out her own identity. Her mentors include a theater critic and an old trouper who's seen it all during his hard-working career.

Phoenix's acting isn't quite up to the demands of her mercurial role, but the gifted Ian Holm is memorable as the aging actor who takes an interest in her. "Esther Kahn" may well reach US theaters if its 145-minute running time doesn't scare audiences away.

Akerman is Belgian by birth, but her movies have found favor in France as well as the US, where her drama "Jeanne Dielman, 32 rue de commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" has been an art-theater staple for years.

For her latest film she's teamed up with producer Paulo Branco, who recently embarked on the project of bringing Marcel Proust's seven-part novel "Remembrance of Things Past" to the screen in a series of separate movies.

The first installment was Raoul Ruiz's staid "Time Regained," and the second is Akerman's elegant "La Captive," about a woman who becomes the uncomplaining prisoner of a young man living a reclusive life in his grandmother's Paris home.

"La Captive" got very mixed responses when it premiered at the Cannes filmfest last year. It's a difficult movie that makes few concessions to popular entertainment, but it compensates for its slow-moving story (and sometimes inexpressive acting) with eloquent images that flow across the screen at a stately but compelling pace. It's another challenging but rewarding work by one of Europe's most important film artists. Look for it on video in a few months, even if it doesn't show up at your multiplex.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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