Uproar Over French `Oscars'

CLAUDE BERRI, the prominent French producer-director of such well-known French movies as "Jean de Florette," "Manon of the Spring," and "The Two of Us," suddenly finds himself a stranger in his own land.

His 1992 production "L'amant" ("The Lover") - directed by equally well-known French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, and a huge success across France - will be competing for a best-picture "Cesar" in tonight's French film awards not with other French films, but against foreign movies like Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives" and Robert Altman's "The Player."

The reason? Mr. Berri and Mr. Annaud chose to film their movie in English.

As France's normally clubbish and determined film community awaits these 18th annual Cesar awards, it finds itself divided over the question of language and how best to sustain and promote a "different cinema" in the face of the American movie machine.

Some people support measures designed to protect French film from the "Anglo-Saxon" onslaught, while others want to ensure a wide distribution for French cinema by using whatever means necessary - including the English language - to reach international audiences.

Berri and Annaud are from the second group, but this year they ran up against the French Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Technique (AATC).

The two French filmmakers expected to see "L'amant" competing for the best-French-picture Cesar against such entries as "La Crise," "Le Petit Prince a Dit," or "Indochine," another French movie which, like "L'amant," concerns French historical involvement in Asia.But that was before the academy, which created the Cesars in 1975, announced in January that only French movies filmed in French would be eligible for Cesars, other than the best foreign-language film award. The academy clearly intended its new rules as a rallying cry for the national film industry, but it got an uproar.

BERRI and Annaud promptly announced their intention to resign from the academy, while filmmaker Louis Malle, calling the academy's board "blind," promised to boycott all future Cesars.

To keep from losing much of the prestige gained from association with these three directors, the academy hastily retreated and announced a compromise that for this year, at least, will hold only the crowning "best picture" award to the French-language requirement. But the issue has marked the close-knit film community and is sure to resurface.

"The compromise calmed things down for this year, but there will be more discussions about this after the Cesars," says Marie-Claude Arbaudie, editor-in-chief of Le Film Francais trade weekly. "It's going to strike a lot of people as very bizarre that `L'amant' is considered a foreign film."

No one can blame the French for looking for ways to ensure their cinematic survival after a decade in which American movies have devastated the British, Italian, and German industries, and left the French cinema in a precarious state.

A decade ago, more than half of all movie tickets sold in France were for French movies, while 30 percent were for American films. Today, those shares of the market are reversed.

As worrisome as that might seem, it is nothing compared to the grim scene across the rest of Europe: American films now capture 75 percent of the Italian and Spanish markets, 80 percent in Germany, and 90 percent in Britain. For every four European moviegoers, three see an American movie.

The Cesars' governors acknowledged their action was largely symbolic, with academy member Denys Granier-Deferre calling it a modest prod to "film in French," as well as the "reflection of a growing concern in our profession about movie distribution in France."

BUT it is doubtful just how much good can be acheived by restricting the Cesars.

"The Cesars are quite subordinate to the real issues, which are primarily economic," says Ms. Arbaudie.

Coproductions are "absolutely indispensable," she adds, if the dream of a "European cinema" - something Arbaudie says remains "rather ill-defined and indefinite" - is ever to exist.

For Annaud, also known for the hit movie "The Bear," filming in English is a technical choice, more than an artistic or cultural statement designed to improve a movie's export success.

"I don't believe we can impose the use of French through the cinema," he said in a recent interview with the French daily Le Figaro, "but we can impose our cinema, and through it our culture, our way of seeing and doing."

Noting how American films have become the "vehicle" of American culture, Annaud adds, "It is by enticing people to dream of French culture that we can interest them in our language, and not by condemning our cinema, out of some protectionist pretext, to circulate in a ghetto."

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