French cinema is back in vogue

A little-reported French revolution is under way this year: French moviegoers led a mass revolt against the ancien régime of Hollywood productions that have ruled the French box office for the past 15 years. Record numbers of French moviegoers stormed cinemas to see a rich variety of films produced by a domestic film industry that has reinvented itself as both a substitute for, and an alternative to, American films.

Heads aren't rolling in Hollywood studio offices just yet - but the French film industry is taking on Hollywood at its own game. American audiences can expect to see more French movies with crossover appeal, the likes of which haven't been seen since the French New Wave movement, ushered in by director Jean-Luc Godard's use of Hollywood conventions in the 1960 film noir "Breathless."

The ripple effect of the French movie boom is already being felt on the American side of the Atlantic. A record 60 French films have been screened here this year, and 29 films are scheduled for 2002. French hits such as the farce "The Closet," the Hitchcockian thriller "With a Friend Like Harry," the Juliette Binoche drama "The Widow of Saint Pierre," and the acclaimed comedy "Va Savoir!" have cumulatively grossed more than $17.5 million in the United States this year. That's more than double what French movies made in the US last year, and a new record.

That's just movies on the art film circuit - and before the release of "Amélie," a feel-good film expected to make it into big-category envelopes at the 2002 Academy Awards (see "Making Amélie," below).

'Amélie' to pave the way

Miramax, the distributors of "Amélie," are so confident that the film will mirror its success in France and around Europe, that they're releasing it in American multiplexes nationwide - even though it's in French with subtitles. Its success could open up multiplex marquee space for other subtitled French releases, including the January release of "Brotherhood of the Wolf," a big-budget mix of gothic horror and martial arts in the vein of Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow."

A French horror movie? It's a far cry from what people normally envision as typical French cinema: "very sad movies with intellectual Parisians, and a couple fighting in the kitchen - very boring," as "Amélie" director Jean-Pierre Jeunet puts it.

For decades, an elaborate system of French state subsidies governed by an ethos that typically abhors Hollywood commercialism has typically been loath to fund anything beyond costume dramas and art films.

"When Hollywood films are successful, it's never represented as anything other than a threat by the critical, more intellectual end of the film press in France," notes Guy Austin, author of "Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction."

Yet, despite numerous subsidies and regulations designed to promote French film on domestic television, the share of the box office in France for French-made films dipped to below 30 percent in 2000, leading many public figures there to declare that the industry was in a state of crisis.

What a difference a year makes!

Enter a change of attitude - a willingness to make what are in many ways Hollywood films, but with intrinsic French elements, says Lucy Mazdon, author of "Encore Hollywood: Remaking French Cinema." These "Gaulywood" films aren't without precedent - in past years, popular movies like "Asterix and Obelix" and "The Visitors" led the way - but this year the floodgates have opened, creating a critical mass.

"We prefer to work for our audience" rather than critics, says director Jeunet, part of a new generation of French filmmakers daring to break from the traditional style. "If we try to make some rip-off of American movies, it won't be very good. We have to keep our culture."

A huge influence on these new filmmakers is Luc Besson, director of Hollywood-influenced movies like "La Femme Nikita," and "The Professional."

Besson's production company is farming out genre movies to new directors of movies featuring car chases ("Taxi," "Taxi 2") and teenagers with supernatural powers ("Yamakasi"). The French have also embraced "Belphegor," a monster movie set inside the Louvre museum, and "The Crimson Rivers," a Hollywood-style thriller. In France, they're playing better than "Pearl Harbor" and "The Mummy Returns."

But it's not just new commercial film that is booming. Legendary "new wave" directors such as Jean Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer have all had unprecedented commercial and artistic success this year.

"There are many families of cinema in France. But for a while, we left the entertainment to Hollywood," says Catrine Verret, head of the American French Film Commission, which promotes French films here.

French, US actors cross over

The French industry's strength at the moment is sheer diversity, Ms. Verret says. It's no wonder, then, that British and American film stars such as Mira Sorvino, LeeLee Sobieski, Harvey Keitel, John Malkovich, and Helena Bonham Carter have all recently opted to film French-language films in France.

The French are also venturing into Hollywood. The French company Vivendi recently purchased Universal studios, while French studio Canal Plus continues funding movies like David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" and karate hit "Kiss of the Dragon."

A few French directors are shooting films in English, such as the recent "Enemy at the Gates," and the upcoming $26 million "Bob Morane," a film adaptation of an action-TV series.

"I think that Hollywood runs the risk of being a bit like General Motors competing against the Japanese car companies. They had done so well for so long that they'd forgotten how to compete," says Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of the upcoming book "The Promise of Global Culture."

Want proof? Look no further than the spiraling costs of Hollywood moviemaking, he says. The result is that American films often rely on foreign ticket sales to make them profitable, and so many studios tailor their movies to appeal to the international movie market. When the overseas colonies start to revolt, it's bad news for the Los Angeles set.

"Cinema does work by putting out a product that's somehow the same, but different," observes Bruce Jenkins of the Harvard Film Archive. "When that difference becomes very marginal, when it's the fifth or sixth iteration of the same idea, you begin to wear thin, and the appeal for audiences runs its course."

In the '50s, many Americans grew tired of ambitious studio productions dressed up in the spectacle of wide screens, stereophonic sound, and technicolor and turned to French films as an alternative. While French films can never hope to surpass Hollywood, because of cultural and language barriers, they can once again expect to make inroads.

Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which distributes many French films, says that the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" shows that subtitles in movies aren't a distraction for a computer-savvy young generation used to seeing scrolling type on instant messaging screens.

But, ultimately, it comes down to the quality of French movies.

"I think if a French film has [been] a success, it helps other films," director Jeunet says. "It makes other people think, 'Oh, the French films are a little bit different from what I thought.' "

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