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Why French films find it so hard to swim across the Atlantic?

By Jon Davies

Woody Allen is one American who loves French Cinema but even he can’t help using the old joke about French films being only for intellectuals when in 'Annie Hall' he takes Diane Keaton on a romantic date to see a French film… 'Le Chagrin et La Pitié', a documentary of over four hours looking at the French Occupation. What girl could resist (he thought and wrongly)? But why might American audiences think French movies are boring and difficult?

There really is no simple single answer to this, and I will have to tiptoe around several nations’ sensitivities in trying to suggest some answers.  

First of all let’s challenge the stereotypes. What exactly do we mean by an ‘American’? Not all Americans are the same; the art house attendees in New York probably share more traits with Europeans than their cousins in the US Bible Belt, and French filmgoers are more likely to be familiar with ‘Ch’tis’ than Claire Denis. In the UK, audiences may be a little more sympathetic to French cinema but not hugely. So we will have to generalize, massively!

Et Dieu créa... la femme
Et Dieu créa... la femme

Let's start with the language barrier. I’ll put my own cards on the table. Offer me a film with subtitles and I’m yours, but I have lots of otherwise intelligent friends who won’t go near any film with them and here we hit the first issue. Is it the fear of ‘the foreign’ or the simple irritation of having to read while watching? I suspect a little of both. But what if we got rid of them? Here’s a good scientific test: if we go back to the early silent era, pre-1914, where French films flourished in America (and visa-versa) the Frenchness was never a problem so I suspect the content isn’t really an issue. Indeed the slightly daring stories loved by French filmmakers can attract American audiences – take Vadim’s Et Dieu créa… la femme won huge audiences in the states despite being banned in many parts of America. Gazing at Brigitte Bardot probably trumped the need to read the dialogue. Dubbing could be an answer? In France most cinemagoers see American films in dubbed versions and improving technology has made this a more acceptable experience but it is expensive and US audiences for foreign films don’t justify the expense. Another route blocked.

A second reason for resistance might be how narrow a view American audiences get of French cinema. Every year around 200 features are made in France. Most are pure entertainment, romcoms, policiers, comedies etc. and hardly any of these get shown internationally. The films that get picked up tend to be the Cannes prize winners, the Oscar nominees, or those made by the big names, the Audiards, Jaouis or Téchinés, and these tend to be the most challenging. Every so often a film breaks through that ticks both the quality and entertainment boxes; Amélie and Intouchables did well in the States taking $33 and $13 million dollars but the extraordinary but gritty La Haine could only rake in $300,000 compared with its French take, in the dollar equivalent, of $15 million. Too realistic? Badly promoted? It did well enough in London.

A third reason may be the atrocious way many US distributors butcher, maim, savage and despoil French films. American distributors have a long track record of cutting out scenes they think unnecessary and rendering the films incomprehensible as a result. And when they aren't doing that they are offering the direst of translations, even of the titles. A Nous La Liberté being called A Mouse La Liberté is one particularly bad piece of promotion!


And then a fourth factor may be the remakes – why would the US studios give French production companies the big profits when films can be re-made in English? This habit started way back in the 30’s with Pépé le moko becoming Algiers, Le jour se lève, The Long Night and more recently a shot for shot re-make of Nikita was made. It wasn’t bad but why not find a new story? It’s another barrier to American audiences experiencing a broad range of French product. And if the re-make is as terrible as their 1996 Diaboliques that would be another reason to put people off the originals. So some of the most audience-friendly films get released as Hollywood re-makes and that doesn’t help. As I write, Audiard’s magnificent Un Prophète is being re-made by Hollywood.

The Atlantic is a big pond to cross and despite the best efforts of the French Government who have had a Unifrance film office in New York for decades experiencing French films in a cinema has always been a challenge for Americans especially those not living in the big cities. Having said that the US record of home videos, DVDs and now ‘on-demand’ puts the UK’s in the shade.

So really I’m not sure there really is a ‘French’ so much as a ‘foreign’ films problem in the US. The language difference, the subtitles, poor distribution and vandalism affect other nations too and don’t get me started on British cinema in the States… French cinema is perhaps only as ‘boring’ or ‘inspiring’ as the last French film you’ve seen!


Jon Davies is the tutor of French Cinema at Morley College, who runs classes in several venues around London (more info here). 


22/04/2016 - arnottdavies said :

Thanks for the comments writers_reign (by the way love the pun). Looking at the US elections I wonder whether much has changed since the 30's. Too many flat fields and cattle? Who knows? You may be interested in my next piece where I discuss what makes French cinema so special. I'd be interested to see what you think. Jon Davies

21/04/2016 - writers_reign said :

We can find the answer by going back to the late 1930s and the notorious comment that Katherine Hepburn was 'box-office poison'. The comment was made by cinema owners in the mid-West and whilst it reflected the views of the largely rural communities who comprised movie-goers in that region it wasn't an opinion shared by their counterparts in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other large Metropolitan areas. In other words America is a large country and Katherine Hepburn tended to appear in sophisticated films set primarily in urban areas that had little or no appeal to farmers. Her response was to commission sophisticated dramatist Philip Barry to write a play for her (she had already starred in a screen adaptation of his Broadway hit 'Holiday'). He came up with the ultra-sophisticated 'The Philadelphia Story', she starred in it on Broadway, it was a smash and she sold the rights to MGM and subsequently starred in the film version. No more 'box-office poison' labels. A similar situation obtains with French films in the USA. In my opinion - and speaking as an English person - French cinema is the best in the world, excellent in all major departments, Writing, Directing, Acting. About 90% of French films address the Human Condition or, to put it another way, they are largely about People and th problems of living rather than sequels and cgi. They cover a reasonable wide spectrum; Drama, check, Comedy, check, Thriller, check, and the last category can also be sub-divided into Polars and Policiers. In short an audience educated to crave yet another Superman/Batman/Monster/ will need severe retraining to find anything at all, least of all enjoyment and pure entertainment in the latest Anne Fontaine, Danielle Thompson, Toni Marshall, Nicole Garcia, Marion Vernoux, Eleanor Faucher, Isabelle Mergault, Agnes Jaoui, Valerie Lemercier release. I've deliberately confined myself to Female writer-directors, a particular strength of current French cinema and a figure I could easily double with their male counterparts. Living in London I am constantly frustrated by the trickle of French films that are released here each year. Even Cine Lumiere, on paper the flagship for French cinema is currently mounting a Spanish season and spends something like three to four months each year screening Italian, German, Spanish fodder and would probably cheerfully mount an Innuit season if they could find sufficient titles. Luckily Paris is only two hours away by Eurostar but maybe the question to be addressed is why is London denied so much of the finest Cinema in the world.


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