By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
French films, in fact, often seem to constitute a kind of anti-Hollywood. There are other anti-Hollywoods around (in China, in Iran, sometimes even within Hollywood itself), but for me the French present the most consistently oppositional cinema going. For that reason alone, I wanted to talk to the people creating it. Although you may occasionally find a French actor or director interviewed on public radio, you almost never see one on television. When Luc Besson made a film in English with Bruce Willis in the starring role, Charlie Rose invited him on to his show. But French filmmakers who make films in French are not invited.
During a week in Paris, I spoke to six French directors (Tavernier, Erick Zonca, Benoit Jacquot, Anne Fontaine, Catherine Breillat and Arnaud Desplechin) out of a hoped-for 11 (Luc Besson, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas, Claude Sautet and Eric Rohmer were unavailable or canceled). I also spoke to Daniel Toscan du Plantier, the head of Unifrance, the government-sponsored agency that promotes French film around the world. Before meeting him, though, I was advised that I should bring a bouquet of flowers for his colleague, Veronique Bouffard, who had set up the interviews for me. This, I was assured by an American friend living in Paris, was the French way. I was a bit dubious about it -- Wasn’t Mme. Bouffard paid to make phone calls and set up interviews? Wasn‘t that the whole point of Unifrance? -- but I dutifully went ahead and bought the bouquet.
Mme. Bouffard, attractive and smartly dressed, seemed pleased -- even delighted -- to receive the flowers, though not particularly surprised. Perhaps she received bouquets at the rate of one per every five telephone calls made. Evidently I had done the done thing, and as a reward, I was invited to kiss her on each cheek. It was a very French moment. Then she led me into du Plantier’s office, having first let him know that I had brought her the flowers. Getting up from his immense glass desk, the president of Unifrance cast a quick connoisseur‘s glance over the bouquet and nodded his approval. Perhaps the American was not a complete sauvage after all.
Though older and white-haired (he was born in 1941), du Plantier reminded me a little of the character played by Andre Dussolier in Claude Sautet’s Un Coeur en Hiver, the upbeat business partner of Daniel Auteuil‘s tortured violin maker. Dressed in a houndstooth jacket, white shirt and red silk tie, he smiled and laughed a great deal; he amused himself enormously. ”France is not a culture for children,“ he said when I paid him the compliment of saying that French films seemed aimed at adults rather than teenagers, but there was nothing haughty about the way he said it. He was too good- humored for that. Nonetheless, the implied contrast with the States was unmistakable.
”Our main problem is that in Europe we are the last country obsessed with making films as cultural products,“ he told me in richly accented English. ”I don’t think we are the only ones, but the others are not as much concerned. Italy was a big part of cinema for years, but“ -- du Plantier shrugged -- ”what is it now? It‘s Italian, but it’s an accident. And there‘s no German cinema now. There was a lot. And even the only one that exists, the British one“ -- du Plantier sighed extravagantly and gazed up at the ceiling -- ”Is Notting Hill really a British film? It’s shot in Great Britain. For British filmmakers, speaking English is also a problem, because you can make the same movie with Hollywood money. It‘s not exactly the same, but except for Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, they all cross the Atlantic.“
I asked du Plantier if French filmmakers were under pressure to produce big hits, to compete with Hollywood financially.
”I think French movies are made for a potential of 10 percent of the world population,“ he answered. ”We reach 3.6 percent or 3.7 percent of the world audience, because we are not making mass-media movies, but the potential is certainly around 10 percent. We know our limits. We are a minority cinema. But Christian Dior made a fortune with a minority.“
”And how long can French cinema continue by appealing only to a minority?“
”Forever,“ du Plantier replied smoothly. ”Minority goes on. It’s a general concept. If you put a street with only McDonald‘s on it, and you have one old lady making cassoulet on the fifth floor, it’s small, but it‘s full. So we are the old lady on the fifth floor!“
For an old lady, you might say the French film industry is doing rather well for herself. As is the case with many old ladies, however, there’s a big bad landlord who wants her out of the building. In French eyes, that would be us. France is the only European country still producing films in large numbers (155 last year compared to the 600 or so produced annually in the U.S.), but according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), it is able to do so only because of its protectionist trade policies -- in short, it ”cheats.“ The French government subsidizes filmmakers by imposing an 11 percent tax on cinema tickets (including those sold for American movies), and by insisting that at least 40 percent of the films shown on television be French. The American position has been that such practices constitute ”unfair competition“ and should be outlawed; the French argue that cultural products such as film should not be subject to ordinary trade laws -- what it calls ”cultural exception.“ The French were gearing up for a major battle over the issue at the WTO meeting in Seattle when, ironically, American protesters put an end to the trade talks by smashing up NikeTown and Starbucks -- cheered on by, one imagines, the likes of Tavernier in his distant Paris apartment. Allez, mes enfants!
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