French films may still be popular with cultural polyglots in New York, London, and other cosmopolitan capitals–and, of course, remain a staple of the global art house circuit. But there’s one crowd that the cream of le cinéma français is no longer thrilling, charming, or luring to theaters with trademark marathon dialogue, pretzel-like existential themes, and serial trysting: French movie-goers themselves. In the past few weeks, not only have some of the biggest-budget movies released failed to draw much more than flies, but worse still, most of those dogs featured the true heavy weights of French cinema.
The daily Le Parisien on Tuesday describes what it calls a “black series” of flops among major French releases this spring, including the Catherine Deneuve vehicle “les Yeux de Sa Mère” (The Eyes of Her Mother) that has drawn a mere 200,000 viewers during three weeks in theaters. Few people can truthfully claim the words of movie title “Je N’ai Rien Oublié” (I’ve Forgotten Nothing), starring Nathalie Baye and the legendary Gérard Depardieu: hardly anyone has seen it—just over 155,000 people in two weeks. Films by other major marquee names (often backed by well-known directors) like Emmanuelle Béart, Vincent Landon, and Rachida Brakni have similarly done little business in hundreds of French cinemas carrying them. Half a dozen other movies featuring very famous actors and actresses in France (but perhaps less familiar to international audiences) have done even worse—scratching to surpass the 50,000 ticket mark after several weeks on screens. The reason for the losing streak? “Most of these films aren’t good,” Le Parisien quotes one French producer bluntly explaining. “These feature films get incredible TV promotion, but they’re getting what they deserve. Audiences aren’t fooled, and will wait to be sure they’ll really be getting two hours of laughter, emotion, or escape–real cinema…They refuse to pay for movies they know they’ll be seeing very soon on DVD or (pay TV station) Canal Plus.”
Meanwhile, there’s also the factor that with French film heavily subsidized as part of the country’s “cultural exception”, lots of movies that would never make it beyond the script phase anywhere else get shot and marketed in France. Why? Because there’s a politically-driven cultural obligation for the nation’s industry to keep churning movies so France can retain its place as a major generator and force in global cinema. And, since lots of state money is available to keep that production flowing, studios will take lame-o ideas all the way to theaters–often on the logic of using the state financing available now to make sure it continues flowing in the future. All of which—as the quoted producer notes—generates lots of forgettable films that even France’s biggest stars can’t make shine. Given the current reaction of French movie-goers, however, it may well be that in the best interests of the nation’s cinema, film-makers should start being sure they really have something worth saying before they say it just because there’s money there to do so.
Though the Le Parisien piece is behind a pay-wall (and while interested readers will have to dust off their French or suffer the eye-jarring results of online translation sites), a rehash of the original story can be found here.