French cinema starts to seduce UK audiences

The late great French film director François Truffaut once declared damningly that the words "British" and "cinema" were incompatible.

It was, he remarked, curious that "considering the high intellectual level … and the universal stature" of British writers and poets, little cinematic work (apart from movies by Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin) had stood the test of time.

Until recently the feeling has been mutual. British cinemagoers have largely shunned subtitled French films (unlike our Gallic neighbours, we don't like dubbed movies), shoving them into a dark niche explored by only the most devoted cinephile.

Pressed to name a dozen, most people would struggle to get past the feelgood 2001 film Amélie, Taxi (1998), Belle de Jour (1967) or Jaques Tati's classic, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot.

But for the last eight years, the French film industry has gently wooed and successfully seduced a growing number of British movie fans. As a result Gallic cinema is fast becoming a box office success, most recently with Abdellatif Kechiche's hit, Blue is the Warmest Colour.

Next year will see a record number of French-made films in British cinemas, starring among others Juliette Binoche, Audrey Tautou and Helena Bonham-Carter. In Camille Claudel 1915, directed by Bruno Dumont, Binoche portrays the celebrated French sculptor who had a passionate and turbulent relationship with Auguste Rodin.

Another 2014 treat will be L'écume des jours, an adaptation of the Boris Vian classic novel and the latest offering from Michel Gondry of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Tautou.

The boom is relatively recent. In its last report produced in 2012, uniFrance, a government-funded organisation aimed at promoting French films abroad, admitted: "The United Kingdom is a difficult market for 'non-English' language films. Up until 2005, French cinema had never had more than 1% of the market and 1.5m ticket sales. Since then, largely thanks to major productions in English, we see a positive evolution."

By 2011 the market had risen to 1.8%, with just over 3.1m ticket sales and 49 films. The most successful was Potiche, starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, with 154,613 tickets, followed by Elle s'appelait Sarah, starring Kristin Scott Thomas (94,471), and Les petits mouchoirs, with Marion Cotillard (89,832).

The next year saw French cinema in the UK explode, with 72 films attracting nearly eight million people. Attendance at French-language and French-made films rose by 157% on the previous year. UniFrance said that figures for 2013 had not yet been calculated, but were higher still. In 2014, the French cultural exception will be even more exceptional across the Channel.

The rise is not due just to the increasing number of French people living in the UK – particularly London which, with around 600,000 nationals, has been described as the 21st arrondissement of Paris – but by a number of high-quality films that have attracted audiences in Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool.

"This really is the time for French film-makers. What has happened over the last year and a half is that France has produced some extremely high-quality films that have been both critical and commercial hits," Jason Wood, the director of programming at Curzon cinemas, which screens many European and arthouse films, told the BBC in May.

Wood cited Rust and Bone, starring Marion Cotillard, a "worldwide star, no matter what language she works in", and Michael Haneke's Amour, which, he said "goes beyond appealing to the typical London intelligentsia who go to see foreign-language movies".

Charlotte Saluard, director of programming at Ciné Lumière in London, told the BBC: "Big film distributors are now willing to try their luck, which frees these films from being seen as just for a 'niche' market."

In French Film in Britain, published last March, Lucy Mazdon and Catherine Wheatley write: "In a market long dominated by Hollywood, French films are consistently the most widely distributed non-English language works.

"French cinema, however, appears to undergo a transformation as it reaches Britain, becoming something quite different to that experienced by audiences at home."However, Lucy Mazdon, professor film at Southampton University, told the Observer: "I am somewhat sceptical that the wider British audiences are catching on. French cinema has always been seen as a particular type of cinema, art house, slow, moody, the smoking cigarette, the antithesis of Hollywood action.

"They have repackaged it in recent years and it has slightly emerged from that stereotype due to concerted efforts to make French films more popular and populist. There is an opening up, but I suspect it's the same people going to art houses and seeing the films, just doing so more often.

"A French film remains defined by the fact it is in French and it's success in Britain is still a bit hit and miss. It's no surprise that one of the most successful French films of recent years was The Artist and it had no language and was a silent film."

Powered by article was written by Kim Willsher in Paris, for The Observer on Saturday 21st December 2013 13.25 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Neil Willsey