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December 14, 1999


The French Fume Over Popularity of U.S. Films


PARIS -- For many French movie directors it is a familiar problem: how to explain Hollywood's domination of the French box office without conceding that local moviegoers prefer American films. In the past they argued that American imports benefited from better marketing and distribution. Now some are blaming betrayal closer to home. French film critics, they say, seem bent on killing off the French movie industry.

That artists resent criticism is hardly exclusive to France or to cinema. Yet after the first shots were fired at French movie critics in October, there was something peculiarly French about the furious battle of words that followed. Where else would major newspapers dedicate entire pages to covering -- even fomenting -- a cultural conflict? Isn't a dialectical confrontation between patriotism and freedom just the stuff of Left Bank cafes?

The respective charges in the dispute seem straightforward enough. The offended directors say that influential critics at leading newspapers give ample space and generous reviews to Hollywood blockbusters while treating many French films with gratuitous venom.

The critics respond that many French directors are, as one critic put it, "spoiled children" who enjoy government subsidies and a protected market and expect to be applauded simply because they are French.

The background to the quarrel, though, is more complex. France is the only European country where a major movie industry has survived the American movie offensive of the last two decades. While film production in Italy, Germany and Britain imploded (the British industry is now showing some signs of recovery), successive French governments continued to support filmmaking here, notably by insisting that 40 percent of movies shown on television be French.

As a legacy of the New Wave movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, cinema in France is still treated more as art than as business.

Most graduates of France's main film school dream of intellectual kudos before a share of gross profits. Their likely role model is Jean-Luc Godard rather than James Cameron. And in a world where the auteur-director is king (and the producer is his servant), making films becomes almost a birthright guaranteed by the government.

Unsurprisingly, then, measured by output, France's record is good. The number of new releases with total or majority French financing rose from 97 in 1995 to 148 last year; the number of French cinema-goers also rose during the same period from 140 million to 170 million. But here's the crunch: The French share of this market fell from 35 percent in 1995 to 27 percent last year, while the American share rose from 54 percent to 63 percent.

A closer look at 1998 (1999 statistics are not yet available) gave further cause for concern. Although running far behind "Titanic," three popular French comedies -- "Le Diner de Cons" ("The Dinner Game"), "Les Visiteurs 2" and "Taxi" -- ranked second, third and fourth in box-office revenue here. Yet they accounted for 45 percent of the entire take of 148 French movies, and only three other new French releases made it into the top 40. So, while more French films are being made, fewer French are seeing them.

The need for an explanation -- for a scapegoat, perhaps -- was evident, but the timing of the directors-critics squabble was accidental. On Oct. 13, Patrice Leconte, a veteran director, sent a private letter to fellow members of the Society of Auteurs, Directors and Producers expressing outrage at the way French films were treated by the Paris press and suggesting an informal meeting of directors to debate the crisis.

The problem was that copies of the letter were mistakenly faxed to the very newspapers he had in mind. And just one sentence in the letter sufficed to set off conflict. "Some reviews, which resemble premeditated assassinations, send chills down my back," Leconte wrote, "as if the writers' purpose was to kill off all commercial French cinema designed for a mass audience."

Leconte, whose popular comedies include "Les Bronzes" and "Ridicule," followed up with an interview in the left-of-center daily Liberation in which he described Liberation, Le Monde and Telerama as the "Bermuda Triangle" of French cinema. "Since the fall, all French films have flopped," he said. "I see this auguring the collapse of French cinema in its entirety. And in this, French critics are playing the role of gravediggers."

Other newspapers and magazines, including those singled out by Leconte for their reviews, promptly joined the fray. And the coverage only added to the confusion: Some critics thought that other critics went too far in their abusive language; some directors thought critics should be ignored rather than attacked; everyone agreed that the French movie industry was in trouble; everyone had a different opinion about why.

The critics who felt criticized, of course, also had a chance to reply. "Leconte reproaches us for being more indulgent with the average American movie," Olivier Seguret, Liberation's chief film critic, noted during a round table of movie critics. "Perhaps he's right. Take a film like 'There's Something About Mary,' a simple comedy that made me laugh a lot. Obviously it's not a masterpiece. But would a similar French film please me as much? It is perhaps a truth that is unpleasant to hear, but isn't the average American film better than the average French film?"

Serge Kaganski of Les Inrockuptibles, an alternative magazine, quickly answered. "I think that the average American film is far better than the average French film," he said, adding that Leconte "and his friends" would be wise to look more closely at their own films. He nonetheless conceded that French films might be treated more harshly simply because familiarity breeds, well, irritation.

Writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, Jerome Garcin in turn demolished Leconte's suggestion that critics consider themselves partners rather than enemies. "Partners!" he explained. "In other words, associates. Colleagues. Collaborators. And why not shareholders who take a share of profits like distributors?"

It did not help that the tiff coincided with a particularly sensitive moment, when French cultural officials were worrying that the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle would bring new pressure on France to abandon its quota system and other measures protecting its movie industry. As it happens, the meeting failed to start a new round of trade liberalization, and what is known as the French "cultural exception" survived.

But when some 60 movie directors met here Nov. 4 at Leconte's suggestion, they were still busily wrapping themselves in the French flag and eager to denounce critics as fifth columnists.

From the closed-door meeting emerged the idea of a directors' declaration naming irresponsible critics that would be distributed to moviegoers outside theaters. Several directors agreed to draft such a text based on notes prepared by Bertrand Tavernier, a vocal nationalist on the movie question.

Before the declaration could be approved and signed, it was published by both Le Monde and Liberation. Its contents caused more waves. Reflecting the spirit of the Nov. 4 meeting, it stressed that the unidentified directors did not object to constructive criticism, but it offered endless examples of what it called "hate and scorn" by critics. "Criticism is in crisis," it said, "in crisis of intelligence and competence, bereft of analysis and enthusiasm."

The directors suggested a pact of coexistence, but their main suggestion was tantamount to asking critics to surrender their freedom in the name of patriotism. "We would wish that no negative review of a film be published before the weekend that follows its theater release," the draft declaration said. Since movies are usually released on Wednesdays in France, the theory was that word of mouth could neutralize poor reviews.

The idea was not well received. "The proposal is frightening and inadmissible," Liberation fumed. "You have read correctly. They want to prohibit only 'negative' reviews. The rest are welcome." All that was missing, the newspaper said, was the composition of the censorship committee that would decide what was negative. "Should we extend this system to sculpture, painting, literature?" it asked.

The Society of Auteurs, Directors and Producers quickly distanced itself from the draft declaration, saying that it would never have carried the society's letterhead. Even more embarrassing, a statement denouncing the draft was signed by another 60 directors, among them Bertrand Blier, Cedric Klapisch, Yves Robert and Agnes Varda. "We think this directors-critics polemic is pointless," they said.

Only Tavernier was willing to defend the draft. "Even with its imperfections and errors, it moves things along," he said in an interview with Liberation early this month. The point, he said, is that many critics had little inkling of the damage they caused with what he called "killer words," words that particularly affected serious directors whose natural audience read reviews. And newspaper attacks on the French movie industry, he added, only aided American critics of France's "cultural exception."

Now, it seems, the furor is over, presumably until the movie attendance figures for 1999 are released early next year. And what was its legacy? It showed that French movie critics could be vicious in their reviews, but it did not prove that they were responsible for the crisis in French cinema. Rather, perhaps unfairly, it created the impression that some French directors believe their right to make films also includes the right to be praised.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company