Fillmakers refuse to be typecast

PARIS — In the French film industry you are expected to choose your camp — commercial or arthouse — and stick to it, and anyone breaking that unwritten law is viewed as suspect.

But Gallic production and distribution outfit ARP refuses to be typecast.

On the commercial side, husband-and-wife team Laurent and Michele Petin struck box office gold with French cinema’s No. 1 hit in 2003, “Taxi 3,” which they co-produced with Luc Besson and released via their distribution arm, ARP Selection.

In an artier direction, they also produced France’s submission for the foreign-language film Oscar, Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s “Bon Voyage,” and co-produced with Claude Berri “Feelings,” Noemie Lvovsky’s recent winner of the Prix Louis Delluc for best French film of 2003.

ARP also are angling for a supporting actor nom for Omar Sharif, whom they wooed out of retirement to play a wise old Arab shopkeeper in “Monsieur Ibrahim.”

“Some people look down on us for the ‘Taxi’ franchise,” says Michele Petin, who edited mag French Premiere before teaming up with film promotion specialist Laurent Petin to acquire films in 1991. Before that, ARP had been exclusively in the publicity business, handling the promotion of some 180 films.

“But without our partnership with Luc Besson on ‘Taxi,’ we’d never have produced and acquired so many other films in such quick succession, and doing popular comedies has been fun.”

“When I’m on holiday, I’m perfectly capable of doing a silly crossword puzzle on the beach and then reading Dostoevsky. I don’t see what the problem is,” she says.

In any case, from their earliest acquisitions — “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Farewell, My Concubine” — to releases like Palme d’Or winner “Rosetta” or the ARP-produced “Officers’ Ward,” about World War I soldiers coming to terms with facial disfigurement, the company has built a solid reputation as a purveyor of quality arthouse fare.

An eclectic and international array of upcoming releases include “21 Grams,” Belgian hit thriller “The Alzheimer Affair” and Mongolia’s foreign-lingo Oscar entry, “The Story of the Weeping Camel.” For its own productions, this year ARP will produce Alain Corneau’s novel adaptation “Something Blue,” which starts shooting in the spring.

The commercial success of “Taxi 3″ and the kudos for the Rappeneau and Lvovsky films have been particularly welcome after a year that wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Petins. (Laurent is the financial and marketing brains of the company; Michele heads acquisition and relationships with talent.)

Despite being hailed by the critics, the $26 million “Bon Voyage” did disappointing biz at the French B.O., denting ARP’s finances.

But Michele contends it is a long-term investment in one of France’s greatest directors.

“We have no regrets,” she insists. “It’s a wonderful film that will still be shown on French television in 30 years time, it is doing well on video and will probably do better abroad than here in France. Jean-Paul considers it his best film ever.”

And then there was “l’affaire Adjani.”

After decades of being best pals, Michele Petin and Isbelle Adjani had a huge falling-out over “Bon Voyage” and another two movies produced by ARP — Laetitia Masson’s “The Repentant” and Benoit Jacquot’s “Adolphe” — that were supposed to have launched Adjani’s big comeback.

“We thought it was a good idea to pitch ‘The Repentant’ as Isabelle’s return to the bigscreen,” Michele recalls, “but on the day of the press screening it was like it can be at Cannes — I knew the critics were going to assassinate the film.”

A bitter Adjani blames the producers; not surprisingly, Michele Petin says it is all her former friend’s fault.

“I’ve known her longer than I’ve known my husband, more than 20 years, but I should have listened when people advised me not to work with Isabelle. Now we are the big bad producers and the friendship is over.”

But the Petins have other matters occupying them right now. They’ll be gearing up for the Jan. 21 French release of “21 Grams,” which was bought on script for a tidy sum that the Petins prefer not to divulge. On Jan. 27, they’ll find out if they’re in the running for the Oscars.

As a rule they proceed with caution.

“Markets are funny things,” Michele says of the international sales biz. “People are afraid to come away empty-handed, but sometimes you have to. When I want to buy a film I tell myself it’s a little black dress. If I keep shopping around I’ll find another one I like at the right price.”

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