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French helmers make waves across the Atlantic

PARIS — France and the U.S. have a relationship often marked by contentiousness: Americans are the barbarians at the gate, while the French are protectionist kill-joys. Or so the script goes.

But such snarkiness is blurred when looking at the number of French directors making English-language pics these days — and the number of Americans lining up to see them.

Christophe Gans’ “Silent Hill,” for example, took the No. 1 spot at the box office when it bowed April 21 with a $20 million take.

Produced by Don Carmody, “Silent Hill” is Gans’ first pic after his French blockbuster “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” and was adapted from the eponymous videogame that revolutionized the genre of survival horror.

A big fan of the joystick, Gans discovered the vidgame while shooting “Brotherhood,” whose sweeping scope and $29 million budget had France hailing its own version of the Hollywood blockbuster when it bowed in 2001.

The project attracted interest from several Hollywood studios, for whom Gans made a video outlining how he saw the game and how he thought it should be adapted.

“The fact that we took a lot of care to be faithful to the game, which is really a mythical videogame for its fans, and that the director himself is an avid player (are what make) the film successful,” producer Samuel Hadida says.

Another French director who has taken to English-language filmmaking is Michel Gondry. “The Science of Sleep,” his latest since the Oscar winning “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” is set to bow Stateside Aug. 16.

This time, however, the original screenplay was written by the helmer (“Eternal Sunshine” and its predecessor “Human Nature” emanated from the quill of Charlie Kaufman) and has a French-dominated cast including Alain Chabat and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as well as Mexico’s Gael Garcia Bernal.

Produced by Partizan and Gaumont, “Science” carries a personal resonance for Gondry.

“The story is about a French boy who is raised in Mexico and then returns to France not really speaking French,” says exec producer Georges Bermann. “It has autobiographical elements for Michel. He is French, but has been living in the States for seven or eight years, and coming home, he finds things are familiar, yet different.”

The film’s offbeat nature — the relationship between dream life and real life — suggests the filmmakers are not necessarily aiming for a mass audience.

The same could be said of Jean-Pierre Jeunet when he agreed to take on the adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestseller “Life of Pi” for Fox 2000.

” ‘Alien’ is the only experience I have of directing a Hollywood movie,” says Jeunet, the director of Gallic hits “Amelie” and “A Very Long Engagement.” “There’s this cliche in France — and in the U.S. — that studios mistreat directors. But my experience was the exact opposite. I had total artistic freedom.”

Jeunet was interested in the adaptation Fox was developing, and with their copasetic relationship dating back to “Alien Resurrection” to grease the wheels, the director came on board.

“It’s a world movie, meaning it’s produced by an American studio, directed by a Frenchman, based on a Canadian novel and shot in Mexico with an international cast. For me, that’s what cinema should be. Instead of in France where we talk about protectionism all the time.”

Jeunet says the cast won’t include any big names as such, given that the two leads are a little boy and a tiger. Along with longtime writing partner Guillaume Laurant, Jeunet is working on the second draft, with a budget to be set in the next few weeks.

Shooting is expected to begin this summer, providing the tiger can be trained in time.

Fox is also in cahoots with another of Gaul’s hottest directors. Along with Canal Plus, the studio is co-financing Mathieu Kassovitz’s “Babylon A.D.,” an English-language feature penned by the helmer and inspired by the Maurice Dantec novel “Babylon Babies.”

Kassovitz has been nurturing the futuristic thriller about genetic manipulation, which is expected to start lensing in June, for some time. Vin Diesel recently signed onto the pic produced by Alain Goldman’s Legende Films and Kassovitz’s MNP Enterprise.

Like Jeunet, “Babylon A.D.” is a return to Hollywood for Kassovitz. The director of the gritty French flick “La Haine” and the Gallic box office success “Crimson Rivers” earned his Hollywood stripes on the 2003 Halle Berry-starrer “Gothika.”

Also like Jeunet, Kassovitz is decidedly open to the American system. But unlike his work on “Gothika,” which had a solid but not stellar run, “Babylon A.D.” is really Kassovitz’s baby.

Ultimately, the common thread in all the films is that their stories lend themselves for interpretation in English.

“The decision to do a film in English comes from the nature of the story,” Hadida says.

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