Morel, Leterrier, Aja lead new crop of directors

The French New Wave of cinema founded by filmmakers such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard was inspired to a large extent by their love of American cinema. The love affair soured with the succeeding generation of auteurs, who turned their backs on Hollywood with a certain intellectual snobbery. Now a new generation of French filmmakers is learning to love American cinema all over again.

Call it the French New Wave 2.0.

Helmers such as Pierre Morel (“Taken”), Louis Leterrier (“Transporter 2″), Alexandre Aja (“Switchblade Romance”) and Jean-Francois Richet (“Public Enemy No. 1″) are making big-budget, commercial films that are as at home in the multiplex as they are in an arthouse.

They’re mostly working on genre films, whether action, horror, thrillers or graphic novel adaptations, and are equally comfortable working in English or French.

“There is a new wave of filmmakers who have grown up watching American films and they who don’t give a damn about the so-called French cinema d’auteur,” says Franck Ribiere, who co-founded shingle La Fabrique du Films with Verane Frediani in 2003 and launched Overlook Films — a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” — as a dedicated genre label at this year’s AFM. “These filmmakers often come in with no experience and no formal film education. They just have a lot of talent and a vision that’s refreshing.”

The godfather of this new movement is Luc Besson, the prolific, multihyphenate whose Europacorp is essentially a French-based international film studio, financing, producing and distributing many of these up-and-coming filmmakers’ new projects.

Europacorp’s breakthrough came with frenetically paced actioner “Taxi,” that has since spawned three sequels and paved the way for the studio to make “The Transporter” series as well as fantasy fare such as “Arthur and the Invisibles.”

“The market has changed in France,” says Emmanuel Prevost, who produced both “Arthur and the Invisibles” and recent action hit “Go Fast.” “Luc Besson works like an American studio in that he respects the public. Now filmmakers are becoming less complex, and the advent of multiplex has had a big impact.”

These films are, in their own way, a reflection of the changes in French society.

Take Olivier Van Hoofstadt’s “Go Fast,” about a vengeful cop infiltrating a gang of drug smugglers, which has raced to more than $5 million in France despite middling reviews. The pic starred thesp Roschdy Zem, who is of North African origin, in the lead role. Zem’s ethnicity, however, was irrelevant to both the pic’s storyline and success with auds. That marks a sign of progression in terms of French auds’ acceptance of a multicultural society.

Similarly, Dany Boon’s “Bienvenue les ch’tis” (Welcome to the Sticks) featured two thesps — Boon and Kad Merad — whose origins were also North African. That didn’t stop it from becoming the highest-growing French pic of all time at the local box office, with a haul of almost $200 million.

“There has been a huge change in French cinema in terms of how many immigrants are appearing as actors in French films,” says helmer Jean-Francois Richet, whose two-part biopic “Public Enemy No. 1″ about notorious French criminal Jacques Mesrine is one of the most highly anticipated French films of the year.

And while a number of the newest wave’s films have been commercially successful, they’re no longer relying on just the French market for revenue.

“We’re adapting the genre films we grew up on as teenagers, but doing them in a French style,” says cinematographer-turned-helmer Pierre Morel, who is lensing “From Paris With Love,” starring John Travolta.

That doesn’t mean these pics always will connect with French auds. While there has been a rise of French horror pics in recent years, that genre has often failed at the Franco box office. Pics like “Vinyan” and “Martyrs,” distribbed this year by Wild Bunch, did poorly.  

“We had too many horror films in our lineup,” says Wild Bunch sales director Renaut Davy. “French folks are still more inclined to go see a film with a strong cast and a good director than a concept-driven movie.”  

International appeal is helping French genre films grow, even if their performance in France is erratic.

“These films might not do great at the French box office, but they travel well,” says Harold Van Lier, Studio Canal’s head of international sales.

International sales shingle Films Distribution topper Nicholas Brigaud-Robert agrees.

His lineup is usually focused on arthouse fare, but he is now repping genre films, including gangster-cop-zombie pic “La Horde,” helmed by first-time directors Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher. 

“French genre films like ‘La Horde’ have a unique aesthetic that make them appealing to an international audience,” Brigaud-Robert says. “They’re not arthouse per se, but they’re not plainly mainstream either.”

And even if these helmers find French auds slower to embrace their popcorn-friendly fare, they can rest assured that the U.S. studios are all too happy to employ them.

Louis Leterrier helmed “The Incredible Hulk” this year and is prepping “Clash of the Titans” for Warner Bros., while Aja is set to helm “Piranha 3-D” for the Weinstein Co.

“I don’t even know if my next film will be a French or a U.S. production,” says Morel, who has several projects to choose from.

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