French pics tap into tough economy, deliver laffs worldwide

Paris– With 9.8% unemployment and a president whose glamorous lifestyle contrasts starkly with that of the average Gaul, the French could use a good laugh. Perhaps that’s why comedy was king at Unifrance’s Paris Rendez-Vous, which wrapped Jan 17.

Unspooling at Paris’ august Grand Hotel and Place de l’Opera Gaumont theaters, the fest saw Belgian thesp Benoit Poelvoorde score a pair of well-received comic perfs — as a pathologically anti-French Belgian customs officer in Dany Boon’s “Nothing to Declare,” and a comically shy chocolate factory owner in Jean-Pierre Ameris’ “Romantics Anonymous.”

Both turns earned big laughs among the 440 foreign distributors at the event, where thrillers also proved popular.

In the well-sold, Gaumont-repped “Point Blank,” French actor Gilles Lellouche runs an 80-minute sprint to save his kidnapped g.f.. The full-on actioner elicited open applause from buyers, and Gaumont’s Cecile Gaget noted that the pic was typical of director Fred Cavaye, whose films involve “a race against time for the guy-next-door — an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation — treated from a very human perspective.”

One of the most buzzed-about titles, “The Assault,” re-created the 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight and its bloody denoueument by French special forces. Shot in bleached high-contrast, the pic, repped by Elle Driver, is “high-octane, dramatic, political, relevant and very well done,” says Thomas Haberle at Munich-based shingle Pierrot Le Fou.

French stars are huge in Benelux and French-speaking Switzerland, so French mainstream fare finds ready auds there. On “Borderline,” a dark crime comedy featuring Francois Damiens (“Little Nicholas”), Bac Films closed Benelux off a Rendez-vous screening.

Yet laffers goosed the mart.

Pathe’s “Nothing to Declare” played to an overflow crowd, while a pair of StudioCanal pics, Cedric Klapisch’s social dramedy “My Piece of the Pie” and “Romantics Anonymous,” drew big crowds, as did Thierry Klifa’s Kinology-sold “His Mother’s Eyes,” an estranged family drama.

A clutch of comedies featured characters who find romance amid unusual or difficult circumstances, such as in Nicolas Cuche’s popular “Second Chance,” in which a marriage counselor deals misfortune to any girl he kisses, until he finally finds a woman prepared to stand by him.

Even more offbeat, but well-received, were Pascal Rabate’s “Wandering Streams,” which follows a widower rediscovering his sexuality; and Philippe Le Guay’s “Service Entrance,” which stars Fabrice Luchini (“Potiche”) as a bored bourgeois made young again by a feisty Spanish senorita.

Though modestly budgeted, these French feel-good films for feel-bad times have frequently found audiences.

“Romantics Anonymous” bowed Dec. 22 and has grossed $6.8 million in France; “Second Chance” topped French charts Jan. 5-11 with a first-week haul of $3.1 million.

Even more remarkably, though, such pics are increasingly doing business abroad. “Point Blank” has sold world over, save Spain and Italy, while “Second Chance” has sold to at least 20 territories; at the Rendez-vous, Wild Bunch fielded remake offers on the pic.

And though prices are often down, the good news is that sales are solid or at least creeping back in some territories after an 18-month slump. Japan, for instance, is buying once more, says Backup Films partner Joel Thibout.

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