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French imports score with U.S. auds

'Winged,' 'Pool' lead the way for Gallic pix

NEW YORK — No one is calling them “Freedom films.”

In fact, Gallic imports are registering one of their strongest summers ever at the U.S. box office, led by the success of “Winged Migration” and “Swimming Pool.”

The Sony Pictures Classics birdlife documentary has grossed a stellar $8 million, while Focus Features is not far behind that figure with $7.5 million for Francois Ozon’s coolly sexy mystery starring Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier. Both releases are expected to post final grosses of over $10 million.

Perhaps significantly, neither of these top earners is strictly French-language: “Winged Migration” has no dialogue and sports English-lingo (if French-accented) narration, while “Swimming Pool” is largely in English.

The performance of Gallic productions this year has been further boosted by French-lingo titles like Cedric Klapisch’s “L’Auberge espagnole,” which grossed $3.8 million for Fox Searchlight, and Patrice Leconte’s “Man on the Train,” which earned $2.4 million for Paramount Classics.

Tautou popular

Earlier in the year, Samuel Goldwyn’s “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not,” starring Audrey Tautou, drew a healthy $1 million gross, while Gaspar Noe’s ultraviolent rape drama “Irreversible” earned $760,000 for Lions Gate. On a smaller scale, Juliette Binoche starrer “Jet Lag,” from Miramax, and Claude Berri’s “The Housekeeper,” from Palm Pictures, also found an audience.

“There are a lot of great films coming out of France right now, and I think this is a trend that started a few years ago,” said Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker.

“For a while, France was in transition between the old masters and the hot new directors,” he added. “Now, the young guys are doing great stuff and even the older, more established guys are making films that are back at the top of their form.”

The $25 million earned by Gallic titles in U.S. theaters since January excludes the $32.5 million notched up since its release in late 2002 by Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning French co-production “The Pianist” for Focus.

Ahead of previous years

Results to date place this year’s crop ahead of previous years. French-language films generated $36 million for all of 2002 and totaled $38 million in 2001, led by Miramax’s “Amelie.”

“It’s interesting particularly now with the political atmosphere that’s pervading the American consciousness, but the fact is, Americans love French films,” observed Jack Foley, president of distribution at Focus Features. “Just look at the grosses this summer for an indication of audiences’ willingness to see French films and the pleasure they get out of them.”

Acquisitions activity remains high for French fare, with 58 productions from the country and 24 co-productions scheduled for release in 2003 through early 2004.

Key titles include Sony Classics’ animated pickup “The Triplets of Belleville,” Palm Pictures’ Claude Chabrol drama “The Flower of Evil” and New Yorker Films’ crowd-pleasing schoolhouse docu “To Be and to Have,” which became a major phenomenon at the French box office.

Also expected to be a strong arthouse performer is Miramax’s French-language Cannes acquisition “The Barbarian Invasions,” from French-Canadian director Denys Arcand.