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Gauls add laughs to romance movies

Films that have happy endings are invading the box office

PARIS — French films about love usually end with the couple splitting up.

But this holiday season, taking their inspiration from more optimistic American fare, a trio of feel-good Gallic romantic comedies are proving that love, French-style, can also have a happy ending and get people in movie theaters.

In seven weeks at the French box office, the Alain Chabat/Charlotte Gainsbourg starrer “Prete-moi ta main” (I Do), a Gallic answer to “Pretty Woman,” has notched 3.3 million admissions, outperforming “Casino Royale.”

Pierre Salvadori’s stylish “Hors de prix” (Priceless), a racier, modern-day take on themes explored in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 “Trouble in Paradise,” made E3.1 million ($4 million) in its opening week, Dec. 12-19, second at the box office behind Luc Besson’s CGI-animated/live-action juggernaut “Arthur and the Invisibles,” but ahead of “Deja Vu.”

Distributed by TFM, “Priceless” stars the winning combo of Audrey Tautou and Gad Elmaleh as a high-class callgirl and a luxury hotel underling who get bitten by the love bug.

In the same week’s box office top 10 was Roschdy Zem’s “Mauvaise foi” (Bad Faith), a romantic comedy with a serious message starring Zem and Cecile de France as an Arab/Jewish couple whose religious backgrounds threaten to get in the way of true love.

Topical theme speaks to a hot-button issue in France, a year after rioting put the spotlight on the country’s racial tensions.

While each is different, all three films share certain things in common: bankable and good-looking protags, well-developed plots, a fair dose of witty dialogue and, of course, those most un-Gallic happy endings.

Pics also use well-loved English-language pop hits to pull in auds. Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” plays full volume while Zem’s character and his other half are going through yet another family induced crisis of romantic faith in “Bad Faith.” Chabat’s final-scene proposal in “I Do” is accompanied by the strains of Kool & the Gang’s “You Can Take It, If You Want It.”

French cinemagoers looking for this sort of fare in the past have had to count on the Hollywood majors, or Brit producer Working Title — which has nothing touchy-feely on offer this holiday season.

Distancing himself from the “love is depressing” school of French filmmaking, Salvadori owns up straight away that “Priceless” is inspired by the American comedies of Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawkes.

“I’m not a child of the New Wave,” the helmer asserts.

“I set out to make a film that was coherent, funny and cinematographic in the way American comedies from the 1930s were.”

Perhaps that’s why even snotty French critics were fairly complimentary about Eric Lartigau’s directorial debut, in which Chabat’s confirmed bachelor falls for a woman he has hired to play his pretend “bride.”

As for the autobiographically inspired “Bad Faith,” Zem believes humor is an effective way to get across a message of tolerance to France’s mutually hostile Arab and Jewish communities, while pointing up the everyday prejudices of the French.

“Humor puts things into perspective,” he asserts.

“When I was a teenager growing up in France, nobody made an issue of religion,” recalls Zem.

“But the Gulf War, 9/11 changed all that. Now people define themselves by their position on the Israeli-Palestine conflict.”

The current crop of romantic comedies are, of course, not the first of their kind.

But three on French screens at once, after “Quatre etoiles” earlier this year, is clearly a sign of French cinema’s growing commercial bent.

Gallic filmmakers have tried their hand at all sorts of genres in 2006, from 3-D animation to war actioners, and the expanding market share for local films — more than 44%, up a couple of points from last year — suggests French audiences approve.

“French cinema used to be elitist, but it is changing,” Salvadori says.

“There is a new consciousness of the link between the filmmaker and the public. More effort is being made to please the audience.”