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Comedy that travels

French comedies hope Americans say oui

L.A.-based French lovefest City of Lights, City of Angels will unveil a broad range of comedies this year, underscoring an upsurge in script-driven laffers with crossover potential.

“Although they make popular Hollywood remakes, Gallic comedies don’t traditionally travel well to the U.S. as they’re perceived as too culturally specific to appeal to American audiences,” explains Francois Truffart, ColCoa’s topper. “But since last year, a new breed of French filmmakers and producers are boosting the genre with different kinds of comedies.”

The eclectic mix of laffers playing at the fest includes “Low Cost,” a burlesque, gag-laden comedy directed by up-and-coming helmer Maurice Barthelemy; “Nothing to Declare,” Dany Boon’s buddy movie; “Service Entrance,” a 1960-set social dramedy; Audrey Tautou starrer “Full Treatment”; political satire “The Names of Love”; vet director Bertrand Blier’s black humor-tinged comedy, “The Clink of Ice”; and comic Kad Merad’s directorial debut, “Monsieur Papa.”

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“There’s a resurgence in successful French comedies and to some extent these films are coming here,” says Ed Arentz, managing director of Chicago-based Music Box Films, which recently acquired Francois Ozon’s “Potiche” and “The Names of Love.”

Fabrice Goldstein, one of the producers of “Names,” says “contemporary American indie cinema is a source of inspiration for a growing number of French filmmakers.”

“Names” turns on a free-spirited young political activist who sleeps with right-wingers to convert them to the left, until she meets her match.

The pic’s helmer, Michel Leclerc, and his co-scribe Baya Kasmi, drew from many different film references, including Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Radio Days,” says Goldstein.

Adds Arentz: ” ‘The Names of Love’ may be a political satire with specific French references, it’s still accessible to American audiences and it’s very fresh.”

“Low Cost” director Barthelemy, a fan of R-rated American comedies, says the main reference for his film was the Abrahams/Zucker hit “Airplane!” (1980).

Barthelemy’s film centers on passengers of a bargain flight who decide to take off without the pilot after waiting eight hours on the tarmac, with no air conditioning.

“Even though the pitch of the film is pretty absurd, I didn’t take the burlesque humor as far as ‘Airplane!'” says Barthelemy. “I emphasized the film’s social undertone, in the vein of ‘Juno’ or ‘Little Miss Sunshine.'”

“French audiences tend to prefer more conservative comedies but tastes are evolving, and the success of (‘The Hangover’) proved there is a growing market for R-rated comedies in France,” says Barthelemy, pointing out this change in tastes might also result from the boom of edgy American TV series in Gaul over the last three years.

ColCoa will screen 29 pics that will vie for the critics’ laurel and the audience award. These include five films that have found U.S. distribution: Gerard Depardieu starrer “My Afternoon with Margeritte” (CMG), “The Names of Love” (Music Box Films), “Mammuth” (Olive Films), Fabrice Luchini starrer “Service Entrance” and Catherine Breillat’s “The Sleeping Beauty” (Strand Releasing for both).

Truffart points out that buyers, from the U.S. and abroad, increasingly consider ColCoa’s prizes as dependable indicators of a film’s international appeal.

Last year, for instance, Mona Achache’s comedic drama “The Hedgehog” was picked up by Neo Classics after winning the audience nod at ColCoa.

“The Hollywood audience has a reputation for being tough,” Truffart says, “so if a film is popular at ColCoa, it gives it a quality label.”

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