Why U.S. Audiences Are More Comfortable With Subtitles Than Ever

REARVIEW: Even as helmers overseas deliver English-language films like 'Grace of Monaco,' American moviegoers have proven increasingly at home with foreign-lingo fare.

Grace of Monico

Attendees at next month’s Cannes Film Festival will hear plenty of French being spoken — except, that is, by the characters onscreen. Of the French films recently announced as part of this year’s official selection, two (Olivier Dahan’s opening-nighter “Grace of Monaco” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria”) are predominately English-language features with largely American and British casts, while “The Search,” from “The Artist” helmer Michel Hazanavicius, reportedly features a mix of English, French, Chechnyan and Russian. Meanwhile, in the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar, “Lady Chatterley” director Pascale Ferran’s “Bird People” is another hybrid English/French affair, with a cast that includes Josh Charles, Radha Mitchell and Clark Johnson.

On the one hand, this may seem fated in a year when reliable linguistic provocateur Jean-Luc Godard will be present in the Cannes competition with a film titled “Goodbye to Language.” On the other, this is nothing new: Assayas has competed at Cannes before with the partly English-language “Demonlover” (2002) and the largely English-language “Clean” (2004) and screened the polyglot TV miniseries “Carlos” out of competition in 2010. And Dahan followed up his Oscar-winning Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en rose” with the English-language road movie “My Own Love Song,” starring Renee Zellweger, Forest Whitaker and Nick Nolte — but good luck finding anyone who’s seen it. (After flopping at the French box office, it was released directly to DVD in the U.S.) Even Assayas scored his biggest Stateside hit with the French-language “Summer Hours,” which grossed $1.6 million for IFC Films in 2009.

Indeed, while international action and genre directors like Germany’s Wolfgang Petersen and Roland Emmerich, Mexico’s Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, and France’s own Luc Besson have managed to transition seamlessly from their home turf to helming English-language blockbusters, the same sort of border crossing has always proved more elusive for arthouse auteurs drawn to challenging, character-driven material. Last year at Cannes, French director Arnaud Desplechin premiered “Jimmy P.,” an English-language drama on an American subject: the relationship between the maverick psychoanalyst Georges Devereux and a Native American WWII vet (played by Benicio Del Toro) suffering from PTSD. But despite Del Toro’s presence and generally admiring reviews, “Jimmy P.” barely made a ripple at the U.S. box office (where it grossed all of $25,000), whereas Desplechin’s previous film, the French-language dramedy “A Christmas Tale,” earned just over $1 million.

Of course, the reasons behind the choice of a given film’s language are many and varied, having to do with everything from subject matter to casting. But because America has long been (and remains for the moment) the world’s biggest producer and consumer of filmed entertainment, there remains a widely held industry belief that English-language films have a strategic commercial advantage in the marketplace. But the evidence doesn’t always support the claim. When French director Erick Zonka recruited Tilda Swinton for the lead role in his U.S.-Mexico border-crossing drama “Julia” (2008), it took the movie more than a year to trickle into a handful of American theaters (despite Swinton’s recent Oscar win for “Michael Clayton”). Which is nothing compared with the four years Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael had to wait to see his expensive English-language fantasy pic “Mr. Nobody” (2009) make a similarly low-key U.S. debut, on the heels of star Jared Leto’s “Dallas Buyers Club” Oscar buzz.

And the list goes on: From Antonioni (“Zabriskie Point”) to Bergman (“The Serpent’s Egg,” “The Touch”) to Haneke (the shot-for-shot “Funny Games” remake) to Truffaut (“Fahrenheit 451”), the history books are filled with English-language endeavors by world-class auteurs that failed to measure up, critically or commercially, to those movies made in the directors’ native languages. Adding a certain irony to all this is that in Europe, where local-language dubbing remains the cultural custom for most major territories, the English versions of such movies are little shown outside a handful of cinemas in major cities (like Berlin, Paris and Madrid) committed to screening “original version” prints with subtitles. (In France, it has been announced, none other than purported Francois Hollande mistress Julie Gayet will dub the voice of Nicole Kidman for the domestic “Grace of Monaco” release.)

Meanwhile, in the U.S., where dubbing fell out of fashion decades ago and has never mounted a comeback (despite Harvey Weinstein’s ill-fated effort to revive it for Roberto Benigni’s “Pinocchio”), audiences seem more comfortable than ever reading subtitles. When Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” premiered at Cannes in 2009, some journalists hemmed and hawed that the film’s commercial fortunes would be limited by the fact that three-quarters of the dialogue was in French and German; in reality, the movie went on to become the biggest hit (domestic and international) of Tarantino’s career up to that point. And from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Last Samurai,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Avatar” and “District 9,” subtitles have become increasingly common at the mainstream multiplex in the past two decades, with no audience revolt in sight.

Speaking to this critic last summer, “Fast and Furious” director Justin Lin noted that he had faced stiff studio opposition from Universal when he first proposed having legendary Japanese martial-arts star Sonny Chiba speak Japanese in 2006’s “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift.” But Lin won the battle, and when the movie was a hit, he faced no similar qualms about having large chunks of the Brazil-set “Fast Five” spoken in Portuguese. Similarly, taking its cue from “Slumdog,” the upcoming Disney baseball drama “Million Dollar Arm” allows its two main Indian characters to deliver most of their dialogue in Hindi. So it was especially surprising when Universal’s recent “47 Ronin” opted to have all its Japanese characters speak in halting, phonetic English — a decision that did little to bolster (and, perhaps, even hindered) the film’s U.S. box office fortunes.

One can even find subtitles on the smallscreen now, with Sundance Channel offering the French zombie series “The Returned” and Los Angeles’ KCET broadcasting the Danish political drama “Borgen.” And no less august an arbiter of the vox populi than Entertainment Weekly recently published a “beginner’s guide” to the best Korean-language TV dramas available on U.S. cable. Meanwhile, on the arthouse front, 14 of the 20 highest-grossing foreign-language imports of all time have been released in the U.S. in the last 15 years, including “Crouching Tiger,” “Hero,” “Amelie,” “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Volver.”

There are few hard and fast conclusions to be drawn here, except that American audiences seem more willing than ever to embrace cultural and linguistic diversity as a cinematic norm, and less accepting of the old Hollywood convention by which everyone in every corner of the world happens to speak perfect, American-accented English (a convention followed, it must be noted, in some of the greatest films of all time, such as Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner,” which offered up Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan as clerks in a Hungarian novelty shop). There’s an old adage about film editing that says if the viewer notices the cuts, something is wrong. Perhaps the same can be said of subtitles, too.