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French Have a Finger in Foreign-Language Pies

This year, the Academy set another record in its foreign-language Oscar category, attracting submissions from 83 different countries. That’s a major accomplishment for a competition whose organizers aspire to host the cinematic equivalent of the Olympics — but one in which every country is invited to select one (and only one) film to represent itself for the top prize.

There’s just one problem: Foreign cinema doesn’t work that way.

Hollywood studios may have deep enough pockets to make all-American movies, but the film industries of nearly every other country depend on partnerships with financiers and talent from around the globe. On that front, no country is more involved in international co-productions than France.

Technically speaking, of the 83 Oscar-submitted films, 13 are “French,” with examples ranging from Turkish entry “Winter Sleep,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year (co-produced with French and German coin), to Mauritanian selection “Timbuktu” (whose financing is 100% French).

Just go down the list.

Belgian-made “Two Days, One Night” boasts a French star (Marion Cotillard) and French backers.

Israeli divorce drama “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem” was shepherded by French producers, was made with mostly French money and includes sizable chunks of French dialogue. (No other country supports the Israeli film industry more than France.)

And China’s choice, “The Nightingale”? That’s an odd bird indeed: The country’s surprise pick — a low-budget Mandarin-language indie — was actually directed by Philippe Muyl, a French filmmaker, taking advantage of a recent co-production treaty between the two countries that allows Gallic films to bypass China’s restrictive quota on cinematic imports.

From a distance, none of these films — nor their sister productions from Chile, Colombia, Georgia, Italy, Norway, Palestine and Sweden — look “French.” That’s a testament to the way Gallic partners work, typically enabling foreign projects while allowing the underlying voices to remain true to their native cultures.

The reasons for that are myriad but well-entrenched in the country’s cultural DNA. France’s national film promotion org, the CNC, dates back to 1936 and provides numerous channels by which foreign artists can apply for support, including the Fonds Sud — a program established with the specific goal of supporting French co-productions with developing countries.

In turn, these partnerships benefit the French industry. Gallic TV networks have a nearly inexhaustible appetite for content, coupled with a willingness to broadcast relatively exotic fare, and often come on early in exchange for broadcast rights. Though many of these projects shoot abroad, they often come to France for the final stage. As Muyl says, “In China, there are no editors. The directors handle the editing of the movie themselves, so they like to come to France for the post-production” — as he did on “The Nightingale.”

Another factor is the lingering trace of the country’s colonial mindset. Unlike Britain and the U.S. (which also planted their flags far and wide but tend to be far more nationalistic toward their artistic output), France has a long tradition of supporting foreign artists — a tradition that continues via the Cannes Film Festival, which invites the most exciting voices in world cinema to premiere their work each year, encouraging members of the French industry to support those directors’ next projects.

“If you remember what happened in Paris during the Roaring ’20s, it was an open space for Brancusi, Modigliani, Picasso, Hemingway, Max Ernst and all sorts of musicians coming from Eastern Europe,” says Isabelle Giordano, general manager of French film promotion org Unifrance. “We have this tradition of mixing culture, which is what you can see between the lines of the Oscar pre-selection.”

According to CNC statistics, France produced 209 films last year, many of which recycle the same actors, directors and plots (the country’s official Oscar submission, “Saint Laurent,” is actually the second film about the eponymous fashion designer to be released in a 12-month span).

“Being involved in another (generic French movie) makes less sense to me than helping a friend that’s really struggling in Georgia or Colombia,” says outward-looking French producer Guillaume de Seille.

Via his Arizona Films outfit, de Seille makes five or six features each year with international partners he finds during extensive travels to festivals and co-production forums. “On average, two are profitable per year, allowing me to take some new risks on other films” — a better track record than most film investors, both in Hollywood and France. Plus, these partnerships result in work he can be proud of. Two of de Seille’s 2014 co-productions were selected by their home countries to compete for Oscar noms: Chile’s “To Kill a Man” and Georgia’s “Corn Island.” Pas mal, as they say.

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