Just before I relocated to France two years ago, Jay Penske, chairman & CEO of Variety parent company PMC, asked me why Paris, as opposed to London, when picking a base from which to lead the paper’s international team of film critics.
It’s a fair question. Great Britain has close ties to Hollywood, producing everything from “The King’s Speech” to “Kingsman” (to say nothing of the Harry Potter and James Bond franchises). Plus, they speak English in London.
Still, for me, the choice was obvious: France is where cinema was invented, dating back 120 years to the Lumiere brothers. In Paris, there are more cinema screens per capita than in any other major city. It is also the center of international co-production. And, of course, the world’s most important film festival takes place a short train ride away, in Cannes.
At the time, we couldn’t have known what a volatile place Paris would become, sustaining attacks on both the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Bataclan theater in 2015. When I arrived a year earlier, I was delighted to discover that Parisians, frequent moviegoers that they are, can buy an “unlimited” moviegoing pass from one of several major chains, allowing me to max out on all that French theaters had to offer. After the Nov. 13 attacks, however, I stayed away from cinemas for nearly an entire month — from all public entertainment venues, in fact, since they were precisely what the terrorists had targeted.
But the cultural appetite here is enormous, and the country refuses to have its consumption habits dictated by jihadists. In fact, one of the things I admire most about French cinema is how “un-French” it is — that is, how local producers are dedicated to seeking out and encouraging foreign voices, the way Arizona Films’ Guillaume de Seille (“Corn Island”) and Coproduction Office’s Philippe Bober (“Force Majeure”) do on a regular basis.
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Here in France, films such as Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” and Iran’s delightful “The Lunchbox” (both French co-productions) open on multiple screens, not just in Paris, but around the country. I couldn’t have been more thrilled when a committee made up of the industry’s most influential players selected Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Turkish-set debut “Mustang” to represent France at the Oscars.
More than half a century after the French New Wave, many Americans hold that idea of Gallic cinema as rowdy, realistic and ultra-romantic — a reputation that serves French film imports well on the arthouse circuit, but describes a mere fraction of the 250-plus features the country produces each year. Like the U.S., France boasts a strong commercial film industry that churns out polished, high-concept blockbusters every week, including some — like Cesar-nominated “Marguerite” and Meryl Streep starrer “Florence Foster Jenkins” — about the exact same subject.
Lately, comedy sequels “Babysitting 2” and “Les Tuche 2” have been massive hits, though neither would hold much interest to American audiences (who finally caught up with 2013’s hit “Paulette,” about a desperate old lady who resorts to selling marijuana to pay the rent, last summer, two years after star Bernadette Lafont had died). Likewise, in the boonies, American movies (which make up 56.4% of the French box office) are dubbed into French.
Still, cosmopolitan French cinephiles engage with stories about other races and cultures in a way no other country does, grappling with subjects such as terrorism (as Nicolas Saada’s “Taj Mahal,” a survivor’s view of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, did last fall) and prejudice (as illustrated by “Chocolat,” in which Omar Sy plays the country’s first black star) on a regular basis.
Whereas the United States follows a strictly commercial financing model, the French film industry is supported in part by a massive state funding engine, the National Center for Cinema and the Moving Image (or CNC, for short), established in 1946, just after World War II, when many Paris cinemas and the film infrastructure had been destroyed. Today, with every movie ticket and television set that is sold in France, a fraction goes toward funding new films. Furthermore, TV channels are required to reinvest a portion of their earnings back into the production of movies.
These programs, which encourage first-time filmmakers and international co-productions, enable precisely the sort of projects that can be so difficult to get off the ground in the States — namely, movies from new and unfamiliar voices, a great many of them female.
In the ’60s, impressed by the New Wave, Hollywood looked to France to enliven how it told stories. Today, the American industry would do well to study how France —which even welcomed my arrival — has addressed the question of inclusion.