To me, cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.
Alfred Hitchcock.

I totally agree with Sir Alfred, and let’s not forget a famous French queen allegedly declared: “Let them eat cake!”  That’s probably why it is impossible to grow up in France and not enjoy cake, or movies. After all, the French -and most Europeans- value cinema so much they  refer to it as “Le 7ème Art” (the 7th Art).

The Lumière Brothers – who lived in Lyon, France – are credited for the world’s first public screening in 1895, when they introduced their invention, “le Cinématographe“, a truly innovative device that was a portable camera, a projector, and a printer, all in one. In truth, other inventors worked equally hard at developing modern movie making both in Europe and in the United States, and we all benefited.

France has always been fascinated with cinema: French movies, bien sûr, but also American blockbusters, European movies, and obscure flicks from tiny little countries most people could hardly locate on a world map. In Paris, it is possible to watch most foreign movies in “V.O.” (Version Originale). This means viewers will happily read French subtitles for a couple of hours to enjoy a more authentic experience. Other people settle for movies in “V.F.” (Version Française), and they do not mind listening to Leonardo di Caprio or Brad Pitt speak French! I watched “True Grit” recently and kept thinking a French actor was going to have a heck of a time dubbing Jeff Bridges/Rooster Cogburn in this excellent remake of a western classic!

France is so enamored with movies that it is proud to host one of the world’s most prestigious Film Festivals in Cannes in the spring. This year, Robert de Niro (who knows a good deal when he sees one– Two-week paid vacation on the French Riviera in the spring, anyone?!) will be presiding, May 11-22.

Festival de Cannes 2010 – Juliette Binoche

Many Americans would be surprised to find out that the French movie industry is the only full service movie industry in Europe. It is financed both by capital ventures (investors include companies such as giant satellite broadcaster Canal + Group and telecommunication company Orange) and generous public subsidies (France invests in its movies through a tax on movie tickets). The French movie industry is healthy: Over 200 French feature films were produced in 2010. It may not seem like a lot, but France is a relatively small country (fewer than 65 million people live there). Recent French hits include Amélie (the movie that launched Audrey Tautou’s international career), les Cht’is (a hilarious comedy that mocks French regionalism), Potiche (a popular play adapted to the big screen last fall, starring an irresistible Catherine Deneuve and the ubiquitous Gérard Depardieu).
Unfortunately, French cinema still has an elitist image abroad. French movies are often perceived to be obscure, slow (i.e. lots of talking, little action), and hard to get. During the late 1950s and through the mid-1960s, a new generation of filmmakers arrived on the scene. François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol to name a few, launched “La Nouvelle Vague” (the New Wave). Their movies were often produced on tight budgets, with improvised dialogues, odd characters and fuzzy plot lines, meant to surprise the audience. Some of these new directors met international and financial success, Truffaut with “Les 400 Coups” (400 blows), and Godard with “A bout de souffle” (Breathless), and the New Wave flourished. Should these guys be blamed for that elitist image ?

Sadly, for many folks, French movies  = punishment. In a hilarious episode of the popular TV show “Modern Family”, the husband, Phil, goes to the movies with his wife, Claire, and is hoping to catch the latest Hollywood blockbuster. They bump into another couple Claire is desperate to impress, and she informs Phil they are going to watch a French movie instead. Phil’s reaction is priceless: “Why do I have to watch a French movie, he whines, I didn’t do anything wrong!” — Ah! ah! Très amusant, Monsieur Phil. For the record, Phil bails on Claire and goes next door to watch the blockbuster. Claire stays but falls asleep during the long, impenetrable and presumably boring French flick.

So, myth or reality?  Truth is the French cinema today is very diverse. Every year,  audiences can enjoy a variety of comedies, thrillers, costume pieces, animated movies, even a few action movies. Sadly, it seems a lot of these movies never make it across the pond. If they are shown in the United States, it is always in limited release. Recently, I was lucky to catch the delightful Rom-Com “L’Arnacoeur” (the Heartbreaker) in Seattle but it only played for a few weeks.

Ok. Time to rant. I get limited release (I think). There is one thing I do not get: the need for (bad) American remakes of (good) French movies. It’s as if someone in Hollywood decided that a movie is “too French” for American audiences (or that American audiences can’t read subtitles), and they make it their mission in life to spawn an Americanized (and typically watered-down) version of said movie. Let’s be fair. It has worked… on occasion. Case in point: “La Totale” magically became “True Lies” (one of Arnold’s last great hits before he morphed into the Gubernator).

La Totale, 1991
Voilà! C’est magique! Le Gubernator!

More often than not, American remakes are a let down, and they flop. Recent illustration:

A hilarious and witty French comedy
(was released in the US as “The Dinner Game”)
Le complete debacle

On the bright side, it is easier now for American audiences to rent French flicks through local companies like Blockbuster or Netflix. When I meet with my French students, we often discuss new French releases. They sometimes see them before I do. Fortunately, our relatives are very good about shipping the latest French hits and Le Husband and I enjoy them here, in our little piece of suburbia, thanks to our multi-standard DVD player (best investment we ever made, by the way). I promised myself, that one day, as long as we live in the land of “big is beautiful”, I will have my own media room (a huge benefit of private media rooms is that you can enjoy the movie without hearing people munch on bad popcorn, or smell that horrible yellow stuff they pour on top!)

Last week, the French Oscars a.k.a. les Césars (now in their 36th year) celebrated cinema in Paris. The ceremony is a well-established event, but somewhat comes across as low-key compared to the extravagant American Oscars. One movie was nominated 11 times and won several awards, including the coveted Best Movie award: “Des Dieux et des Hommes” (“Of Gods and Men”, available soon in limited release in a theater near you… maybe!) I can’t wait to see this powerful drama, based on a real-life tragedy during the Algerian civil war. Incidentally, the American cinema was well represented during the ceremony.  “The Social Network” won best foreign film, and a life-time achievement award was presented to Quentin Tarantino. Jodie Foster (who is fluent in French) presided.

Un Oscar and un César

Let’s fast forward. Two days later. The 2011 Oscars in Hollywood. Everyone agreed there was no major upset or surprise this year. Once again, the show was over the top (recession? what recession?) It was about movies, and make no mistake, it was about fashion too. French actresses at Les Césars looked like peasants compared to their American counterparts. Bizarre, non?

The show was so slow at times that I finally pulled out my brand-new jouet (toy), Le MacBook Air, and looked up the list of French movies or French stars who scored big in Hollywood over the years. Très intéressant! I found out that no Frenchman has ever won an Academy Award for best actor (not even Monsieur Depardieu who was nominated in 1990 for “Cyrano de Bergerac). French actresses fared better: Three won Best Actress awards, including Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose (1997), and Juliette Binoche won Best Supporting Actress for “The English Patient” in 1996.

Marion aime Oscar!

Mon Dieu! This is a long post. What can I say? I l.o.v.e. movies, with or without subtitles. By the way, you can get additional info on each movie listed here by clicking on their title. If you end up renting some of them, I would love to know what you thought…

Merci et à bientôt!

Véronique - France with Véro
Véronique of France with Véro

Véronique of France with Véro

Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.

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