Saturday, May 28, 2011

More on French film

I've passed some posters advertising a new animated science-fiction film, The Prodigies, and I was surprised to see that it was produced by a French company. The French film industry can just barely finance the standard-issue French slice-of-life film, so to see a feature-length computer-animated film in 3D from a French company implies that either some truly wealthy backers were miraculously found, or someone broke the piggy bank for a one-off extravaganza.

France has one of the world's largest film industries, but it still trails way behind Hollywood and Bollywood. It's hard to find financial backing in France, and one of the most common sources of backing turns out to be a semi-government agency, upon which French filmmakers have come to depend (to an unhealthy extent, in my opinion). Often financing is a hodgepodge of nickels and dimes from a long list of partners, all of which seem to require that their logos appear in a hokey list across the bottom of the movie posters. The government has a taste for “artsy” films, which further complicates things, because it makes it harder to finance a film that might actually make money at the box office.

Another complication is the frequent leaning towards the auteur model of filmmaking, in which one guy (it's almost invariably a guy) writes, directs, acts, edits, and does just about everything else for a film, giving him complete control over the result. The problem is that there are probably only about five people in the world who have sufficiently diverse and significant talent to undertake all of those roles at once in a movie production, and the myriad others who haven't such gifts usually produce garbage when they attempt to do it all themselves. So a lot of French films tend to be arthouse B-movies, rather than successful blockbusters built by a team of specialized artists and technicians.

Then there's the dialog. In French movies, there are tons and tons of dialog. Talk, talk, talk. It's characteristic of French films. Action is quite limited. This may work for domestic release but it's a big problem for export, because you have to subtitle or dub all of the 36,483 pages of dialog. Many markets (notably the United States) just will not tolerate dubbing or subtitling. That's one reason why several French vehicles that were successful in France were remade by Hollywood for the U.S. market (e.g., Trois hommes et un couffin, which was remade as Three Men and a Baby).

Here's the typical French film: One man and one woman in bed. They talk (a lot), they have sex, and then they smoke cigarettes. Repeat this for two hours.

Most French films are slice-of-life films, without the multiple-act structure of American films. You feel that you've walked into the middle of something at the start of the film, and you feel you've been pushed back out at the end.

Are these bad or good things? Well, that depends on your tastes. Some people like prolix, slice-of-life films. They do well enough in France. But they don't export well, and it's worth noting that seven out of ten films at the local Parisian multiplex will typically be American blockbusters, dubbed or subtitled. You're more likely to find Oscar winners on the schedule rather than winners of the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

The one thing that probably is indisputably bad is the lack of money for filmmaking in France. Films are often made on a shoestring, crews and talent are poorly paid (or sometimes not paid at all), there's no room for special effects or much of anything other than the most banal location shots, and so on. There have been a few big-budget films, some of which have been extremely successful at the box office, but unfortunately these are exceptions to the rule. Most of the French box office ends up in the pockets of Hollywood these days.

It seems that French audiences respond to much the same things that please American audiences: lots of action, special effects, a clear structure to the film, with a simple plot and a good ending. But French filmmakers don't often produce this, so their films struggle even as Hollywood rakes in the cash. The few French films that have been made according to this Hollywood model have been just as successful as the American films. But I sometimes think that French filmmakers consider it below them to produce a movie that simply provides entertainment for a fee, whereas American studios have no such qualms.

Of course, you might look at the incredibly lame videos I've been putting on YouTube and wonder what qualifies me to criticize anyone else's work. But I don't think you have to be a talented filmmaker yourself just to form valid opinions of other films or the film industry in general. I think Roger Ebert is a good film critic, but the best he could ever do himself as a screenwriter was … Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens!

Anyway, I don't go to see movies much these days. It's too expensive. I can't even afford DVDs any more, and in any case I have nothing to play DVDs on, since I had to sell that long ago in order to buy groceries and pay rent.

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