Peter M Howard ::

First Impressions :: France and Local vs Foreign Film


Originally written for my In-Country Studies subject at UTS - we were supposed to select a subject about the culture and yeah, give our first impressions of it... As a film student I wanted to keep up with the film scene in France, so that's what I wrote it on...


There are many things that struck me as different in my first few weeks of life in France. Some, I had been warned about - the bureaucracy, the unwillingness to speak English; some, no amount of warning could explain - the complete stillness that takes over the city on a Sunday. But in an effort to filter my experience through one phenomenon, I have chosen to speak of the French attitudes to film, and particularly, local vs foreign film. In France, unlike in Australia, 'foreign' or 'international' film is differentiated by the dominance of English-speaking film, which in turn is dominated by American film. These notes were prompted by an article in a French film magazine on the 'Top 10' films of 2004, as selected by critics, not simply based on box-office results.

Cahiers du Cinéma Top 10

1 Tropical Malady (Thai)

2 West of the Tracks (China)

S-21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (Cambodia/France) [documentary]

The Village (US)

5 Shara (Japan)

6 Rois et Reine (Kings & Queen) (France)

The Brown Bunny (US)

Gerry (US)

9 Kohi jiko (Café Lumière) (Japan/Taiwan)

Kill Bill vol 2 (US)

Saraband (Sweden)

Two inclusions especially surprised me: Kill Bill and The Village. The former, because it could be labelled very commercial, and very American - both things I'd assumed would keep any film off the list. And the latter, because it was terribly underrated by critics and the film-going public in both Australia and the States.

With further thought, neither inclusions are actually surprising. Tarantino is almost universally adored in the film industry - anything he releases makes critics' Top 10 lists worldwide. And The Village is a spectacular piece of storytelling, with layers of allegory regarding (particularly American) society and foreign policy. They in fact refer to it in the article as a "fable of the Other".

But First...

Some Necessary Explanations


I discuss these terms literally - a film made within the country, and made largely by locals, is a "local film". But as both the French and Australian film industries are discovering, it is difficult to be clear-cut. Using Australian films as an example: are The Matrix or Star Wars 'local', when they are filmed here and hire crew and extras from here? Many people would say no, they're still foreign films; they have identifiable lead actors and key creators who aren't local. But what about Moulin Rouge - it was made by Australians, in Australia, with an Australian lead, so most people identify it as 'local' -- but it had a (largely foreign) budget that dwarfed anything the Australian film industry has created.

Mental Geography: "If the character is going towards the unknown, it's not towards 'elsewhere', nor the other, but towards the unknown inside themselves. It's not that that is better, but it is a difference that marks our times" (Cahiers du Cinéma, Feb2005, p12)


An 'arthouse' film is ill-defined, but largely agreed upon in a given society. In Australia, almost all non-English-language films are immediately classified 'arthouse', as are those 'quirky' films that get limited cinema release. Many local Australian films, if not comedies, are still 'arthouse'. Similarly, 'Hollywood' films aren't necessarily limited to films made by Hollywood studios - the label reflects a certain sensibility, and usually, the amount of money that goes into marketing a film. In Australia it is common for people to refer to 'Hollywood' when meaning 'American', and vice versa, though this is changing -- many people can at least tell when a film is 'American' though not 'Hollywood'. The case is similar in France, where the 'Hollywood' films are the big marketing studio films, and other 'American' film tends to be relegated to arthouse. (The two other American films on the list above are independent arthouse films).

Again, these terms are problematic (many people do not realise, for example, that Star Wars is an 'independent' film). And the situation is only made more complicated when a 'foreign' film picks up enough recognition to get a 'mainstream' release (eg, Amelie) - the distribution often backed by a major studio.

With French film the problem goes further - the French see their own film as slow and intellectual, and something like Amelie is not at all representative of their industry.

One commentator says: *"I don't know if the films we mention should be called regressive, but it's true that they accomplish a backwards movement - notably in the direction of silence"*Another suggests that this is because these films "are closer to song than to discourse" (Cahiers, Feb2005, p13)

VO = Voice Over?

The most obvious difference between France and Australia in terms of local vs foreign film is the language barrier. Thus, the issues of dubbing and subtitling are a key point of comparison. French subtitling practices seem to be very similar to those in Australia, although it should be added that Australia has been undergoing significant changes in this area over the last few years.

The question of VO [version originale, subtitled] or VF [version française, dubbed]: though similar to arguments in Australia, there is the added dimension of language and the social discourse surrounding the use of language.

In Australia, the argument has, for many years, been relatively straightforward. Audiences, it is argued, don't wish to read through a movie. This same argument can be (and is regularly) applied in France - mainstream cinemas showing the latest Hollywood releases always show the VF - the dubbed version, and retitle movies to match local pronunciations and contexts. This may range from renaming Meet the Parents as Mon beau-père et moi (My father-in-law and me; which resulted in the clumsy sequel title, translated, 'My father-in-law, my parents and me') to renaming Alexander as Alexandre. Similarly, American TV series are usually retitled and dubbed (with the exception of Reality TV - more on that later...).

In Australia, for many years even arthouse movies were dubbed, but gradually the argument for showing a film 'as the maker intended' grew in popularity. This has largely been limited to arthouse film, but more recently has begun to be used as a sign of a film's exotic- or foreign-ness. As could be expected, this is similarly the case in France, where arthouse films (including independent American or English-language films) are shown in VO - subtitled.

But in France there is a further dimension - the socio-linguistic context. The country's constant efforts to protect the French language affects all media in France - TV and radio have to broadcast a certain amount of shows/songs in French. The argument can easily be made that dubbing protects the language - when they already fear US influence, it makes sense that dubbing would be preferably for commercial films that have large, young audiences.

The Law

France's local film industry, like that of Australia, is protected by a range of laws. The CNC (Centre national de la cinématographie) was founded in 1946 by an act of parliament. Its role is to promote the local film industry - largely achieved by funding and tax benefits to local productions. It can be compared to various Film Councils in Australia - federal and state-owned bodies that provide funding to local productions, as well as tax benefits such as 10BA that provide incentives to people and businesses investing in the local industry. In both France and Australia, these bodies sometimes struggle with definitions of 'local' - both set certain guidelines that attempt to define 'local'. A certain amount of the funding has to be local, and a certain amount of cast and crew have to be local. (Australia also has allowances for foreign films that are shot in Australia, which should not be confused). Last year's A Very Long Engagement, starring Audrey Tautou and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (both of Amelie), was largely funded by Warner Bros, and as a result failed in its appeal to be declared 'French'.

The laws in France go beyond financial incentives however. After World War II, the United States insisted on certain 'minimum-content' laws, under which French cinemas were forced to screen a large percentage of American film. As soon as they could, the French had these reduced, and in their place implemented minimum-content laws that regulated the amount of French film that had to be shown. As well, the French government managed to regulate television before it got out of control - the TV stations have similar content laws, and cable station Canal+ has specific broadcast restrictions that force it to invest in a certain level of local film as well. Some similar laws are in place in Australia, at least as regards free-to-air television, but cable TV stations have much greater freedoms, and the recent Free Trade Agreement with the US prevents Australia from increasing any current limits, or from placing limits on any emerging technology. Outcries from the Australian film industry during FTA negotiations thus seem minor when compared to French reactions to American 'cultural imperialism', which range from protectionism to outright paranoia. Every now and then a new moral panic will be stirred up about the influence of American culture on the youth - resulting in their inability to properly appreciate French film culture and heritage.

"Unlike other recent periods in cinema, for example the early 1990s, the important films of 2004 maintain a weak relationship with current affairs: scarcely any cinema is diagnosing 'l'aujourd'hui'. [There] were various films that pretended to confront reality, particularly in the documentary mode. 2004 is also the year of Michael Moore, even though we do not recognize ourselves at all in that approach. The cinema that interests us the most forges relationships ... constructed at a distance from reality"

As a result of this distance, the film must "support itself with citations and references to images or films that pre-exist it." This is referencing, not as homage, nor as deconstruction, but as "a form of theatricism ... a device which allows cinema to remember itself, without pretending to produce stories of the [entire] world" (Cahiers, Feb2005, p14)

Reality TV

Some comments on Reality TV in France would be in order here... Most reality television shows are either American (re-broadcast) or are local versions of American or English formats. Reality television is almost a world away from 'film criticism', but when exploring the cultural surrounds and the arguments around local and foreign-ness, reality TV offers some helpful cases.

In a way, the transmission of reality television comes down to 'branding' again. For shows that are "typically" American, like Jerry Springer, subtitling suffices (and in fact works better, as having the participants speaking the original English reinforces their difference). Cable stations such as MTV (particularly) may also present an American 'brand' - for example, giving shows American-sounding names. They tend to show reality TV subtitled as well, which may be simply a cost factor, but works in their favour in presenting an American image. Locally produced reality TV is all in French, but often (controversially) carries English titles. England's Fame Academy is recreated as Star Academy, Big Brother is Loft Story. There is a push (ie, particularly from official bodies such as the CSA - Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel) to give French names or at least French alternatives instead, but as far as the producers are concerned it seems more of a branding exercise than anything else. This can be seen when one compares these shows to other reality television, of the type that strays into documentary, and has much smaller audiences (such as those shown on the ABC and SBS in Australia). I recently saw a Franco-German co-production of a period reality TV series (of the sort in which a modern family are made to live in a historical setting), where the participants spoke German, and the show had been entirely dubbed into French.

"L'Amérique Sans Hollywood"

The following appeared towards the end of the Cahiers Top 10 article (translated from the French original):

In "The Village, the unravelling [of the story] remains the central node, the motor of the storytelling. This gesture is very American. There wasn't in France this year a film ... capable of encountering ... the imaginary"

"This year, very few interesting films came from the American industry. This is unusual for Cahiers*, where we have always been very attentive to the [films] offered from this part of cinema. Aside from* The Village*, to which one could add three films,* Kill Bill, Stuck On You*, and* Collateral*, which already take a certain distance from the Hollywood model, the balance sheet is extraordinarily weak. ... I hope that it will pass, because this deficit is a handicap for us as well, in the sense that these films have always played a major part in shaping the critical movement"*

Continuing to critique Hollywood's output, they argue that Hollywood is "in a 'fire-fighting' phase, comparable to that at the end of the 50s, when the studios only grew fat from the receipts of the previous era. The return of the toga epics and medieval films is a symptom of this phenomenon. ...Films like Troy or Alexander are not even made metaphorically, or hardly even. They don't take advantage of the international situation, a part of which the US absorbs so much. Perhaps Iraq is still too 'loud', while the first Gulf War is starting to get old."

But finally, a promise of hope, and an explanation for the presence of other American films on the Top 10 (those which didn't really surprise me):
"It's true that the auteurs*, Spielberg or John Woo for example, have been particularly disappointing. Whereas the young American independent cinema was very dynamic" (Cahiers du Cinéma, Feb2005, p19)*


Prior to exploring these issues further, I had assumed that the French film industry was somewhat hostile to American influence (as is Australia's in many ways), with added cultural context that made it want to resist the hegemony of the English language. In many ways then, my assumptions have only been confirmed, but as well, I've discovered that the French industry is more mature than the Australian. This shouldn't be a surprise either - the French industry has a longer history, has been nurtured by government policy, and benefits from a social context that takes pride in its culture. Australian hostility towards the American hegemony in film seems limited by comparison - to simplistic issues of money/budget or audience tastes. The Australian industry is further conflicted by its dependence on foreign (largely American) investment to support itself. Perhaps then the French film industry's relative comfort allows it greater maturity. This in turn allows for the presence of the aforementioned surprising inclusions in the Top 10...

Reference Notes

The main written source for this piece was the cover article in the February 2005 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, as well as some smaller articles from it and the March edition. All articles are in French, and where I have quoted them in this piece, I have translated them myself. At times I have been liberal with the translation in order to get the meaning across, at other times this has been more difficult, and I have translated words literally in the hope they retain some of the original meaning.

Cahiers du Cinéma, February 2005:
'Top 10 2004', (Various Authors), p10
Schutte, Jan, "En Allemagne, chaque film est une exception" (In Germany, each film is a one-off), p22

Cahiers du Cinéma, March 2005
Garson, Charlotte, 'L'écran ventriloque' (The ventriloquist-screen), p84-85
Vezin, Clarisse, 'Pourquoi pas des remakes français' (Why not French remakes?), p39