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Passionate Affair : For French, Filmgoing Is de Rigueur

Times Staff Writer

The Americans make much more money with their movies and dominate the world market. The Indians produce almost five times as many movies, and the Russians go to the movies more often. But no one gets more excited about movies than the French, or treats movies with more respect, awe and true love.

The evidence is all around. Paris is a film buff’s paradise, offering on any night of the week an enormous range of classics from the Marx Brothers to Luis Bunuel. Available on French newsstands and bookstores are 38 magazines and journals devoted to movies.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 13, 1985 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 13, 1985 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
The Times incorrectly reported Wednesday that Don Siegel was director of the 1948 movie, “Naked City,” which was actually directed by Jules Dassin. In addition, an incorrect title was listed for Siegel’s 1954 movie, “Riot in Cell Block 11.”

Building New Theaters

At a time when movie attendance has collapsed throughout Western Europe, attendance in France is relatively stable, declining just a bit. The Champs Elysees and the grand boulevards are crowded every Sunday with throngs of eager moviegoers. While cinemas are closing everywhere else, the French are building new ones.

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France is so proud of its movie industry, the largest in Europe, that the government stimulates and protects it with grants, credits and tax breaks. It is no accident that the world’s most prestigious film festival is held every year in the French resort of Cannes.

Still, there are troubling signs that worry the French. Their industry suffers from financial fragility. Their movies seem caught in a creatively stagnant period, making less of an intellectual impact throughout the world than they once did. But none of this weakens France’s sheer delight in the movies.

U.S. Imports Outnumbered

France is one of the few nations in Europe where domestically made movies outnumber the American imports. Jacques Siclier, the film critic of Le Monde, France’s most influential newspaper, observed recently:

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“The French love their own cinema. They talk about it on public transport, at the hairdresser’s, in restaurants. They look for it on television. They choose French films for their evenings out. The French have developed a habit that can be intellectual at the same time that they are enjoying themselves.”

The city of Paris has 247 commercial cinemas. The fare on any day is breathtaking for anyone interested in the movies. Aside from showing the latest American, French, British, Italian and other movies, the theaters present an astounding variety of classics.

For example, on one recent Saturday, a moviegoer could have seen such old American standards as “Gone With The Wind,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Hellzapoppin’ ” and “Adam’s Rib”; such U.S. cult favorites as David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” and George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”; such French classics as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville,” Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad,” Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” Marcel Camus’ “Black Orpheus” and Roger Vadim’s first Brigitte Bardot film, “And God Created Woman”; such Italian classics as Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” and Federico Fellini’s “La Strada,” and scores of others.

On top of this, theaters were devoting festivals that day to Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, 20th Century-Fox, Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman, George Cukor, Marlene Dietrich, Claude Chabrol, Monty Python and others. Two government cinematheques and more than 20 nonprofit cinema clubs and cultural centers were showing a host of classics.

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There was nothing surprising about this wealth of selection. The day was not unusual. It was a typical movie day in Paris.

The French like their movies pure, and almost every foreign film shown in Paris can be seen in its original language, subtitled in French. As further evidence of their respect for the cinema, audiences in Paris, unlike audiences in many other parts of Europe, watch their films in quiet, almost never irritating their neighbors by whispering.

Many Americans at the Cannes Film Festival, a showcase for international movies since 1946, probably do not realize how much it has become a part of French cultural life.

Paris newspapers such as Liberation devote as much as eight pages a day--perhaps a sixth of their total space--to the festival. Most of the competing movies open in the cinemas of the Champs Elysees a day after they are shown at Cannes.

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The French, in fact, seem to look on the festival as a celebration of an international art form more than of a French industry. The French may be proud of their contribution to film, but there is relatively little that is chauvinistic about Cannes.

French Entry Little Noted

At this year’s festival, the French critics and reporters showed very little interest in one of the main French entries, the Claude Chabrol film “Poulet au Vinaigre.” The movie is a competent detective story rooted in the mores of a small French town, but the French did not delude themselves into thinking that it contributed anything to the artistry of the film this year.

French journalists hardly asked a question at Chabrol’s news conference, saving their excitement for later news conferences, including one by James Stewart and June Allyson.

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French intellectuals continually write about movies. In April, the Georges Pompidou Center of Paris organized an exhibition and sale of French books on the cinema. French publishers have 1,500 books of this kind in print, and their display at the museum took up more than 10,000 square feet.

The industry has great respect for film critics and others who write about film. Truffaut, after all, began his career as a critic, and Godard has written three books of essays on the cinema.

The French love of movies is rooted in their history.

Most historians regard French magician Georges Melies as the pioneer who turned movies from a toy into an art. In 1900, he began to use trick photography and painted scenery to tell stories, making it clear that movies had narrative power. This was three years before the first narrative movie in the United States, Edwin S. Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery.”

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Since then, the French have had a hand in the technical development of the industry. For example, a French physicist, Dr. Henri Chretien, invented the Cinema-Scope process. But the French have probably made their greatest impact on the industry with their intellectual approach to movies.

French critics developed the idea, now accepted throughout the world, that a movie in its truest art form is a personal expression of the director. While Hollywood boasted about the producer of a film, the French looked for the director. This led French critics to discover great American directors who were largely unrecognized in their own country.

Focus on Director

The director Don Siegel, now highly regarded throughout the world, was first recognized in France for such films as “Riot in Cell Block 13" and the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Hollywood, publicizing the producer, advertised a 1948 movie as Mark Hellinger’s “Naked City,” but the French have always known it as Don Siegel’s “Naked City.”

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In quality, French movies have had their ups and downs. The last great period probably began in 1958, when a varied group of directors including Truffaut, Godard, Louis Malle and Chabrol suddenly emerged. They were known as the New Wave. Most analysts now believe that this great time has passed and that, from the artistic point of view, French films are marking time.

Statistics reveal a good deal about the relative strength of the French industry, especially when compared with the rest of Europe. The intensive development of television in the 1950s, of course, diminished moviegoing throughout Europe. But while Britain lost 95%, Germany 85% and Italy 80% of their movie attendance in three decades, France lost only a little more than half.

190 Million a Year

French movie attendance, now almost 190 million a year, is larger than that of the three other countries, even though their population is greater and all three once had many more moviegoers than France.

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In a similar way, the number of French movie theaters has dropped, from 5,778 to 4,894 in three decades. But unlike the situation elsewhere in Europe, in France the number of theaters is now on the increase.

Film production is also holding fairly steady. In 1981, the French produced 193 movies. That dropped to 164 in 1982, and to 131 in 1983 but rose to 160 in 1984. Although hardly a real competitor, France ranks second to the United States in the exportation of films to the rest of Europe and the Western Hemisphere.

There are noticeable problems. The cost of film-making is rising by 30% a year, and this has led to a large percentage of financial failures. Producers receive very little revenue from government television for the use of their movies. Also, there is fear that attendance may decrease significantly because of the growth of cable television, the promised arrival of new private television channels and the popularity of videotaped films at home.

The French government has a considerable system of financial aid for the industry. The novelist Andre Malraux, when he was minister of culture in 1960, decided to help movies with funds collected from a tax on tickets. That system has been continued.

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Among other benefits, the Ministry of Culture subsidizes theaters that are classified as art houses, pays for the renovation and construction of other theaters, offers grants to films that are regarded as artistic but not wholly commercial, and gives other movies a guaranteed loan to be paid back out of future receipts.

It also has a program of helping to build cinemas in small towns. In all, 922 million francs (about $100 million at the present rate of exchange) was budgeted for the film industry in 1984.

In addition, Premier Laurent Fabius has just announced a new program that will provide tax benefits for investors in movies.

“We have the clear political desire to endow France with an industry that has an active and creative program,” Minister of Culture Jack Lang said.

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The French government, like many others, is supposed to be trying to reduce its budget, but in France the movies are sacrosanct.


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