French Movies

 Cinema in France 

The French and cinema...

  "L'exception culturelle" : what does it mean for movies?
  • Cinema is alive and well in France ! Production, number of viewers, proportion of French films, exports, young talented directors, etc... : all indicators have maintained rather satisfactory levels. Although nobody contests the importance and the quality of the American film industry, French films continue to hold their own (since the invention of cinema in 1895 !).

  • Caricaturally speaking, and with no value judgement whatsoever : contrary to the USA where a movie is seen as an entertainment and its success is measured in $, in France a movie is considered a message sent by a director for our reflection ; its success is measured by the number of viewers. As French director Bertrand Tavernier said to Stanford students (Le Figaro, Nov.21, 2005) "...films are massive construction weapons...". More about the major differences between US and French cinema.

  • The number of Art Houses in France is much higher than anywhere else in the world and not only Cannes, but several other very interesting festivals illustrate the interest of the French for cinema (Deauville and its Festival of American Cinema, Nantes and its Festival of African, Asian and Latin-American Cinema, etc...).

  • In Paris, the Cinémathèque de France (51 rue de Bercy 12ème, in a beautiful building by Franck Gehry) is the place to go for a cinema-lover (until 1996, this fascinating building was The American Cultural Center, which no longer exists : read more).
  • The French equivalent of the Oscar Awards is called "les Cesars" and the ceremony takes place in February as well.

  • With 5,366 movie theaters, France has the highest number of screens/million inhabitants : 89 (vs. 60 in Germany, 56 in UK and 24 in Japan).
  • The main weaknesses of the French film industry are, according to a comprehensive report : too many films (some of them too mediocre), too much money for the actors (even when they are popular only in France), too little money for the scenario (a national weakness, one third of the US % of the cost of the film i.e.3.4% vs 12%), too much power to TV channels (main money providers) (Source : Rapport Bonnell 2013).

  • To be developed

Basically, refering to "exception culturelle" means that everything "cultural" must be protected from the "hegemony" of the markets, the State being the regulator and, when necessary, the sponsor of a cultural policy. Culture and markets do not mix well :so-called "cultural products" are not "products" and cannot be subject to the regulation which applies to "products" (free enterprise, no State subsidy, no quotas etc...) and the criteria which apply to "products" (the more you sell, the better it is, etc...). The whole French film industry is grounded on this concept : read more about "exception culturelle".

Practically, it means :

  • quotas on non-French movies on French national TV channels and mandatory financing of films by TV channels (as a provision in their license)

  • "avance sur recettes" or "fonds de soutien": a financial State advance on all French films (the French movie industry is third in the world after USA and India and France is the only Western country where foreign films represent less than 50% of the market : in Germany, Italy and UK, they represent more than 80%)

  • less taxes : TVA (value added tax) is 5% on cinema (like on food) when it is 20% on almost everything

  • the legal status of "les intermittents du spectacle", a derogatory (and heavily subsidized) unemployment-system for artists, musicians, technicians, etc...

  • etc...

DID YOU KNOW THAT.... ? An American actor, Adolphe Menjou (1890-1963) played the role of a Frenchman in almost one hundred US movies and helped feed the sterotypes about the French : light but unreliable, shifty but charming, intelligent but not serious, etc...

Lost in Frenchlation aims to bring the best of French cinema to the international community in Paris by showing classic & contemporary French films with English subtitles.






Cinema : (French) historical milestones ....
  • The first public projection of a film in the world took place in Paris in the Grand Café, boulevard des Capucines on December 28, 1895, by inventors Lumière brothers (who gave it the name "cinématographe" which became "cinema"). The film was "l'entrée du train en gare de la Ciotat".

  • Georges Méliès (1861-1938) may be considered the first director and the man who invented scenarios and special effects. He died pratically in the poor house.


 Gérard Depardieu, as Cyrano de Bergerac (credit)

Read about the play.

  • The New Wave ("Nouvelle Vague") was a movement of rejection by young film-makers against the old academic way of making films and acting. The two emblematic movies are "Breathless" (A bout de souffle) by Jean-Luc Godard and "The 400 Blows" (Les 400 coups) by François Truffault, both in 1959. They shot their movies outdoors and hired unknown actors. Other movie-makers of the Nouvelle Vague include Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy and Agnes Varda.

  • The "new France" resulting from immigration is not only represented by suburban riots. Thanks to ethnic diversity (and in addition to many actors), there is an incredibly rich new generation of young movie-makers, actors, singers and writers. For instance :
    • Many actors including Omar Sy (Intouchables), Isabelle Adjani (La Reine Margot), Jamel Debbouze (Indigènes) and many others
    • Movie-makers like Abdellatif Kechiche :"La graine et le mulet" (2007, 3 Awards in Venice), "L'esquive" (2005, 4 Césars -the French Oscars-) or "La vie d'Adele" (2013, Golden Palm at the Cannes Festival), or Nassim Amaouche : "Adieu Gary" (2009)
  • More to come....


The French system for financing films is unique in Europe. Major TV channels (TF1, M6, France 2 and France 3) must allocate 3,2% of their turnover to cinema as co-producer (including at least 2,5% to French films). For each of them, this represents 20 to 30 films and 30 to 50 million Euros. See detailed figures. (credit)

They must broadcast a minimum of 50% of French films. Canal+, a very popular pay-channel, must devote 20% of its turnover to buy the rights of films (12% European minimum, including 9% French minimum). On each cinema ticket, a 11%-tax is allocated to the " Fonds de Soutien ", which is open to foreign films provided they are co-produced with a French producer.

The result of this policy : with more than 160 films/year, the French film industry is third in the world after the USA (500) and India (800) and the success does not go only to "so typically French" movies (i.e. intimate, cheap and boring...) : see the list of

    • the most successful French films outside France : #1 is "Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain" (2001)
    • the most successful French films in France (>20 million viewers) : "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (2008), "Les Intouchables" (2011), "La grande vadrouille" (1966), ...
    • the film the French love the most is probably "Les tontons flingueurs" (1963) : very funny, with fantastic dialogs and much loved actors ; everytime it is on TV, several million people watch it (and many know the dialogs by heart)
    • Do you know why French TV channels never show a movie on Saturday evenings ? Click here.

The French film industry is clearly the strongest in Europe (France produces 22% of European films and has the largest market-share of nationally-produced films in Europe)

 Some movies to help you understand France

To understand certain aspects of France and French society, nothing like a good movie; preferably a French movie (to avoid American movies reproducing stereotypes, decade after decade). Among them, il you want to understand better :

  • The royal court, just before the Revolution : Ridicule (1994), directed by Patrice Leconte, starring Jean Rochefort, etc...
  • French men : movies starring Yves Montand , directed by Claude Sautet like Vincent, François, Paul et les autres (1974) (men with their friends) or César et Rosalie (1978) (love in middle-age)
  • The French health system : Sicko (2007), by Michael Moore
  • Life in occupied France WW II : Lacombe Lucien (1974), directed by Louis Malle (read about those days)
  • The French sense of panache : Cyrano de Bergerac (1985), directed by Jean Paul Rappeneau, starring Gérard Depardieu. You'll learn a lot about the French if you watch this (excellent) movie, or read the play (Edmond Rostand, 1897).  see above
  • The French Revolution : La Révolution Française (Part One : Les Années Lumières, Part Two : Les Années Terribles) (1989), directed by Alexandre Mnouchkine, staring Jane Seymour etc...
  • Life in French small towns : any film by Claude Chabrol...
  • Social and racial tensions in the outskirts of French cities : La Haine by Mathieu Kassovitz (1994)
  • Life in a French colony in Africa in the 1930s: Coup de torchon (1975), directed by Bertrand Tavernier, starring Philippe Noiret, Stéphane Audran (read about colonies)
  • European students in an Erasmus program (in Barcelona) : L'auberge espagnole by Cedric Klapish (1995)
  • World War I : Paths of Glory (1957), directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas etc...
  • World War II : Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity) (1969), directed by Marcel Ophüls, interviews and documents (read about those days)
  • About the community of the "pieds noirs" : La vérité si je mens (1997), directed by Thomas Gilou
  • About colonial wars : in Vietnam ("La 317eme Section", 1965, by Pierre Schoendorfer) or in Algeria : ("La bataille d'Alger", 1966, an Italian-Algerian film by Gillo Pontecorvo, with Yacef Saâdi playing his own role)
  • The French nostalgy about the old days, americanization and the disappearing world, in Jacques Tati's films (The Big Day, Mr.Hulot's Holiday, My Uncle, Playtime, Traffic, etc)
  • About French humour : some movies come again and again on French TV, always with the same success, even for those who have seen them ten times : among them Les Tontons Flingueurs (Georges Lautner, 1963), La grande Vadrouille (Gérard Oury, 1964), Le Père Noel est une ordure (Jean-Marie Poiré, 1982) or Les Intouchables (Eric Toledano, 2011) ; if you enjoy them 1/ your French is very good, 2/ you really understand this country! More about French humour

State-owned TVs compete with commercial TVs !
In France, state-owned TV channels (France-2, France-3, TV 5,...) are clearly better and more respectful of the viewer than commercial TV channels, only interested in market share and advertising.  
 The Maison de la Radio, headquarters of French state-owned TV and radio channels, along the river Seine, in Paris
Public channels have less or no reality shows, broadcast cultural programs at decent hours and are the only ones with a "médiateur" (ombudsman) and a weekly program to analyze their errors frankly and openly. France and Germany share an excellent cultural TV channel (Arte).

The weakest must be protected ! ("between the Weak and the Strong, it is Freedom which is oppressive and the Law which is protective", as Lacordaire said almost two centuries ago)
UNESCO reached an agreement on cultural diversity (October 20, 2005) but the USA, alone with Israel against 151 countries, kept insisting on treating all cultural activities by the same rules as economic goods. For example, in the negotiation of a trade agreement between the USA and Morocco (Dec. 2004), the USA insisted on opening its market to Moroccan agricultural products if and only if Morocco stopped protecting its cultural sector, which practically speaking, means no more subsidies to Moroccan movies. Let me ask three questions :

  1. Do you think that Moroccan movies can resist Hollywood movies ?
  2. Is it good for the Moroccan people to be cut from their roots and projected into a foreign culture, with no alternative ?
  3. Is it wise for the USA to be considered the cause of the disappearance of a local culture in the name of free trade ?

This is not "a French protectionist combat", as the US press likes to write: many countries (including the European Union, speaking with one voice, but also Korea, Brazil, India and China) are particularly active in this negotiation and France is not the only nation to champion the protection of indigenous cultures. But, as usual, the French make more noise and behave in a more irritating way....

 Facts and figures about French movies

  • Americans often say "All French films are alike...." : Agnes Jaoui is a very talented film-maker and actress. With her companion Jean-Pierre Bacri, she has made several excellent "very French" movies ("Let It Rain", "Look at Me",...) which were well-received in the USA. In 2008, she made a very good movie ("Parlez moi de la pluie") on more sensitive issues (a woman in political life, a young man of Arab origin victim of racism, ...). Her US distributor declined to take it : "They said it's not adapted to the US market -- whatever that means", she says (IHT, Oct.10, 2008). So if you ever read the classical comment "The French always make the same kind of films", replace it by : "US distributors always BUY the same kind of films". See my (tongue in cheek) insularity score !

  • The funniest movie (for the French) is "La Grande Vadrouille" (1964), directed by Gérard Oury, starring Louis de Funès and Bourvil, drawing the second largest audiences ever (in France) : nearly 20 million

  • The most successful French movie in the US is "The Artist", winner of 5 Academy Awards Oscars in 2012 (film, actor for Jean Dujardin, scenario, music and costumes)." Intouchables", the French blockbuster (2011), is the largest success, ever, for a non-American film with 32 million viewers outside France (+20 m. in France) and 220 million Euros total income. In the US, Luc Besson is one of the most successful French film-makers.

  • Hollywood has made many great movies about certain moments of French history (see a list of some of the best American movies on French history)

  • According to a recent survey, the movies the French consider the best of all times are : Citizen Kane (O.Welles), The Night of the Hunter (Ch.Laughton), La Règle du Jeu (J.Renoir), Sunrise (F.Murnau) and L'Atalante (J.Vigo). Read more about this survey and a list of the "best" French movies.

  • Paris : more than 700 films are shot every year in Paris : read about cinema on Paris and see a selection of my favorite films taking place in Paris

  • More to come....


 Other illustrations

  • Dec. 17, 2001 : (former) French tycoon, Jean-Marie Messier, then CEO of Vivendi Universal Entertainment declared from New York "the exception culturelle is a Franco-French archaism... " to the horror of the entire French cultural establishment and political class (the President of France qualified this analysis as "a mental aberration").
  • July 2003 : in the final negotiation about the project of European Constitution, the French government negotiated until the very last minute (and finally won) on "exception culturelle" when other countries negotiated on other issues (economy, immigration, foreign policy, etc...). Another example in history : when the "Entente Cordiale" was established between UK and France in 1904, the key issue was that France would give up any claim on Egypt. France accepted with only one exception : the head of Archeology in the Egyptian administration should be French.
  • During the GATT negociation, Jack Valenti, the representative of the US Motion Picture industry for decades, had the following exchange with a French delegate :
    • JV.: You make wonderful cheeses. Keep it up and let us, alone, make films
    • FD.: You already make 95% of the movies. What more do you want ?
    • JV. : 100%, of course.
  • Today, it is more politically correct to speak of "diversité culturelle" (cultural diversity) but the meaning is the same (read about anti-Americanism).
  • On the European market (25 countries, in 2003), the % of European films was only 25,7% (American films : 72,1%)
  • More to come.

DID YOU KNOW THAT ...? French composers and American movies seem to be a good mix, since the 1930s, with Gabriel Yared, Georges Delerue, Michel Legrand, Maurice Jarre and, more recently, Alexandre Desplat (Oscar 2015).

American remakes are not French at all... (to figure out some cultural differences...) Many French films are sold to American producers and turned into American films, with a big or huge difference from the French film.

  • Did you see the movie " Three men and a Baby " ? It is the American version of a French film "Trois hommes et un couffin" but several significant things have changed :
    - more action (and more violence) in the American version : a car race in the streets of New York (in the American version) when the French film is light
    - more cynicism in the French version (people are not expected to be good) : the mother of the hero does not want to take care of the child because she is enjoying her retirement, in the French film, the police is ridiculed and the dealers escape, with a little help from the heroes ; in the American film, the dealers are arrested and the police is cool and efficient....
    - and several other significant details...

  • By the same token, in 2005, " La marche de l'empereur " (" March of the Penguin "), a film by Luc Jacquet on the life of the giant Antarctic penguin was a huge success in the USA and was # 2 at the box-office. Actually, the sound was changed for the American audience : instead of a very " written " text full of allusions and images which made the French film a parable on the human condition, the commentary was a rather factual commentary, very " National Geographic "-type. It was good but it made a different movie : the American audience probably learned a lot about penguins but certainly nothing about the French.

  • The French movie "Le diner de cons" (Francis Veber, 1998) is a very funny comedy, with a light and brilliant dialogue ; it takes place in a Paris apartment. It was a huge success in France. It was remade by Jay Roach in 2010 ("Dinner for Schmuck"s, with Steve Carrell) into a heavy comedy with action taking place in different places, which changes the whole spirit of the film.

  • and many others....


 DID YOU KNOW THAT.... ? The best-paid French actors in 2003 were Gérard Depardieu*, Jean Reno*, Daniel Auteuil*, José Garcia*, Thierry Lhermite, Gad Elmaleh, Vincent Perez, Philippe Noiret, Nathalie Baye and Benoit Poelvoorde (according to Figaro Entreprises May 17, 2004, a "*" indicating that they were already in the Top-10 in 2002). Hit-parade of 2002 includes Jamel Debbouze (a "beur"), Christian Clavier, Gérard Lanvin, Samuel Le Bihan, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche.

Finding a French movie

A Frequently Asked Question is "Where can I find a DVD of an old vintage French movie?". Among many sites (of course, French sites ...), here are a few suggestions :

Other tips :

  • A nice place to find cinema posters, books and reviews is : Cinedoc, 45 passage Jouffroy 75009 Paris
  • If you think of studying cinema/TV in a French graduate school, contact the FEMIS. Admission is very competitive.
  • To watch a silent movie, with accompanying piano : Fondation Jerome-Seydoux-Pathe, 73 avenue des Gobelins, Paris 13eme
DID YOU KNOW THAT....? Protectionism goes both ways and cultural imperialism does exist ! The US film industry says that the policy of quotas on French TV (a minimal % of French movies) is a threat to free enterprise but do you know that in the USA most (if not all) foreign films cannot be dubbed for regulatory reasons ? Therefore, they cannot be seen by a large audience and remain confined to a small elite circuit. Regarding cultural products as elements of foreign policy, one can also mention the Blum-Byrnes Accord in 1946 between a ruined France and triumphant USA : American aid was conditional to the introduction of American products in France and a whole part of the accord referred specifically to films and to US demand to play American movies in French theaters.    DID YOU KNOW THAT.... ? With more than 20 million viewers in only 6 weeks, the film " Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis " (Dany Boone, 2008) did better than " La grande vadrouille " in 40 years (it was previously the most successful French film ever). It is the story of a postman who is transfered from the Riviera to the North of France (it is like being transfered from Hawaii to Pittsburg) . Extremely reluctant at the begining, because of the very poor image of the region, he soon discovers what French Northerners actually are : warmhearted, hospitable, friendly. The movie was considered a rehabilitation by millions of people (Ch'ti means "Northerner" in the local dialect) and is the greatest success ever (but the movie itself is just OK). As is, it is probably un-translatable...
To related pages : French culture, French literature, French songs, intercultural differences, try my French Quiz, etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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