MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

Let’s Be Perfectly Franque

With Cannes and COLCOA in the wings, I was reminded of an encounter with the actor Philippe Leotard (now deceased) in the streets of the French festival town. He was walking in the street with actress Nathalie Baye and I stopped him just to say how much I admired his performance in Le Gueule Ouverte, a searing family drama by Maurice Pialat.

Leotard appeared genuinely surprised and asked if I was doing anything that moment and could he buy me a café. I should “sure” and the three of us repaired to a restaurant about 50 feet away.

“I’m just curious where you saw the film,” he asked. When I told him it was screened at a French Film Week he nodded and said, “God bless Unifrance.” If memory serves the French film agency that promotes all things cinema francais (and has been hobbled of late by budget cuts) had taken him to several exotic locales to shine the spotlight on some early films in his career.

The French were really the first country to organize cultural/commercial film events in a dedicated fashion. In the U.S. the most high profile of these currently are Rendezvous with French Cinema in New York and City of Lights, City of Angeles in Los Angeles that tend to include some of the same films but overall have separate and distinct biases. Rendezvous lists toward high art and auteurism while L.A. has a penchant for more popular fare including comedies and thrillers.

There are literally dozens of such events with a Gallic focus in every corner of the globe. And in light of the fact that the French (nor anyone save the Indians) do not have an international exhibition circuit, they do better than anyone else as far as getting their films into commercial release. Le Petit Nicolas (currently without a U.S. distributor) is a good recent example. The period coming of age tale has played in about 20 countries where it’s grossed close to $60 million. And though we might expect it to do well in border nations, it was also a big hit in South Korea and Brazil.

The chief difference between the Los Angeles and Gotham semaines is — oddly it would seem on first glance — that the latter is more of a date on the social calendar whereas Hollywood has evolved as an upscale film market. The reason I reference it as a seeming oddity basically boils down to the fact that the high profile buyers of foreign-language movies in America are situated in the Big Apple.

However, on closer examination it’s not so strange. Those deeper pocketed companies tend to either pre-buy or invest in high profile international productions or snap them up at venues such as Cannes or Toronto. The beneficiaries of COLCOA have tended to be smaller companies such as Strand and Music Box; the latter’s biggest hits have included such surprises as OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and, unquestionably, Tell No One.

In its nascent years City of Lights, City of Angels only programmed films that had yet to secure American distribution. As it grew in size that stricture became too confining though one would hardly typify the program as a sneak preview of upcoming French film releases.

This year’s schedule includes several major French successes including the romantic comedy Heartbreaker starring Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis, which serves as the curtain raiser on April 19. Other seeming popular entries are Gainsbourg (Vie heroique) on the influential singer-songwriter that no doubt hopes to emulate La Vie en Rose internationally, the true life spy drama Farewell and The Concert, the bizarre saga of a not quite official Bolshoi Orchestra staging a performance in Paris.

The program also makes several nods to the past with screenings of Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach and a revival of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. Perhaps ironically Pierrot’s star, Jean-Paul Belmondo will be in Los Angeles next week for the unveiling of a restored Breathless at the TCM Festival. But the hardest get is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, a mix of documentation and reconstruction about the filmmaker’s 1969 thriller starring Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani that halted production after several weeks of filming.

It’s often surprising what travels to international multiplexes and one should never second guess what will work in America or Moscow. The classic example is Cousin, Cousine, which won the best foreign-language Oscar back in the 1970s. Though it was a resounding success in the U.S., the French box office was indifferent.

I experienced a similar situation a decade later when I was reviewing for Variety at Cannes. Prior to the festival I asked a friend in Paris for suggestions of interesting new films playing in the market and he came up with four or five titles including one that he noted had opened and closed in Paris and had been completed ignored by critics. I saw that film in a small screening room in the old Palais with seven other people (four remained when the end credits rolled). My review called it “possibly the most innovative and commercial French film of the past decade.” The bold pronouncement proved correct; the film was Diva.

Addendum: The folks at COLCOA now have to cope with a truly unexpected sucker punch. Will any of their films be represented by their actors and directors? As on Sunday there’s still no confirmation of when flights will be allowed out of Charles de Gaulle airport as a result of the on-going fall out from Icelandic volcanic ash. Opening night appears to be a Gallic wipe out and Tuesday special events have been cancelled as organizers proceed on a day-by-day basis.
April 16 , 2010

– by Leonard Klady

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

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I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

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My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon