Diplomats and politicians may have viewed 2003 as a transition year for Franco-American relations, but ask anyone in the movie industry about the cultural bond between the two countries and you'll get a resounding c'est magnifique! The box-office numbers back it up: "Out of the $9.5 billion U.S. theatrical market in 2003," notes Patrick Renault, head of Film/TV for the French Embassy in New York City, "French cinema represented $77 million US, or about .8%. That number is 50% of the entire foreign-film market in the U.S., which accounts for roughly 2% of the U.S. box office."
Renault, along with Consul Général Jean-Luc Sibiude, SACEM's Bernard Miyet, Jack Valenti of the MPAA, the DGA's Michael Mann, and representatives from the WGA, L'ARP and Unifrance, were in attendance for the opening-night gala of the City of Lights/City of Angels (re-christened COL/COA under a new leadership team), which kicked off a week of French films at the Guild in late March.
Incoming COL/COA programming director Francois Truffart had plenty to choose from this year: 2003 production in France reached an all-time high with 223 theatrical movies, including co-productions with 45 countries. Renault called COL/COA "one of the 10 most important events in the U.S. to promote French cinema." Judging by the ecstatic response to Francis Veber's opening-night buddy comedy, Ruby and Quentin (Tais-toi!), the festival was preaching to the choir.
City of Lights grew out of the Franco-American Cultural Fund which dates back to a landmark 1996 agreement between France's SACEM (Society of Authors, Composers and Editors of Music), the DGA, the Motion Picture Association of America and the WGA. The Fund was created to strengthen the bonds between the two nations' filmmakers. The agreement has helped to allocate monies toward scholarships for French and Americanfilm students, master classes with leading American writers and directors for French filmmakers within France, international film conferences, and for festivals like City of Lights, City of Angels, which promotes dozens of French films which may otherwise have gone unnoticed in a crowded American marketplace.
Gala-night speakers included Franco-American Cultural Fund and DGA Board Member Michael Mann, who came directly from post-production work on his new Tom Cruise drama, Collateral. "Over the years this festival has evolved into a highly anticipated meeting ground for those who love French cinema," Mann announced. "But this event does more than just give us all the opportunity to appreciate the enduring cultural relationship between our two nations. Cinema is the narrative dream of the modern world. It's fabricated from the collective consciousness of our lives. This festival reminds us time and again of cinema's power and magic to transcend borders and nation states."
Mann introduced screenwriter Fay Kanin, who called the festival "the centerpiece of a unique creative partnership that reaches across the Atlantic and encourages communication between writers, directors and producers" from both nations. Kanin thanked opening-night director Francis Veber for making a film that induces "a broad smile in a time when there is not that much to smile about."
The MPAA's Jack Valenti made his customary opening-night appearance and said the French Legion of Honor medal he wears so proudly is "recognized by every French maitre'd and concierge in America." Valenti introduced COL/ COA's surprise guest, Sharon Stone, as "the definition of an American movie star." Stone rhapsodized the French filmmakers in the festival, praising their use of mis-en-scene and camera work. "They create a trust with the audience to expose the souls of their characters and it's OK," she marveled. Stone praised director Francis Veber, noting that his comedies are "brave gifts. It's that sense of throwing something up and knowing that it can stay up," Stone said, describing Veber.
In fact, the most notable shift in tone of this year's COL/COA program was the plethora of broad comedies that transcended cultural lines. Along with Veber's Ruby and Quentin, came Father and Sons (Père et fils), the hilarious story of an aging widower (Philippe Noiret) and his attempt to reconcile his estranged trio of sons by faking a serious illness. Directed by first-time filmmaker Michel Boujenah, who is one of France's most beloved stand-up comics, Father and Sons seemed so tailor-made for U.S. audiences, the American remake rights were secured before the COL/ COA debut. "I began on the stage when I was 18," Boujenah shared in the post-screening Q&A, "and there is no memory of the work once it is finished. I wanted to become a director to leave something for my children to see of my work, once I am gone."
Pierre Salvadori's closing-night comedy, Après vous..., was a modern French farce that brought forth audience comparisons to directors Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder. Daniel Auteuil plays a headwaiter in a French café, who turns his life upside down to help a young man obsessed with the girl who has cast him aside. Salvadori acknowledged his debt to the American screwball genre. "My cinema comes directly from the American directors of the '30s and '40s," Salvadori said during his audience Q&A. "Lubitsch, Wilder, Howard Hawks — these were filmmakers with such purity who showed humanity in all its forms through an ironic mirror held up to the audience. Lubitsch's Design for Living was made in 1932 and still feels so truthful and complex. These directors really inspired me."
Creative inspiration between a younger guard of French directors, and their American counterparts, was on display throughout much of this year's COL/COA. In his closing-night remarks, Consul Général Jean-Luc Sibiude noted that the festival's new leadership team, headed up by Claudia Durgnat and Francois Truffart, made a conscious effort to reveal new genres and filmmaking techniques in French cinema. Along with this year's slew of comedies, audiences were treated to cross-genre films like Jan Kounen's shamanistic Western Blueberry, and Jean Veber's (son of opening-night director Francis Veber) environmental horror-comedy The Pharmacist.
Jean Veber's film defied easy categorization, shifting between comedy, horror and psychological thriller centered on environmental issues. The film mirrored COL/COA's new direction and the strong influence in France of new American directors like David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky and Sam Raimi. Veber talked about the foundation of his filmmaking technique after the screening. "Comic books, in French we call them bandes dessinees, have been a big influence," Veber noted. "I used a comic book artist to create all the storyboards for The Pharmacist. While the character's emotions always dictate my camera placement, there are examples [in the film] that can be traced back to graphic novels like Batman, specifically Brian Bolland and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. I love genre movies that celebrate in emotions over pyrotechnics; Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast and Todd Browning's Freaks for example. It was a joy for me to bring Americans another side of French cinema."