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Lowering French Resistance to U.S. Films

Movies: The Deauville festival celebrating American cinema offers important European exposure.

September 04, 1997|RICHARD COVINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PARIS — For years, Lionel Chouchan and the organizers of the Deauville festival of American film were swimming upstream. As Jack Lang, the flamboyant former minister of culture, and French film directors like Bertrand Tavernier and Claude Lelouch led the charge to keep American movies out of France, Chouchan and company were bringing them in by the back door, lighting up the once-glamorous seaside resort on the Normandy coast, where Lelouch filmed "A Man and a Woman" and Gustave Flaubert wrote "Madame Bovary."

"We were seen as traitors, and we're still snubbed by the intelligentsia of French cinema," says festival director Chouchan.

While the French government dispensed cultural subsidies to Cannes and other film festivals, Deauville got nothing. The festival relied on city funding and the kindness, not of strangers, but of corporate sponsors for its modest budget, which this year amounts to 6 million francs ($1 million).

France still maintains its quota system, restricting the number of U.S. films shown in cinemas to a maximum of 60%. But for 10 days, from Friday through Sept. 14, the 40-odd films filling Deauville's cinemas and screening rooms will be 100% American.

In its 23rd year, the film festival continues to carve out a key role in introducing emerging American actors and directors to European audiences. The amply emerged duo of Harrison Ford and Wolfgang Petersen may be winging in with the ineluctable "Air Force One" for the festival opening Saturday, fresh from the Venice Film Festival, but the core of the festival consists of mid-sized independent movies like Eric Dignam's "Loved" with Robin Wright Penn and William Hurt, and Bart Freundlich's "The Myth of Fingerprints" with Julianne Moore and Roy Scheider, two of the 10 films in competition for a grand prize and a jury prize. Other contenders include Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men," Mark Waters' "The House of Yes" and Jonathan Nossiter's "Sunday," the grand prize winner of this year's Sundance Film Festival.

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Deauville is sort of a litmus test, gauging how French audiences react to films that have already opened in the U.S., says Chouchan. Some, like Julian Schnabel's 1995 film "Basquiat" and last year's top prizewinner, Greg Mottola's "The Daytrippers," attract greater critical and audience attention in France than in the U.S., he says.

Compared to the hypefest and frenzied deal-making at Cannes, Deauville, which last year drew 50,000 visitors, is a day at another sort of beach. "There's no tension, no stress, no market," the festival director maintains, even if he does allow that a deal or two may transpire in the city's Belle Epoque hotels.

For emerging filmmakers, the festival is an important media showcase, lending a European seal of approval to directors as diverse as Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo. DiCillo, who won the grand prize in 1995 for "Living in Oblivion," is back this year out of competition with "The Real Blonde," as the festival's closing film.

One section of the festival, called Panorama, tackles the risky business of cinematic trend-spotting. This year, Chouchan and his team selected a singular crop of films about growing up in America, from Morgan J. Freeman's portrait of a tumultuous New York adolescence in "Hurricane Streets" to Gregg Araki's jaundiced take on hollower-than-thou Los Angeles youth in "Nowhere."

Apart from "Air Force One," other major releases at the festival include James Mangold's "Cop Land," John Woo's "Face/Off," Steven Spielberg's "The Lost World," Mike Figgis' "One Night Stand," David Mamet's "The Spanish Prisoner" and P.J. Hogan's "My Best Friend's Wedding," with Julia Roberts and Rupert Everett.

In the homage department, the festival is nothing if not eclectic. Singled out for festival tributes are Arnold Kopelson, producer of "The Fugitive" and "Seven"; actor Morgan Freeman; and shock director John Waters, whose 1972 film "Pink Flamingos" will be screened in the uncut version, released in the U.S. earlier this year, even more brazenly tasteless than the original.

If some French filmmakers still bridle at the festival's American thrust, others are happy to get a crack at the competition. Sophie Marceau presides over a jury of French actors, directors and writers, plus a lone Briton, actor John Hurt. Most surprising is the inclusion of Alain Finkielkraut, a highly respected social and political philosopher and outspoken critic of the culture-crushing American juggernaut.

The shift in acceptance of American movies--whether grudging or admiring--has been brought on by increasing globalization of the film business in recent years and the substantial French and European financial backing for Hollywood films.

In the bad old days, circa 1993, Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Assn. of America lambasted the French for their film quotas, and the French blasted back.

Since then, both the French and Valenti have mellowed. French-owned media companies like Gaumont, which financed Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element," have discovered the lucrative benefits of playing the Hollywood game. And the ebullient Valenti, returning this year to award the MPAA's annual 50,000-franc ($8,300) prize to a promising French screenwriter, has long since switched to mending fences, taking a gentler tack to persuade the French that good quotas do not make good neighbors.

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