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The French Persistence

Determined to maintain a beachhead in North America, France's film industry shifts its festival from an indifferent U.S. to the sands of Acapulco.

April 25, 1999|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

ACAPULCO — "We are like Cyrano. We know we cannot win, but we fight. We are a loser, but a faithful loser."

--Daniel Toscan du Plantier,


Unifrance Film International


It's hot here, jungle hot. The sultry air seems almost perfumed from the flourishing hibiscus and bougainvillea. I'm alone at Las Brisas, a celebrated pink and white honeymoon spot with private swimming pools and spectacular views, feeling, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler's celebrated Philip Marlowe, as out of place as a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake. But it doesn't matter. Like Marlowe, I'm on a case.

The death of a film festival is what I'm investigating. That's right, in this boom time for fests, with unprecedented numbers thriving and new contenders clutching at life every day, one of them up and died. At least that's what some people say.

Others, and there are always others, mutter darkly that it was hardly a natural death. Sometimes they even pull you aside, look furtively over their shoulders and insist the festival didn't really die at all. It's still alive, they tell you nervously, living in Mexico under another name, taking advantage of the cinematic equivalent of a witness protection plan. I knew I'd have to check this one out. Personally.

First, though, I hit the books, poring over parts of the dusty archives of what used to be the Sarasota French Film Festival, which for seven years (1989-1996) was a November adornment of a Florida Gulf Coast resort town described by Time magazine as "a spot so chic and pretty it might have been transported whole from the Cote d'Azur."

Its aim, said critic Molly Haskell, the festival's artistic director, was "to increase the presence and revenue of French film in America." "It enabled," Le Monde added with appropriate grandeur, "a minnow [the French cinema] to swim for a few moments in pike-infested waters [the American movie industry] and escape not only unharmed but reinvigorated." And now it was floating belly up like yesterday's tuna.

Sarasota was, by all reports, one hell of a party while it lasted. I scanned lists in French of local clubs and restaurants prepared for the more than 100 film notables who were flown in annually from France. And then there were all those elaborate festival meals: Chateaubriand Automne, Pates a la Chinoise, Tranche de Roquet au Saffron. Talk about a condemned man eating a hearty meal.

Just as my research was about to hit caloric overload, I got a tip. Go to Acapulco in November. Ask for something called the Festival de Cine Francais. See if anything about it looks familiar. The phone went dead and I booked my flight.

Once I arrived, it wasn't only the honeymoon atmosphere of the festival headquarters hotel that was unsettling. Though it was Mexico, a good deal of public advertising was in English: billboards reading "Tony Roma's Famous for Ribs," "Hooters" and a picture of Col. Sanders with the message "Visita Kentucky Hoy" crowded the highway in from the airport.

At the modern, 1,400-seat Juan Ruiz de Alarcon theater in the city's downtown convention center, my linguistic troubles took a different turn. Here were 15 French films showing over four days, all with Spanish subtitles. Not completely at home in either of those languages, with not a word of English in sight, I felt overmatched and uncertain how to proceed, but I didn't want to give up. The very emotions, it turned out, that helped me break wide open the Case of the Fugitive Film Festival.


You don't have to be a detective, of course, hard-boiled or otherwise, to understand the flip side of my Acapulco situation: As disoriented as I felt dealing with French films with Spanish subtitles, that's how confused and left out foreign films feel when they attempt to penetrate what to them is the baffling English-speaking American market. With the non-English-language share of the U.S. box office consistently below 1%, it's a crisis that affects film industries worldwide.

But while all countries have this problem, only the French refuse to accept the situation as a given. To fully understand why the Sarasota Film Festival lived, died and was reborn in Acapulco, you have to explore the singular attitude the French have to their current and past film heritage.

How seriously the French were taking the problem became apparent several years ago when Daniel Toscan du Plantier convened an elaborate lunch for key American film journalists at the Cannes film festival. An energetic 57, Toscan, as he is universally known, is a successful producer ("Cousin, Cousine," Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander," Fellini's "City of Women," among others) who for the past 11 years has been the president of Unifrance, the entity charged with promoting French film overseas.

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