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For the French, Age Is Just a Number

Mature actresses fare better in France than their counterparts in the United States

September 29, 2002|LORENZA MUNOZ

When French screen legends Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant engage in a wild wrestling match that evolves into a naughty romantic tussle in their latest film, "8 Women," it is hard to imagine a similar scene occurring in a Hollywood movie. As Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker, it would be like watching Jane Fonda and Faye Dunaway make out--not bloody likely.

The French are not only less squeamish about sex, but they also actually enjoy seeing mature women as sexually alluring creatures. Fifty-eight-year-old Deneuve, 53-year-old Ardant and others over a certain age (74-year-old Jeanne Moreau, for one) continue to be sexy and bankable celebrities, at least according to a recently published book on French movie stars. "James Ulmer's French Hot List" examines the "bankability"--the degree to which an actor's name alone can raise financing upfront for a film--of France's actors and comes up with some surprising results.

In France, seven of the top 15 bankable stars are women, by Ulmer's calculations. All except 24-year-old Audrey Tautou are older than 35.

Contrast that with the American list of top 15 stars, which includes only two women--Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman. Kidman is 35, and Roberts turns 35 next month. "In America, you get older faster. It's like Dorian Gray--you are old at 40," said Ulmer, who published the "Hollywood Hot List" in 1997. "The French give women the opportunity to age gracefully and to be feminine. French film allows them to be sexual and sensual in a way we don't. We don't allow women to be sexual after 40, and you see that in the way movies are cast. Movies are a reflection of the culture."

Isabelle Adjani, 47, is ranked 15th on the list and continues to be thought of as one of France's most beautiful women. Same for 38-year-old Juliette Binoche (No. 3). She will be seen in "The Children of the Century," opening Friday, as novelist George Sand (nee Baroness Dudevant), who engages in a torrid love affair with a man six years her junior. Some stars, like Moreau, have consistently refused to play parts that depict aging women "getting drunk and suicidal." To Moreau, age is a meaningless figure.

"Life doesn't end at 30," she has been quoted as saying. "To me, age is a number, just a number. Who cares?"

In a country that fiercely promotes and protects film as part of its culture, French actors have never been gauged by something as coarse as their box-office clout.

Indeed, many of the producers, sales agents, film buyers and sellers and heads of entertainment companies in France refused to participate in the survey, said Francois Taborelli, who conducted the interviews in France. Those who declined said either that they were too busy or that they opposed such a ranking system.

"They were reluctant in giving grades to actors," Taborelli said. "In Europe, the movies are considered more an art form than an industry."

But France's film industry is changing. The nation has one of the most prolific movie-making industries in the world, with more than 400 films produced in the country last year. In 2001, French films grabbed a 46% market share at home, compared with 49% for Hollywood movies (the other 5% was brought in by non-Hollywood and non-French product). In past years, it was more common for Hollywood films to corner more than 80% of the box office, dominating nearly every theater and leaving little room for French films. In 2001, French films took in more than $38 million at the box office, an increase of nearly 500% from 2000, according to Unifrance USA, the French film office liaison based in New York.

But along with increases in production and box-office success come other pressures. French producers, who can be just as reliant on foreign partners as U.S. producers, now must consider how their films will sell outside their home market. So, they must cast stars who have audience appeal not only in France but also abroad. In addition, the French film industry is heavily subsidized by its government, something that appears likely to change. Less government money means producers will have to rely more on private financing.

This added economic pressure could begin to transform the French film industry into something more closely resembling the Hollywood model, where private financing and return on investment are key elements in determining which films will be made and who will be cast.

Many French directors and producers already have abandoned the notion of looking at film purely as art and are considering it more as a commercial venture, Taborelli said.

"Producers [in France] have the same problem as American producers--they have to sell a movie," Taborelli said. "Even if they don't want to say it openly, that is what they face.... But talking about who is who in the industry and the salary of the stars is not as taboo as it used to be. We are slowly coming to more of an American system."

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