By James Mackenzie
PARIS (Reuters) -
Like one of the moody, enigmatic heroes
in which it specializes, French cinema is going through a
period of crisis and introspection just as it prepares to
celebrate one of its greatest triumphs.
The runaway success of "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis," an
amiable comedy about a damp and unglamorous northern province,
is expected to be crowned in the coming days when it takes the
title of the most popular film ever shown in France.
The film, made for just 11 million euros ($17.15 million),
has already claimed the box office record for a French film and
is poised to overtake the attendance record set by the
Hollywood blockbuster "Titanic" of more than 20 million viewers
With Marion Cotillard claiming France's first best-actress
Oscar in almost 50 years for her performance as chanteuse Edith
Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" and a string of popular local romances
and comedies in movie theaters, the industry should be buoyant.
But away from the commercial giants like Pathe, producer of
"Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis" and owner of France's biggest chain
of multiplex cinemas, the mood is somber.
Some independent filmmakers say the growing dominance of a
handful of distributors and weakening state support threatens
the future of the smaller "films d'auteur" that have been the
hallmark of French cinema since the days of Francois Truffaut
and Jean-Luc Godard.
"Cinema is going through a deeply troubled period of worry
and self questioning," said an article in this month's Cahiers
du Cinema, the highbrow bible of arthouse films and birthplace
of the "New Wave" of French cinema in the 1960s.
It said the industry's problems had reached a level not
seen in at least 25 years and noted: "The whole system of
public support for cinema is in crisis."
Pascale Ferran, director of "Lady Chatterley," a French
version of D.H. Lawrence's classic, recently presented a
194-page report warning of the threat to films that were
neither big budget blockbusters nor tiny avant-garde art
"For some time now, we have been witnessing a slide away
from a logic of film to a logic of business," the report says.
Margaret Menegoz, president of Unifrance, the body that
promotes French cinema abroad, said she sympathized with parts
of the report but was skeptical about the question of funding
and said the arthouse sector remained the mainstay of exports.
"I don't think the success of a film is tied to its
budget," she said. "A film has to be well made and catch a mood
but the public couldn't care less what it costs to make."
In terms of pure numbers, the industry appears to be doing
well, backed by rising investment from television broadcasters
like Canal Plus and TPS.
The National Centre for Cinematography said 185 local
productions were approved last year and investment in French
films passed one billion euros for the first time.
Fueled by "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis," attendance in French
cinemas rose 17.8 percent in the first three months of the year
to 61.75 million entries, with local films enjoying market
share of 63.7 percent against 56.5 percent a year earlier, it
of the Cahiers du Cinema, which provided the launching pad for
Truffaut's later career as a director but which is now up for
sale by its publisher, the newspaper group le Monde.