French Farce


France's filmmakers are among the world's most protected species–and, not coincidentally, among its most endangered.

French theaters must show French films for a minimum number of weeks each year, while French TV must devote a minimum number of hours to such films (with a separate quota for prime time). Nonetheless, audiences–yet to be state-mandated–have continued to dwindle, and now France's directors want protection from bad reviews.

According to a December account in The New York Times, France's directors have concluded that their industry is in crisis. In 1998, French movies attracted only 27 percent of the country's moviegoers, while U.S. films attracted 63 percent. Worse, nearly half the audience for French movies showed up for only three movies. Nearly all the remaining 145 French films produced last year were "navets," or bombs (the word literally means "turnips").

That trend continued throughout 1999. "Since the fall, all French films have flopped," director Patrice Leconte wrote last October in a letter to his fellow filmmakers. "I see this auguring the collapse of French cinema in its entirety." And who's to blame? "French critics are playing the role of gravediggers." Leconte characterized many reviews as "premeditated assassinations" written as if "to kill off all commercial French cinema designed for a mass audience."

French critics shot back in kind. During a roundtable on the matter, Olivier Seguret, critic for the left-wing newspaper Libération, said, "It is perhaps a truth that is unpleasant to hear, but isn't the average American film better than the average French film?" Other critics agreed.

In November, the filmmakers released a statement accusing French criticism of suffering a "crisis of intelligence and competence." The directors asked that "no negative review of a film be published before the weekend that follows its theater release."

The entire farce illustrates the rising costs of cultural protectionism. As economist Tyler Cowen put it in these pages, "Protection actually decreases an industry's chance of competing successfully," because "protected artifacts often lose their artistic and competitive vitality." (See "French Kiss-Off," July 1998.) Some decades ago, French directors who made better films than Hollywood successfully attracted audiences and established a great cinematic tradition without protectionism. Though subsidies encouraged the American-influenced New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the intervening decades have shown an ever-dwindling return. The finger-pointing in Paris is the most recent nadir. "Film culture, like all culture, is dynamic," Cowen wrote. "It isn't protection that it needs; it is stimulation."