France may have lost the World Cup, but Francophiles can seek solace in a number of new French films hitting U.S. screens. No less than six Gallic features have suddenly hit Gotham art-houses. In addition to the two ("Russian Dolls," "District 13") already playing, Laurent Cantet's probing Haitian-set tale of female desire "Heading South" debuted last weekend, while this Friday, three excellent new films will open from auteurs Francois Ozon ("Time to Leave"), Patrice Chereau ("Gabrielle") and Andre Techine ("Changing Times"). A couple weeks later, Claude Chabrol's 2004 domestic thriller "The Bridesmaid" will also be released.
After a dearth of French films in the first half of 2006, suddenly the art-house is speaking all French, all the time. The celebration of France's national holiday, Bastille Day on July 14 has something to do with the current French wave, as does counter-programming against Hollywood's popcorn summer fare, according to U.S. distributors involved in the release of the films. (In previous years, Gallic movies such as "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," "The Housekeeper," "Read My Lips" and "My Wife is An Actress" were all released around the Fete Nationale.) But while most auteur-loving executives celebrate the French influx, the confluence of films could actually cannibalize each other's already small niche audience.
"It's unfortunate, actually," says Jon Gerrans, co-president of Strand Releasing, distributor of Ozon's "Time to Leave," "because you have a certain group of people who are predisposed to seeing French films and now we have to split that audience. God knows we have to fight to stay on screens, so you'd rather not go up against other French films."
The movies showcase a dream array of familiar French stars, from Catherine Deneuve to Isabelle Huppert, Jeanne Moreau to Gerard Depardieu. And distributors are banking on such name-recognition to drive the older arthouse audience into theaters.
"We're targeting the film to people who have known them for years, since 'Belle de Jour and 'Loulou,'" says Koch Lorber Films' Suzanne Fedak of "Changing Times," a sophisticated melodrama set in Tangiers starring Depardieu as a lovelorn businessmen trying to re-ignite an age-old flame (Deneuve). "For people who have grown up with them, this is an incredibly important film," she adds.
While Deneuve and Depardieu are not exactly at their supple prime, Fedak says the company threw away the French poster ("she looked stuck up; he looked silly") and put together a more "dignified poster," she says. "I really wanted to make them look spectacular."
IFC Films' Ryan Werner acknowledges that Patrice Chereau's "Gabrielle" -- a stylized period two-hander starring Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory that was originally to be released by now defunct theatrical distributor Wellspring - is catering to the same audience as "Changing Times." "We just feel more confident about the reviews," says Werner, who cites the movie's prestigious New York Film Festival slot and raves at the time from the Village Voice ("robust and ethereal") and the New York Times ("intensely engrossing").
Still, Werner says that the competing films may steal each other's audiences. "It's not a great situation to be in," he admits.
In marketing the film, however, IFC is trying to set "Gabrielle" apart from the conventional French "literary arthouse film," of which it shares both setting and exquisite cinematography, by highlighting some of its stylistic differences. "We show people the Isabelle they like to see - as a powerful woman where she really stands up for herself," says Werner, highlighting similarities to the release of "The Piano Teacher." But, he adds, "We make clear that it's an intense different experience. It has an edge."
Plus, Werner says, "Gabrielle" was the first to book the July 14 date at New York's Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, the choice Upper-West side venue for foreign-lingo fare. The company's dates are also inflexible because the film is part of IFC's First Take series, which launches simultaneously on video-on-demand.
Ozon's "Time to Leave" -- a delicate mournful drama about a young gay photographer afflicted with a brain tumor -- is opening alongside "Gabrielle" at Lincoln Plaza. (It's also opening downtown at the Angelika Cinemas). Strand Releasing's Gerrans says they usually try to avoid competition from rival distributors, but he admits, "once we get the right theater at the right time, that's about half of our decision." And if they were to push the release date for "Time to Leave" back another week to avoid the French crowd, he says, "we would not have gotten those theaters or the window to hold it in those theaters."
"Changing Times" has the good fortune of opening at the Paris Theatre, another venerable venue that attracts the geriatric crowd. "We're in the perfect theater," says Fedak. "I think it gives us phenomenal class and visibility. It's a destination theater, for sure."
But by positioning the film as one thing -- a chance for old-timers to see Deneuve and Depardieu together again, perhaps for the last time -- Koch Lorber may alienate other potential audiences, such as a hipper, younger and gay audience. After a one-week run at the Paris, for example, "Changing Times" -- which features several subplots, among them the story of a young gay man infatuated with a young Moroccan -- will screen at a downtown venue. Says Fedak, "We really want to get a gay audience to see this film."
Coincidentally, "Gabrielle," "Time to Leave," and "Changing Times" are all the work of gay filmmakers -- though "Gabrielle" has no (obvious) homosexual hooks. But distributors are counting among the gay faithful to catch the latest films from the directors of such lauded queer-targeted films as "Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train," "Water Drops on Burning Rocks" and "Wild Reeds."
But according to Strand's Gerrans, it's a difficult to draw the over-50 set at the same time as the gay audience. "I think this film will and should appeal to both," he says of "Time to Leave." "You try to send a message down the middle, without hiding the fact that the lead character is gay."
"We've done this many times in the past," he continues. "And all the marketing that goes into making it an arthouse film for Francophiles gets thrown out the door once the critics talk about the gay element."
Time will tell whether each film finds its niches, but for now, French cinema's stiffest competition in the U.S. may be itself.
Still, John Kochman, the new director of Unifrance USA, the promotional organization for French films, acknowledges there are fewer French films being distributed in the U.S. this year. "But the year isn't over yet," he says -- though he notes the next "Amelie"-sized French event won't take place until Picturehouse's '07 release of the Edith Piaf bio-pic "La Vie en Rose."
While Kochman admits, "it gets tougher all the time theatrically in the U.S. for any non-English-language cinema," he cites the oft-touted U.S. DVD market as the industry's silver lining. "The future looks bright for French films," he says, "as long as it looks positive in ancillary markets."