Iconic actress Jeanne Moreau’s death this week at 89 received muted American coverage, with remembrances that hardly captured Moreau’s essential presence and influence in world cinema. Overshadowed by the passing of Sam Shepard the day before (more contemporary, American, prominent in multiple fields, and younger), she received back-page obituaries in major papers. Her lack of any Oscar nominations, or a deserved honorary award, didn’t help the cause.
Even more unfortunate is the treatment of her death reflects American audiences’ ever-increasing disinterest in French-language film. Jeanne Moreau is significant for her transcendent artistry and the directors with whom she worked, but she also represented the iconic qualities of her country’s cinema.
Though the boom in “art houses” (a term popularized in the late 1940s) came more from Italian films (“Rome, Open City,” “Shoe Shine,” and particularly “Bicycle Thief”), French film became a steady part of the subtitled market by the mid-1950s. French films became synonymous with a sense of sexual freedom; among other things, it made Brigitte Bardot a world-famous star.
The Italian art house climaxed with “La Dolce Vita” (over $150 million adjusted U.S., 1961). The French, propelled by the New Wave, came into prominence in the 1960s with films like “Breathless,” “The 400 Blows,” “Jules and Jim,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” and many more. Directors like François Truffaut, Jacques Demy, and Jean Luc Godard dominated the foreign-language scene by the end of the decade, and the French influence continued for decades after.
Moreau’s early domestic prominence came in pre-New Wave film, Louis Malle’s “The Lovers” (1958), which gained notoriety when the seizure of a print at a Cleveland theater led to a Supreme Court decision declaring it not obscene (a case that provided Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it”).
Her career included a who’s who of great directors over a decade: You could build a first-rate class in essential French cinema by teaching only Moreau films. While she’s best remembered for the essential New Wave classic, Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” (1962), she was the only New Wave figure to be the cover subject for a 1965 Time Magazine profile — back when that meant a cultural seal of approval.
Box office figures pre-1980 are tough to obtain for foreign films released in the U.S., but the biggest was Costa-Gavras’ “Z” in 1969, a serious Best Picture contender (adjusted domestic grosses around $90 million). Other significant performers include Claude Lelouch’s “A Man and a Woman,” Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour,” Truffaut’s “Day for Night” and others were significant performers at levels vastly higher than anything scene in recent years.
From 1979 on, grosses were recorded more reliably. Since then, in adjusted figures, of the top 100 “specialized” subtitled films released in the U.S., about 30 are French. These are led by “La Cage aux Folles” (1979, adjusted gross $72 million) and “Amelie” (2001, adjusted gross $52 million).
But in the last decade, only one (“Intouchables,” 2012, $11.5 million) has grossed over $8 million, compared to 15 total among those from 1979-2007. And the numbers in the most recent years are even more depressing .
Among 2017 art-house subtitled releases, the top three are from east of Europe: “Kedi” (Turkey), “The Salesman” (Iran), and “The Wedding Planner” (Israel), with only “Kedi” surpassing $2 million. Olivier Assayas’ majority English-language feature “Personal Shopper” is the top French performer. The highest-grossing live-action French film in French? “Lost in Paris,” which will end up with a gross under $500,000.
Last year saw only one French film, “Elle” among the 10 highest-grossing specialized subtitled films, with $1.3 million of its $2.3 million total coming after Isabelle Huppert’s Best Actress nomination. By comparison, the previous cycle saw the British title “45 Years” receive a $3.8 million boost after the nomination of equally acclaimed older actress Charlotte Rampling.
Why the dropoff?
The biggest problem is subtitled art-house films are an endangered species in the U.S. But within this group, French presence has dropped off for a number of reasons.
Accessibility isn’t the problem. At least 24 French films in French opened theatrically in at least New York since the start of the year. Nearly all significant films from the country find distribution one way or another, thanks to strong infrastructure led by the government-backed industry group Unifrance. Cannes, which is also part of the French Culture Ministry, also helps elevate visibility. Streaming services, particularly Netflix, also make their presence known.
However, France’s biggest producer is Luc Besson, whose American visibility moved from the specialized (“Subway,” “La Femme Nikita”) to films like “Taken” and “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” The European Union makes it much easier to finance and create films across borders, with many favoring English to reach wider audiences. (Most countries in the world still dub into their own tongue for local release.)
Also, auteurs don’t carry the same brand value. Francois Ozon (“Frantz”) and Olivier Assayas (“Personal Shopper”) get all their films released in the U.S., but their names don’t carry New Wave weight. Of note: Oscar-winner “Amour,” the biggest grossing French-language film in the U.S. in the past five years (2012, $7.5 million adjusted), was made by a German director.
France now has competition from many other countries, including Iran, Israel, Japan, and South Korea. Even smaller countries like Sweden (“A Man Called Ove”) and Poland (“Ida”) have no problem surpassing recent French releases. (France can at least take cheer that its position is better than Italy’s; despite the recent success of the Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty,” the country is largely absent from American screens).
Qualities that once seemed to be France’s sole domain influenced top filmmakers around the world, including America, where their presence is felt in independent films. Meanwhile, France’s love for small-scale domestic dramas with complicated adult relationships, or emigre issues, just don’t seem to resonate. Catherine Deneuve, the country’s biggest current star and most successful actress since Moreau, guarantees little in terms of box-office attraction.
The muted response to Moreau’s passing suggests the memories of her era are disappearing as well. And the lack of contemporary replacements in part suggests why French cinema no longer stands out among declining American audiences who still patronize foreign-language film.