Features and Columns · Movies

Do Americans Only Like French Movies When They’re in English?

By  · Published on March 13th, 2017

‘Personal Shopper’ and Kristen Stewart attempt to save French cinema at the box office.

Last week, things were dire. Nobody was watching French movies, IndieWire reported. “The situation is not as good as it was,” Isabelle Giordano said between what I assume are tears and memories of Audrey Tautou’s face in Amélie. Giordano directs UniFrance, an organization sponsored by the French government to ensure French domination of the cinematic arts. Imagine her pleasant surprise, however, to find that Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, starring Kristen Stewart and no one else really, opened to almost $100k on a four-theater run this weekend.

For comparison’s sake, last year’s Eye in the Sky, an indie thriller starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and the late Alan Rickman, did only slightly better on a five-theater opening and ended up one of the top-grossing independent movies of the year. Has Personal Shopper, a French movie with only one American star and independent distribution, cured the American audience of its francophobia?

Of course, Personal Shopper is in English, a requirement that was once not needed to sell French cinema to the cosmopolitan heartland. Giordano’s claim to better times in the past recalls what some might call the golden age of French films, when titles like 2004’s A Very Long Engagement, 2007’s La Vie En Rose, and 2009’s Coco Before Chanel were all made in French and were hits on our screens or, at the very least, netted at least more than a few million dollars.

The trend since, for acclaimed and subtitled french fare, has been downward. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour a three-hour bender of lesbian love that won the 2013 Palme d’Or, made $2.2m on American shores. Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, which took home the same prize at Cannes two years later, failed to click over $300k. Ticket sales are more concrete: by 2016, box office returns for French movies anywhere in the world besides France dipped to a decade low.

Have foreign movies of all stripes suffered the same fate? The highest grossing foreign language films of the past few years have been titles like 2016’s Dangal (roughly $12m domestic gross) and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (roughly $4m domestic gross), and 2014’s PK (roughly $10m domestic gross), all from the powerhouse Bollywood arms of Disney or 20th Century Fox and steadfastly ignored, fairly or not, by many mainstream critics.

Some of the other highest-grossing foreign films of the past few years include 2013’s Instructions Not Included (44.5m gross) and 2014’s Un gallo con Muchos Huevos (a little over $9m gross), both distributed by Pantelion Films, a venture co-owned by a Univision affiliate and Lionsgate that has, per the LA Times, carved out a lucrative niche with Latino films.”

The French movies that have done well in the US are curiously un-french. Luc Besson’s Lucy made over $100m here, but it stars an entirely American cast including Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman playing Americans that get into trouble in Taiwan. Ditto thrillers The Transporter Refueled and Tak3n, the latter of which concealed its foreign origin by not only starring Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker but being filmed in LA.

Even awards fare like Paul Verhoeven’s Elle only made roughly $2.2m in the US, underperforming every single other contender for one of the Big Five Academy Awards last month (it was a nominee in the Best Actress category, for Isabelle Huppert). A fate similar to the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night, for which Marion Cotillard received a nomination for Best Actress but which was still unable to bring its domestic box-office total above $1.5m.

Despite a captivating and Oscar-nominated performance, recently celebrated by our own Sinéad McCausland, Cotillard’s use of the French language was a stumbling block to get many Americans to care.

But in moving back to making an English-language foreign film (Assayas made what he calls ‘a B movie in English’) with both Personal Shopper and his previous effort, 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas’s frame of reference remains very French. Both movies take place in France or thereabouts and star their recognizable American talent as foreign interlocutors in a language and society they are alienated from. Imagine Lost in Translation written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda.

An elusive experimenter of form, Assayas is a former film critic with a fascination with American thrillers. Personal Shopper is a Blumhouse-esque horror movie that is already being slyly compared to that production house’s highest-grossing hit, Paranormal Activity, while still hitting the generally understood metrics for a foreign-feeling film: obsessions with the past, grief, and a highlighting of the banal in everyday life. As Angela Watercutter recently pointed out at Wired, Personal Shopper cleverly forsakes the average thriller’s rudimentary use of cell phones, a limpid replacement for lines that would otherwise be dialogue. “Assayas’s movie shows texting as it is: a semi-solo act that takes place over the course of days or weeks,” she writes, “interjected into daily life.”

But in finding the horror movie inside daily life, Assayas is making a calculated bet. From Jordan Peele’s Get Out to M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, horror movies are already doing better than they have in over a decade. Long suffering for a few years, the French just might get a piece of that pie. A small but high-profile effort, Personal Shopper fits in comfortably with those recent nuggets of box office gold. Wrapped in English but ultimately very French, Assayas’s movie just might rescue a French film industry very uncomfortable with its long-celebrated abilities to interest the world. And if movies like Personal Shopper perform well enough, the next French hit might actually be, you know, in French.

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