The UK's 30-year love affair with French cinema

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Jane by Charlotte
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Jane by Charlotte   -   Copyright  The Party Film Sales
By Jonny Walfisz

The 30th French Film Festival has kicked off across the UK. Starting in Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1992, the festival has now grown to include cinemas in all corners of the country.

With screenings in cinemas from Portsmouth on the southern coast to the Shetland Islands, north of the mainland, French cinema has never been more available to Brits.

There are tons of big films coming to the festival, including the latest films from François Ozon and the Dardenne Brothers. There are also talks and introductions from famous filmmakers like, Patrice Leconte, Blandine Lenoir and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Euronews Culture sat down with festival director and co-founder Richard Mowe to hear about what makes this a special event.

How did you first fall in love with French cinema?

Richard Mowe: My love for French cinema started when I was a child. I was taken to see the films of Jacques Tati. His films are almost silent movies really, there's not much dialogue at all. So they're the perfect introduction to French cinema for a kid. I was taken to see Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and I basically laughed so much during the film that I fell on the floor.

That was the start of my love affair with French cinema. I probably knocked my head and had a flash of inspiration or whatever falling on the floor.

We were very pleased that the French Film Festival could do a complete Tati retrospective about 10 years ago. That was almost bringing things full circle.

AP/AP1959
French film director, comedian and actor Jacques Tati poses with his Oscar statuette at Orly airport in France after arriving from New York on April 20, 1959AP/AP1959

When it came to actually starting the festival 30 years ago, what was the landscape like for French film in the UK?

30 years ago, the landscape for foreign language cinema in the UK was very, very different. We didn't really see all that much, or we certainly didn't see enough. French cinema was always one of the countries that people responded to. There was a presence, but it tended to be a presence of established names like Chabrol and Truffaut. Very few French films came into UK distribution every year - maybe 10, or 12. Now it's considerably more, there could be as many as 30 to 40 French films that find an outlet in the UK.

How did the festival get started?

The festival started between two cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, simply because myself and a journalist colleague, Allan Hunter, lived in Scotland and we used the fact that Edinburgh was hosting a European Summit that particular year. There was an arts programme that went around the European summit and we got some seed funding to invest in the festival. That gave us enough of a budget for our first edition.

Picturhouse
Marc Zinga and Claire Bodson in Tori and LokitaPicturhouse

The festival has since grown to cover most of the UK. What have been some highlights?

So many just wonderful moments really. I could talk to you all day about them.

Having wonderful people like [director] Agnès Varda come to the festival, and to spend time with us, showing a complete retrospective at that point of all of her films.

We had that mythical figure, [director] Bertrand Tavernier come to the festival. He came to Glasgow, where he actually shot a film called Death Watch with Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel in the late 70s. Many of the people who worked on that film with him came out to meet him again and he was indefatigable. I think he visited at least four or five cities with us, and we were all trailing in his wake, because he was such a formidable figure.

Has it always been easy to find patrons?

We had Jeanne Moreau as a patron in the very early days of the festival. I wooed her in Paris with a bouquet of red roses, which was sent to her office. And she very happily responded to say that she would see me the next day. I turned up and asked her if she would agree to be patron of the festival in its second year. And she delightfully agreed to that.

AP/AP
French actress Jeanne Moreau is seen, Oct. 1969.AP/AP

What is it about France’s film industry that's so unique?

There are lots of different factors.

One is that French cinema is so well supported by the government. There's so many funding schemes. A third of French films made every year are by first or second time directors. So you can make your short film and then can progress to your first feature. There's a natural progression there.

Controversially, there's a levy on the box office of big American blockbusters in France, and that goes ploughed back into French film production. American companies, of course, don't like any of that. But it helps.

Curzon
Denis Ménochet Isabelle Adjani in Peter Von KantCurzon

Is there a good appetite for French cinema in the UK?

We obviously don't see every French film that's made. France makes over 200 productions a year. In a good year, we might see 30 to 40 of those films here.

That’s in a way why the festival exists. It’s to put a spotlight on all those films that won't be acquired by a UK distributor. We're very happy to see that more and more companies in the UK and more distributors are picking up on French films and not necessarily the obvious ones either.

What are some of the films you’re excited about at the Festival this year?

Well, I think one of the things that has existed in France for quite a long time is the emphasis on women directors. France has always accepted women filmmakers and helps promote women directors, but also in the technical aspects, photography and all the rest of it behind the scenes.

There's Rodeo by Lola Quivoron, which is an exciting first film. We’ve got Blandine Lenoir’s Angry Annie and Charlotte Gainsbourg with a film about her mother, Jane by Charlotte.

There's a film called Forever Young, which is the actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi looking back at her acting school days, with that amazing French actor of stage and screen Patrice Chéreau. She went to his acting school, and is reflecting on that particular period in her life.

French Film Festival UK lasts until 15 November in select cinemas in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and various other cities across the UK.