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France gives Hollywood ideas

Alice Cannet looks back over the many blockbusters that started life in another language

French cinema continues to be a happy hunting ground for Hollywood. With The Tourist, Dinner for Schmucks and Les Trois Prochains Jours, Hollywood dug into the French film scene for inspiration several times last year, and the decision sometimes paid off impressively.

The Tourist was nominated as best motion picture at the Golden Globes ceremony last month, while the nomination of Inception, starring Marion Cotillard, reinforced the lasting influence of France.

Released on December 10, The Tourist starred Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in a remake of Anthony Zimmer, a 2005 thriller by Jérôme Salle, starring Sophie Marceau and Yvan Attal.

In the original, a tourist is mistakenly hunted for a financial crime committed by a man who altered his image through plastic surgery to escape the police.

Les Trois Prochains Jours, by director Paul Haggis, out on December 8, was a remake of Pour Elle by Fred Cavayé (2008), with Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks. The original followed Lisa (Diane Kruger) and Julien (Vincent Lindon), an ordinary happy couple whose life takes a U-turn one morning when Lisa is arrested for murder.

However, the series of remakes does not stop at thrillers; Hollywood also gave its take on a cult French comedy 12 years after its release.

Now the Americans finally have their own version of the social comedy by Francis Veber, Le Diner de Cons, winner of the 1999 French César, with Dinner for Schmucks, which was released last July.

In the original, a group of friends organises a weekly dinner to which they must bring a "con" (idiot) with them for the group’s entertainment. The idiot comes preferably with an obsessive passion for a strange hobby: building small-scale models of Parisian landmarks with matchsticks, for instance. The guest who brings the best (or worst) idiot wins.

With two of France’s best comedy actors, Thierry Lhermitte and Jacques Villeret, the film entered popular French culture with such lines as "Il s’appelle Juste Leblanc", "Ah bon? Il n’a pas de prénom?" The Hollywood remake, which starred Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd as the fool and the host, did not receive the warmest of welcomes in France.

The French press by and large ignored it: the few newspapers that did review it clearly thought the original had nothing to envy in its successor.

L’Express comented: "Where, at the time, everything was held by the duo Lhermitte/Villeret, the couple Carrel/Rudd does not work. Worse, the rewritten gags are becoming flatter. And the spectator is left to question the legitimacy of remakes."

Le Point added: "The director, Jay Roach, makes one fundamental error by systematically rubbing out the politically incorrect side which made the comical aspect of the original."

Le Diner de Cons is not the only French comedy to have found success abroad. Top French film and second (after Titanic) of the French charts of all times, Bienvenue chez Les Ch’tis (2008), has had several remakes.

The first to come out, the Italian Benvenuti al Sud, was released in November and showed a postman from Lombardy being sent to a small village of southern Italy.

The American version, due since 2008, has not yet been released. The film’s title is still under discussion; suggestions include Welcome to the Sticks and Welcome to North Dakota.

True Lies by James Cameron (1994), a remake of La Totale! by Claude Zidi (1991) and Jungle 2 Jungle (1997), a remake of Un Indien dans la Ville (1994), were two other films in which Thierry Lhermitte starred.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, True Lies became a true success and reached the top three of the charts that year worldwide. Yet, the French original had nothing of the big production it became. But the top-selling French remake in the US, which topped the US charts in 1987, was Three Men and a Baby (1987), inspired by the French film Trois Hommes et un Couffin (1985).

But not all remakes enjoy such success. Les Visiteurs, with Christian Clavier and Jean Réno, was one of France's most popular comedies when it came out, but its US remake, Just Visiting (2001), flopped.

In an interview published on the French film festival’s website by Unifrance (the French body in charge of promoting French cinema abroad), the head of Unifrance’s US office, John Kochman, said: "We have always been fascinated in America by the diversity and the independence of French cinema: rare qualities in American films taken hostage by the commercial stakes of the Hollywood system. French cinema allows a pleasant taste of the unexpected.

"Other world cinematographies, even European, are considered more exotic. The Americans like to recognise themselves in French films, even if that is hard to admit. This is why there are at least 30 French films showing every year."

Other famous remakes of French films include Taxi (2004 in the US) from Luc Besson’s Taxi (1998) and The Birdcage (1996) from La Cage aux Folles (1978).

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