To sub or to dub: the dilemma of film fans in France

Columnist Peter Wyeth looks into whether films tend to be watched in their original language or not in cinemas and why

Younger generations are watching the original versions of English-language films more and more
Published Last updated

One of the small pleasures of being a British person in Paris is watching an English-language movie and laughing at the jokes in more or less complete silence in the theatre.

Is that because the French have no sense of humour, or because subtitles are a poor medium for comedy?

The problem with subtitles

It must be the latter, as reviews in Télérama, for example, often praise a film for being “très English,” a phrase to horrify the Académie française, but one often marking out a movie for being eccentric and/or humorous in a quintessentially English way.

The French audience around me may get the humour and be quietly chuckling to themselves, but they are not quite laughing out loud. Perhaps because the time-lag between reading a subtitle and the joke that precedes it reduces any comic effect.

That very act of reading is one of the great disadvantages of subtitles. It removes a viewer from what is happening in front of them, in the moment, and distances them from the whole visual effect the film has often gone to enormous lengths to achieve.

This is partly why dubbing is so popular in France, especially with big special-effects movies which tend to have less dialogue and be more visually dynamic. It probably compensates for the slight irritation of the lips on-screen never quite matching the dubbed dialogue.

Subtitles are also viewed as more elitist. While the intelligentsia – avid consumers of novels, political tomes and broadsheet newspapers – may find the act of reading less annoying, or believe it is purer to leave the film in its original language, it is far more normal to watch it in dubbed French.

Younger generations lean more towards original English

However, with a younger generation much more exposed to English-language media through streaming services such as Netflix, and keen to improve their language skills, things are perhaps changing.

Read more: My experience in France as a university English teacher

It accounts for a little less resistance to English-language films in version originale.

The French wannabe English-speaker understands the dialogue, and does not necessarily feel the need for subtitles, but has the luxury of being able to check their knowledge against the subtitles when or if they have any doubts.

Subtitled films do show up in British and American movie theatres, but much less often than they did in the 1960s, when arthouse cinemas discovered Godard, Bergman, and Antonioni. Maybe distributors are less willing to take a gamble that may not pay off.

When they do turn up it is often a year later than in France, even with a masterpiece such Victor Erice’s Close Your Eyes, not due until April 2024 in the UK (but very much worth putting in your diary).

Do you prefer to watch foreign films dubbed or in their original language with subtitles? Let us know via

Read more

‘Our kind French neighbours have made us feel so welcome’

Talking point: Is it really offensive to say ‘the French’?