French Language Films And Subtitles

Extremely interesting to think about how perceptions of films are affected by their nature of “foreignness” or how the usage of subtitles will affect the audiences:

French films fare poorly in the United States due, in part, to an unfortunate Catch-22. “The kinds of people who go to art houses in America to see French films are purists who don’t want to see dubbed foreign films,” says Chicago Sun Times movie critic Roger Ebert. “At the same time, most of the movie-going public in the United States is quite provincial and shies away from or has never even seen a subtitled film.”

While there are plenty of popular movies about France playing in the United States–witness Billy Crystal’s Forget Paris, Nick Nolte’s Jefferson in Paris and Meg Ryan’s French Kiss, all released this past year–mainstream American audiences generally avoid French-language films. However, this has less to do with French production values, which are very high, than with the fact that Americans are less inclined or likely to speak a second language. “From the point of the view of the French public, movies from all over the world are `French’ as far as what they hear when they go into a theater,” continues Ebert. “They don’t have a problem with dubbing, and that’s why they think it’s an American conspiracy to keep their films out by not dubbing them. But art film fans in the United States feel French cinema should be experienced in its `version originale.’”

French citizens are able to see American films screened “V.O.” in Paris and other major city centers, but after 60 years of constant exposure to dubbed Hollywood films, French audiences now expect most films to be voiced-over. Of course, this dichotomy did not develop overnight. “American film took over during and immediately after the first World War, when Europe had other things on its mind,” explained internationally renowned BBC film critic Barry Norman. “During both wars France was fighting and afterward they had to rebuild, so American culture had a chance to spread very fast and become accepted.”

Then during the 1960s French cinema rebelled, throwing off Hollywood’s yoke to become the focus of world attention with the onset of la Nouvelle Vague or “New Wave.” Filmgoers all over the world were very receptive to the stirring, innovative work of auteur directors like Francois Truffaut (Les Quatre Cents Coups), Jean Luc Godard (A Bout de Souffle), Claude Chabrol (Le Beau Serge) and others who broke away from the formal story structures and camera framing conventions of the day.(9)

Over the last 35 years, however, directors have so overused the once-revolutionary camera-style, “camerapen,”(10) techniques articulated by the New Wave (such as odd angles, jump-cuts and 360-degree pans), as to make them appear cliched and irrelevant. Since then, audiences have become so jaded that today the average moviegoer is conditioned to view film as “brain candy” rather than a contemplative exercise in the appreciation of art, culture or form.

“I think everyone, even those who work in the independent film business, has said at one time or another, `I can’t do a subtitled film tonight. I need an American or English-language film,”‘ says Anna Brown, operations director of New York’s Angelika Theater, the most profitable “art house” multiplex in the United States. “It doesn’t affect our programming, but it is a reality.”

As a result, foreignlanguage movies that require audiences to pay attention to subtitles underperform here because the public desires a passive experience. “They want to watch and listen, not read,” says Norman. “People think subtitles get in the way of a picture because they feel like they’re either reading or following the action.”

This perception has created a vicious cycle that affects the business decisions of American film producers, distributors and, perhaps most importantly, exhibitors. “We are very, very pro-foreign film,” says Brown, “but I would definitely say that right now it’s easier and less costly to pick up a cutting-edge American independent like [Kevin Smith’s] Clerks and get reliable success from it than to pick up an offbeat French or German film.”

To counteract this phenomenon, French special-effects companies should immediately focus all efforts on perfecting a technique for digital dubbing that would eliminate the silent lip-flapping and “dialogue bleed” that Americans find distracting. If U.S. audiences do not notice the dubbing or do not even realize the film they are watching has been dubbed, they will be more likely to pay the price of admission and judge the film on the merits of the acting, plot, characterization, setting and overall entertainment value. If America’s Industrial Light & Magic can convince moviegoers that dinosaurs still walk the earth and that Forrest Gump actually met with JFK, then French technicians using digital imaging and sophisticated American computer animation technology should be able to dub French movies seamlessly into English. So-called “superior dubbing” will provide a vehicle for French cinema to gain widespread acceptance in the United States and England among sectors of the population that do not appreciate subtitled foreignlanguage films. Currently, however, the funding set aside for dubbing, compared to allocations for production or marketing, is on the thin side of meager. Average dubbing budgets to convert an American movie into French are fixed at around $50,000.(11) Digital dubbing may cost 10 times that figure at first, especially to achieve the precision American audiences would require, but prices would eventually stabilize as technology improved.

Quoted from Martin, Reed. “The French film industry: a crisis of art and commerce.” Columbia Journal of World Business Winter 1995: 6+.