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French Cinema in the era of subtitles

by Ben Jones
10th Nov 22 2:59 pm

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” director Bong Joon Ho said in his speech at the Oscars last 2020 for his film, “Parasite.”

Hollywood has dominated the global film industry for too long. But recently, we have seen a rise in the diversity of films from all over the world. It has become easier for people to access films and TV shows from various countries due to the rise of the internet, which we can see in online streaming platforms like Netflix.

One country, in particular, has had a long history with Cinema and with the new spark of interest for foreign films, it’s not surprising that it has been steadily on the international film-goers’ radar over the years before the rise of Korean pop culture.

Today, we will discuss France, its relationship with Cinema, and how French translation and subtitling services have made it an art form.

Let’s get started!

France the birthplace of cinema

The love affair of French film and Cinema can be traced back to the first invention of the motion-picture camera made by Auguste and Louis Lumière, Cinématographe. Hence the name, Cinema.

They created it due to being inspired by William Dickson and Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, a motion-picture device which you can look through a peephole.

Due to this, it’s no wonder that France became the pioneer of Cinema. However, after WWI, French Cinema struggled to get funding for film production. It was during post-WWII that the French industry started to pick up. It saw the creation of French magazines, like Cahiers du cinéma, where critics discuss Cinema, eventually leading to the creation of modern Film theory.

Many of the film critics featured in these magazines went on to create films themselves and started the French New Wave. Film historians consider this movement one of the most influential movements in cinematography as it rejected traditional filmmaking conventions of its time and encouraged film experimentation and “iconoclasm” or destruction of images.

France’s influence in the international community didn’t stop there. The Cannes film festival, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, was originally held in Cannes, France, hence the origin of its name. Its notoriety is due to being an annual, invitation-only event that features all forms of genre films, like documentaries, from across the world. This was all made possible with the assistance of professional French translators who served as interpreters for film festivals and translators of the subtitles used in these internationally acclaimed French films.

How Hollywood took over international cinema

Hollywood and France’s rivalry in the Cinema sector has been ongoing for decades. Its most recent blow is the beef between Disney and the French government. Under the French “windowing” law, studios can stream films online 36 months after it has been shown in theatres. It’s due partly to the cultural significance of featuring a film publicly in Cinema theatres, which is one of the requirements for an international film to be selected and nominated for the Cannes Film festival.

The rise of online streaming in Hollywood’s biggest studios, like Universal, Warner Bros., and Disney, has led to straight-to-streaming movements. Besides the cultural aspect of having films first viewed in a Cinema theatre before streaming them online, France is also protecting its local Cinema industry. Because if Hollywood studios started directly featuring their films on their online streaming platforms, it would lead to fewer film-goers going to the theatre.

The pandemic gravely affected France’s Cinema scene as it was reported by the Financial Times that ticket sales were 33% lower than in 2019. However, the French government has lowered the number of months online streaming companies can feature their film on their platforms to 15 months.

At this point, the French government and Disney are currently negotiating regarding the “modernisation and changes” to the Windowing system. The US streaming companies, including Disney, signed an agreement to invest 20% of revenues from their French content back into France’s film industry last December 2021. The money generated from these revenues is worth 300 million Euros. With Netflix seeing international success from their French TV drama Lupin, it’s an investment well spent, especially as professional French translations from these shows have been praised for their accuracy.

This issue will likely be resolved in the coming months, especially as one of Disney’s spokespersons stated they will be “actively engaged in the upcoming meetings.”

The rise of subtitles in French cinema films

Like other cinema and film industries around the globe, translations were a key player in promoting and expanding films to new markets. It’s clear that since the emergence of cinematography in France, French translation services have been essential in reaching new global customers and marketing films beyond Europe. It involves translating advertising, marketing, studio and production company branding, PR materials, theatre posters, and more. Not only that, but the start of French Cinema Films translated from French to English and other languages in the subtitles can be traced back to the Silent Era. All French translations are done by bilingual experts in the language and country the film companies are planning to enter.

However, non-English-speaking films began to lose influence in world Cinema due to the rise of Hollywood. It didn’t help that English is considered the language of business, science, and the internet. But as the world continues to become more globalized, this influence isn’t one-sided. Because each culture that has adopted English created its version of the language. At this point, it has become a language that’s still English. But entirely different from what the British and the Americans are used to.

So, going back to Hollywood is a “dominant force” in global Cinema. Like the English language, it has inadvertently inspired the Cinema industry to flourish in other countries that present their realities and perceptions uniquely tied to their cultural and social experience.

French Cinema is a good example of this. Many of the film terms we know today come from the French, like Noir and Avant-garde. So even though their cinema and film industry isn’t as large as the US, its presence can be felt.

One could argue that despite many film goers waiving subtitled films, the decades-long success of French Cinema on the global scene has proven that subtitles shouldn’t hinder one’s experience of enjoying and appreciating art in its interpretation of life and the human experience.

List of French films with subtitles you should watch

The French films we have listed here were chosen due to “word of mouth” or other online listicles, which we highly suggest you check out. Some of the films mentioned here were due to the subtitle’s translation from French to English, which French language learners can greatly benefit from.

  1. “L’enquête” (“The Clearstream Affair”)

This film is based on True political events in France during the early 2000s. If you want to learn about French politics and its legal systems, it’s a good film to watch.

  1. Amelie

When Roger Ebert, a well-known American Film critic, gave positive reviews on this film, saying that it “takes so much confidence to dance on the tightrope of whimsy” and this film “gets away” with it. If you’re looking for some light-hearted romance, we highly recommend it.

  1. Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise)

Many have called this “the French’s response to Gone with the Wind.” For this reason, it’s at the top of every French film must-watch listicle. This film was released right after the German occupation during WWII, which gives you an interesting insight into French cinema during this period. If you want to get started in old French films, this is a great film to begin your binge-watching.

  1. Petite Maman (Little Mom)

It’s a surreal film depicting a mother-daughter relationship from a child’s perspective. It has been nominated and won several awards from international film festivals due to its captivating visuals and whimsical nature.

Final thoughts

As the world is moving away from Hollywood, maybe it is about time film goers started exploring what’s beyond commercialised blockbuster films and the “1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” like in French Cinema. And as you take out the popcorn and watch it, look at the carefully translated French-to-English subtitles and analyse the subtleties between the film’s visuals and textual aspects. You might be surprised by what you discover from what the visuals say versus what the text says on the big picture and what it says about the human experience, regardless of one’s nationality and culture.

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