Harvey further forges the French connection

Posted by · 4:24 pm · March 29th, 2012

Two nearly simultaneous items of industry news struck me today as closely related halves of the same story, and not just because they both involve The Weinstein Company. The news of the studio snapping up US distribution rights to “Populaire,” a French throwback romcom that has been generating international buzz since appearing in the Berlinale market last month, has probably been greeted with too many “It’s this year’s ‘The Artist!'” headlines — but tied to the news of the Weinsteins going ahead with a remake of French smash dramedy “Untouchable,” with Colin Firth and “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig tentatively attached, a linking narrative is hard to resist.

“The Frogs are coming!” is no less premature a rallying cry now than it would have been immediately after the Oscars last month. But while other American studios are still looking to Scandinavia for their crossover fodder — cue remakes of “Let the Right One In,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Headhunters” — the Weinsteins clearly have a lot of faith in the French. The last time Gallic property was this hot in Hollywood was 20-odd years ago, when everything from “La Femme Nikita” to “The Return of Martin Guerre” to “My Father the Hero” was ripe for a remake.

Since then, France’s presence on the US cinema scene has been limited to the arthouse fringes; even with occasional breakout hits like “Amelie,” producers have been largely content to look but not touch. “The Artist,” with its $45 million gross, armload of Oscars and hefty media presence, represents a renewed breakthrough for French crossover filmmaking, but still a compromised one: it’s in English and set in Los Angeles, with a solitary non-American character that some viewers (particularly ones who don’t think too hard about the origins of the surname “Valentin”) mightn’t realize is French until the final punchline. Made almost entirely by Frenchmen, its very form nonetheless makes it palatably denationalized fare for wary international audiences. 

One assumes “Populaire,” still in post-production and only slated for a release at home in October, wears its nationality a little more obviously: allegedly a stylized, 1950s-set confection about a wide-eyed country girl groomed for glory as a champion speed typist (don’t ask me, I just report this stuff), it promises the requisite brand of exotic whimsy for crossover status, as well as familiar names Romain Duris and the Weinstein-approved Berenice Bejo.

It’s presumably a subtitled affair, though partly set in the US; it’s too early to gather whether the Weinsteins are aiming for an “Artist”-scale hit or merely a tidy arthouse performer. Either way, it sounds a solid investment: let’s not forget, while we’re talking about the company’s recent French successes, that their Kristin Scott Thomas-starrer “Sarah’s Key” has, without generating much conversation of any sort following its summer release, quietly put away over $7 million Stateside; a foreign title needn’t be a phenomenon to represent a sizable hit.

I’m guessing the bigger Gallic story for the Weinsteins will, in the long term, prove to be “Untouchable.” The original French film, a mainstream buddy pic bout the unlikely friendship formed between a wealthy white quadriplegic and his young, wrong-side-of-the-tracks caregiver, received mixed reviews but proved a massive crowdpleaser — its popularity even helping star Omar Sy pull off an upset over “Artist” star Jean Dujardin at the Cesar Awards last month. (On a side note, it could feasibly be France’s selection for the foreign-language Oscar this year; if it is, count on the Weinsteins to go full-bore with the campaign.)

The Weinsteins are opening the film on US screens in late May. They’re doubtless anticipating healthy arthouse returns, but the release is really just marking time while they play the long game — should the remake begin rolling in the autumn, as planned, with Firth in the role of the quadriplegic, commercial and awards expectations will be justifiably lofty. (One doesn’t like to be cynical, but on-paper bait doesn’t get more blatant.) Until then, the Weinsteins seem happy to keep shopping in the French aisle: the Jean Dujardin comedy “The Players” is also under their banner. Meanwhile, we await word of, say, a Kristen Stewart do-over of “Enter the Void” with bated breath. Allez!

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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