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English Spoken Here
More and more foreign-made films are being filmed in English—what will this mean for international cinema?
By David Brickman

When is a film really a foreign film? The latest product to raise that question is French director François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, his first project in English—a pretty good example of the current love affair with film noir stylings, although it’s peppered with enough French to put off any subtitle-phobic cinephiles still around.

Swimming Pool has the distinction among this summer’s fare of featuring a French star who speaks English (Ludevine Sagnier as a young woman with one parent from each country) and an English star who speaks French (Charlotte Rampling as a well-traveled British mystery writer). But it is hardly the first film of its kind—just part of an ongoing phenomenon in a world where Hollywood studios are developing “independent” branches and European films are produced by multinational coalitions.

The confusion over foreignness is felt at the level of the Academy Awards, where, this year, two foreign-language films were nominated for best screenplay: Y Tu Mamá También and Talk to Her, both in Spanish. And Best Film nominee The Pianist was shot entirely in Poland by director Roman Polanski, who can’t set foot in the United States without going immediately to jail. Being in English with an American star (Adrien Brody, who took home the Best Actor statuette), it couldn’t be a Best Foreign Language film nominee, but it is certainly neither an American nor British film.

So, how do you decide? And does it matter anymore? When the holocaust epic Sunshine, starring Ralph Fiennes, William Hurt and Rachel Weisz, among other Anglophone actors, was made in 1999 by Hungarian director Istvan Szabo with an otherwise entirely Hungarian cast and crew, in English, was it a foreign film? Or, when French superstar Juliette Binoche (who is half-English) performed in English for the first time in Chocolat, was it still a French film?

Or how about the charming German film—bet you never thought you’d see that phrase in print—Mostly Martha, which did not give away its language in previews and which was called La Bella Martha (an Italian title) in the original German version? A joint German-Italian production, it’s part of a phenomenon of pan-European films that get made by groups looking to raise enough support to compete with the Hollywood studios.

Hence, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, which was the most expensive movie ever made in France (at $90 million) when it came out in 1997. It starred American actor Bruce Willis, British stars Ian Holm and Gary Oldman, and Eastern European diva Milla Jovovich, along with many French actors and crew. Though it was in English, it was still somehow perceived as French, judging by the number of Césars—the French version of the Academy Awards—it won.

But this is hardly new. Sergio Leone, the great director of spaghetti westerns, made Clint Eastwood world-famous while working on location in Italy—remember The Good, The Bad and The Ugly? Interestingly, some film reference guides catalog the Leone films by their Italian, not English titles—does this make Clint Eastwood a foreign-film star? European directors over the decades, such as the late Billy Wilder (born in what was then Austria-Hungary, now Poland), have infiltrated Hollywood to the point of being more quintessentially American than their audiences. And crossover stars have always existed—1936 and 1937 Best Actress Oscar winner Luise Rainer was Austrian—but are becoming increasingly common (French gamine Audrey Tautou, of Amelie fame, is in Stephen Frears’ latest, Dirty Pretty Things, for example).

In the end, it seems the film business is, as it always was, driven by marketability, and the language of currency in the world at large is English. So, if you want to make it to the top, you gotta speak the language of the people. Though the direction is clearly toward more “foreign” movies being made in English and more domestic “independents” being made by divisions of Sony et al., there will always be an upsurge of creativity from the grassroots of every nation.

And so, for every mediocre pseudo-Euro product (e.g. Chocolat) there will be at least one Run Lola Run. With subtitles—and subtleties. And there will always be filmgoers eager to take them in.

International Flava

For the United States, globalization isn’t just about importing cheap toys from China and exporting cheap grain everywhere. It’s also about transforming various forms of entertainment, like cinema, into universally friendly products.

Back in the day, most foreign films were distributed by smaller, independent companies. While a few are still going strong, many are either dormant, absorbed into divisions of major studios, or totally gone. Every studio has a boutique division to handle foreign or homemade indie films. Columbia/Sony has Sony Classics; M-G-M has United Artists; Disney has Miramax; AOL Time Warner has Fine Line; 20th Century Fox has Fox Searchlight; Vivendi Universal has Focus; and Paramount/Viacom has Paramount Classics.

One of the odd side effects has been the phenomenon of foreign films being shot in English with Hollywood stars. Another, arguably, has been the softening of foreign-made films. Edgy films of the kind made in the so-called “golden age” of the ’60s and ’70s—the radical cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, the intense psychological drama of Ingmar Bergman, the acidic portraits of class and family in the work of Luchino Visconti—are rare these days. The corporate ownership of most “indie” distributors is likely a big factor in this; it can’t be an accident that The Piano Teacher, for example, a wrenching and disturbing French-language film, was offered by Kino International, a real indie.

Another side effect of cinematic globalization occurred on the big- budget side of the business. Sometime in the mid-’90s, Hollywood realized the economic importance of Hong Kong action stars in the world film market. Lo and behold, Jet Li—who couldn’t even speak English at the time—was cast as the villain in Lethal Weapon 4. After releasing a few of his Hong Kong films dubbed into English, Hollywood figured out that profits on Jackie Chan products could be maximized by pairing him with Hollywood comic actors like Chris Tucker and Owen Wilson.

It will be interesting to see what mutant cinematic offspring of globalization and greed will pop up next.

—Shawn Stone

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