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French Consul-General compares French and American cinema

Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens. (File, Associated Press)

I took advantage of the fact that the French Consul-General was in town promoting SIFF’s annual French Cinema Now series to conduct a wide-ranging interview with him about French politics, French culture, and of course, French movies.

Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens has visited Seattle eight times in the short 16 months since he was named Consul.

“I’m from the countryside. I’m from Normandy. Perhaps this is why I like Seattle so much because I’m used to wet weathers.”

Since Lebrun-Damiens professes to be a fan of both French and American films, I began by asking him if he could describe the difference between the two nationalities’ cinema. He good-naturedly gave it a shot.

“It’s hard to make generalizations because you have several American film industries and you have several French film industries. But I would say, by simplifying, French cinema is more about art than entertainment.”

That sounded refreshingly snooty to me. LeBrun-Damiens was quick to point out that art and entertainment were not mutually exclusive.

“We do both of course. And so do the Americans. But there is a willingness of French people to go to see movies that talk about psychological topics. You know, it’s a caricature that French movies are about the couples and their problems and their families. But it’s important to us. It’s also an analysis of our way of life. Sometimes when in our life we face problems we remember from the movies that we saw about characters that went through the same problems and it helps us.”

But, broadly speaking, does the French mass audience really prefer “art” to “entertainment?”

“French cinema represents half of our box office. American cinema represents one-third of our box office. French people love American cinema.”

Much has been written about the threat that Hollywood poses to the national film industry of other countries but the Consul says the French industry is thriving.

“No, it goes well. France produces close to 300 films per year.”

Does Lebrun-Damiens have a favorite recent American film? “Manchester by the Sea,” he says.

“From the screenplay, direction, the acting. That was one of the most artistic movies I have ever seen.”

And his favorite Hollywood production ever? “Amadeus.”

“I think it’s my favorite movie from American cinema.”

I also asked him about a couple of prominent Americans with ties to France. Lebrun-Damiens didn’t have much to say about Jerry Lewis — he was more of his parents’ generation – but he did surprise me when I asked him about Chef Julia Child.

“I discovered her when I moved to the U.S. a few years ago … What I find interesting is how complicated her recipes are. They’re much more complicated than the way we do it. When I see Americans discouraged by recipes by Julia Child I tell her, you know, there are easier ways to achieve the same result.”

And finally, I asked him what French film he would recommend to an American audience.

“Many Americans saw ‘The Artist’ … so I’ll recommend ‘Wild Reeds.'” The film takes place in southern France in late 50s or early 60s. It is about the coming-of-age of young people finishing high school and preparing to go to university. “The way it is written, the way it is shot — cinematography is very French — it shows the way of life in rural south place of France of this period, adapting to modernity.”

As for the 19 films premiering during the French Cinema Now, the Consul singled out two bio-pics, one about a famous scientist (“Marie Curie, The Courage of Knowledge”) and the other, a famous popular singer (“Dalida.”) He says he is struck by the fact that although the two subjects had little in common with each other, significantly they were both immigrant women who brought about social change in France by challenging prevailing cultural conventions.

Tom talks to Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens about French and American movies, including his favorite recent American film, his favorite Hollywood release of all time, and the one French film he like all Americans to see.

Listen here.

Tom talks to Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens about the French political landscape.

Listen here.

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