Why French cinema remains alive and well

UniFrance head reflects on reactions to the virtual Paris Rendez-vous

by Richard Mowe

Valerie Lemercier’s Aline is a title in the pipeline for later this year
Valerie Lemercier’s Aline is a title in the pipeline for later this year Photo: UniFrance
It was only a year ago that Daniela Elstner took over as managing director of UniFrance, which looks after the promotion of French cinema abroad. At the time, this former sales agent said she had “hit the ground running”. Little did she know last January, at the annual Rendez-vous with French Cinema in Paris, that the ground would be pulled from under her feet by Covid.

Instead of globe-trotting, she has been confined to base in Paris because of the travel restrictions. Although French cinemas have been closed from October and will remain so until at least the end of January if not beyond, films have continued to be made. She’s optimistic about the prospects, suggesting the diversity and variety of French films remains alive and well.

As the virtual Rendez-vous winds down this weekend she can take satisfaction from the fact 800 buyers turned up online to sample the wares on offer, with an average of 200 per screening, while a roll call of journalists from different countries signed on to do interviews.

UniFrance managing director Daniela Elstner: 'Not only will cinema survive and come back stronger but the way we bring films to the public will continue and we will get people back to cinema'
UniFrance managing director Daniela Elstner: 'Not only will cinema survive and come back stronger but the way we bring films to the public will continue and we will get people back to cinema' Photo: Patrick Swirc/UniFrance
“Our sales agents were a bit apprehensive about how it would work back in November and thought it might be a disaster,” recalls Elstner. “But we had to make the decision to go online at that point. We couldn’t commit to a big expenditure for an event that might not happen. Now everyone seems reasonably happy.”

Her cohort Serge Toubiana (UniFrance’s president) had noted that the talent in the way of actors and directors used to regard attendance as a bit of an obligation. Elstner adds: “This year it doesn’t feel like duty. The artists like the idea of spending a day with journalists in different countries. We shouldn’t forget that so many of us feel isolated even though we are constantly in touch electronically. They find the perspectives interesting and everyone in the media seems to have had more time to prepare.”

Looking ahead to May and the Cannes Film Festival, she feels it needs to happen physically even if that means a delay until later in the year. “Someone said that if Cannes did not happen for two years running then cinema is dead. I don’t believe that … after all cinema has survived for 125 years and it will survive again. We have to work around things. At UniFrance we have been doing stuff, including the New York Rendez-vous, online. The one thing that unites us all (sales agents, producers, festival directors, journalists, buyers or whoever) is passion. Everyone believes strongly in what they are doing. Not only will cinema survive and come back stronger but the way we bring films to the public will continue and we will get people back to cinema.”

Elstner indicates that she is reflecting about ways of communication. “I don’t mean only to people in the business which, of course, we have been doing for years, but also to the wider public. I don’t care if people know about Unifrance as long as they know the films we promote. Producers have to be aware much earlier about the pitch for the films, and we have to be there to accompany them.

“There are ways we can communicate with the public with digital resources which we haven’t really explored before. For instance Serge told me about a conversation with the director [Gabriel Le Bomin] of DeGaulle which was to do with politics and cinema and that would have been a great item to have recorded and made available. And there can be crossovers from audiences seeing someone like Omar Sy in Lupin [the new Netflix series] who would then think about going to see him in the cinema. These are the kind of links we have to promote and connect.”

She has been heartened in these dark times in which admissions fell by 70 per cent, by the success of Celine Sciamma’s film Portrait Of A Lady on Fire, which was released to such success in Korea that the local distributor decided to put out all the director’s previous films including Tomboy. “It almost went beyond cinema with a whole movement on social media. The film had an effect on society as a whole which is fascinating. Serge admitted that for him the New Wave taught him how to live, and may be how to love! Cinema touches generations and it is our duty to make sure we give that cinema experience back to the younger generation who may just select what is top of the list on their particular platforms.”

Elstner is also comforted by the prospects of titles on the horizon. She says confidently: “There are so many films coming up that look very promising such as Valerie Lemercier’s Aline [about singer Celine Dion] and there are titles from Leos Carax [Annettte with Marion Cotillard] and Paul Verhoeven [Benedetta with Charlotte Rampling]. The years 2021 and 2022 could be very strong and now I would say we have a couple of months to put everything in order for the return."

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