For some foreign filmmakers, 1996 was a very good year. Hong Kong's John Woo teamed with John Travolta for Broken Arrow ($70 million at the domestic box office). Jan de Bont, who got his start shooting Dutch art films, helmed the whirlwind Twister ($242 million). Roland Emmerich, from Germany, had a little number called ID4 ($305 million). Foreign directors, America thanks you!
But for directors who work in foreign languages, America has scant appreciation. Even with spillover grosses from the 1995 Italian hit Il Postino, last year's foreign-language earnings amounted to less than 1% of the total U.S. box office. This is down from 4% to 5% in the 1960s, when foreign-language films were the intellectual rage du jour and an inspiration for smart Hollywood directors. Today, with an adventurous spirit and a full tank of gas, you might track down a small gem like Patrice Leconte's Ridicule, a period comedy with rapier wit, or Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie, a sardonic thriller about the death of the bourgeoisie with fearless star turns by Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire. Those, alas, are just tokens. Few foreign-language films are released in the U.S. these days, and those that are attract fewer customers.
"We are seeing the absolute bottom of the arc of foreign-language films playing in U.S. theaters," says Bingham Ray of October Films. "I love these films and want to support them, but it's a real uphill struggle. You feel like Sisyphus." Ray's company distributed The White Balloon, the lovely Iranian fable that the New York Film Critics judged the best foreign-language film of 1996, but which has grossed less than $1 million in its year's release.
The sad fact is that foreign-language films no longer matter. Americans, absorbed in their junk culture, are shuttering a window to the rest of the movie world.
What went wrong?
For a few answers let's flash back, like some labyrinthine Alain Resnais epic, to the glory days of foreign-language films--the '50s and '60s. Back then Hollywood was Doris Day and Jerry Lewis on the low side, Tennessee Williams and biblical spectacles on high. Meanwhile, artists in other countries were leading film to a robust maturity: Ingmar Bergman in Sweden, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in France, Akira Kurosawa in Japan, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni in Italy, Luis Bunuel in Spain. As each director found a constituency, U.S. distributors would pick up his earlier films, as well as other movies from the same country. Americans got an informed sampling from the world's film banquet.
The allure of foreign-language films was twofold: they had class and they had sex. Ritzy Manhattan soirees were spiced with debates about what was real and what fantasy in Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad or Fellini's 8 1/2, about Antonioni's seductive use of existential ennui. And when foreign films didn't tax the brain, they stirred the loins. In pouty Brigitte Bardot, in statuesque peasant Sophia Loren, in the knowing rapture of Jeanne Moreau, Americans saw ideals of glamour more complex than Jayne Mansfield. Even Bergman gave you bosoms along with the angst. These films were invitations to European decadence; each American became a Henry James innocent abroad, primed for education and debauchery.