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Claire Guillermic is on a pilgrimage. Like dozens of gawkers every week, the 16-year-old tourist from Brittany has trekked to this quiet corner in Paris' Montmartre district to check out the Marché de la Butte, the family-owned produce market made famous in the hit movie Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (Amélie From Montmartre). Forget Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge: Montmartre today is in the throes of Amélie mania. "She has seduced and charmed the public," says Alain van Gennep, director of operations for France's largest theater chain, Union Générale des Cinémas, which helped bankroll the film.
The pixie-faced Amélie, played by newcomer Audrey Tautou, has also drawn record audiences into French theaters. The romantic comedy about a waitress who meddles in the lives of her neighbors, has sold more than 7.3 million tickets since it opened in April. Box office receipts total $37.7 million so far, more than three times the film's price tag. Amélie is one of four French films released this year that have sold more than 5 million tickets apiece, beating a record set in 1947.
The hits have inspired talk of a renaissance in the $813 million French film industry, long accustomed to playing David to Hollywood's Goliath, even on its home turf. The industry, which unlike French broadcasting isn't protected by government quotas, is expected to grow by another $37 million this year. French flicks have been trouncing the American competition at the box office for the past six months--the first time that has happened in nearly 20 years.
Only time will tell whether this constitutes the beginning of a new trend or a fluke. But the French film industry is certainly wising up. Gone are the navel-gazing ménages-à-trois that have become the stereotype of French cinema. In their place are a wide variety of American-style genre films--from action adventures to gothic dramas--churned out by a wave of young directors, many of whom have worked in the U.S. "French cinema has been seen as elitist, appealing more to cinephiles," says David Kessler, director of the National Cinematographic Center. "Now we're able to reach a larger public."
It helps that the new French films have bigger budgets and better production values. Take Le Pacte des Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf), a medieval knight's tale that logged the biggest opening day for a French film this year when it was released in January. The movie boasted a $28 million budget, compared with the $4.2 million that is the average for most French flicks. It's money well spent, considering Le Pacte des Loups has earned more than $25 million at the box office and is now headed for international distribution. Rich imagery melded with a familiar French legend left audiences feeling they were seeing a Hollywood film made just for Gallic audiences. "We wanted people to say: `Damn, the French are capable of making something like that!"' says Richard Grandpierre, whose company, Eskwad, co-produced the film with StudioCanal, a division of Vivendi Universal.GLOBAL PROSPECTS. The question now is whether such movies will fly in the rest of the world--and help France regain some of the cinematic prestige and commercial success it enjoyed in the 1960s. Such global prospects may be limited, especially given the quirks of the $7.7 billion U.S. movie market, the world's biggest. For example, Le Placard (The Closet), a social comedy about a French office worker who poses as a homosexual in order to hang onto his job, has pulled in a respectable $4.8 million during its eight-week run in the U.S. Yet Miramax is betting that its English-language remake of the movie will be an even bigger hit with American audiences.
Fortunately for the makers of Amélie, their heroine's quirky appeal transcends language barriers. "If one foreign movie makes it this year, it will be this one," says Agnes Mentre, executive vice-president for acquisitions and co-productions at Miramax, which is readying Amélie for distribution in the U.S. The residents of Montmartre better brace themselves for those American film buffs, too. By Christina White in Paris