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Sacre Green!

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This time last year, I was living a glorious existence in the South of France, during which I learned three surprising little facts:

1. Never swim in a public fountain before 2 a.m.

2. Never photograph street performers -- they will chase you down and humiliate you.

3. The cure for American homesickness costs 10 euros at the French moviehouses.

Oddly enough, French cinema became my American haven when longings for things like peanut butter and shower curtains occasionally overshadowed the abundance of bistros and flat-front pants. Because most of the movies were North American exports, going to the theater was like being saturated in American comfort for two restorative hours.

At the same time, I couldn't help but feel cheated. Where were all the French films I'd heard so much about? Was that too much to expect from the nation that birthed cinematography, the nation that holds the bronze medal for most films produced per year and, for God's sake, the nation that perfected the wine-and-cheese soirée?

But film wasn't the only French medium that had apparently expatriated. I heard more Red Hot Chili Peppers and saw more 'NSYNC music videos than I ever cared to. Americana seemed to be swallowing the French culture whole, leaving little outlet for that nation's own celluloid product.

So maybe it's not as difficult to believe that little old Richmond would host the largest French film festival in the nation. In its 16th year, Virginia Commonwealth University's French Film Festival at the Byrd Theatre packs 11 feature films and 14 shorts, most followed by a Q&A with the director or leading actor, into three days. Considering that France released about 160 feature films last year, VCU's festival represents almost 10 percent of the country's cinematic output.

Peter Kirkpatrick and Françoise Ravaux-Kirkpatrick, festival founders and directors, waded through all 160 feature films and more than 300 shorts to arrive at the two dozen that represent the pop culture over there.

"The movies we chose represent the best diversity of French film in the past year," Kirkpatrick says — "not just the artsy stuff, but also the comedies and dramas, because you can't narrow the spectrum of their film."

The festival attracts a deluge of film-lovers (more than 20,000 theater entrances recorded at the 2007 festival) to the Byrd from the furthest corners of America. Even the French cross the pond for a unique chance to smoke cigarettes again, as well as mingle with the American fan base.

French directors marvel at witnessing firsthand the reaction to their art, Kirkpatrick says, and unlike the Cannes Film Festival, which is steeped in competition, "the festival is a chance for many directors and actors to finally relax and simply celebrate French film."

But why aren't they celebrating it over there more? French cinema has been praised for its focus on the message — whether it be cultural, social or political commentary — designed to make the audience think. Since la nouvelle vague (new wave) of the late '50s gave birth to filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut, the French film director has been likened to an author; storytelling is paramount, played out through innovative camera work and creative edge. French film became more art, less mere entertainment.

Maryse Fauvel, French professor and film aficionado at the College of William and Mary, says American film, by comparison, is more the latter. "In Paris I grew up watching Iranian, Russian and even Vietnamese films," she says, "but American film seems to want to reduce my vision. It's lacking in diversity."

So why can't French film maintain a dominance in its own country? French film constantly struggles to compete with the money mongrels of Hollywood. Commercialized American movies reel in far greater profits than France's more artsy cinema, in which cultural appreciation is generally prized over dollar signs. The French government has gone on the offensive to protect and preserve their rich culture with "l'exception culturelle française," the French cultural exception.

This provision, established in the early '90s (1990 for film and 1994 for music), sets quotas that control French media. Michael Jackson and Madonna floated on airwaves everywhere I went — because only 40 percent of radio music is required to be French, leaving the rest for import.

Preserving French cinema comes down to cash — there's simply not enough of it. The French government itself funds French film, allocating money from television as well as from movie tickets (even American films) — all for the sake of keeping a pulse in the cinematic sphere.

And while French film does well globally, it has a hard time piercing the skin of American culture. So events like the French Film Festival are a necessary inoculation from what Kirkpatrick calls "the healthiest film industry in the world, in terms of diversity."

So show up and get yourself cultured — that is, if you think you can handle a film without predictable endings, exploding cars or Will Ferrell. S

The VCU French Film Festival runs March 28-30 at the Byrd Theatre. Passes are $40-$180. Tickets for individual screenings are $10. 827-FILM or visit www.frenchfilm.vcu.edu.

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