Rainer: Hollywood’s French Remakes Rarely Retain Allure

When I heard that Hollywood was interested in remaking “The Intouchables,” the popular recent French film about a wealthy, eccentric quadriplegic and his boisterous Senegalese immigrant caregiver, I emitted my usual cri du coeur.

Why does Hollywood bother?

The obvious answer is that American producers are so bereft of good ideas that they filch -- I mean, buy -- pre-tested storylines in other languages. Judged by their plots and glamour quotient, French films are perhaps the least exotic foreign fare and therefore the most transposable.

Still, a movie’s success owes more to the flavor of its national origin than is commonly supposed. The best remakes are the ones in which the storyline is cast iron and nothing vital is lost is translation. Or better yet, ones in which the concept is created anew.

There have been some notable Franco-American transpositions, of course. Jean Renoir made two marvelous movies, “La Chienne” (1931) and “Boudu Sauve des Eaux” (1932) that became, respectively and triumphantly, Fritz Lang’s “Scarlet Street” (1945), with Edward G. Robinson in the Michel Simon role of henpecked husband drawn into murder; and Paul Mazursky’s “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986), with growly Nick Nolte in the Simon role as a homeless lech.

High Gloss

It’s no “Pepe Le Moko” (1937), but “Algiers” (1938), its Hollywood remake, is high-gloss entertainment. Jean Gabin’s moody gangster hiding out in the Casbah becomes soulfully suave Charles Boyer, playing opposite the hyper-lovely Hedy Lamarr in her first American movie.

Chris Marker’s classic 28-minute sci-fi film “La Jetee” (1962), about going into the past to avert a mankind-obliterating virus, becomes Terry Gilliam’s exhaustively inventive “Twelve Monkeys” (1995). I greatly enjoyed Mike Nichols’s farce “The Birdcage” (1996), with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as the South Beach gay couple standing in for Ugo Tognazzi and the unimprovable Michel Serrault in “La Cage Aux Folles” (1978).

In rare instances, the American remake is a blockbuster that surpasses the original. This is certainly true of James Cameron’s “True Lies” (1994), a redo of a spy comedy called “La Totale!” in which Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Thierry Lermitte, who, as reported in Le Figaro, recalled a meeting with the Austrian king of clobber. “‘Keep on making films for France,’ he said in a very condescending tone, ‘and we will continue to remake them for the rest of the world.’”

Second Rate

But global isn’t everything. Most Hollywood remakes of popular French films, even those that are internationally successful, tend to be second-rate at best and altogether unnecessary at worst.

The kinky hit woman action thriller “La Femme Nikita” (1990), starring goth siren Anne Parillaud, morphed into Brigitte Fonda posing not too convincingly with pistols in “Point of No Return” (1993). (It was a hit anyway, both in the U.S. and in France).

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s great existential “Wages of Fear” (1953), about fugitives transporting nitro in trucks over rocky roads, became William Friedkin’s overblown “Sorcerer” (1977), with its doomy Tangerine Dream score. Clouzot was even less well-served by the 1996 Sharon Stone remake of his “Diaboliques” (1955), the best Hitchcock-style movie ever made in French.

Richard Gere?

Godard’s “Breathless” (1960) should never have been remade, even by as talented a director as Jim McBride (in 1983). Richard Gere is not Jean-Paul Belmondo and Valerie Kaprisky, pouty and lotioned, is certainly no Jean Seberg.

Considering how much Francois Truffaut loved American cinema, he might have done better than having his “The Man Who Loved Women” (1977), admittedly not one of his best, Americanized as Blake Edwards’s draggy 1983 remake, starring Burt Reynolds in full smirk.

And then there are all those terrible Hollywood movies derived from French movies hardly anybody stateside saw anyway. I’m thinking of, most recently, the semi-incomprehensible prison break thriller “The Next Three Days” (2010), starring mealy-mouthed Russell Crowe, and “The Tourist” (2010), featuring zero-gravity glam couple Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, a movie so bad it actually didn’t win the best picture Golden Globe for which it was inexplicably nominated.

So forget Gallic remakes. Hollywood is better served by importing French actors, not French storylines. I’ll take Marion Cotillard over “The Tourist” any day.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).

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