Europe has produced many of the world's greatest movie talents, so why are most European co-productions flops? Christopher Tookey investigatesby / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
I keep coming across intelligent, educated people who say they no longer bother to attend European or “art-house” films. This personal impression is confirmed by distributors’ statistics which show that very few European films are viewed outside their country of origin, while American movies account for over 90 per cent of films shown in Europe.
This is a shame-especially when the most charming romantic comedy currently on release in Britain is Italian-Il Postino-and one of the most accomplished horror films for years-Nightwatch-is Danish.
Under closer interrogation, many deserters from the European cinema say they are reacting against a modern phenomenon-the “Europudding.” Il Postino, especially, because it has an English director (Michael Radford) and a French star (Philippe Noiret), has lost a large part of its potential audience because it is unjustly suspected, (despite excellent reviews) of being a “Europudding.”
“Europudding” first became part of critical vocabulary in 1990, thanks to two famously indigestible co-productions: Dr M (West Germany/ France/ Italy) and Mister Frost (UK/ France). Use of the word has now spread to describe practically any European co-production-which is unfair, because several, such as Land and Freedom (UK/ Spain/ Germany) and Orlando (UK/ France/ Netherlands/ Russia) have elicited a favourable response from some critics, if not enthusiasm from the movie-going masses. Five years on from the Europudding’s first appearance, the time is surely right to establish its proper ingredients-and who the people are behind it.
Like certain cheap wines, Europuddings ought to carry the warning label: “product of more than one country.” The finance usually comes from a job lot of national or (especially in Germany) provincial bureaucrats. These bureaucrats are not only uninterested in whether the films they commission find a mass audience; they are afraid of a hit-because if they were to be commercially successful, their subsidy for the next year would be cut.
The European script fund-an offshoot of the European Union’s media fund (which this year had its budget doubled by the European Commission, from ?160 million to ?320 million) is actually proud of the fact that it avoids making value judgments about projects submitted to it. If a film has enough finance in place and a promise of distribution, the fund usually rubber-stamps it.
This may help to answer the otherwise baffling question: how do film-makers manage to go into production with screenplays as atrocious as that of, say, the UK/ Belgium-produced porno flick Suite 16 (“delivers nothing very much, not even the surely required amount of erotica”-Derek Malcolm, Guardian), and the French/ Italian/ Swiss production Barnabo of the Mountains (“marginally less absorbing than watching a snowcap melt”-Anne Billson, Sunday Telegraph). After sitting through the whole of Barnabo, it is hard not to sympathise with the exasperated review of it by the UK’s longest-serving critic, Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard: “By now I’ve seen enough of these subsidised duds, movies that are neither art nor box office, to feel that if all such schemes to provide a living for bureaucrats and handouts for deadbeats were wound up tomorrow I would not shed a tear.”
Experienced foreign travellers know to steer away from restaurants offering “international cuisine.” The same applies to films set in no recognisable country.
A typical example is the Anglo-French thriller Mister Frost (“staggeringly bad”-Philip French, Observer), the opening titles of which inform us casually that it is set “somewhere in Europe.” One reason (though only one) for its failure to thrill is that it is not rooted in any geographical or legal reality. Another sign of Europudding is when a film is based in a real country but the country on screen bears little or no relation to the real thing. The German/ Danish/ Portuguese film of The House of the Spirits (“tosh”-Adam Mars Jones, Independent), though based on Isabel Allende’s novel about Chile, seems to be about nowhere on earth.
Arizona Dream (“wilfully obscure and self-indulgent”-Hugo Davenport, Daily Telegraph) is set in an equally unrecognisable version of the United States. And Steven Berkoff’s Decadence (“Berkoff directs and overacts in such a way as to render the last three letters of his name superfluous”-Daily Mail), which inexplicably found co-production money from the UK, Germany and Luxembourg, offers a vision of the UK which no Brit is likely to recognise. Not even Time Out liked it-“fails on the big screen on every possible level… the cinematic equivalent of driving round and round the M25.” The dialogue sounds as if it has been translated via several foreign languages. This is forgivable if-as in the case of the Anglo-German production Nostradamus (“crushingly dull”-Sheila Johnston, Independent) the English script was written by a German. One of the English speakers involved might, however, have pointed out that the phrase for “self-made jam” is “home-made jam.”
It is less forgivable in the screenplay for the Anglo/French/American A Business Affair (“bad beyond the power of criticism to invoke”-Quentin Curtis, Independent on Sunday). The high point of the film is when Jonathan Pryce announces: “I’ve decided the one thing that can save this marriage is a spot of salmon-fishing.”
Another bad sign is that if there are English-speaking stars, they take the opportunity to over-act in a way which would have them fired from a reputable picture. Nostradamus contains some classic coarse acting from F. Murray Abraham, once an Oscar-winner for Amadeus. His is not even the most ludicrous performance-this is Rutger Hauer’s as a mystic monk wandering around with lighted candles on his head.
In The House of the Spirits Jeremy Irons gives the most splendidly suicidal performance of his career, as a whip-brandishing South American patriarch opting for an hilarious wig with a Kevin Keegan perm.
Watch out also for films directed by people whose best work is long behind them.The Anglo-French-Czech movie The Life and Extraordinary Times of Private Ivan Chonkin (“galumphing satire… spectacularly unfunny and woefully anachronistic”-Neil Norman, Evening Standard) is directed by Jiri Menzel, whose one hit remains Closely Observed Trains (1966). Bitter Moon is laughable sleaze from Roman Polanski (“the work of a perverse, exhausted talent”-Philip French). Abraham Valley is the last, soporific work of 86 year-old film-maker Manoel de Oliveira (“looks as if it might have been directed by Geoffrey Boycott’s more cautious older brother”-Daily Mail).
And take care lest someone called Simon put up the money. If you are really unlucky, he may have produced the film. The spectacular growth since 1991 of the European film mountain is mainly the responsibility of two Simons. One is Simon Relph, the British producer who headed British Screen in the 1980s and founded its co-production fund. Since leaving, he has attracted British Screen money to finance a succession of his own films-an indigestible Europudding in Damage, a British-Canadian pudding in Camilla, and an all-British pudding in Howard Davies’s remarkably uncinematic film of David Hare’s The Secret Rapture. Another British Screen-backed co-production by Relph’s company Skreba Films, A Pin For The Butterfly, was allocated money in 1993 but has failed to find a distributor willing to release it.
Simon Perry, Relph’s successor at British Screen, is the Delia Smith of Europuddings; he embodies the Euro cook-up. As a producer he has progressed from bleating about the British (in Another Time, Another Place) and showing his mastery of miserabilism (in a flop remake of 1984) to become the most powerful figure in the British film industry.
Some people might find Perry’s present autocratic eminence surprising. His own films have made little impact on the general public, and his most recent film, Innocent Lies (a Franco-British co-production), attracted minimal audiences and damning reviews. Hugo Davenport deplored its “dreadful script” and remarked that “no one emerges with much credit.” Sheila Johnston summed up the consensus when she called it “worst film of the week and possibly the year… It’s a disgrace that, in its present form, this script was allowed to see the light of day.”
Perry’s standing seems to rest less on his taste or track record as a producer than on his plausible manner. Since he arrived at British Screen in 1991 co-productions have tripled; they are now 60 per cent of its output. One look at some recent commissions-A Business Affair, Decadence and The Life and Extraordinary Times of Private Ivan Chonkin-suggests that the Europudding is destined to rise and rise.
However, the central problem looks likely to remain. European film-makers such as Perry and his chums will probably continue to be more interested in making movies for themselves than in reaching an audience large enough to make their films viable and conceivably forming the basis for a genuine film industry.
Oddly, the British record industry survives very well without handouts from government. So do Hollywood film companies. The challenge for European film-makers is to find subjects and scripts which attract audiences, and for governments to create the financial climate which encourages investors. The history of cinema shows that Europe has produced much of the greatest movie making talent in the world. Isn’t it time to ask ourselves what it is about our culture that drives almost all of them-even in peacetime-to live in America?