The Discreet Charm of French DVDs
Welcome to another new feature to grace the site... Hopefully I'll be able to write one of these every two months or so keeping you up with the developments of the DVD market in France and what's worth importing from France. To kick start this column, I'll start by taking a quick look at the current DVD market in France.
France has always been a country quite obsessed with the moving picture - the government doles out huge subsidies to keep the industry alive and kicking and to a certain extent has been quite successful in preserving the infamous "exception française". When it comes to DVDs, what we have been given to see this side of the Channel has usually been the crème de la crème such as the wonderful In the Mood for Love (which easily surpassed the abysmal UK release by Tartan) or the recent release of No Man's Land. This may give a false impression that whatever is released in France is of a higher quality than what we get in the UK. This simply isn't true - many of your run of the mill Hollywood releases just get as good a treatment as they do in the UK usually using the same master - often with some of the extras being cut out completely!
It remains that most French DVD releases of their homegrown products is given great care. Given that France has a law prohibiting the release of films onto DVD less than 6 months after their release in the cinema, this probably helps take the pressure off the DVD editors to get the DVD out ASAP which may help quality control. Thankfully, anamorphic transfers have now become a standard feature on all DVDs and most recent DVDs feature some extras of interest. The likes of Patrice Leconte, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Bertrand Tavernier and Matthieu Kassowitz have all embraced the new technology by supervising and contributing to DVDs of their films. Luc Besson however has so far refused to contribute any extras to his DVDs as he feels his films talk for themselves so we get mere bare-bones releases.
Given the huge influence of the Parisian audiences on DVD releases, there is also a fairly good crop of so-called foreign films (i.e. non-French and non-Hollywood): there's been some more than decent releases of many films from the likes of Wim Wenders, Nanni Moretti, Takeshi Kitano and Kieslowski. Hopefully we'll also be getting an extra-laden release of Lynch's Fire Walk With Me from MK2, something that didn't happen for the R1 release due to New Line's refusal to cover Lynch's costs in transferring the new material...
The classics - an oft ignored area in the UK DVD market - are also given excellent treatment with most of the effort being given to French classics (Fantomas, Les Enfants du Paradis) but also to US classics (such as Welle's The Magnificent Ambersons which is not yet available in the US nor in the UK)...
Of course the major barrier for non-French speakers is the linguistic one - not all French DVDs come with English subtitles. Frustrating though it is, the reasons for it are numerous from the exclusive contracts that some distributors have to the extra costs incurred... English subtitles for Kieslowski's three colours trilogy for example were created by MK2 themselves but were not included on the French release but kept for the AE UK release. Despite these problems, there are quite a few top DVDs on the general French market that include English subtitles such as L'Appartment, Est-Ouest, La Haine or Le Mari de la Coiffeuse (The Hairdresser's Husband). Subtitles tend to limit themselves to the main feature but given that many of these DVDs feature better specs (image and/or sound) than their UK counterparts or have not yet been released in the UK the increased price for importing them can sometimes pay off. Make sure though that when you're importing an english-language film the subtitles are not burnt in (very rare) or compulsory (sadly quite frequent)!
If you wish to dig deeper and your French is up to scratch, I can highly recommend DVDfr for an excellent (although not infallible) film database and DVDrama for in depth reviewing. The French equivalent of our bargain forums is called DVDpascher and may give you some good pointers to the French online shops.