About ten years ago – actually, I know it’s ten years ago, because the film is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary with a Blu-ray DVD edition – I remember standing behind a couple in the queue at my local video rental shop who were clutching the box of the delightful and acclaimed French romantic fantasy Amélie. When they reached the counter, the assistant took the box and, before he rummaged in the drawer for the tape, offered the couple a warning:
“You do know that this is in French?” he asked them.
Their faces drained of colour. They clearly didn’t. And he was clearly informing them of the film’s nationality because other people had rented Amélie without knowing and were dismayed to find that it was ruined by subtitles – and no doubt asked for their money back.
You can hardly blame the couple for not knowing. To discover that a film is – eek! – subtitled you have to read down to the small print on the back.
Distributors of foreign-language movies that enjoy a wider release in this country would rather make their packaging radioactive than give away that the film inside is French, or Italian, or German. Trailers for world cinema titles that enjoy publicity at multiplexes, or at the beginning of more mainstream rental films, are painstakingly edited so that no foreign dialogue features. After all – why frighten the horses?
The couple, suitably forewarned, put Amélie on the counter and went back to the NEW FILMS rack to find something a little less…foreign.
I mention this anecdote because it supports the notion that most people would rather not watch subtitled movies, given the choice. This is sad, but I feel that couple’s pain, as I was myself subtitle-averse for many years, despite having been schooled in world cinema at a local film society in my teens. It took me a while to realise the inconvenient truth: that English-speaking films are not necessarily the best in the world. In fact, they rarely are. (Sorry!)
In the US, where the rest of the world is actually called The Rest of the World, as if it is a territory all of its own, figures show that worldwide box office is increasingly vital to a Hollywood movie’s success. Ten years ago, a blockbuster with a budget north of $150m used to count on the ROTW for around 60 per cent of its final take. It’s recently risen to about 70 per cent.
What this means is that American films will get more and more action-led and homogenous. (And, as with Kung Fu Panda 2 and the recent Karate Kid reboot, they’ll be increasingly set in China, in order to appeal to an as yet largely uncracked market.)
Meanwhile, the cream of films made in the rest of the world will continue to be distinctive and original and modest and educational and challenging – such as, off the top of my head, recent gems like A Separation from Iran, Salt of Life from Italy, 13 Assassins from Japan – often subsidised in their own country and proudly national to boot.
If you want to be drawn into the rich world of foreign-language cinema, I suggest you tune into cineaste Mark Cousins’ Story of Film: an Odyssey, whose 15-week journey across six continents begins on Saturday 3 September on More4. If you think Hollywood movies lie at the heart of the history of cinema, you’re in for a bumpy – but rewarding – ride.