There is no French word for "remake." Pronounce it "rrremake" if you must, but it's still un mot americain.
As it should be. Americans convert French films into Hollywood gold as casually as one exchanges currency. The intimate "La Totale!" was muscled into the Schwarzenegger blockbuster "True Lies," for one, and there have been no fewer than 50 similar transactions in the past 25 years.
Strange, then, that a man named Jacques has taken a B movie by a man named Jim and greased it into a slick thriller opening here Friday. Stranger still that it's apparently the first legitimate French remake of an American film, well, ever.
"Ever" has been a long time coming. In 1978, James Toback's first film, "Fingers," opened to lukewarm reviews. Popular reaction was divided, but the rookie effort (about a sociopathic pianist played by Harvey Keitel) was admired by at least two people. The first was Francois Truffaut, a man of some importance, who ranked "Fingers" among his favorites. The second was an assistant film editor, Jacques Audiard, a man of no importance.
Until now. Audiard, who has since become an established writer-director, needed a project to follow his 2001 film, "Read My Lips." Pascal Caucheteux, producer of this year's "Assault on Precinct 13," a joint American-French update of a John Carpenter film, suggested he do as the Americans do.
"The first idea that came to mind was to remake 'Fingers,' " Audiard says through an interpreter. "What attracted me to the film was a sort of nostalgia for that decade when remarkable films were being produced."
Audiard didn't need Toback's permission since Warner Bros. owned the rights to "Fingers," but the two directors met anyway.
"They actually could've made this movie without speaking to me," Toback says. "And I never got a dime, and will not get a dime. However, I was very pleased for it to be remade by somebody that good."
"The Beat That My Heart Skipped," with Paris and Romain Duris subbing for New York and Keitel created a bidding war at the Berlin Film Festival and has been a big hit in France since its March opening. Quite a reincarnation for a low-budget mood piece about misanthropic alienation. As Audiard describes it, "James made the child, and I raised it."
But is this the first French remake of an American film? Truffaut and directors of the French New Wave poached aspects of American gangster pics, so there must be at least one other film that qualifies as a bona fide remake, right?
"None," Toback says.
"I can't think of one," says Jay Lorenz, professor of film studies at George Washington University.
"Very very few that would come from the top of my head," says writer and subtitler Henri Behar, a former cultural correspondent for Le Monde.
There's the 1982 French film "I Married a Shadow," but it was based on the same Cornell Woolrich novel as the 1950 Barbara Stanwyck pic "No Man of Her Own" (much the same way 1999's "Eye of the Beholder" with Ashley Judd was based on the same novel as the 1983 French film "Deadly Circuit," which Audiard co-wrote).
American studios did mount foreign versions of their productions for a brief time in the 1930s, but they were more "co-makes" than remakes. For example, Chester Morris played John Morgan in MGM's "The Big House" in 1930 while Charles Boyer played Fred Morgan the same year in MGM's "Revolte dans la prison," a francophone carbon copy.
"The French have a love-hate relationship with American cinema," Lorenz says. "They seem to hate its more commercial aspect and always embrace the director or auteur who could go against the grain."
Which is why Audiard was attracted to "Fingers." Plus, the rights to a B movie cost nothing next to an American blockbuster, another reason why Audiard thinks the French shy from remakes. Or perhaps it's because they don't give them a second thought.
"They really have no opinion," Audiard says of his compatriots' view of Hollywood's compulsion. "They really don't care at all."
Toback, on the other hand, sees the abundance of rip-offs as symptomatic of an ongoing cultural shift.
"I think that the idea of originality is so bankrupt and debased in Hollywood that 'remake' is endemic to the whole notion of moviemaking," Toback says. "Now, you have the sort of conglomerate takeover, like the blob of all society and culture and certainly movies."
The blob is swelling, with eight American remakes of French films in production and nine others in development -- one is of Audiard's "Read My Lips," bought by Paramount for Barry Levinson to produce.