The most successful English language remake of a French film is Three Men and a Baby, a 1987 comedy that raked in $167,780,960 at the box office. In today’s dollars, that would be … well, a lot of money. The least profitable remake is the Peter Falk film Happy New Year, a reworking of the 1973 movie La bonne année, which brought in a paltry $41,232. The new Atom Egoyan film Chloe, a reimagining of Gérard Depardieu’s Nathalie that debuts at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is likely hoping to fall somewhere comfortably between the two.
English remakes of popular French films have proven popular with North American audiences, but Encore Hollywood author Lucy Mazdon wonders whether the remake “can be considered as a positive form of cross-cultural exchange or if in fact it threatens the identity of the originals.” Chloe’s mix of homage to the original plus Egoyan’s signature style ensures that it strides the line between original work and respectful remake, but not all French adaptations have been so successful.
I don’t think anyone would argue that Richard Pryor’s The Toy, a flaccid early ’80s remake of Le jouet, improved on the original, or that Richard Gere in Breathless was anything other than a pale imitation of the effortless cool Jean-Paul Belmondo oozed in À bout de soufflé. Even the addition of authentically French actress Valérie Kaprisky in the role originally played by the iconic Jean Seberg couldn’t get this turkey out of second gear.
Not all French to English revisions are budget-bin movies, however. Terry Gilliam took on a recognized classic when he made Twelve Monkeys. The 1962 film La jetée earns a near-perfect score on IMDB and its story of life in a devastated Paris in the aftermath of WWIII is described by one contributor as “experimental, elegiac, profound, beautiful, and mysterious.” Those are big shoes to fill, but Gilliam meets the task head on in his Oscar-nominated film. Twelve Monkeys is at once a remake and a completely original work that, as Roger Ebert wrote, creates “a universe that is contained within 130 minutes.”
And finally, also worth a rent is True Lies, the James Cameron shoot ’em up, loosely based on Claude Zidi’s La totale!, the French comedy about a wife who discovers her husband works for the French secret services.
Cameron upped the flashiness of the story, but the original has many pleasures, including great dialogue and many good gags.
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