Maybe you've seen them, maybe you haven't, but French thrillers are making a comeback in North America. That's good news for people uninterested in art houses solely for the sake of watching foreign films: You don't have to be a Francophile to appreciate smart, meticulously generated suspense, and that's exactly the appeal of several French movies hitting American theaters this year. A steady mixture of warm reviews and positive word-of-mouth appears to have helped Guillame Canet's breathlessly entertaining drama Tell No One land an impressive $240,858 at 18 locations. Earlier this year, veteran auteur Claude Lelouch, long known for his cinematic explorations of eroticism and lawbreaking, remained thematically consistent with a delightfully complex story of double-crossing novelists and dysfunctional families called Roman de Gare. The movie made over $25,000 on two New York screens when it opened in late April, and eventually pulled in more than $1.5 million after expanding to theaters around the country. It's not hard to argue that Tell No One and Roman de Gare put most recent American thrillers to shame. North America, once the haven of film noir, appears to be outsourcing.
As journalist Erica Abeel recently observed in an interview with Canet, "French filmmakers are currently making the best old-style Hollywood thrillers." It's not the first time for a country that has a long history of borrowing from American cinema, and often improving on it. At the beginning of the French New Wave in the early 1960s, former Cahiers du Cinema critics like Jean Luc-Godard discovered Hollywood genre films and decided to make their own loopy versions. The results were often strangely philosophical and experiment works, ranging from Godard's Breathless to François Truffaut's ambitious Shoot the Piano Player.