An intrepid boy reporter, a black manservant and his paralyzed aristocrat master, and French actors adrift in Hollywood helped make 2011 France’s best box office year in nearly half a century.
A whopping 215.6 million cinema tickets were sold last year in France — whose population is 65 million — with two homegrown comedies taking pole position ahead of Hollywood blockbusters, according to industry data.
The buoyant figures in Europe’s top movie market — also the continent’s biggest producer of films — come in stark contrast to the US box office, where 2011 sales were the lowest in 16 years.
"It was an incredible year for French cinema. That’s what made the difference," said Sarah Drouhaud of industry magazine Le Film Francais, noting that the sheer diversity of French output last year contributed to the surge.
"There was a mix of (French) films aimed at the mass market but of high quality, and arthouse films that were very accessible," she said.
Le Monde newspaper noted Thursday that cinema-going in France has historically risen in times of economic crisis.
But the top reason for the impressive box office was the unexpected success of the comedy "Intouchables" ("Untouchables"), which led the pack with 15.7 million entries by the end of the year, according to data from the CNC national cinema body released this week.
Based on a true story, it stars Francois Cluzet as a wealthy quadriplegic whose life is turned upside down when he hires a wisecracking young black man just out of prison, played by Omar Sy, to take care of him.
Billed as a feel-good buddy film that illustrates the virtue of tolerance and the power of friendship, it also tackles issues such as disability, prejudice and the gap between the haves and the have-nots of French society.
The movie is due for release in dozens of countries this year and the Weinstein company has bought an option for the film’s US remake rights, despite accusations by some American critics that the movie is racist.
French comedy "Rien a declarer" (Nothing to Declare), a spoof on relations between the French and Belgians, came second in the box office here with 8.1 million entries, followed by "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" with 6.5 million.
Next came Steven Spielberg’s "The Adventures of Tintin" and the Johnny Depp movie "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides".
The box office saw a 4.2 percent rise over 2010 to reach a level of entries not seen since 1966, the CNC said. The number was also well above the average over the last decade of 191 million entries.
The crop of new films that comes out every Wednesday in France always includes at least a couple of US works, and these accounted for 46 percent of entries last year, roughly the same as the previous year.
But French-made films gave the box office a major boost in 2011, with entries for homegrown productions rising 21.4 percent last year to 89.6 million.
The share of French films in overall attendance numbers rose from 35.7 percent in 2010 to 41.6 percent last year.
"It was an exceptional vintage," said Xavier Lardoux of Unifrance, an organization that promotes French cinema worldwide.
He said that apart from the enormous success of "Intouchables", there were a host of other homemade movies that drew in far more viewers than expected.
These include "Polisse", about cops working in a child-protection agency, "The Artist", the story of a silent era film star in Hollywood which is tipped to scoop an Oscar, and political drama "L’Exercice de l’État" ("The Minister").
"Hollywoo", a comedy co-starring Florence Forsti and Jamel Debbouze playing French actors experiencing severe culture shock when they turn up in Hollywood, was another big box office draw.
"The very good figures for French cinemas in 2011 should become very good figures for French cinema abroad in 2012," said Lardoux.
But output for 2012 is threatened after Quinta Industries, a leading French post-production firm, was placed in judicial liquidation late last month, threatening the fate of dozens of movies.