Why One of My Favorite Movies of the Year Was a Huge Flop In Its Home Country

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by Matt Singer
October 30, 2012 5:54 PM
4 Comments
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"Sleepless Night."
Apparently when words get lost in translation, it's not always a bad thing.

Last night, David Chen, the host of The /Filmcast, forwarded me a fascinating email he'd received from a listener. It was in response to the show's recent episode about "Sleepless Night," which I'd appeared on as a guest. The film, a French thriller about a dirty cop fighting for his life inside a crowded Parisian nightclub, was a big hit with critics, both on The /Filmcast and all around the country: it's got a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an A- average on our own Criticwire Network. It's one of the best reviewed movies of 2012.

Make that it's one of the best reviewed movies of 2012 in the United States. Its reception in its home country was, curiously, far more negative. /Filmcast listener Eric Lauga wrote in to the show to provide some context about the negative reaction to "Sleepless Night" in France, and he was kind enough to grant me permission to reprint part of his email on the blog. Here it is (emphasis mine):

"I wanted to bring up something specific to this movie which I hope you will find interesting. I believe none of you speak French (at least not fluently). I am originally from France, so compared to you, my experience of watching the movie actually involved having to hear and listen to the dialogue. And here's what I have to say: it was very painful. 

I agree with your positive opinion on the movie, the great pacing, the tension, the use of space, etc. I think it was a very effective movie. However, the dialogue is perhaps the worst of any French movie I have ever seen. The subtitles actually improved on the dialogue; the original French dialogue, in contrast, was almost too painful to listen to...

The best way to describe it: imagine someone was to translate in French, word for word, the English dialogue from a classic action movie; say, 'Die Hard.' Although none of the words in the translation would be grammatically incorrect, many sentences would feel weird and strangely non-French, simply because the French language just happens to have many small, but ultimately important, differences in sentence construction compared to English.

So what happened with 'Sleepless Night?' My theory is that the filmmakers watched a ton of American action movies, and made a conscious effort to have the French dialogue sound as close as possible to their idea of a classic American action movie. And I guess it does -- when you read the English subtitles. But when you have to actually hear these people talk, it's surprisingly and constantly painful. It's too bad the filmmakers did this, and it might be one of the reasons why the film completely flopped at the French box office (it made less than $300,000)."

Eric's comments are fascinating on a couple of levels. First of all, they suggest the degree to which ignorance is bliss in the world of foreign films. Eric is absolutely correct that I don't speak French, fluently or otherwise. I couldn't tell the best French dialogue in the world from the worst -- as is evidently the case here. With the dialogue passing through my ears like so much gibberish, I was able to focus on all the things about "Sleepless Night" that I loved: the atmosphere, the action, the staging, and the suspense. 

The same thing seems to happen when crummy American blockbusters fare well at the box office overseas. When you can't understand a movie's dialogue, you can't tell how bad it is. I can see how the experience of watching, say, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" would be improved by the elimination of the spoken word. If you can't follow what Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox are talking about -- or if you can't hear the offensive racial stereotypes in the robot's speech patterns -- you're not bothered by them. You sit back and enjoy the spectacle. It's something to keep in mind the next time you enjoy a movie in a language you don't speak -- or the next time you hate a movie in a language you do.

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4 Comments

  • Peter Brandt | November 2, 2012 6:01 AMReply

    Okay, except "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" was also a big hit in the U.S.

  • Guest | October 31, 2012 7:30 PMReply

    That's bull.
    The film was actually rather well received by the french press.
    The reason Sleepless Night "flopped" in France was that it drowned in a sea of box office madness and saturation of cinema screens.
    Between the "Intouchables" monster, Tintin, Twilight, Contagion, Polisse, The Artist and several other movies, there were no screen left for a small budget movie ($4 millions) like Sleepless Night. In Paris, it was released on a maximum of 2 screens, on its second week. It was actually worse on its first, since it was only in one theatre and the showings were totally impractical. I know because I postponed my own viewing for a week.
    The critics complained that a good little movie such as Sleepless Night had no chance to be seen since its distributor couldn't find screens and that the industry should do something about the recurrent November-December saturation. It's not the only movie that got hit in the same way. The animated movie The Painting faced the exact same fate.

    And the dialogues are not horrible. They are not "great" but they are more than "listenable". For a $4 millions action-oriented production, the movie is actually honourable.

  • jingmei | October 31, 2012 3:39 AMReply

    Don't understand why this film could be a topic here, it's nothing special, a common thrill action genre. Don't understand why it got that high rating, maybe it went to U.S. to promote itself well, like to some film festivals.

  • Jonathan | October 30, 2012 6:53 PMReply

    I haven't seen this particular film, but I completely agree with Dave's listener here.

    I am French as well, and being fluent in English I often watch in puzzlement while my countrymen carelessly go see American movies in "version francaise", a poor ersatz of the actors' performance.
    But clearly the flip side of this problem is exactly what Eric describes. Good French actors are often bound to appear in 'prestige' productions (the equivalent of Oscar bait) or low-key movies that are barely more than the filmed version of a stage play. Genre or action movies do not attract the best (I mean on average!), and sometimes wooden or awkward acting is plain to see. But indeed, US review that praise the technical qualities or the screenplay hardly ever mentioned it.
    I guess we can only be resigned. I love HK and Thai cinema but I suppose I miss about 50% of the acting performance because of linguistic and cultural differences, and can't do much about it.

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