Call to stub out on-screen smoking in French films

Injecting morality into films is ‘like pouring cola into a Château Lafite’, one critic of idea declares

The French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo spent almost an entire film – the 1960s classic À Bout du Souffle (Breathless) – with a Gauloise dangling from his lips. Audrey Tautou portrayed the designer Coco Chanel pinning haute couture dresses while smoking. Jacques Tati was rarely without his pipe and Brigitte Bardot, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu and Alain Delon all puffed their way through decades of movies.

Hardly surprising then that a call for French directors to stub out smoking on screen has been greeted with a mix of disbelief and outright ridicule. It has also prompted the existential question: what would French cinema be without the cigarette?

The debate was ignited after the Socialist senator Nadine Grelet-Certenais accused France’s film-makers of continuing to advertise for the tobacco industry.

Brigitte Bardot
Brigitte Bardot was often filmed with a cigarette. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

“Seventy per cent of new French films have at least one scene of someone smoking. This more or less helps to make its use banal, even promote it, to children and adolescents,” Grelet-Certenais told the Sénat, the upper house of parliament.

Her remarks, made during a debate on the government’s plan to raise the price of cigarettes and tobacco, sparked the interest of the health minister, Agnès Buzyn, who said she would talk to her cabinet colleague, the culture minister, Françoise Nyssen.

“I don’t understand why the cigarette is so important in French cinema,” Buzyn said promising firm action to fight smoking.

A study published five years ago by a French anti-cancer group found that 80% of the 180 films surveyed by the organisation featured a reference to smoking – someone lighting up, an ashtray, a packet of cigarettes – and 10% had more than 10 such scenes.

FranceTV pointed out if the film smoking ban was made retrospective it would mean screening only a handful of films by Delon or Belmondo, no more biographies of celebrated smokers such as singer Serge Gainsbourg – a frenetic consumer of filterless Gitanes. There would also be no more spy thrillers like James Bond and severe cuts to the vast majority of classic French movies from the 1950s and 60s.

Jean-Paul Belmondo
Jean-Paul Belmondo, a prolific on-screen smoker. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty

The World Health Organization (WHO) called last year for films featuring smoking to be given an adult rating. It claimed 44% of all Hollywood films released in 2014 contained someone smoking and that the movies were the “last frontier” in the promotion of tobacco. It claimed 37% of adolescent smokers had taken up the habit after seeing it in a film.

Critics have hit back at the proposal on social media. Le Cinéma est mort, a programme on the Rennes-based radio CanalB, said on Twitter: “At the same time, French film stars should from now on eat five fruit and vegetables a day.”

La Tribune de l’Art, an art history website, tweeted: “I expect taking drugs, exceeding the speed limit, crossing the road outside the marks and obviously killing anyone will soon be banned from films … are they crazy?”

On Europe1 radio, the philosopher Raphaël Enthoven said the idea might have been made with good intentions but was little more than “censorship under the pretext of public health”.

“Injecting morality into the ‘seventh art’ [cinema] is like pouring cola into a Château Lafite,” he said.


Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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