Asterix is a question of French national pride

You would have to be deaf and blind not to know that Asterix and Obelix Against Caesar will invade cinemas across France today…

You would have to be deaf and blind not to know that Asterix and Obelix Against Caesar will invade cinemas across France today.

With a 274 million franc (£33 million) budget, the celluloid version of the classic comic strip by Goscinny and Uderzo is the most expensive French-language film ever made, heralded by a media blitz commensurate with its cost. Nearly 300 million Asterix comic books have been sold throughout the world, making the fictional discoverer of America and inventor of tea and French fries the planet's best known Frenchman.

Since Christmas, 2,000 Paris newspaper kiosks have been plastered with posters of Gerard Depardieu as the boar-munching hewer of Menhirs, the comic actor Christian Clavier as the diminutive Asterix and the buxom model Laetitia Casta as Obelix's sweetheart Falbala. Paris Match published 14 pages of photographs from the movie, and the evening television news regularly broadcasts excerpts.

For the success - or failure - of Asterix is a question of French national pride. The fact that France financed only 40 per cent of the budget (German companies paid 40 per cent and the Italians the last 20 per cent) is rarely mentioned.


French film makers are counting on the story of a village in ancient Gaul resisting Roman legions to resuscitate their ailing, heavily subsidised industry. In 1998, only 26 per cent of French box office earnings came from French films. US productions are far more attractive to the French public and Asterix, Le Monde says, is "a symbol of Gallic resistance to the Hollywood invader".

A new book called Gaul Recounted to the Gaulois reveals that the first Frenchmen loved wearing bright colours, especially gold and purple. Upper class men dyed their hair red or blond and - except for their beastly table manners - were cleaner than you might have expected. Like their descendants, the Gaulois ate bread and cheese. The rich brought wine from Marseille and Italy, while everyone else imbibed great quantities of beer. In director Claude Zidi's film, the white-robed, gold-staffed Druid Panoramix gathers mistletoe in the forest. In reality, the Druids played the more sinister role of providing endless human sacrifices to their greedy gods.

Until the 1789 revolution, the French knew only of their Frankish and Roman origins. Then the Jacobins equated the Franks and Romans with nobility and the good Gauls with the common Frenchman. The distinction was made as recently as the 1981 presidential campaign, when the aristocratic Valery Giscard d'Estaing was compared to the Romans and Francois Mitterrand to the Gauls. The myth of "our ancestors the Gaulois", taught to generations of French schoolchildren, took hold at the end of the 19th century. Ernest Lavisse's History of France, published in 1900, begins: "Two thousand years ago, France, which was still called Gaul . . . " Lavisse went on to describe Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul, and the brave resistance of Vercingetorix.

He is the model for the short, ill-tempered Asterix of the cartoon strip, who is the antithesis of America's Superman. "Asterix corresponds to the consensual image that the French have of themselves," Le Figaro said this week. "It's not by chance that all of the [Asterix] books end with a gigantic country banquet."

The weekly L'Evenement says it doesn't matter whether the film is successful; the important thing is what it symbolises. The invaders feared by the French are no longer Roman, but "the Europe of Brussels, the Boches or the American World Company". Much of France, it seems, sees itself as a besieged Gallic village.

The Italian actor Roberto Benigni of La Vita e bella fame, has won praise for his portrayal of the Roman legionnaire Detritus. "We're going to sink Titanic with this film," Benigni boasts. "It's the pride of France."

Only 700,000 people must see it for the film to break even. French critics are doing verbal acrobatics in their attempts to be gracious. Carlos Gomez of the Journal du Dimanche said he wanted to laugh but only smiled. "You get bored - a little - and worried," Jean-Michel Frodon of Le Monde writes. "One wouldn't be a French cinema-goer worthy of the name . . . if one didn't know that it's a national matter of the highest importance."

After a long series of gags taken from the comic books, the film is saved by resorting to American methods: violence and computer-generated images of airborne elephants and the magic potion-induced multiplication of Asterix and Obelix characters.

The film's distributors are already distinguishing themselves by their poor handling of media relations. Their press attache refused to talk to me about the film on the grounds that "we don't have a distribution date for England yet".

Ireland, I repeated. "Well, wherever it is, we don't have a distributor there so I can't help you," she said. I then heard of the misfortunes of a colleague from La Libre Belgique. Since Asterix has a distributor for Belgium, he was one of the happy few invited to the press screening and luncheon at Fouquet's.

At Fouquet's, Gerard Depardieu, that monument of French cinema, deigned to speak only to French journalists. Those who had travelled from Geneva, Amsterdam, Madrid, Montreal and Brussels could jump in a lake, the film's PR man told them. "Instead of lamenting the constant erosion of their market share in Europe," Libre Belgique concluded, "French cinema reaps what it sows: Parisianism . . . disorganisation, contempt".

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor