November in France is also known as the “Mois Sans Tabac,” a movement supported by government agencies that encourages smokers to give up the habit for 30 days. This year, it’s a month in which a polemic has re-ignited over the role that cigarettes play on the big screen.
In a country where a reported 70% of new movies show someone smoking at least once — and where the cinematic patrimoine includes such indelible images of smoking (think Belmondo and Breathless) — what are the chances of extinguishing lighting up from future films?
French senators recently advanced a measure that would increase the price of a pack of cigarettes to €10 by 2020. At the same time, socialist Sen. Nadine Grelet-Certenais said: “We have to look at cultural incitements to smoke. I’m thinking, for example, of cinema, which promotes the practice.”
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Health Minister Agnès Buzyn added that she agrees with the senator. “I want us to take firm action on this,” she said. “I don’t understand the importance of cigarettes in French cinema.”
Some politicians and professionals, as well as a great many on Twitter, have disagreed. David Assouline, National Secretary for the Socialist Party in charge of Culture and Audiovisual, wrote, “So there will be films where people can kill themselves, take drugs, get drunk, drive at 200 KM an hour … but certainly not with a cigarette in their mouth.” Producers Union executive officer Frédéric Goldsmith told FranceTV that a smoking ban would lead to “counting the number of drinks, sex scenes and calories consumed [in films]. … It’s absurd.”
On Monday, philosopher Raphaël Enthoven opined to Europe 1, “Injecting morality into the 7th Art is like pouring Coke into a Château-Lafite.”
As in many countries, France has increased smoking restrictions in public places and advertising during the past several years, largely under the auspices of the 1991 Evin Law. But according to a study released by the public health body in May, 34.5% of people ages 15-75 still smoke, and those figures have been stable since 2010.
It’s early days for this latest salvo in France’s bid to reduce the nation’s nicotine intake, and it’s unclear if there would be a move to factor smoking into the ratings system. While many agree that system is in need of an overhaul after several certifications have been challenged in recent years — mostly owing to sex and violence — one industry executive tells me of a hard crackdown on smoking: “If it’s a battle they start, I don’t believe it’s going to work. Society’s mood is going to be, ‘What? No way.’ It would be ridiculed.”
This person believes that any move would not come to pass “by law or regulation or political decision.” Regardless, filmmakers likely would challenge attempts at restrictions on the basis of artistic freedom.
The lines between smoking in cinema and freedom of speech remain hazy in some places. In India, a tough stance on smoking includes government-mandated anti-smoking warnings inserted onscreen during scenes when characters light up. In 2013, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap petitioned the High Court of Mumbai against the local censor board when it sought to have the warnings placed on one of his films. That same year, Woody Allen pulled his Blue Jasmine from release in India over the disclaimers.
Last year, a U.S. District Court ruled that the MPAA has a free speech right to assign a G, PG or PG-13 rating to movies that depict tobacco use, rejecting an argument that the practice is a form of commercial speech that dangerously encourages kids to smoke. The year prior, Disney’s Bob Iger said he would “absolutely prohibit” depiction of smoking in Disney films with a PG-13 rating or below, unless they involve an historical figure who smoked.
But where cinema advertising is concerned in France, history doesn’t get a pass. In 2009, a poster for the film Coco Avant Chanel that featured Audrey Tautou as the legendary designer with cigarette in hand (see above) was banned in the metro and on buses by the transportation authority under the Evin Law, which prohibits all direct or indirect advertising for tobacco or alcohol in most public venues.
Another poster, from the Cinémathèque Française and featuring Jacques Tati, saw the filmmaker’s trademark pipe replaced with a pinwheel. At the time, Evin, who was behind the eponymous 1991 law, said he found the removal “ridiculous” and that it should not extend to “cultural heritage that fits into our cinematic culture.”
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