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French cinema fumes over claims it is still addicted to smoking

French actress Brigitte Bardot smokes a cigarette on the set of the film "Don Juan 73" directed by Roger Vadim in Stockholm on September 30, 1972.  -  AFP
French actress Brigitte Bardot smokes a cigarette on the set of the film "Don Juan 73" directed by Roger Vadim in Stockholm on September 30, 1972. - AFP

Old habits die hard.

Decades after Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon turned smoking into a weapon of mass seduction, French cinema is still addicted to tobacco, with cigarettes featuring in almost all homegrown feature films, a new study has found.

Smoking gets 2.6 minutes of screen time on average per film - the equivalent of six adverts, according to a report by the French League Against Cancer.

"Tobacco remains quasi-ubiquitous in French films," said the League, whose president Axel Kahn added that it “vigorously denounces the glamorising of smoking in French films over the past 15 years”.

In the days of the French New Wave, actor Jean-Paul Belmondo spent almost an entire film – the 1960s classic À Bout du Souffle (Breathless) – with a Gauloise hanging from his lips.

Jean-Paul Belmondo in À bout de souffle - Film Stills 
Jean-Paul Belmondo in À bout de souffle - Film Stills
Alain Delon in Plein Soleil  - Film Stills 
Alain Delon in Plein Soleil - Film Stills
Catherine Deneuve at a cinema festival in 1996 - PASCAL VOLERY /Reuters
Catherine Deneuve at a cinema festival in 1996 - PASCAL VOLERY /Reuters

Other cinema greats including Gérard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve and Alain Delon were all prodigious puffers.

But nearly half a century later, some 90 per cent of 150 films from 2015 to 2019 surveyed by the League still contained a smoking "event".

This included a character smoking, the presence of ashtrays and of cigarettes, or a character talking about smoking. Often actors lit up in places that were now illegal to smoke, such as at work.

Mr Kahn said that film leant weight to pro-smoking “campaigns targeting young people, that are as aggressive as they are insidious".

He pointed to another poll linked to the survey that found nearly 60 per cent of French young people considered such scenes an inducement to smoke.

While animations such as The Little Prince are free from criticism, period movies such as 2019's J'Accuse (An Officer and a Spy) are considered among the worst offenders, according to the study.

“J'accuse” by Roman Polanski, released on November 13, 2019. Guy Ferrandis - RP PRODUCTIONS
“J'accuse” by Roman Polanski, released on November 13, 2019. Guy Ferrandis - RP PRODUCTIONS
Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel in Coco Before Chanel -  Film Stills
Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel in Coco Before Chanel - Film Stills

The report, ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Monday, came after French health authorities last year warned that a longstanding downward trend in smoking in France had come to an end, partly due to the “social crisis” and lockdown.

Previous attempts to get French cinema directors to kick the habit prompted howls of complaint from the arts establishment as a violation of freedom of expression.

FranceTV pointed out that a retrospective film smoking ban would put paid to the vast majority of French films, including biographies of notorious smokers like Serge Gainsbourg, lover of filterless Gitanes, but also foreign thrillers like James Bond.

French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, with cigarette in hand, and English actress Jane Birkin at home in Paris - HULTON ARCHIVE 
French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, with cigarette in hand, and English actress Jane Birkin at home in Paris - HULTON ARCHIVE

When a senator in 2017 sought to tackle the issue, the philosopher Raphaël Enthoven said even if well-intentioned, it amounted to “censorship under the pretext of public health”.

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

This time, Mathieu Kassovitz, the award-winning director of La Haine and star of The Bureau, said: ”Movies are not there to be role models - they are there to show what society is.”

"We have cigarettes in real life so they should be in movies too,” he told the BBC.

“Leave movies alone.”