Possible Smoking Ban Will Change French Cinema

A staple of French cinema may be banned from film soon.
Anna Karina

A staple of French cinema may be banned from film soon.

A pushback against smoking is nothing new even in France, but Socialist senator Nadine Grelet-Certenais considers the biggest selling point for cigarettes their presence in movies. Her newest proposition to parliament may change the future of French cinema and erase a rich history of classic film.

Cigarettes are under great scrutiny from Health Minister of France Agnès Buzyn as she plans to “denormalize” smoking in France. She has focused her efforts towards the film industry. This comes after Grelet-Certenais lectured the upper house of parliament on cinema’s influence on the smoking industry. She told senators, “Seventy percent 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.”

If she convinced only one person with her speech, it was the right one. Buzyn plans to talk to the culture minister Françoise Nyssen, who deals with regulations in the film industry, about enforcing a ban on cigarette smoking in French films.

“I don’t understand why the cigarette is so important in French cinema,” Buzyn said on the issue.

This ban would prevent new films from including scenes where characters smoke, but what about the hundreds of cherished classic French films that already include characters with a cigarette in their mouth?

French New Wave spanned from the 1950-1960s, using real life as inspiration for movies more than ever. These films are regarded for their candid nature of storytelling and changed the course of cinema forever. However, most of them contain scenes where characters are smoking. This isn’t surprising, considering the popularity of cigarettes was accepted during that time. Naturally, filmmakers concerned with portraying a new generation of French people authentically would include their habits and vices as well.

In the famous Breathless scene below, Jean-Paul Belmondo speaks with a cigarette in his mouth for most of the scene.

If parliament passes any laws prohibiting films with cigarettes from screening theaters, then the classic films that include smoking like Breathless and Vivre Sa Vie will not be able to be screened in cinemas anymore. France has a rich film history and is concerned with keeping that alive by continuing to screen classics in theaters like the Cinémathèque Française. This will be banned as well as new films, essentially erasing the revolutionary work of French New Wave directors from theaters in France. Those new to film will never be able to watch important French films in theaters, an experience the directors of French New Wave films would consider essential.

French film fans are outraged by the proposal from the Health Minister and Grelet-Certenais, claiming it would limit French cinema. “If no longer showing cigarettes in films stops people smoking, let’s also banish crimes, rapes, theft, drugs and other forms of deviant behavior and at last, we will live in a peaceful world,” La Republique des Pyrenees sarcastically reported.

Smoking in films has been increasingly regulated in the United States since 2007 when the Motion Picture Association of America announced that smoking would factor into movies’ ratings. Since then, the CDC has reported a decline in youth films including smoking. “The percentage of youth-rated movies (G, PG, PG-13) that were smoke-free increased from 35% to 74%,” they reported from 2002-2016.

Despite this, advocates continue to push for the MPAA to require an R rating for any movie containing cigarettes. “Giving an R rating to future movies with smoking would be expected to reduce the number of teen smokers by nearly 1 in 5 (18%), preventing up to 1 million deaths from smoking among children alive today,” the CDC also put in their report. These claims sparked a lawsuit against MPAA in 2016, which challenged the new rating required for smoking to be an infringement on free speech.

However, the French ban is much worse than the MPAA’s efforts to make smoking in film harder for younger generations to see. This would make it impossible for people to see classic older films in theaters and depicting past decades realistically. It’s unlikely that French filmmakers would allow this ban to pass, but French officials are adamant about decreasing the use of cigarettes in their country.

Emily Kubincanek: Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_