PARIS – France's passion for cinema and the collective antipathy for President Bush (search) made Wednesday's opening here of "Fahrenheit 9/11" (search) a headline event that quickly proved a boon at the box office. But, alas, even Michael Moore could not escape that critical Gallic eye.
The movie that won its cinematic stripes at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival (search) in May, taking the Golden Palm, the highest award, wracked up "extraordinary" ticket sales for its first afternoon showings in Paris, according to an official at the MK2 movie chain.
It stole the headlines in several French papers. Elevating the movie to an event, the left-leaning Liberation left the praiseful commentary to its nationally known executive editor.
"Michael Moore is a television show unto himself," Serge July wrote, praising the director as the "American Falstaff of documentaries."
The cover of the Communist daily L'Humanite's portrayed Moore dressed up like the Statue of Liberty, wearing a smile and a baseball cap.
Figures compiled by Mars, the distributor, for movie theaters around Paris showed 4,372 entries for the first afternoon show — compared to entries ranging from 10 to 1,110 for other movies in town.
"It's really extraordinary. We consider a good debut for a French film to be around 2,500 seats sold," said an official at the MK2 chain.
"This film has almost doubled that number. It is a very, very good start," the official said, asking not to be identified by name.
Moore's movie, with its dagger-eyed take on President Bush's policies after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the invasion of Iraq, provides juicy justification for the French, a sort of cinematic "I told you so."
The movie proved to be a record-breaking documentary in the United States where its phenomenal reception raised public interest in the Iraq war.
The situation is reversed in France, where the government spearheaded the opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Polls have shown that the French roundly disapprove of Bush.
"I think this movie is a very good thing," said Clement Ipoulet, 25, after coming out of a movie theater on the Champs-Elysees, where the audience applauded loudly at the end of the show.
"Even if a majority of the French thought this, I think that now they have a confirmation," Ipoulet said.
But the French rarely resist criticizing winners — not to mention anything made in America — and not everyone had accolades for "Fahrenheit 9/11."
The daily newspaper Le Monde was deadly.
"To affirm ... that it was crowned (in Cannes) for its cinemagraphic qualities is either proof of incompetence, a pure lie or a cynical joke," it wrote, questioning whether the movie was what it is touted to be — a documentary.
Le Monde said the film more closely resembles propaganda. The paper carried a separate article to separate "truths" from "errors" in the film.
Moore, in an interview with Liberation, said the movie "presents my own version of the facts."
Even less kind was France's superstar philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy, who dismissed "Fahrenheit 9/11" as dishonest.
"When Michael Moore describes Iraq, before the American intervention, as a sort of oasis of peace and happiness, where people flew kites .... there wasn't only that," Levy said on RTL radio.
Levy noted that he opposed the war and considers Bush a "catastrophe for America."
But, he added, "Saddam Hussein was also a horrible dictator. And that is not in the film of Michael Moore," he said.
For 20-year-old student, Adrien Bloch, the issue is less complex.
"It's very important, this movie," he said. "We don't like Bush and this movie is anti-Bush ... It reflects our thinking."