The top-ranked film in France last week was 99 Francs, based on a best-seller about an advertising executive who confronts the insignificance of his life and decides to end it all. Of course, life gets in the way of his conviction or it would be a very short film.

While not precisely drama or comedy, this kinetically paced, visually eye-popping odyssey might be likened to Network, a social satire grounded in a heightened reality and dripping with black comic observation. It's a story which is universally recognisable and tempered with humour that ought to translate well to most cultures.

Still, comedy of any stripe does not tend to offer a pretty picture at the international box office. Among all genres of movies, it has traditionally translated worst of all across borders. There are exceptions, but the silent clowns long ago retired and their grandchild, Marcel Marceau, took his final bow as 99 Francs entered French multiplexes.

Mr Bean, if not silent, is at least taciturn and physical comedy is a hallmark of his inspired inanities. Though he remains largely a cult figure in the US, his global popularity and recognition is unquestionable - as witness the Iranian guard who invoked his name to describe a British seaman under temporary lock and key.

Local heroes or universal themes'

However, most contemporary comedy is steeped in language and culture and the specificity of Germany's Michael Herbig, Spain's Torrente movies or Tamil superstar Rajinikanth is largely lost in translation.

But it's a shrinking world and subjects and personalities that once seemed alien are finding that international audiences increasingly get the joke, especially when it has a tenable social context. German cinema tapped into the zeitgeist with the black comedy Good Bye Lenin!, and two of the most highly exportable international film-makers are France's Francis Veber and Spain's Pedro Almodovar, both best known for the humorous and outrageous.

Taste for Pie and Bean

Part of the increasing accessibility has to do with specialised cable and satellite channels. But the largest factor is the persistence of the US majors, which in the past would have dismissed many of their comedies as too provincial to play internationally.

Series such as National Lampoon's Vacation and Grumpy Old Men barely received theatrical exposure outside English-language territories in the not-so-distant past.While it's impossible to identify precisely when the tide turned, certainly the success of the teen comedy American Pie contributed to a rethink. The overseas response to such films as There's Something About Mary and My Big Fat Greek Wedding further underlined the potential for films other than action and genre movies to play extremely well in the international arena.

The flipside of the coin has included Bean and Roberto Benigni, and there are dozens of others with potential to cross the Atlantic in the other direction.

What's fascinating about the US experience is that it is now rare for much to be altered in international versions. Some idioms might have to be changed and perhaps a few names, but otherwise the audience appears to be hip to the antics. Or, at least, more attuned than the average movie executive.

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