French Hell


Ilan Vardi


La vie est belle in France but there are aspects which, when taken alone and for eternity, would surely define one version of hell.

I'm talking about the French habit of appropriating classical American movie culture and making it their own. In particular, this means that every American name is pronounced à la francaise. For example, Richard Gere becomes reeshar jeere, even when interviewed by esteemed journalists who then marvel at his displeasure when confronted with this Gallic garbling of his name, and, paradoxically even other foreign pronunciations are preferred, for example, Stephen Spielberg becomes Steeven Shpeelberg in deference to the actual German origin. It therefore follows that any mention of any movie personality, American style, will result in a total failure to communicate. In fact, upon hearing Americanized utterances, it is not uncommon for the French to respond in English with the assumption that one cannot speak a single word of French, since no francophone could display such divergence from cultural canon. This is so deeply ingrained that it has happened even if I had previously spoken at length in flawless French! Occasionally, I will be confronted with an an accusatory: "Why you're not even French!" as if I had just betrayed myself as a dangerous foreign infiltrator.



The scope of this cultural appropriation became most clear when I heard a speech by French ultra nationalist extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen who made a reference to Zorro. It became clear, to me at least, that he considers that this character is part of French culture and has nothing to do with the USA which he despises, even though it was entirely conceived in that country, and French fans of the TV show are watching dubbed Disney.



The apotheosis came when I went to see a special screening of the movie The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp at the theater Le Grand Action in Paris, which specialises in American movie revivals. There was to be a lecture by French director Bertrand Tavernier, who is especially interested in the work of the movie's directors, or rather, one of them, as will be explained below.



The prologue of this event is the genesis of this tirade: The owner of the movie theater was to pose a trivia question and award some kind of prize. Anyway, he whips out a tiny bell, rings it and asks which classic American movie this would suggest. Immediately, I raise my hand and say: " It's a Wonderful Life," the correct and best answer, as anyone in the USA (and Canada) knows. No, he says, that is incorrect. I'm, like, what are you talking about, Zuzu's petals, Clarence, and everytime a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.



Much to my surprise his response was that it's from some John Wayne western. I couldn't believe how such a thing could happen, especially in a room full of cinephiles! Indeed, I later realised that no one in that room knew what I was talking about except me. The French title of that movie is La Vie est Belle and the English title means nothing to anyone here. You might as well say High Noon from here to eternity, no one will ever understand you unless you say Le Train sifflera trois fois.



Imagine being in that auditorium with two hundred French men and women whose one passion is American cinema, yet who know nothing of its actual American culture. That is what I call French Hell.



Amazingly, I stayed anyway, and listened to the Tavernier lecture. This too was instructive. It was all about the movie's director, Michael Powell, which is fine, except that the movie was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. So it has come to pass that in French cinematic culture, Pressburger is laid to waste for absolutely no reason, just like Allan has been dropped from French literary icon Edgar Poe, as translated by equally distinguished poets Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. I actually took the opportunity to ask Tavernier about this French lapse and he defended it by mumbling something lame about Michael Powell being the main creative force.

Too weird. The most ironic thing about the whole mess is that I figured out the correct trivia question for the Blimp screening: In which movie are there characters named Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger?
Find the answer here. Hint: Here is how to correctly pronounce the director's name.



Oh, and if you find French admiration of Jerry Lewis bizarre, right now, there is an "Art House" cinema near my house, l'Action Christine playing Two Lane Blacktop a 1971 movie which I taped once on the late late show in the USA, but couldn't watch all the way through. It's most interesting feature is the starring roles of musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. By a strange coincidence, it played on cable here a couple of months ago, once again proving my theory that pretentious "film" types haven't seen many movies because they refuse to watch TV. As a latest update to my theory, I should point out that the whole movie is now up on YouTube, so pretentious film types will now have to expand the scope of their snubs to this new medium.



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