French Hell


Ilan Vardi

Living in France is quite pleasant mostly, 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 incorporating classical American movie culture as part of their own. In particular, this means that every American name is pronounced a 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. It therefore follows that any mention of an American actor, English style, will result in a total failure to communicate. Comprehension can only be obtained through repetition and relaxation of original pronounciation. Every once in a while, I will even get an accusatory: "You're not French!" as if I had just betrayed myself as a dangerous foreign. The scope of this assimilation 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 this American movie character to be part of French culture.

The apotheosis came when I went to see a special screening of the movie The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp at the theater 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. Things got off on the wrong foot when I noted that the director's name had been misspelled. Then came the most annoying part: 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 any American 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." No, it's from some John Wayne western, he claims. 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. I realised that in the French cinematic culture, Pressburger is laid to waste for absolutely no reason, just like Allan in French literary icon Edgar Poe, as translated into their language by Charles Baudelaire.

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

Oh, and if you find French admiration of Jerry Lewis bizarre, right now, there is an "Art House" cinema near my house playing "Two Lane Blacktop" a mostly fogettable 1970 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. What's next, Cannonball Run II?

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