Film: Life is a Long and Winding River
The Unbearable Bordeom of Being… Bourgeoise
I think it’s natural to make assumptions about countries based on the films they make. I’ve noticed this about subgroups with Americans: my white, suburban boyfriend believed all Black people were like Straight Outta Compton characters, and my immigrant students thought every white person lived in a house like the blond in Clueless. I realize that I built an entire idea of France from the films I watched before I ever moved here. Both subconsciously and consciously we construct entire cultures out of the evidence on celluloid. Imagine what non-Americans must think of us: we all live in huge homes in sunny California, and in high school go to parties where we do beer bongs with hundreds of drunk football players whose only goal is to have sex with as many girls as possible. Oh, wait. That’s true.
Oubliez the exhausting musical film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or a Brigitte Bardot movie. If you really want to know what France is all about, for example, its customs, beliefs, the French way of life, watch the following films. They will help to illuminate the mystery of the French, to get past the red herrings of their scarves, cigarettes and cheese, and to really dig deep into French substance.
Amélie in the Metro de Paris
Questionable Mother-Son Relationships
Maman and Fils in Ma Mére
If you are at all pudique, don’t watch Ma Mére with Meryl Streep-level actress Isabelle Huppert and sexy Louis Garrel. Being a Francophile, I was used to weirdly incestuous relations between son and mother in French films before watching this one. But the last scene surprised me nevertheless.
To avoid a “spoiler alert” I will just say that it involved a death, masturbation and various fluids in a hospital room.
There are also possibly weird mother-daughter relationships as well. In Des Vrais Mensonges, mother Nathalie Baye and daughter Audrey Tautou (see photo above and more below) are locked in a weird threesome. Sami Bouajila has sex first with Tautou’s mother (daughter pays him to do this) before Bouajila and daughter end up happily ever after having sex (mother arranges this).
Nostalgia for A (Past) France (That May Never Have Existed)
Bicycles, long dresses, elegant cigarette smoke, resistance fighters and always a baguette, I think the French would love to believe they live in a sepia-toned 1940’s film about themselves, with blue shutters in the countryside, peaceful stone villages and little boys in suspenders holding up their shorts outside of marbled cafés.
They love to make films about World War Two resistant fighters (and if you judge from the films alone, ALL of France resisted the Nazis, even the Vichys) or else an equally unrealistic ode to a non-existent period: hyper-saturated, surreal, extremely stylized versions of this communal nostalgia, as is exemplified in cartoon-like Tautou’s portrayal of Amélie in the French-titled Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. It’s as if France’s own fabulous destiny is locked in these silver screen reminiscences of a time that probably never was, kind-of like an Eastwood cowboy pays homage to a West that wasn’t ever, either. Or maybe a Tarantino Western: over-the-top, excessive and entertaining.
Two films that express the combination of the French’s mélange of hiraeth and magical realism are Ma Vie en Rose, a film that is not about the singer, but a beautifully stylized, colorful film about a little boy who must come to terms with his unconventional sexuality. Adele Blanc Sec, starring the weather girl gone good, or the French version of model-turned-actor is a mindless, cute period piece.
They have a case of what the Welsh might call hiraeth, or a yearning for places of the past that never really were.
The Beautiful Bohos
If you want to get to know most of France’s most popular actors in one go, try this film.
Click photo for trailer.
Les Petits Mouchoirs also has most of France’s melodrama in it, too. These bohemian bourgeoisies (boho) struggle through what my friend might call “first-world problems” with first class drama, including a friend’s death, unwanted pregnancy, divorce and the inability to commit. But the emotion that finally made me pull out my mouchoir is the grief in knowing I’d never actually have a chance with actor/singer Maxim Nucci in real life:
…nor the realisateur of the film, Guillaume Canet, who is currently shacked up and fathering Cotillard’s baby in New York City and Paris:
Les Le Quesnoys
The Necessary Tragedy of the Bourgeoisie
Catholicism, mistresses, cheating wives, and the horrendous mistake of eating crepes outside of the Fête de Chandeleur, La vie est un long fleuve tranquille makes fun of French social class in a silly but cutting way. Etienne Chatiliez made this film about a nurse who, angered by the doctor she is having an affair with, switches a poor newborn (family name: Groseille, or Cranberry) with a bourgeois one (family name: Le Quesnoy). When the secret comes out about ten years later, all hell breaks loose, including glue sniffing, swimming in polluted rivers, sex in the back seat, and a mother who loses her faith in God.
The family from the other side of the winding river…
Another movie that keeps up the theme of adultery and bourgeois families is what the Richard Gere-Diane Lane Hollywood Unfaithful was copied from. Claude Chabrol, one of France’s legendary filmmakers, credited with starting the New Wave movement, made La Femme Infidel in 1969. The stifling, suffocating politeness and codified behaviors of the bourgeois seep through the well-dressed actors in this film, and the repressiveness eventually leads to cheating and murder, the twist being, like the American film, that the married couple colludes in the end and is forced to live with two horrible secrets. Maybe I am drawing conclusions from cinema alone, but I wonder if the reason adultery is so common in this country is because it is a way to escape that smothering lifestyle. After all, one word to express affair is aventure (an adventure).
The stills from the film illustrate the claustorphobic enviornment of a bourgeoise life:
Tea for Two
Frigidity or Boredom…?
I mentioned Claude Chabrol, but perhaps even more famous and more revered is filmmaker Francois Truffaut. One cannot speak about French cinema without mentioning what IMDB so tenderly describes as the “intensely touching story of a misunderstood young adolescent who, left without attention, delves into a life of petty crime.” This adolescent is Antoine Doinel. Jean-Pierre Léaud was fourteen in 1959 when he starred in the infamous 400 Coups (inappropriately translated as The 400 Blows). Often considered the “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave movement, he went on to make several other films as Doinel, including Baisers Volés and the weird Domicile Conjugal. You might not be able to sit through all of these movies, but 400 Coups is worth the watch, even for non-film students!
The legendary last shot of the film
Hors de Prix for two popular actors, Audrey Tautou (of Amélie fame) and Gad Emaleh, and a look at the way the South of France is fattened with wealth, especially in the summertime.
Les Infidèles: for an unapolgetic look at serial cheaters and the homoeroticism hidden not so deeply below it, with Jean Dujardin.
These guys also starred in Les Petits Mouchoirs.
Now you never even have to visit the country of Oedipal mothers, unfaithful spouses and old money to know exactly what it’s like. All you have to do is watch some movies.
Expression of the Day
Il fait ses quatre cents coups. He’s sowing his wild oats.
"Marriage for all! Mariage pour tous!"
Practicing your French by taking out any film from the library, as long as it has subtitles for the “hearing impaired”
Watching only American films in VO (original, non-dubbed version) which doesn’t help you improve your French at all!
Making over the boy from the bad side of town in La Vie
Explanations and Words:
Pudique: Prudish, modest, discreet
Fête de Chandeleur: A Christian-based celebration in the beginning of February where everyone eats crêpes.
La vie est… film: Life is a long and winding river.
Aventure: Eskimos have one hundred words for snow, the French have as many for affair.
Film: Ma Vie en Rose