I didn’t want simply to learn French, but to try to understand French cultural references. I wanted to be able to catch allusions to films, books, songs, cultural figures that popped up in newspaper headlines or even in casual chats.
My conversational ability in French was rudimentary, at best, in my first month in Paris. But thanks to my meeting Renaud and his wife Odette at my friend Daniel’s housewarming, I was able to begin a further course of study – beyond my language learning – in la culture française.
I’d mentioned – or somehow got across – to Renaud that at Alliance Française we had the opportunity to watch French films in its library, films in French with French subtitles, that would help our oral comprehension. As anyone learning a new language knows, hearing that language spoken by the natives is like listening to a bag of mush. Elegant mush, perhaps, but all the same indecipherable.
So watching a French film with French subtitles, even though I couldn’t quite make out what I was reading as people said it, went a long way toward improving how well I could hear the individual words in French. And to immerse myself more fully in the language.
I didn’t want to become French, of course – that would have been impossible, in any event – but I wanted to be a fuller part of the society where I’d chosen to live a good part of my life. I would always be a sort of visitor, but I didn’t want simply to look through the windows. I wanted to be part of the mise en scène. And the only way to do that would be to study local pop culture. Not the highbrow stuff but the fun stuff.
Renaud understood what I wanted – that connection with another culture – and drew up a list of movies I needed to see. Not the usual art-house fare, the Truffaut or Godard films that you went to dutifully. But the so-called cult films that people liked watching again and again. So rather than Truffaut’s “L’Homme qui Aimait les Femmes,” it was “Les Tontons Flangueurs,” directed by George Lautner, and rather than Godard’s “Prénom Carmen,” it was “Le Corbeau,” by Henri-Georges Clouzot.
Every country has its references, the touchstones taken for granted by generations watching at some point in life the same movie or television show. For Americans, it’s often “The Wizard of Oz” or even “The Godfather” – both international hits but less for the dialogue than the story or overall effect of the movie.
Among the films that resonated in France through the years were twothat Renaud recommended to me from the 1930s, by Marcel Carné, better known for the great “Les Enfants du Paradis.”
The first was “Hôtel du Nord,” in which a dynamic Louis Jouvet and Arletty steal the screen from the supposed stars, a bland Annabella (later better known as an ex-wife of Tyrone Power) and Jean-Pierre Aumont (later much more memorable in “Les Enfants du Paradis” as a lovelorn mime). In their most famous scene together, Jouvet, who plays a cynical yet witty criminal, suggests to Arletty, who plays an Arletty type – sexual, knowing, drily amused – that because the cops are closing in he needs a change of atmosphere.
Arletty responds in her astonishing, rising nasal voice, “Atmosphère! Atmosphère! Est-ce que j’ai une gueule d’atmosphère? – which sort of translates as “Do I look like I want a change of atmosphere?” – or literally, “Do I have a face of atmosphere?”
I quickly discovered after having seen the film that anytime anyone uses the word “atmosphere” in French, you’re likely to hear someone else echo it with that Arletty-esque nasality. It’s almost like ending a phrase with the Wicked Witch of the West’s, “and your little dog too.”
The second film was “Drôle de Drame,” this time with Carné directing a screenplay by Jacques Prévert, who adapted a forgotten 1912 British crime novel, “His First Offense.” The film also starred Louis Jouvet and Jean-Pierre Aumont, with Michel Simon and Françoise Rosay.
“Drôle de Drame” is a kind of poetic burlesque, as Prévert later referred to it: it’s a strange and humorous take on folly and crime and self delusion and obsession.
One of the most famous scenes in French cinema occurs between Louis Jouvet and Michel Simon. Simon is hiding something from Jouvet – and Jouvet finds it all, well, bizarre: “Moi, j’ai dit bizarre… bizarre ? Comme c’est étrange…Pourquoi aurais-je dit bizarre… bizarre… ”
That phrase, or a version of it, has been repeated often in French articles and headlines and, in fact, the day after having seen the film, I noticed “Bizarre, bizarre” in a headline. I couldn’t quite yet translate the article, but at least I got the reference. And the reference is the point much of the time.