Cultural Stepping Stones (and Touchstones)

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.

11 thoughts on “Cultural Stepping Stones (and Touchstones)

  1. I sympathize with your unusual efforts so I give you a tip . When Arletty says” “Atmosphère! Atmosphère! Est-ce que j’ai une gueule d’atmosphère? “, it doesn’t mean at all “Do I look like I want a change of atmosphere?”, but only what it means literally, “Do I have a face of atmosphere?” . It’s funny because it shows the girl doesn’t know this word, and this is clear from the type of intellectual outlaw Louis Jouvet’s character is and the deeply uneducated poor Arletty all along in the movie .

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    • Thank you for the clarification. I know the literal meaning of what she said, but had assumed it was more figurative, thus my own translation. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me.


  2. If you undestand all the dialogues it’s clearer . Jouvet says “Il faut que je change d’atmosphère et ici mon atmosphère c’est toi” – I need to change of atmosphère and here my atmosphère it’s you .
    Arletty answers ” C’est bien la première fois qu’on me traite d’atmosphère” – It’s indeed the first time anyeone calls me an atmosphère .
    And then she starts shouting these phrase every Frenchman knows ” Amosphère ! Atmosphère ! Est-ce que j’ai une gueule d’atmosphère? “

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  3. BTW the cult role of Jouvet is in “Knock” . You should watch this classic . There is another formula every French knows ” Est-ce que ça vous chatouille ou est-ce que ça vous gratouille ?”

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    • I’ve seen “Knock,” and I remember that scene. Thank you for reminding me of it. I’ve tried to find and to watch quite a few of Louis Jouvet’s movies (and one of my favorites is “Quai des Orfèvres”).


      • Good taste . There’s a movie, not a great one, where one can admire Jouvet’s performance as an actor, it is “Copie conforme”, 1947 . He plays two characters, very different, but as one is a fabulous crook who himslef plays multiple figures for his business, you can see Jouvet in maybe 10 personalities, all completely different, from a retired Marquee to a low working class “Parigot” . Just for him the film is worthy .

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  4. Thank you for the suggestion. I may have seen a DVD of it in the racks at the library in the 17th, where I borrow films. I’ll look for it again. I also liked another Jouvet film, not a classic, but interesting: “Les Amoureux Sont Seuls au Monde.” And I quite liked “Un Revenant,” which has excellent dialogue by Henri Jeanson.


  5. If I may (I don’t know your level of French ) I could recommend a humoristic book written by Jules Romain, Knock’s author . This man wrote a huge 20 tomes serious work as they liked to do around 1900, but beside he had fun . So he wrote Knock and my favorite ” Les Copains” .. To me, this book is quintessentially French . The group of buddies are highly intellectual and in the same time they have no respect for institutions or moral . So, under the most incongruous pretext they plan and execute 3 gigantic hoaxes at the expense of two unfortunate towns .
    This book shows how the French are, a thing nearly no foreigner happens to discover . A strong humor, bordering the absurd, a total inventivity, a deep love for mates and sweet France nature . Of course no respect for authorities, army or Church . I re-read this book from time to time because the dialogs are a permanent source of pleasure ( I’m quite close to these guys ) but well you need a certain level of educated French to enjoy it .


  6. Thank you for the recommendation. My French is good now, and I read easily and speak pretty well too. I’ll definitely look for the book — and if it helps me further understand French culture, all to the better. I’ve come slowly to get a better sense of it during my time there (I split my year between New York and Paris), and I’m eager to discover an author I didn’t know. I so appreciate your thinking of this, and thank you again!


  7. I hope it doesn’t bother you I intrude like that in your post . If it does please tell .
    This man, Jules Romain is known for his serious 20 tomes work, but I find it rather boring .
    His “Les Copains” may be difficult because there’s a mix of high literature level of French and colloquial slangish at times . This, is very French, I do it often myself . It brings a sort of pleasure if you rightly choose the moment for each . And this is very French too because as you know there is l’Académie Française and the will among some Frenchmen ( like me ) to keep the notion of what is proper French and what is not, but it remains a notion, a knowledge . Beside this, I never met a people freer than the French towards the language . There are thousands of colloquial ways to say anything, from objects to feelings, some slangish, some rude, some poetic, some funny, some metaphorical … foreigners can’t imagine, nor know . A permanent absolute creativity and fantasy coming from the soul of this people . There also are several codified slangs, some with a dictionary of their own .
    The relationship of the French and their language is the same as their relationship with the law in general : they want laws and rules everywhere, they want them to be recognized, and yet they want to infringe them all the time . BUT, there must be a well known and recognized law . Same with language .
    I’m pretty much so myself, and I realized all that through my travels abroad of course .
    To understand French spirit one must apprehend this paradox . It is far more real than the so-called French paradox related to food and health .


    • It’s a pleasure to hear from you — and of course it’s not bother. I’ve ordered the novel by Romains, and look forward to reading it. Literary language is fine — I read pretty easily in French now. Thank you for your insights into French culture and mores, some of which I’ve begun to suss out myself through my own experiences.


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