I was watching a French film tonight and enjoying it enough, until I got very confused. Then I was frustrated, because I couldn’t seem to connect dots that seemed obvious. Why aren’t they sleeping together? Why did she just freak out and start going into a trance? Why does the son keep pretend shooting at stuff? Aren’t they even going to kiss? Why did a tertiary character just attempt to rape another tertiary character?
To console myself, I had to realize several things about French cinema. Take these with a grain of salt, please; there are many French movies I haven’t seen.
To say that French movies are symbolic is a gross understatement. Everything (everything) is a symbol. The weight of metaphors and symbolism in French cinema is so heavy that when you’re watching a French movie, if you want to get anything out of it, you have to almost disregard that there is even a storyline. If you don’t want your head to be fucked with, or if you aren’t interested in getting anything out of the film, or if you don’t know what metaphors and symbols are, go ahead and watch the French movie like you would any other movie out of Hollywood (Scorcese, Tarantino, Ang Lee, and Julie Taymoor excluded). Actually, if you don’t know what metaphors and symbols are you should probably stop reading this and go to the middle school I attended. Please.
Alright, so you’re disregarding the storyline. There are characters, sure, and they’re doing stuff and saying stuff, okay. What now?
Well, now you have to realize that you aren’t going to comprehend quite a lot of what is “actually” going on because of the language barrier. Luckily, I have a leg up in that aspect and I know enough French to where I can tell whether the translators did a good job with certain lines. In the movie I just watched, there were a few points where I actually gasped a little because I heard something in the dialogue that was definitely not in the subtitles. …I promise.
And that leads me to my next point, which is that most everything that matters is in what is not being said, or seen, or acknowledged. That’s why it’s important to not pay a lot of attention to the storyline or the verbalized characteristics of people, because the nonverbal is more important and more telling. For instance: If it comes across that a character is very proud, very purposefully mysterious, very heterosexual, and very fit, the fact that he breaks his ankle is insignificant. What is important is that his homosexual friend carries him home on his back.
If this were Hollywood, you would know (especially by the music, or by an awkward joke made by the heterosexual man) that this was a “turning point” in their relationship, or something, and that they would eventually be sexually intimate because of the supposedly platonic intimacy (i.e. “bonding moment”) they shared going home.
No, this is a French movie. No awkward jokes were made, there was no music, and the moment was not a turning point in their relationship. It did not lead to sexual intimacy. However, it serves to illustrate a humility and weakness that the heterosexual man had previously not felt or demonstrated. Also, his wife sees the scene and that creates tension.
In many scenes, there is a pool, and at one end of the pool there is a white neon sign that says “Il est grand temps de rallumer les étoiles”–“It is high time to rekindle the stars.” In the first scene where that sign appears, it is daylight so the neon is not lit, but one can still make out the letters. The subtitles do not translate the sign. Later, in another scene, the pool is shown at night, and the sign is lit. At that point, the subtitles translate the sign. It’s a beautiful phrase, but bien sûr–of course the words are purely metaphorical and absolutely inarguably there for a purpose, not just to be beautiful. The catch is that the phrase probably was meant to fit best in one of the first scenes in which it appeared, but you wouldn’t know that because you don’t speak French and weren’t able to translate it when it actually was pertinent.
There’s another scene with the same problem– one of the characters has been working on making stenciled phrases all over the walls, ceiling, and floor of his studio. When all these are shown, maybe a quarter of them are translated with subtitles. But the ones that really count are the ones that aren’t.
How do I know? Well, for one thing, I’m in school and have been a student of literature for quite some time. I’ve been a French student for quite some time, and I have also studied the French theater of the absurd. I also watch a lot of movies, and I also think too much. Voilá.
I also know the French, which is kind of ironic. The French don’t want to be known. I think half the reason French cinema is so weird and difficult to anyone who isn’t a complete foreign movie buff, Francophone, or lunatic, is because that is simply the way the French want it. The French love being exclusive, and I really believe that by making their movies difficult or incomprehensible, it’s a way that they can laugh at people in that very French way. You know what I’m talking about– Monty Python and the Holy Grail, anyone?! Seriously, that’s what it’s all about. They will sit at the top of a tower and laugh at you for ages. They will be very private and withholding and not let you inside.
I’m not joking. But… I am exaggerating. A little. At the end of the day, the French will share their chocolate with you (after sitting you down to tell you the history of it), and teach you new slang phrases that go against everything you learned in school but make you feel cool anyway (after teasing you about your proper textbook French), and they will tell you some secrets… after you gain their trust. Maybe one day they will tell us what their movies really are about… or maybe they’ll say “ha! Je vous rigole!”– the French “JK! LOL!”