Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tinseltown or La Nouvelle Vague? Paris is the ticket

“Living in Paris is like living in a movie,” a Montmartre waiter once said, and many Parisians would probably agree. With all of the breathtaking architecture, rain-kissed cobblestone and gorgeous people bustling about, it’s hard not to feel as if one’s existence is taking place in, well…a French film.

One of the most delightful aspects of finally mastering French is being able to follow the movies. In France, the French films that run in the cinemas are (obviously) not sub-titled, and many of the older movies one finds at the video club are sans sous-titres as well. If you’ve developed an affinity for the works of Bertrand Blier, Michel Audiard or Louis Malle, you had better be armed with the right vocabulary…including a healthy dose of slang. Otherwise, you need to be in the company of a sympathetic native-speaker who is willing to hit ‘pause’ every few minutes to tell you what is going on.

Parisians are reputed cinemaphiles, and the city is bursting with film houses ranging from the cumbersome, architecturally questionable megaplexes similar to those that dot the North American landscape, to quaint, one-room venues dating back to the birth of cinema. (Pariscope, one of the city’s weekly publications featuring events listings only, commits an average of 75 pages to show times alone.) The culture’s passion for all things cinematic translates into a hodge-podge of offerings from France, as well as the United States, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, England, Ireland, Sweden, Israel, Algeria, India, Korea, China, Japan, Canada, Latin America and even Benin. Reading the marquee is akin to scanning the line-up for World Cup Rugby…or a gala event at the United Nations. The selection - which rivals those of many an urban destination – is so expansive that many Parisians possess annual subscriptions that, for a mere 20 euros a month, gain them entrance into as many films as their eyeballs can withstand.

While French movie-goers concede that a lavishly financed Hollywood still reigns as the tinsel-bedecked king of cinema (and U.S. film openings remain among the most well attended in France), this abundance of celluloid from across the globe points to the country’s interest in works created outside of its own frontiers, and those of the United States. What’s more, a large portion of French movie fans nix the option of watching the latest release in version française (‘v.f.,’ where the dialogue is over-dubbed in French) in favor of the version originale (v.o.), with French subtitles.

A French teacher who has spent the last several years in Vancouver once remarked at how difficult it was to see a good film in his adopted town. Presumably, he had taken for granted the range of offerings he had been privy to back home.

One reason that North American cinema isn’t as varied is the culture’s rejection of sub-titles. Save for a few examples – such as Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, which was filmed entirely in Japanese – the foreign flicks that are screened at a few big city art houses, and the movies that make their way up the coast and across the Atlantic during festivals, we don’t do sub-titles. With the exception of Anglo-Saxons, those populating the rest of the globe grew up with them, and have few problems digesting words and photographic stimuli at the same time. This concept has yet to truly penetrate the collective North American spirit.

Sad, yes, because there’s some great stuff out there. But a hunger for more variety must be accompanied by an open mind – one that welcomes a little culture shock. To someone raised on clean-cut storylines with violins, the occasional explosion, and happy endings, French cinema – with its long scenes of dialogue, followed by dinner scenes (with lots of dialogue), and winding up with sex scenes (and more dialogue) – can, at times, be a bit tedious.

“American scripts aren’t always that great, but the studios have a lot of money, so the special effects are magnifique,” mused a French production manager who works in accounting. “There’s nothing wrong with something being fun to watch.”

Bien entendu.