“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl”—Jean-Luc Godard, 1991.
The Alliance Française French Film Festival has been running over the past couple of weeks, so we thought it would be worthwhile to run a review section on the beauty that is French film. Including a 2015/16 entry Marguerite, to the 1999 French comedy Le Dîner de Cons and its American counterpart Dinner for Schmucks, this week’s section showcases the class, prestige, and sometimes absurdity, that French cinema possesses.
Noted for having a particularly strong film industry, France is the birthplace of many great directors, traditions and movements. Household names include Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, André Bazin, and Agnés Varda; all of whom were founders of the French New Wave. A movement (although never formally organised as such) which rejected traditional literary practices of novelists, and emphasised self-conscious, youthful, and experimental filmmaking.
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Considering this, here are our top suggestions for watching French films:
- Subtitles are your friend. Although it may seem obvious, turning subtitles on for a film in a foreign language is always a good first step (no, this doesn’t make you special). This way you can become familiar with the French accent and pronunciation before watching films without your training wheels.
- Make it a routine! It may seem daunting to watch a film in a foreign language, but we can assure you that once you start you’ll be hooked. You could try watching one French film in place of one English film every week. Think of it as d’une pierre, deux coups (killing two birds with one stone).
- Start with animated films. Because who doesn’t love a great kids flick? The synopsis and characters are generally easier to follow in these films (French cinema is renowned for having complex plots and character development). Try The Painting (2011).
Films of note:
Pierrot le Fou (1965), Breathless (1960), Orphée (1950), Jules and Jim (1962), Caché (2005), Summer Hours (2008)
Director: Xavier Giannoli
Directed by Xavier Giannoli, Marguerite is the nightmare story of every singer. The wealthy protagonist, Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot), is an atrocious singer, but continues to perform in ever grander venues, ignorant of her terrific lack of talent.
Set in Paris during the roaring 20s, with gorgeous costuming and elaborate set-design, Marguerite is based on the notoriously awful career of Florence Foster Jenkins, who was an American socialite and amateur opera soprano. The episodic film follows Jenkins’ story faithfully, with an unexpected plot-twist. The film introduces an element of naivety that Jenkins perhaps did not have (Jenkins carefully made sure not to invite critics to her performances, while Marguerite invites them wholeheartedly). The film progresses in its cringe-worthy glory as no one, including her ambivalent husband (André Marcon), has the courage to break the fantasy of Marguerite’s talents.
Satirical of the allowances given to the rich, Giannoli creates an absolute farce, questioning the line between loyalty and betrayal. Marguerite’s self-delusion astounds, and its perseverance against impossible odds amuses and horrifies. Class pretensions are pointedly played upon, tragedy strikes. All in all, this film was a pleasure to watch.
For those of you who, like me, need the English subtitles, rest assured that the experience is not lessened—you can still tell that the singing is awful! The only retraction is that, like a lot of French films, it’s a little slower than mainstream cinema.
Français ou Américain?
A review of Le Dîner de Cons
Director: Francis Veber
Many of you will have heard of Dinner for Schmucks (2010), since it stars Paul Rudd and Steve Carell. Unfortunately not many of you will have heard of Le Dîner de Cons (1998), the original French film it was based on, despite the protagonists being played by equally famous actors—Thierry Lhermitte and Jacques Villeret. And, you may not know that its first incarnation was a stage play written by the same French director, Francis Veber.
Le Dîner de Cons is magnificent from the opening credits, with a whimsical song that is full of puns on the word con: which can mean anything from c*nt to fool, and about everything in between. The film creates a mood of exasperation and utter disbelief at the sheer stupidity of some people, as well as the suspicion that no one could be so stupid without doing it on purpose. It must be a con! Here the film brings in an element of English wordplay as well.
Le Dîner de Cons follows the efforts of a group of businessmen to find the densest people imaginable, who they invite to a weekly dinner and talk about their strange pastimes. Each member seeks to introduce a champion imbecile, and after dinner the ‘most idiotic’ is judged. Hilarity ensues when an avid participant, Monsieur Brochant, is tipped off to a particularly eccentric matchstick artist, the bumbling but good-natured Pignon. Hoodwinked into joining the dinner, Pignon is left alone with Brochant at home after a golfing accident renders Brochant incapable of attending. The blundering Mr. Pignon eagerly stays to care for the injured Brochant, even though he causes more trouble.
Francis Veber delivers a marvellous plot, managing to consistently create situations that provoke laughter, astonishment, and sickening wrenches of frustration. Pignon, incompetent as ever, manages to make a final gaffe as his one success is unintentionally foiled, leaving the audience crying with laughter at the end of the film. Truly, the last word “con!” is correct.
Meanwhile, Dinner for Schmucks takes the concept and strips it of wittiness, mystery, and malicious joy. The dinner itself is a feature of the film, the subplot of marriage woes becomes a ‘McGuffin’ (a plot enabling device that the protagonist pursues with little or no narrative explanation—so it’s basically just for laughs), and the ending is happy. Brochant’s character is made more sympathetic, and instead of being a regular contestant he is a first-time participant, trying to win the competition, rather than playing for fun. Other changes are made to the plot, leaving characters benign and out of touch with the deadpan severity of the original film. The schadenfreude element (the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others) is softened, the cruelty of humanity glossed over, the hilarity Americanised and just not as good.
Even with subtitles, Le Dîner de Cons was a hyena-cackle inducing film. Dinner for Schmucks? I could barely watch until the end, it was so cringe-worthy. The humour is so different! The French, who appreciate cleverness and sarcastic, droll, mocking humour, do not self-deprecate themselves in jokes (in general).
In contrast, American humour can’t be too mean, aggressive, ironic, or satirical, especially when the butt of the joke totally lacks self-awareness. Situations and statements are made hyperbolic to emphasise their falseness, or enhance their absurdity.
Puns. The French language offers so much more opportunity with wordplay!
Convinced yet? If not, go watch Le Dîner de Cons. You’ll learn what ROFL really means.