08 August 2007

To Translate Is to Betray

Dans Paris: Garrel and Duris conjugate the French verb salinger

Going to the movies in France means that French movies are presented without subtitles in English: deal with it. I’ve encountered one exception to this rule. When my brother visited me in 2005, we saw a subtitled print of De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (The Beat My Heart Skipped) that had been sent, apparently by a mistake of the film’s distributor, to a little cinema on the Left Bank. Given the theater’s proximity to the Sorbonne and its many hundreds of foreign students, this may have been a blessing to many. Surely my brother thought so — his French is pretty good, but it helped to have the crutch of the subtitles. For my part, the experience was frustrating, because I understood the dialogue without difficulty, while I reflected on the number of French movies I’ve seen that really needed subtitles to facilitate my comprehension of such minor things as what the hell was going on. (The last line of Arnaud Desplechin’s Rois et Reine was absolutely crucial and thoroughly unintelligible to this listener.)

I average about 85 percent comprehension, according to my unscientific estimate, of the dialogue in French movies. I’m abetted by the French film industry’s penchant for small, intimate pictures in which only a couple of people with theater-standard (i.e., not regional) accents are talking in very quiet settings. If several people are talking at once, or if there are American-style car chases and explosions, my comprehension stumbles, then plummets.

Say what? Emmanuelle Devos in Rois et Reine

If the picture has been dubbed, my comprehension suffers, too: to my surprise, it turns out that I often lip-read without knowing it. A great deal of language depends on what we don’t hear. If I’m in a crowded restaurant, I can follow an English conversation easily, because I know the language so well that I can fill in the gaps of what I haven’t really heard. Because my command of French isn’t so thorough, I have more difficulty.

The less I think, the better I understand. If I falter over one word, I miss everything that follows, and I get lost. I compare the movie-going experience to that of riding in an airplane. The best thing is to sit back, take off and fly, without trying to break down the apparatus, understand its mechanisms, linger over a detail — because if I do, the plane will take off without me — or crash altogether.

The still-gorgeous Marie-France Pisier and Duris, Dans Paris

The review in today’s New York Times for Christophe Honoré’s Dans Paris raises a case in point. I understood a great deal of the picture, when I saw it last year, but there were a few points of which I remained uncertain, and I’m interested to know what the response is in the States, where audiences will have the benefit of subtitles. (The Times review was excellent.)

At first glance, Dans Paris is a kind of homage to the French New Wave of the 1960s, transplanted to the present day. But it’s also an homage to J.D. Salinger, and as I watched, I kept thinking, “This is like a Glass story in French.” And then, voilà, we see one of the characters reading Franny and Zooey. One brother (Romain Duris) is in a colossal funk after breaking up with his girlfriend. He returns to his family’s apartment and confines himself to his childhood bedroom (sound familiar?), never leaving the bed. His younger brother (Louis Garrel), tries to break through to him, but for the most part he’s engaged in a carefree tour of other beds, sleeping with several women and loving every minute. But the dialogue, much of which seems to be improvised, the naturalistic delivery, and the busy camerawork sometimes challenged my understanding — certainly they challenged my appreciation of subtleties of character development. If there were specific textual references to Salinger, I missed them. See the picture and tell me what you think.

Irregular lovers: Hesmé, Sagnier and Garrel in Les chansons d'amour

Honoré and Garrel teamed up again for the surprise hit of the summer, Les chansons d’amour (The Songs of Love), which again pays homage to the New Wave, notably Truffaut, as well as to the contemporaneous musical fantasies of Jacques Demy. One shot in particular refers directly (albeit in a radically different context) to a famous shot of Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac in Demy’s Les demoiselles de Rochefort, and just in case you missed the point, Honoré has cast Deneuve’s daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, in a supporting role. Though I had no problem with the dialogue, Chansons posed another kind of translation problem for me.

As the movie opens, we discover Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), who’s unsure of her boyfriend, Ismaël (Garrel again), and trying everything in her power to reach him, to the point that she’s opened up their relationship: they’re now in a threeway with Alice (Clotilde Hesmé). (Hesmé also played Garrel’s girlfriend in Les amants réguliers, a film about the May 1968 uprisings by Garrel’s father, and a kind of revision of Bertolucci’s overheated The Innocents, which also starred … Louis Garrel.) Julie’s sudden death, a beautifully directed sequence, denies her the answers she’s seeking, and it sends Ismaël into a tailspin. It turns out that he doesn’t know what he wants, and so long as Julie was alive, he didn’t have to figure it out. Now he does. The story’s resolution is unexpected and joyous.

And they sing all the way through it, in a series of breathy pop numbers written by Alex Beaupain. Granted, he’s no Michel Legrand (who wrote the music for Demy’s films), but I loved the score. I walked out of the movie theater and went straight to the FNAC store to buy the album. Only later did I learn that the music is terrible.

I feel a song coming on: Garrel in Chansons

This is alarming, since a great deal of my identity, my sense of myself, is predicated on my confidence in my exquisite musical taste. But the inferiority of the chansons of Chansons was confirmed by no less an authority than my friend David Triestram, a professional accompanist and vocal coach. And even apart from his distinguished credentials, how do you mistrust the musical judgment of a man whose name evokes at once the singing King of Ancient Israel and Wagner’s lovesick knight? Meanwhile, my roommate Bernard dismissed the album as “ringard de chez ringard” (beyond tacky) and forbade me to play it when he’s in the apartment.

Most French pop music isn’t sung so much as whispered or growled. Part of the reason for this lies in the French language itself: certain sounds, especially the nasal N and the throaty R, don’t lend themselves to certain kinds of vocal production. Nobody over here knows how to do a Broadway belt, for example, while American-style rap has been a huge success. Full-out singing is limited to old stalwarts, such as Piaf and Aznavour, who tend (or tended) to cheat by rolling or gargling Rs. Even among classically trained singers, only a handful can respect linguistic sonorities while maintaining a lyric line in French. A great deal of French music struggles to address this problem, actually, and it’s for this reason that Lully and Rameau’s operas show less thundering bravado than those of Handel, and that so much of French art song is, as Anna Russell described it, “wispy.”

French pop is melodically wispy, too, and Beaupain’s chansons fit that bill. A little too well, as it happens. And the cast, not a real singer among the lot, hardly troubles with the scant melody they’re given to work with. Triestram observed that the microphones must have been positioned somewhere deep inside their anatomies. And he suggested where that might have been.

So the question now stands: why did I like this music? Did I think the lyrics were better than they are, simply because I understood them? Was I swept away by the plot, characters, and immensely appealing actors in Honoré’s films, or have I become that most dreaded of clichés, the immigrant whose taste does not survive transplantation from his native to his adopted culture? Am I just another tacky foreigner?

Not just another pretty face: the ubiquitous Louis Garrel

It may be worth noting that Louis Garrel is among the rare French movie stars whom I’ve seen in person. He turns out to be even slimmer than he appears onscreen, and my eye doesn’t perceive the beau-laid traits that the camera lingers on and emphasizes: he’s an extremely good-looking guy. But it’s the venue that matters, in this discussion, for I saw him in the lobby of the Palais Garnier, the night of Joyce DiDonato’s final dress rehearsal for Mozart’s Idomeneo.

So maybe he knows more about music than we thought. And, my appreciation for Mozart (and DiDonato) notwithstanding, maybe I know less.