06 March 2011

Scotché devant la Télé

Apart from miniseries adaptations of Proust, French television has a lot to offer — principally, endless reruns of American crime series, with the voices dubbed. The networks typically present these, as well as lighter fare such as Ugly Betty and The Simpsons, in two- or three-hour blocs; the British sci-fi epic Torchwood: Children of Earth ran its full length in a single night. This strategy can be great when you want to catch up on missed episodes, or when there’s nothing else on.

Some programs require less translation than others.

You do find yourself wondering how voice actors get hired: the fellow who speaks Marc Saint James’ lines in Ugly Betty sounds as if he’s just returned from a bus-and-truck production of La Cage aux Folles and is about 30 years older than Michael Urie; it’s easier to understand why the woman who voices Marge Simpson can’t compete with Julie Kavner’s mix of uncanny emotional and narrow vocal range. Dubbing accounts for the time-lag between a program’s airing in the U.S. and its airing here: an episode of an American series typically will turn up a full year later on Canal Plus, a satellite-cable channel, and another year after that on the public channels. Often, the French don’t bother to translate the titles of American series, although C.S.I. would be I.S.C. (or maybe E.P.L.C.) in French and is probably inscrutable to most viewers. (They must watch anyway, because it’s inescapable.)

Enquête Policière au Lieu du Crime?

Of perhaps greater interest are those things that the French do for themselves on television, rather than letting the U.S. do all the work. Since the advent of “télévision numérique terrestre” (digital terrestrial television), or T.N.T., we’ve now got access to about 20 channels: something shy of the farandole of cable or satellite, but more than sufficient for this viewer.

Le Téléjournal

As a former CBSer, I watch the French news programs faithfully. The 1P.M. and 8P.M. broadcasts differ from American newscasts in a number of ways, starting with length: they run about 40 minutes, commercial-free,* not counting the weather reports that run both before and after the news. Perhaps not surprisingly in a country that’s in such close proximity to so many other countries, foreign news grabs a good deal of air time; more surprisingly, so do police-blotter stories (or faits divers) and regional news — surprisingly, that is, until you remember how small France is.

There’s also much more arts coverage here: France 2, my network of choice, typically concludes each newscast with a feature story or interview with an artist (usually a performer). Some of this may have to do with the fact that, in France, both the arts and the major television networks receive state funding — and perhaps people here are simply more interested than Americans in knowing not only about movie stars but also about opera singers, jazz pianists, ballet dancers, and more about their artistic processes than about their personal lives. It’s all very high-minded. Mostly.

Les Présentateurs

The only French newscaster to approach the status of a Dan Rather or Peter Jennings was Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, the longtime anchor of the evening newscast on TF1, so famous that his initials were practically a brand name. (For a while, Dan was routinely described in the French press as “the PPDA of the United States.”) However, PPDA was abruptly relieved of his duties a couple of years ago, and since then, the era of the celebrity anchor seems to have ended altogether in France.

Partly I think this is due to the French labor laws: yes, for example, in the States, Jennings might stay on the air for 72 hours, but in France, that’s a violation punishable by fines. The anchors here are rotated frequently, and being French, they take lots of vacations, too. Hard to assert your dominance when you’re not around much.

French anchors are also much less compelling personalities than their erstwhile American counterparts — one could almost say that the lack of a distinctive personality is the goal here. And in something of a challenge to my own long-held ideas about the need for authority in newscasting, it turns out that you really don’t need to know much about an anchor in order to find her or him credible. (Does anybody care what David Pujadas’ journalistic background is?) Still, a couple of French newscasters have impressed me favorably.

Elise Lucet is the principal anchor of the 1P.M. newscast on France 2, and she is phenomenally well-prepared, able to conduct wide-ranging interviews on everything from monetary policy to folk dancing. If she has not in fact seen the play or heard the new album of the performer who is her interview subject in the closing segment,** I have been unable to detect any clue of it; she usually persuades me she’s read an author’s books, too. Intelligent, serious, and engaging, she’s easily the best newscaster I’ve seen in this country: pretty, without being a fashion model, and impeccably poised.

Carole Gaessler, an anchor of the lower-budget evening newscasts on France 3, is likewise professional and capable, a standout among younger television journalists. But the real appeal here is her eyes, which are quite possibly the most beautiful in France. Sometimes I watch just to look at her. Two other favorites, the hard-charging interviewer Christine Ockrent and the glamorous anchor Béatrice Schoenberg, have been largely sidelined lately, because their husbands’ governmental duties posed potential conflicts of interest. Ockrent’s husband, Bernard Kouchner, was until recently Foreign Minister, and Schoenberg’s, Jean-Louis Borloo, held a number of ministries in succession, until last year.

Laurent Romejko presents the weather reports at France 2, and he’s also held other jobs at France Télévisions, including host of the long-running quiz show Des Chiffres et des Lettres, where I first saw him. I was sitting in a Moscow hotel room; in the trance state that typically defines my excursions in the Russian language, I was more than usually grateful to hear anybody speak French. I wound up with a bit of a crush on him. (Blame it on the room-service vodka.) Despite his boyish looks, he’s nearly my age.

Les Séries Documentaires

The best program on French television is Thalassa, a weekly series on France 3 devoted to the sea (thus the title, from the Ancient Greek), but somewhat loosely so: a report may focus on an oasis or a drought, for example. Even when the program follows its theme more strictly, the possibilities turn out to be endless and fascinating: each week sees wildlife, fishing and shipping industries, naval expeditions, treasure hunts, histories both ancient and modern, and travelogues from any point on the globe. The nearest comparison on American television would be a National Geographic series, and the producers and reporters aspire to that level of excellence.

Nearly as good is Des racines et des ailes (Of Roots and Wings, hosted by Louis Laforge, pictured), which looks at cultural subjects, usually focusing on a particular city, monument, or museum. Also on France 3, the program features taped reports interspersed with live interviews and round-table discussions in situ, with experts and an audience. The live camera work is sometimes a bit hyperactive, and the show’s theme music melodramatic, but given the intellectual content, I can forgive the producers for trying to spice up the proceedings a little. The show has become a great favorite of France’s cultural institutions, though it does often look beyond this country’s borders.

Arte, la Redoute

When the restored edition of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, Arte simulcast the movie —
the first time I’d seen more than a few minutes of it.

While the state-owned channels of France Télévisions do feature a good deal of cultural programming — sometimes including live performances of opera and theater*** — our most reliable source for quality television is the Franco–German channel, Arte. We get all kinds of great programs, from classic films to Classical music, from The Tudors to documentaries — often organized around a single theme for the evening. Many of those documentaries come from the History Channel, and are dubbed into French (and into German, across the border), but they’re typically pretty good; the selection of movies is brilliant, a combination of repertory cinema and international film festival, though in recent years the channel has shown fewer in the “version originale” (with subtitles) and more with dubbing. Dommage.

Also available in convenient book form

Original programming has included Le Dessous des cartes, brief, completely engrossing lectures (using maps) about geopolitics; Karambolage, a quirky comparison of French and German customs; and Les Petits Marmitons, a reality show about adorably ordinary kids learning to cook. (All of those show’s titles include plays on words, and translation would require excessive explanation.) There’s an evening newscast, too, extremely international in its focus, and a number of programs devoted to cultural news and live events.


If you have to be told who this is, you are not a serious person.

On French TV, we get plenty of soccer matches, of course, and I do sometimes watch those. Most French movies are produced with funding from one channel or another, so you can expect them to turn up on TV within a year or so of the theatrical release; the glossier miniseries and movies-of-the-week are seldom as bad — or as ambitious — as the Proust debacle.

Some of the superior efforts have featured actors I admire, including Ariane Ascaride as George Sand in a miniseries shot in Sand’s own home; and Jean-Pierre Darroussin in Le Septième Juré (The Seventh Juror), a kind of socio-psychological crime drama.

Laurent Ruquier, host of On n’est pas couché,
a late-night Saturday talk/variety show.
I’ve been told I look like him; Sarkozy is said to dislike him.

Then there are the shows I don’t ever look at: cheesy variety shows, inane reality series, so-so game shows, and cop shows that look just like American cop shows except, you know, the uniforms are French. I’ve never seen a full episode of Joséphine, ange gardien, which seems to be much like Touched by an Angel; its star is a little person, Mimie Mathy, who’s pretty much a folk hero in this country. French TV also boasts at least one homemade soap opera, Plus belle la vie, set in working-class Marseille.

All of these shows must be hugely popular, because TV and gossip magazines breathlessly chronicle their every development, and they account for the bewilderment I feel every time I go to the newsstand or grocery store: “Who are these people? Why don’t I recognize them? Am I in the wrong country?” (I do have the same reaction when looking at popular American magazines, too.)

Mathy as Joséphine, the Guardian Angel

Ultimately, I can justify spending a few hours scotché devant la télé — glued (literally, “Scotch-taped”) to the television. Just by listening, I’m practicing my French comprehension. But I have limits — and even in France, there are times when I peel myself away, grumbling, “Il n’y a rien à cette télé de merde” (There’s nothing good on, dammit).

You will have to take my word for it that, if Apostrophes were still on the air, I would watch faithfully. That program, an influential, wildly popular talk show about books, was hosted by Bernard Pivot.
In one of his books, I discovered the neglected word
that is now the title of this blog.

*NOTE: The state-owned channels run commercials in discrete blocs (usually about five minutes long) in between programs. Commercial channels more often run the advertising blocs in the middle of a program, then segue without a break into the next program, so that you won’t change the channel. Commercial breaks are very tedious to sit through, but they do make it easy to get up, fix a snack, visit the bathroom, make phone calls, etc. There has been much less nudity in French TV advertising lately; I’m not sure why.

**The closing interview segment of the 1P.M. newscast on France 2 is called “Les 5 dernières minutes,” in tribute to a classic French TV series, in which the detective (played by Raymond Souplex, seen below) would ingeniously and elaborately solve the mystery in the last five minutes of each episode.

***France 2 recently broadcast a performance of Feydeau’s Un fil à la patte from the Comédie Française. It was terrible — lacking only Leonard Pinth-Garnell — but at least they tried. When was the last time an American network did anything comparable?

Raymond Souplex as Inspector Bourrel in Les 5 dernières minutes.


Eric James said...

It took me from Stamford to the Botanical Gardens to read-an educational train ride! Glad to hear of the channels that do not seem to take their lead from U. S. TV, which is not currently in its glory days in my view.

Michael Leddy said...

Bill, I greatly enjoyed reading this post. It’s both deeply weird and oddly reassuring to know that there’s something like Touched by an Angel in France. I guess not everyone is reading Reverdy and listening to Poulenc.

Just out of curiosity: does weather get the melodramatic treatment it gets on television news in the States? Doppler radar, StormTracker updates, all of that?

William V. Madison said...

Michael -- The French are much, much more subdued than the Americans when it comes to weather reports. At least on the state-owned channels, there are some rear-projected computer graphics, and a few animated bits (mostly to show the movement of an oncoming front), but none of the Tron-like effects that I saw during my most recent stay in New York.

On the one hand, I guess that stuff is impressive, but on the other, it really smacks of desperation: "Please, please, please watch TV!"

The greatest similarity between French and U.S. weather reports is that the presenters talk very, very fast. It took me a few years before I could really follow them well enough to understand on first hearing. Luckily, France 2 runs weather reports before and after the news, as I say, so I always get a second chance.

William V. Madison said...

Eric -- I may have given you an inaccurate impression. Arte is really the one major network that tries hardest not to follow the American example. Both the commercial and state-owned channels tend to present material that's either a translation or an imitation of American programming.