Swans Commentary » swans.com May 5, 2008  



The Real French Warm Their Hearts


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - May 5, 2008)   In American show-biz parlance, April belongs to Paris. Walking around the city in its quintessential month, you start to wonder where the real French are hiding. An exhibition of André Zucca's photographs at the Paris Historical Library raises the fear that to look too hard for the real item might end in disillusion. He shot the two hundred and seventy color photos under the Nazi occupation; they picture the "animated and gay" Paris that Joseph Goebbels had decreed. Amidst the propaganda you can't but note authentic joy on some of the real French faces. The Germans paid Zucca and gave him rare Agfacolor film but, though arrested after the liberation of 1944, he managed to avoid prosecution. He worked under another name not far from Paris until he died in 1977.

Seeking out the real French can be disorientating. Ride the very early morning Métro beneath Paris and you see many shades of skin but little that's pinkish gray. You could be in a true global city like New York or London. Nor should you look for the real French in the Paris banlieue of recent ill fame. The youths that regularly burn automobiles among those drab housing estates aren't the genuine article. Marseille offers the same meager supply of real French. They are not even so plentiful any more in the towns and hamlets in between. As in the U.S.A, immigrants no longer settle only in big cities.

Where then do the real French reign? It would be mistaken to see only their hand in the in Neo-Nazi desecration in early April of the graves of French Muslim soldiers who served the Republic. No more could the real French be held exclusively responsible for the occasional assaults on Jews. The sons of North African immigrants are often to blame. But in Amiens the three policemen suspended in February would seem to be very French indeed although they made Nazi salutes and shouted anti-Semitic and white supremacist slogans in a local bar.

Asking around in publishing and theatrical circles, you are told of a great number of individuals "of European origin" who started life in Algeria. Imagining the French arts and academic scenes without them would be like trying to imagine American culture of the last seventy-five years without the input of the children of Jewish immigrants. This injection of energy has also very much touched the business and commercial spheres. But of course, the real French are ensconced there too.

Michel Barnier, French agricultural minister, seems to represent the autochthons in government. He spoke up for the real French at a recent high-level European Union meeting in Luxembourg. He urged that the EU not bow to pressure of the World Trade Organization to reduce its agricultural subsidies. The genuine French note of Barnier's protectionist policy is confirmed by the counter-position of a real Englishman, Gordon Brown. The British prime minister's remedy for rising food prices is a world trade deal that cuts subsidies in richer countries and allows poorer ones greater access to world markets.

For a visitor's quick glimpse into the minds of the real French you can do no better than go to the movies. At the end of April, eighteen million had seen Bienvenue chez les Ch'its, a film that had only been released at the end of February. The population of France is sixty million. It appears certain that more French moviegoers than have ever seen any other film will soon have seen this one. That means more than the twenty million spectators at Titanic in 1998 -- the record for a foreign film -- and the seventy million-plus who saw a puerile Louis de Funès farce in 1966 -- the record for a French film. Bienvenue,the current marvel, cost only eleven million euros to make and has already taken in a hundred million at the box office. In mid-April it was playing at nine hundred cinemas across France. Ticket sales were a steady million and a half each week.

Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis could be translated as Welcome to the Land of the Ch'tis. The words C'est toi, meaning It's you, are pronounced Ch'est'ti in the French department or national subdivision of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. You can go no farther north in France without wading in the English Channel or blundering into Belgium. The diverse pronunciation has meant that the people and culture of the area have earned the name Ch'tis.

The tightly written sentimental comedy moves quickly from one jolly narrative explosion to the next. Laughter stems from the contrast between Ch'tis ways and those of the rest of France, especially those of the south and Mediterranean areas. The humor satirizes with a touch so light that it could be administering love taps. Traditional bugbears of the French public are prodded good naturedly: the civil service and its internal conflicts as embodied in the post office, the omnipresent nosey traffic police, and the discomfort suggested by signage in public transport reminding travelers to surrender their seats to a phantom legion of the handicapped, one of whom only ever materializes when the two legs of the handicap-free citizen have given out. In a word, the script is a cliché story that pokes gentle fun at even more engulfing clichés.

There's the postmaster character's fear of homosexuals, or the portrayal of his wife as an incessant nest-builder, the fact that she works outside the home glided over. The couple even has a cute, camera-worthy offspring who makes wise-child comments, but never so sharply as to upset the market envisioned: the whole of France, men, women and babies at the breast.

Plot tangle number one: The sex life of the couple only thrives when the southern postmaster, who's been transferred to Ch'tis land, makes no more than two visits each month to his home in the south. He guiltily nurtures his wife's fear of the barbaric north in order to keep her from joining him. It's a white lie in a good cause. She's depressive and needs to have her mind focused away from herself and on to his heroism in confronting northern deviations from the Gallic golden mean.

Up north, however, the southern postmaster finds that it's not at all as unfriendly, rough-hewn or subject to bad weather as he feared. A second knot to be untied in the plot concerns a Ch'tis nestling, pushing forty, with a mother problem. Both this unadventurous postal worker and his maman are commonplaces that have been rehearsed to the point of being eternal untruths. The southern postmaster and his northern postman form a comic couple that hand each other in and out of slapstick predicaments. The mother-whipped son will eventually leave home and shack up with his beloved, a colleague who keeps up the feminine head count of the Ch'tis post office and the film.

That the calculating postmaster has to admit the truth to his wife balances neatly with the limp bachelor's obligation to make a stand against his implacable mother. If symmetry makes art, the script demonstrates a gobbet or two dripping with feel-good goo. The locals in cahoots with their new southern boss create a hyper-real charade within the film. They magnify grotesquely the stereotypes heaped upon them in order to scare the unwelcome wife back to the sunny South of France, thus allaying her depression and keeping the bounce in their postmaster's libido.

The comic set pieces involve matters dear to the heart of the real French. Food has the limelight for a spell. The snide have long noted that a French film without a many-course scene at table leaves French filmgoers with hunger pains. Here the far northern culinary offerings are at first feared, then sniffed, tasted, discussed, and in the end found not unworthy of interest. After all, though not mainstream French cuisine, they have been concocted on native soil.

A few driblets of comedy are also wrung from the Northerners' supposed inclination to drink more than the -- supposedly -- measured Southerners. The postmaster accompanies his postman on a second bicycle to prove that it's not necessary to accept a drink with each delivery. You can guess what happens: the shepherding boss gets stinking drunk and the two of them go for a wild carom on their bikes. It's no worse than one of those interminable cinema car chases.

But the movie gives language pride of place. Most other Europeans agree on two points: The French hotel and restaurant personnel are the most morose on the continent, and also that the French have a relationship to their language that's unique. It may be true as Professor Alain Dervin complains in Libération of April 17, 2008, that the said rapport has been obtained by teaching French as an object on its own, disconnected from reality and social practice. All the same, those endless hours of dictation to get the spelling right and sort out homonymy that are imposed on kids at school have shaped, or for Dervin warped, the national mind. Among the comic routines of the movie, the best rendered are surely those where standard French in a southern accent locks horns and syllables with Ch'tis speak. Without pedantry but with precision and fun, we actually learn something.

Dany Boon wrote, directed and played the mother-burdened postman opposite his hierarchical superior the seasoned comic Kad Merad. Two stalwarts of French cinema, Line Renaud and Michel Galabru, lisped through stunning Ch'tis cameos.

So why couldn't we join in with the real French in laughter without afterthought? Is there any reason why they shouldn't have a money-spinning self-celebratory flick? Alas, yes, because this fantasy that's sending the nation to seventh heaven and to the record books is worrying. It begins with the titles that are projected on the map of the French hexagon. The whole story will take place strictly within national boundaries. The only exploring done will be in a part of the nation merely a hundred and thirty miles from Paris. Europe is now said to be without inner borders and the globe itself appears shrunken and familiar. But the French have fixed their complaisant scrutiny on themselves and come up with some dangerous wishful thinking. In one hour and forty-six minutes of movie that continually shuttles back and forth between the geographical extremes of contemporary France, we see not one immigrant face and nothing but lily white skin. The public adores this film because with its defanged, adroit comedy it conjures up a realm the real French would still like to live in. It's a mythical place where they are all alone, snug in their secure borders. It's not so much that they refuse the revenge of the colonized. They simply want to erase from their minds colonies, empire and, indeed, the whole disconcerting world.

The Ch'tis phenomenon has already reached London where the movie has been entitled Back to the Sticks. It has lately inaugurated the Los Angeles Film Festival. Remake rights have already been sold. So perhaps not only real French hearts will be warmed but also the sinking spirits revived of everyone out there in the global carnival who's in a blue funk about change.

It's curious to see how the less real French take to Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis. In an article in Le Monde of April 17, 2008, journalist Ariane Chemin recounts a day's work of an écrivain public in Sevran, one of those gray and insecure Paris suburbs where immigrants are stacked away. This professional scribe fills out forms and writes letters to the social services for the unlettered. Mrs. G, a veiled North African of sixty wasn't clear about what she wanted written. Maybe she simply wanted to talk. She said the only words she exchanged at the supermarket were to answer the cashier's question at the checkout whether or not she had a customer's loyalty card.

Mrs. G's daughter had finished school and held a regular job. The young woman took Mrs. G to see the Ch'tis movie. Now the proud mother urged the scribe to see it too. "I had a great laugh," she said. "It's a French film where there's no violence at all. There's beer, but not too much. It's good hearted. You hear a few swear words, but nothing like what you have to listen to on the bus. And there's no love-making or kisses all over the place."

Since 9/11 Mrs. G found that wearing a veil made people suspicious of her. The poignant part of her take on the film consisted of a desperate need for identification. She had been totally excluded from the France of the movie. But she tried to work herself in all the same and spun her own fantasy within the big grinning one dreamt up for the real French. Unless you counted the Oedipal 37-year-old, there was only one child in the script and he played a minor role. But Mrs. G insisted that the people up north were just like North Africans in having a lot of children and being submerged in family matters. Ch'tis were also like her own people, she said, because they talked loud. Well, yes, nobody whispers in a knockabout farce. But no variation of French, north, south or center, was bringing Mrs. G into the national conversation.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 5, 2008