Where Have All Les Francais Gone? 


We saw Truffaut's Les 400 coups at our local arthouse cinema recently; my third time in 20 years, I believe. It's a modern classic, of course, exemplifying so many aspects of the postwar left/liberal zeitgeist : subversiveness, a Wordsworthian belief in the sanctity of childhood, the individual versus the state, all that stuff which was once so familiar before the Age of Reaction.

The fact that this was the first time I'd gone to an actual cinema to see it says a lot: partly that I'm lazy, and have a near-zero tolerance for other members of the audience (eat your dinner and chat at home, buddy), but also that French films seem to be disappearing from British TV schedules. It was never exactly wall-to-wall Parisian existentialism when I were a lad, but you did see the odd nouvelle vague item now and then on BBC2, along with a decent amount from the rest of Western Europe: Herzog, Fassbinder, De Sica, Bergman.

I first started thinking about this, off and on, when the great Philip French commented in the Observer (May 14, 2000) that British TV was becoming more insular. One might speculate that European productions also suffer because of changes in our economy and travel habits: as more people can afford the risky pleasures of the long-haul flight our nearest neighbours seem less exotic, the loci of romance and excitement move further out, to the Americas, South-East Asia and so on.

If I'm right (and it's just a guess), this may not be a bad thing in itself, but I'd like to raise a nostalgic cheer for some of the Gallic icons I grew up on: not just Truffaut, (early) Godard, Chabrol et al, but some of their predecessors, Jean Renoir and-a particular favourite, much underrated-Jacques Prévert. In his films with Marcel Carné, Prévert anticipated the entire genre of film noir, giving Jean Gabin the definitive tough guy role in Le jour se lve (Gabin looks as if he could make Bogart his bitch without the slightest effort). He also created a permanent critics' top-tenner in Les enfants du paradis and co-wrote one of the century's greatest ballads (Les feuilles mortes - Autumn leaves - from Les portes de la nuit). All this on top of the books of arguably facile but often stunning poetry (try Familiale or La grasse matinée), hanging with André Breton and the Surrealists, and looking like the Frenchest Frenchman ever. Quel homme!

This before we even mention some of the great pop icons - no, not Johnny Hallyday but, for example, Serge Gainsbourg, the anti-Cliff of evil melodists; the recently deceased Charles Trenet (look, he may have chuckled in a family-entertainer way, but he gave the world La mer ) or Jacques Brel, covered by Scott Walker and Marc Almond but the equal, as a performer, of either (let's pass over Terry Jacks and 'Seasons in the sun', fairly quickly. And I know Brel was Belgian , but let's not be too pickety).

Of course, so long as these guys are relatively obscure, one's cachet for knowing about them is the greater. But stuff that: their warm, humane voices (this even applies to Serge, on occasion) deserve to be heard-even with subtitles. No doubt it's all subjective, and a lot gets lost in any translation-after all, Truffaut himself considered Frank Tashlin a great director, which was a bit on the generous side. Nevertheless, we can still learn a great deal about style -and substance-from the masters of modern France.

NOTE: Paroles: selected poems by Prévert, with parallel translation by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, published by City Lights, is still in print 43 years after its first appearance.

Mike Morris 2001