La Vie en Verlan: How the French Literally Lost the Plot

Michel Gondry

Let me immediately digress onto a tangential subject that will hopefully serve as an intro to my main topic. It occurred to me the other day, when I was discussing with Scarlett Rouge the alarming fact that almost nobody in the English-speaking countries is reading contemporary French writers in translation, that there are no female auteur filmmakers. In any language. None. There currently isn’t, nor has there ever been, an autrice filmmaker, as she would be called.

I don’t consider Sofia Coppola an autrice. The only thing that distinguishes her films as her own are the willful lack of adherence to dramatic convention and the obsession with the inane antics of privileged white female teens and twentysomethings. Her niece, Gia, is doing exactly the same thing, but upping the now signature Coppola Family pretension by working with proto-wankers like James Franco. At this point in the history of filmmaking, the only place I can bear to see the Coppola name is on a wine label.

Lena Dunham does twentysomething angst more engagingly, more intelligently than the Coppola wannabe autrices. Dunham is almost an autrice, except she doesn’t have the body of work behind her yet. And really all that distinguishes her work is her presence in it, the use of herself as a latter-day Woody Allen-type self-obsessed nebbish.

Lina Wertmüller, the first woman ever to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, almost became an autrice, but once she stopped working with Giancarlo Giannini, that never happened. Jane Campion is the same; her work is beautiful, distinctive, but it isn’t unique to her.

By auteur I mean a director like Wes Anderson. Whether you like his pop-up book style or not, it is his. You know it the minute you see it. Another true auteur is Michel Gondry, known best in this country for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Because that was written by Charlie Kaufman, the only true auteur screenwriter, it is indistinguishable from Spike Jonze’s pre-Her work. Still, Gondry’s other work qualifies him as an auteur in his own right; nobody else has that style.

Indeed, Gondry has wandered far into his own world. His Mood Indigo (L’Écume des Jours) is currently petering out at the art houses; there are two screenings at the Laemmle Noho 7 in the Valley, a suitably remote location for Gondry’s most whimsical reverie to date.

I watched it in three installments; watching it all at once was enervating, too much of an assault on both my senses and my classicist narrative and visual formalism. I have no desire to become an auteur myself, which means my patience with them is limited. Although I appreciate some auteurs and understand the practicality of using them as marketing tools for their movies, I believe a director’s persona and personal style should be subordinate to the narrative, the visual language, and the performances.

No director, not even Fellini, an auteur I love, has ever captured the trippy, non-sequitur imagery and editing of real dreams as accurately as Gondry has with this film. Richard Linklater, a quasi-auteur, had that honor in my books with Waking Life before Mood Indigo replaced it; Linklater’s undervalued gem might be a far superior script to Gondry’s piece, but it is entirely rotoscoped to create the dreamscape, whereas Gondry has gone to enormous effort to create his effects in camera. It simply feels more like a real dream; dreams are not rotoscoped. Mood Indigo surpasses his previous The Science of Sleep in that respect: That film seems like a test for Mood Indigo, and it likely was.

I watched the long version of Mood Indigo, the French one, which clocks a hundred and thirty minutes of madcap dreamscape. The American version, distributed by hyper-esoteric Austin-based Drafthouse Films, runs ninety-four minutes. I mention this in case any French cinephiles are reading this, who might try to flay me alive for not watching it as the maestro intended.

However, the film certainly wouldn’t suffer from trimming; the plot is thin, so subservient to the visuals that it laughs in my formalist face. But I laugh back: Mood Indigo will close having made under $10 million worldwide on a $21 million budget. It would have needed to clear at least $60 million to break even. That is a massive loss from an American perspective. I admire the executive producers for cobbling together the financing from no fewer than twenty-five entities, all of which must have been willing to take a loss; there is no way the sales agents generated estimates that warranted a budget that size, and most financiers in my world, the Anglophone world, rely on those estimates (and pre-sales) to move ahead.

In typical fashion, the French threw public funds at a well-regarded artist knowing full well they would never see it back.

I can see France sitting opposite me as I write. She is shrugging disapprovingly, making that pre-expectorating gurgle at the back of her throat when she exclaims, Oh là là! Vous êtes vraiment nuls, les Américains! C’est que l’argent avec vous!

It’s true. It is all about the money for us. I am conditioned by having toiled and struggled so long in the American film industry, in the indie side, no less, that is so much more tolerant of singular visions. I have learned to quash any desire to leave my hallmark on my work. I no longer expect financiers to throw millions at my experiments; I have seen too many financing deals never close because the sales estimates didn’t justify more than a tenth of the budget I needed to put my vision up there alongside Tarantino’s. I admire auteurs like Gondry who can get away with it. It must be thrilling to be them, and perhaps a little exhausting, too.

Literature, specifically the acts of writing and reading, is such a major subtheme in Mood Indigo that one would be tempted to say that’s what the film is about, if it weren’t ostensibly about That Zany Romance with which metamodernist filmmakers like Gondry, Jonze and, to a lesser degree, Kaufman are obsessed. Metamodernism is meant to be a bridge between the purity of modernism and the cynicism of postmodernism, “having been replaced by a post-ideological condition that stresses engagement, affect, and storytelling,” as Wikipedia explains it. I fail to see what is metamodernist about Mood Indigo; it seems purely postmodernist to me, but maybe Gondry really believes that the story he is telling is significant, that the viewer is able to engage emotionally with his characters despite the film’s overall frantic visual and textual eccentricity, which precludes any emotional engagement other than mirth and frequent awe.

As the narrative unfolds, Gondry cuts to a room full of typists, filmed in the convention hall of the French Communist Party, a midcentury modernist masterpiece designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The typists are working in an assembly line on the story you are watching, each typing a few words before the typewriter moves on to be replaced by another, and then another. This central brain place is also a search engine, in which gossiping workers manually look up answers to the queries that the main characters type into the sort of overly gizmoed steampunk computer contraptions well loved by French filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (see City of Lost Children) and Luc Besson (see The Fifth Element).

The assembly line book.

The assembly line book.

Another of these overly gizmoed contraptions is a viewing machine that the hero, Colin (Romain Duris), uses to scan the bookstores of Paris to locate his best friend, Chick (Gad Elmaleh), who has a life-destroying addiction to the prolific writer Jean-Sol Partre, a contemporary philosopher who enjoys rock-star levels of celebrity despite not making any sense whatsoever.

The appearance of Chick and his addiction, woven into a scene that mocks French obsession with food preparation, is that moment in a Gondry film when the irony overload is so extreme that I either must succumb to the silliness or stop watching. I continued for two reasons, the first being that I was breaking down Gondry’s masterful style of evoking dreams using mostly live action footage combined with stop motion, and because I’d just read an article on BBC News Magazine that asked why French books don’t sell abroad. The author, Hugh Schofield, highlighted part of the problem as being the deceptively quaint, but intimidating, small French librairie bookstore of the kind that Colin scans Paris for with his steampunk viewing machine to find where Chick might be scoring his latest fix of Partre.

The switching of the letters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s name to form Jean-Sol Partre refers to the syllable switching in French slang known as verlan. You swap the last syllable with the first; thus, l’envers, meaning the reverse, becomes ‘verslen’, which for some reason is now spelled ‘verlan’ with the S dropped. Its cultural equivalent in the U.K. would be cockney rhyming slang. Its more distant cousin in the States would be Pig Latin, but that’s used by children; verlan, like cockney rhyming slang, is still used in French argot by adults. I speak standard French fluently, but when the dialect becomes too heavy, too laced with verlan-type constructs, then I struggle to keep up. For instance, a common verlan word is ‘ripou’, which derives from word pourri, rotten, the sort of commonly used negative adjective right up there with nul, but I would never catch its meaning midsentence. However, if someone said “à tôt-bien” instead of “à bientôt” as we were leaving each other, I would not only get it, I would get that she’s a bit of a tweedy dweeb.

Verlan also applies to names. There is a technique of taking the last syllable of a first name and putting ‘la’ in front of it, and then ‘du’ in front of the first syllable, transforming my name to ‘la mes du ja’. I learned French as a teen, and began speaking in true conversation when I lived with the movie star Annie Girardot in Paris. Her best friend and neighbor was a woman we all called Picolette. Her birth name was actually Colette Pico.

Verlan is an example of how French minds are conditioned by the country’s compulsive need to complicate the most basic things, to jumble them up. It’s the opposite of the American Shaker/Puritanical/Quaker Protestant-ethical culture that rejects such constructs as pretentious, as silly and unnecessary. It’s why Pig Latin in its various forms is only for kids deliberately seeking to be misunderstood by encrypting their conversations. We discard such things when we grow up.

Ernest Hemingway, the man who reinvented the way Americans write, and by extension communicate with each other and the world across all media, once said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” Words I live by, words I create by. Not so the French.

When I posted the BBC News article on Facebook the other day, I commented, “It’s as if Hemingway never lived in Paris.” Anglo-American literary culture is so completely different from the French it’s as if Sartre is laughing at Hemingway, saying, “Mais non, Papa! It should be, ‘Write soft and confusingly about what is pleasurable!’”

Among some eye-opening statements in the BBC News article was the question, “With the possible exception of Michel Houellebecq, what French novelist has made it into the Anglophone market?” I hadn’t thought about this. When was the last time I read a contemporary French author in translation? My God. This is so true. It was him. But…

Michel Houellebecq? Really? That crypto-Nazi gash across Continental European culture — who lives in ‘tax exile’ in Spain, presumably so he can hop across the border now and then for the better life back home, but not stay for long enough for them to take seventy-five percent of his money to feed children in French public schools three-course gourmet lunches and allow all citizens thirty-one days of paid vacation a year, who was taken to court by the government for inciting racial hatred, but got off on free speech like a member of the Ku Klux Klan — is the most read contemporary French author in English? If you have never read Houellebecq, he is very good, but we have far more daring, engaging, linguistically accomplished… just everything writers in English. And many of them. (Sorry for the ellipses in the last sentence; I don’t know where to end the comparative superlatives, not to mention that I’m so shocked by this revelation that I’ve even added uncustomary emphasis with italics.)

What has happened to you, France? You are the land of Balzac, a huge influence on my own storytelling technique; my film Losing Her was a deliberate doffing of the hat to his short stories. How many more of your authors helped form me? Hugo, Flaubert, Voltaire. The only horror script I’ve ever written was an adaptation of de Maupassant’s Le Horla. Let’s not forget Théophile Gautier; an adaptation of his Jettatura has been on my bucket list since college. And Dumas, who practically invented the action-adventure genre? I’m still shocked by images Anaïs Nin evoked in books I read in my early twenties, and I don’t remember most of what I read back then. I will get around to Proust one day, I promise, maybe when I’m in a nursing home.

Now it’s… Michel Houellebecq? Say it isn’t so!

It appears the French have deconstructed themselves right out of the non-Francophone market. Gondry is right to pinpoint Sartre as the source of the addiction to esoteric, abstruse thinking. It’s as if French storytelling technique devolved midcentury, tumbling further away from mass popularity with the ascent in the last half of the megastar French contemporary philosophers led by Michel Foucault: Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, Baudrillard. I admit I infrequently enjoy listening to that gibberish; I understand little of it, I don’t particularly want to because it’s not clear, and simply not relevant to daily existence in any way. But if you don’t strain for meaning, if you aren’t made flummoxed and anxious by your lack of understanding, there is a certain lyrical whimsy to the gibberish, like Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poetry with its invented portmanteaus and other neologisms. In other words, it’s rather like listening to French itself if you don’t understand the language: so cool and desirable, so pouty and chic.

Jean-Sol Partre

Worshipping Jean-Sol Partre in his pipe pulpit.

When I’m writing a book, particularly if I’m dealing with a new genre such as children’s books or YA novels, I go for advice to the people I think know best about these things: the booksellers themselves. A veteran salesperson at Barnes and Nobel will give me better advice than the most influential literary agents or editors. The BBC News article quotes David Rey, manager of Atout Livres librairie in Paris, who is knowledgeable about both the Anglophone and Francophone markets: “The books on offer here are very different from in the UK. French books are precious, intellectual – elitist. And too often bookshops are intimidating. Ordinary people are scared of the whole book culture.”

Exacerbating the preciousness and elitism is good ol’ French cultural protectionism. It amazes and amuses me to see how long this can last before the government throws its hands up and lets in a little good ol’ Anglo-American free-marketeering to churn and fertilize the field. But it never happens, even when so-called conservatives are in power in France.

Books in France are are protected by a law that prohibits them from being sold at a discount. This means that the network of small bookshops around the country has the monopoly, unlike everywhere else in the world. There are no discounts online or in the sort of dwindling American mega-bookstores that were allowed to massacre smaller retailers from the 80s onwards because, well, that’s how we do things in ‘Murica. Kinda part of our whole freedom shtick, which once inspired the French into revolution, even if they did go typically over the top with it.

One of the greater ironies is that among the most popular writers in France is an American author of romantic sagas, Douglas Kennedy. As he said to Schofield:

The reason my books are popular in France is that I combine an accessible style with serious observations about what you might call ‘the way we live now’. And there is clearly a huge demand here for what I do.

“It’s ironic because it was the French who invented the social novel in the 19th Century. But after World War Two, that tradition disappeared. Instead they developed the nouveau roman – the novel of ideas – which was quite deliberately difficult.”

In the first minutes of watching Mood Indigo I realized I would have to pay close attention to the subtitles, as opposed to just scanning them; even if I speak a language and can follow it without subtitles, I still read them if they’re there — they’re part of the image. But there was a lot of verlan-style jargon flying around, which meant I was forced to actually concentrate on what I was reading for much of the first part of the film. The confusing language, the deliberate difficultness of it, extended to the subtitles. It was as if an unseen group of translators, also sitting at assembly-line typewriters in the French Communist Party headquarters, were having trouble keeping up with Gondry’s impressionistic, yet entirely accurate, take on his countrymen’s ridiculous over-intellectualizations and other recherché pursuits.

Indeed, it seems the average non-elitist Frenchman prefers Anglo-American “hard and clear” storytelling techniques. We are more egalitarian; we do our best to appeal to the broadest audience possible. This isn’t to say that all French movies are metamodernist whimsy, or are otherwise inaccessible. Luc Besson, whose Europacorp produces some of the top-grossing films in the country, certainly knows that. There are a number of other French contemporary filmmakers, most notably Jacques Audiard, whose storytelling technique I greatly admire.

Still, the protectionism is the nation’s Achilles heel: Out of the twenty-five financing entities behind Mood Indigo, a quintessentially French paean to quintessentially French esoteric nonsense, most of them were governmental.

A few years ago I had a surprising conversation with the sort of French everywoman I would normally not meet often, cocooned as I am in my own elitist world. I was staying in Juan Les Pins, a suburb of Cannes where poor indie filmmakers, who can’t afford the Croisette and environs, stay during the festival. I was having my morning coffee in this woman’s café. She asked me where I was from. “Ah,” she said. “Vous êtes forts, les Américans.”

I was taken aback by this. Fort means strong, but in Romance languages a certain coolness is also implied, and the way she inflected it meant ‘really strong-cool’. I was so used to being considered nul by my French elitist counterparts because of my basic caveman-rube American directness, my hardness and clarity, my un-deconstructed approach to storytelling with an eye on the bottom line, being as I am a descendant of Puritan preachers and no-nonsense Australian sheep farmers and convicts. When I asked her why she thought we were forts, she mentioned all of those qualities as being admirable and refreshing, qualities with which a simple shopkeeper without pretensions in a small town in the south of France could identify. She admired that America did its best trying to quell unrest in the world. She commiserated with our suffering in the wake of 9/11. Above all, she preferred our films.

If I look into my crystal ball, I see French culture caving in eventually. I see the influence of contrived, precious ideas as giving way to the practical need for solid storytelling, for better entertainment for the sake of entertainment, not for the sake of being an amuse-cerveau. I see that the protectionism that covers the arts, which is more damaging than it is nurturing, will collapse. Or change in such a way that it is more in line with how Anglophone literature and entertainment is patronized, with an eye to at least breaking even.

It’s tough for us in countries where the government isn’t the main patron of the arts to make a living as creatives. Ours is a system that sometimes kills real talent, but more often it sifts out the crap. One thing all of us know is that the more intellectual you are, and we are most of us capable of it to some degree, the smaller your audience will be, and the less food you have on the table as a result. The French don’t need to understand that. Yet.

At the same time, I also love the French for who they are, for their preciousness, yes, for their elitism, too; it sets a tough standard in many areas. Theirs is a high quality of life; I can see why many people think it the best. I don’t think they are the greatest or even most elevated culture in the world, but they are certainly among a handful, as are we, les Américains nuls, and our close cousins, the denizens of perfide Albion across the Channel, the main culprits for not translating and selling their books.

Isn’t elitism something of a national commodity in France, anyway, a major export? It could be seen to go hand in hand with haute couture and haute cuisine. Still, that is a false comparison: clothing and food are not literature and entertainment. At the end of the day, if you want to woo the French masses as well as audiences and readers outside the intellectual deconstructed-reconstructed-modernist-postmodernist-metamodernist verlan Francophone monde, stop wanking and just tell the fucking story, man. Tell it beautifully, tell it hard, tell it clearly.


Comment: 1

  • jkillough February 18, 20166:21 pm

    @bb Thanks so much for catching that. We’ll never be able to afford copy editors, sadly, so astute readers are always appreciated.

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