I’m French. But I’m not super French. I’m not the kind who wears a beret, or rides a bike wearing ballerina shoes, with a bouquet of flowers in the basket. In fact, you probably wouldn’t detect much of an accent if you talked to me.
I am being coy and modest; you would definitely not hear an accent, because I don’t really have one. But there is an area of interest that makes me French as f***: my taste in movies.
When I moved to the US five years ago, I had never thought of myself as a Frenchwoman. I mean, when I lived in France, there was no need for me to define myself as such. But after being shipped to one of the thirteen colonies, my identity was summarized by my nationality. The first few months were rough, it was hard for me to live life as a foreigner, and I was really homesick. There was only one cure for my homesickness: I had to wrap myself in some sort of nostalgia blanket. So, for the first time ever, I started listening to a LOT of French music. Some of it classic and amazing:
Do yourself a favor and listen to La Bohème.
Some of it cringeworthy and terrible:
Do yourself a favor and never listen to this.
Apparently, this is a classic expat move: you start out as a Freddie Mercury-loving, normal person, and then you uproot yourself from your home and you start liking a lot of weird shit from your country. Everyone I know has done this and, like me, ended up feeling more comfortable about their expat status. Even better, I started feeling at home in America (and I still do). That’s also when I started teaching French. I wanted to transmit more than passé composé and indirect object pronouns to my students: I wanted them to be aware of my country’s culture.
Hence my newfound passion for French movies. Because, have you ever tried to get American students to listen to depressing French tunes?
Spoiler alert: they don’t like it. But they do like movies. So sure, French movies are also depressing, but my students felt like they were grasping French culture, much more than when they were merely looking at a textbook.
Now, let me correct something. I said that French movies are depressing, and that’s somewhat of a shortcut. Yes, most of them *seem* depressing, and even the comedies are dark. But if you look closely, you will realize that it’s because they are honest, raw, realistic. I often joke with my students about how French comedies are all set up the same way: a group of friends are having dinner, and then shit happens. Someone starts talking about a long-forgotten secret, feelings get hurt, everyone screams, and then they stare at each other in silence. Boom, nailed it. But when you think about it, doesn’t that sound realistic? When does drama happen, in real life? A lot of times, drama finds you when you are amongst loved ones and someone says something they shouldn’t have said. My students like discussing that, and even if they (and I) still love American blockbusters (I am shamelessly stereotyping French AND American movies here, forgive me), they also enjoy the realness of a French dark comedy.
But there is a genre that I love, and that they LOATHE. I literally cannot get them to like it. I can’t even get them to see it as funny, even in the 23rd degree.
The French musical.
I love French musicals, especially the ones by Jacques Demy. I watched them countless times in my childhood, and rediscovered them during my nostalgia period. My favorite, Peau d’âne, translated to Donkey Skin, is the rewriting of an obscure and creepy fairy tale. It is the story of a young princess whose dad wants to marry her, because she is the closest thing he can get to his late wife -yeah, I warned you, it is CREEPY. So, the princess decides to flee, and disguises herself as a disgusting peasant by wearing the skin of a donkey. So yeah, the movie is weird, there is no question about that. But it’s also wonderfully witty, the music is gorgeous, the costumes are wacky and colorful, and it could be analyzed in a million different ways. My favorite part is when the donkey-skin-wearing princess is baking a cake for the prince and sings the whole recipe. When she cracks an egg, a chick comes out, and it’s so kitschy and cute that you can’t help but smile. But not my students, noooo, they just keep on hating it. They just stare at me and think I’m a weirdo.