100% Made in France

posted by Simon Kemp

While we’re on the subject of newspapers, here’s another report, in English this time, that might interest you. The Guardian reports that, following a call to French citizens from a government minister to support the country’s economic recovery by buying French products, one person decided to do just that. Exclusively.

Journalist and documentary-maker Benjamin Carle set out to live for ten months using, living with, and eating exclusively made-in-France products. It turned out to be harder than he’d imagined:

 

“He set just three rules: eat only foods produced in France, eliminate contact with foreign-made goods and do so on €1,800 a month (above the minimum wage of €1,430 to cover the extra expense of living in Paris).

The journalist was shocked to find out at the start of the experiment that only 4.5% of the contents of his flat were made nationally – and that the rest would have to go, including the lightbulbs (China) and green beans (Kenya).

The removal men left his home almost bare.

Left without a refrigerator (none are made in France), or nail clippers, he was forced to chill his food on the window ledge and saw at his toenails with a penknife.

His foreign-made clothes, down to his underwear were replaced with more expensive, alternatives: French-produced underpants (€26), socks (€9), polo shirt (€75), espadrille sandals (€26), but no jeans as none are produced in France.

On discovering France makes no refrigerators (apart from wine coolers) or televisions, but is big in aeroplane seats and windmills, he sighs and says: “Great. Nothing that will fit into my apartment.”

 

You can read the full report here, and discover why he made it to only 96.9% French. There’s also an embedded clip from the TV documentary he made about the experiment.

Is French a Sexist Language?

la rousse

posted by Simon Kemp

 The French newspaper Le Monde has been taking a look at the question, in an interesting article (in French) that you can read online here. There are the issues we know about, of course, such as the rule that ‘le masculine l’emporte sur le féminin’ in sentences where both genders govern an adjective, pronoun or participle ending:

Les femmes sont rentrées chez elles.

but

 Les femmes et le garçon sont rentrés chez eux.

 

We know too about the vexed question of masculine job titles for professional women :

Madame le maire

Madame le ministre

Madame le professeur

Both of these grammar points cause controversy, and there have been calls for reform, which we’ll revisit another time. Le Monde, though, takes a different tack, and examines pairs of words, which grammatically stand as simply the masculine and feminine forms of the same word. In all the cases Le Monde picks out, though, the masculine form has a positive or neutral connotation, while the feminine form has a derogatory, and often sexual meaning:

– Un gars peut être  bon ou brave, c’est-à-dire un mec sympa. Une garce même belle, restera une garce.

(‘Un gars’ translates more or less as a ‘lad’, but ‘une garce’ means a bitch.)

– Un courtisan est un proche du roi, une courtisane est trop proche du roi

(‘Un courtisan [a courtier] is close to the king; une courtisane [a courtesan] is too close to the king.’)

– Un professionnel est un homme compétent, une professionnelle est une prostituée.

(‘A professional [applied to a man] is a skilled man; a professional [applied to a woman] is a prostitute.’)

Le Monde has several more examples, and a lively debate among readers below the line, about whether the language itself is teaching its speakers from an early age to disrespect and sexualize women. See what you think, and if you think the writer is onto something about French, are you confident that English is free of the same problems?

The Year Abroad Game

Posted By Rowan Lyster, a third year at Somerville College, reading French and Linguistics, and is currently on her year abroad in Montpellier, France. This is an extract from rowanlyster.blogspot.fr

I’ve decided it’s time that the secret competitiveness of being-on-a-year-abroad was made official, and have created the Year Abroad Game. Rewards are measured in smug-points; any inconsistencies in the rules are down to artistic licence (and definitely not the fact I couldn’t be bothered to make up a proper scoring system).

START: You find yourself trapped in a foreign land where nobody has heard of Doctor Who. Will you survive? 

Gain 5 points for each cool attraction you discover in your new hometown.

Such as the ice rink, which has a disco section complete with a light tunnel and hills. In classic French style, this is completely dark, and full of terrifyingly reckless locals. Great fun, despite frequent near-death experiences.

Gain 2 points (and a few pounds) every time you sample a local foodstuff

such as crêpes, of which I’ve eaten a shocking number since discovering the heaven-in-a-pancake that is Nutella with Speculoos-spread.

Gain 10 points if you wring a smile out of one of the bitter and twisted administrators you’ll no doubt encounter.

Such as the receptionist of my accommodation, who regularly tells off residents for the heinous crime of asking for our post. After a determined campaign of sickly sweet bonjour’s, I miraculously got a friendly smile back.

Lose 15 points and go back 3 spaces if you let out a snarky comment to one of the bitter and twisted administrators who’ll no doubt be pointlessly rude to you. 

Believe me, the former is ultimately a better way of getting things done.

Gain 30 points if you get a non-disastrous haircut during your time abroad.

I managed this the other day, despite an alarming lack of French hairdressing vocabulary. Aside from nearly accepting an unwanted fringe, it went surprisingly well!

Gain 20 points if you go on a spontaneous trip with no particular destination in mind. 

We accidentally did this after attempting to go to Nîmes by bus (it turns out there is no bus to Nîmes, despite the confident assertions of 6-8 locals who sent us on a frankly impressive wild goose chase). After giving up on Nîmes, we hopped on a bus and ended up in Pézenas, a gorgeous town an hour or so away.

 

 

Pézenas

Gain 15 points for each new town you visit.

The Nîmes story has a happy ending; we finally made it there (by train) the other day!

 

 

We saw this gem…

 

 

…and this badass.

Gain A MILLION POINTS if you ever manage to actually receive CAF (the French housing allowance).

I was lulled into a false sense of security by a letter saying I’d been approved for this, but apparently that’s just a hilarious prank they like to play before asking you for every document you’ve ever heard of and a lot that you haven’t. On the plus side, there’s free money available to anyone willing to undergo the seven labours of Hercules.

Lose 1 point every time you accidentally insert snippets of English e.g. ‘yknow,’ and ‘like,’ into your target language. 

This is particularly embarrassing in official meetings.

Gain 10 points for each new hobby you take up.

I’ve joined a walking group. Yes, I have become my parents… It’s actually a great way of exploring, as the people with cars drive everyone to somewhere cool.

Gain 15 points per nationality for all the international students you manage to befriend.

So far I’ve met people from Germany, Spain, Italy, Algeria, America, Switzerland, Poland, Brazil and Hungary.

Gain 30 points if you do something ridiculously brave that you’d never do at home.

I went with a German friend to a café that had libre-service instruments, and eventually decided to go for the plunge and play the piano in public. Nobody booed, although hell may have frozen over.

Wild card: OH MY GOD ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN if you completely change your plans for the year. 

By ‘completely’ I mean ‘quite a lot’ – I’m moving house at Christmas and have replaced a lot of my study-time with volunteering-time, which conveniently involves interacting with Actual French People.

Gain 100 points if you get mistaken for a French person by another foreigner.

This has happened to me a few times, albeit briefly. I’m also often asked if I’m German, due to my Nordic good looks (I like to think).

And if you get mistaken for a French person by an Actual French Person

Go home, you have won. 

 

Here’s a bonus picture of the French doing what they do best: taking extremely strange things rather seriously. This man was darting about and pointing at people, occasionally shouting “ACHEVÉ!” all filmed by solemn people in white coats.

 

Le Lunch (and other franglais)

posted by Sam Gormley, fourth-year French student at St Hugh’s, and year-abroad hotel-worker in the Auvergne

Recently, a woman came to reception to ask for her ‘lunch’. It being a calm point of the day- that particular day was a Wednesday, I think, or a Monday, it doesn’t matter- I had just been quietly minding my own business. The sun was out, I was emptying the dishwasher, nothing special, it was a Wednesday or a Monday, maybe a Thursday, and I was minding mes oignons. 

She asks me for her ‘lunch’.

I merrily ask her to repeat the request.

‘Mon lunch’.

All I hear is ‘moleurrncsh’. I ask her, apologetic, to repeat again.

[With annoyance] ‘Tu sais? Leleeurrrnsch que j’avais commandé hier?’

Nope, sorry, still….

…still not getting it.

She looks at me as if I were an idiot, as if this were all a joke, a hilarious joke on my part, and that no, really, ha!, I know what your ‘leeurrnsch’ is, this just a set-up, you’re actually on television right now, joke’s on you! I ask her again to repeat, and by now I’ve gone bright red, I’m floundering like a beached whale, at least, one that can’t speak French, and, somewhere, all my past languages teachers vomit simultaneously.

She then proceeds to mime shoving food into her face, into her unimpressed French face.

And it suddenly twigs. She’s saying ‘lunch’.

Lunch! Yes! YES. I know what that is! At that point I slapped myself on the forehead, jabbering something about being an idiot, how could I not know what ‘lunch’ meant, and I probably looked like a psychopath and she probably reached into her pocket and quietly started dialling for the police.

Now, as an Englishman, I am generally expected to have a decent grasp of English. But ‘lunch’ throws me entirely. ‘Lunch’.  An English word. I failed to comprehend my own language. I hand the woman her panier pique-nique, which is the set phrase I’m used to, still jabbering pathetic apologies, and she nods and gives me a chilling, sarcastic smile and takes her plastic bag of food.

Fortunately, this has only happened once since I’ve been in working in the hotel. Actually, it’s less common to hear nonsense like that than it is to see it. A few days previously, I notice these words on an advert:

‘Le top shopping sensation!’

No, France, wrong. That’s wrong. That’s not French. That’s English. I am English, trust me, that’s not French. There are lots of these floating around, including, but by no means limited to:

– un total-look

– Stabiloter (i.e., to underline something with a Stabilo highlighter)

– une garden-party

– un one-man-show

– un brunch

It’s a strange phenomenon, but one the student of French just simply has to accept, especially when the English word used does not even seem to make any real sense in English. It’s all part of language change and, love it or hate it, it exists, and the French bloody well love it. If anything it adds to the exciting unpredictability (read: maddening unpredictability) of studying a foreign language. But it also adds to its richness; many bizarre conversations are to be had with foreigners on the subject of word-swapping. Not only do you learn about the way in which a modern French person speaks, you also learn about the huge number of French expressions in English. Here’s the catch: they don’t mean anything in French either. I used the phrase ‘un double-entendre’ when explaining to a French person, well, what a double-entendre was. We all know what it means in English: to a French person? Nothing at all. Just nothing. Not even a flicker. The just heard the words ‘twice-hear’ put together for no reason. So it’s as strange for them as it is for us. When you do travel experiences like this, in France, or Germany, or wherever you go for your Year Abroad, you come face to face with the reality of language as it’s really spoken by people (which, incidentally, is nothing like how you’ll speak it for your GCSE or A-levels- but that’s a matter for another time), and not the kind of French the Académie française wants us to learn. For better or for worse (often for worse, especially when stupid stuff happens to modern language students), languages change. All we can do is deal with it, adapt, move on, and then sob silently when no-one’s watching.

 

(For my Year Abroad (2012-13) I worked: as a language assistant in primary schools in Briançon, in the Alps, for seven months; then as a waiter/ receptionist/ barman for two months in a hotel in the Auvergne (South-Centre); and finally as an au-pair for three boys, still in the Auvergne, for two months. This article been adapted from a blog post I wrote whilst I was working in the hotel, hence the lack of context.)

My Oxford

posted by Helena Kresin, first-year student of French and Spanish at Trinity College

I had always wanted to go to Oxford. The beauty of the town, the rich history and the prospect of being surrounded by so many knowledgeable individuals had attracted me from a young age. Some of my friends were intimidated by all the grandeur, imagining imposing professors and fancy dinners with strict rules of etiquette, but I can tell them now for certain that Oxford is far from intimidating. It is true there are certain quirky traditions that have been kept, such as having to wear gowns on the odd occasion, but these only add to the charm of the institution and serve as a reminder of its unique character.

I could never pretend that Oxford doesn’t involve a lot of work, but this should not be seen as a negative aspect of the University. I was shocked by how quickly I improved after just 8 weeks of my first Oxford term and this was undoubtedly due to the constant practice I had writing essays and doing assignments required for my French and Spanish degree. Being kept constantly busy is – I now realise – a blessing, keeping boredom at bay and allowing constant immersion and thus a deeper understanding of the languages I’m studying. In fact, in many ways, I have found Oxford easier than school. At school, there was sometimes the risk of having a teacher who you worried might not help you achieve the grade you want in your exam. Here, there is never that worry. The tutors are incredibly helpful, being only an email away and generous with the time they devote to clarifying anything you might be confused by. The comments and feedback they have given me have proven extremely useful , being thorough and constructive rather than negatively critical. In addition, being in the city and surrounded by all your friends and other students of similar age has meant that going out and doing things outside of the academic sphere is far easier than it ever was at home. I even go out more than friends at other universities, perhaps owing to the sociable atmosphere of Oxford where everyone seems to make sure they have a good time at all of the many events on offer. It’s also great to be able to do the subjects I love and be surrounded by those who love it just as much as I do, with experts in the field able to answer all the questions you’ve long wanted to have answered.

There is certainly never a dull moment here. The tutorials provoke interesting discussions which encourage you to form you own opinion and essays really allow you to express your individuality. I never thought I would say it, but the lectures have proven fascinating too. All of the lecturers I’ve had have been animated, passionate and ready to impart their vast knowledge on a wide range of topics.

I don’t need reminding of how fortunate I am to be in such a fantastic university. I stand by the view that if every educational institution was like Oxford, everyone would be instilled with the same love for learning that I have developed since being here. The only thing that saddens me is that my studies here will one day come to an end.

Come and spend a week with us this summer!

To all Y12 students….

If you have several As or A*s at GCSE and are now studying for your A levels you should have a good look at the UNIQ summer school.  It’s completely free of charge, it’s open to all UK state school/college students in Year 12, and it’s your chance to see what Oxford is really like.

Next summer 1000 students will attend the summer school for one week.  Targeted at students who are self-motivated and working above the average for their school, it aims to provide students with a realistic view of Oxford; of the teaching, the facilities and the people.

UNIQ is a programme of free summer schools held at Oxford University.  Students live in an Oxford college, attending lectures, seminars and tutorials.  The aim is to give academically able students the opportunity to see if Oxford is for them.  Would I fit in?  Am I clever enough? Would I enjoy it? These are all questions that, by the end of the week, students will be able to answer for themselves.

The French course runs from July 12th to 18th, and is designed to offer you a taste of studying French at Oxford, and to give you a sense of the unrivalled breadth of our course. Throughout the week, you will have the opportunity to hone your language skills and consolidate your knowledge of French grammar. You will also participate in classes introducing you to an exciting array of topics, ranging from Linguistics and 17th-century tragedy to French-language cinema and 19th-century poetry.

Other week-long courses on offer include German and Spanish, plus one on Beginner Languages offering a taste of what it might be like to study Italian, Russian or Portuguese from scratch. There are also courses in Middle Eastern languages, and on many other subjects in the arts, humanities and sciences.

The course will give you a boost in your sixth-form studies, and provide you with a great introduction to university life. Come and spend a week with us, for free, and find out what we’re all about.

Online applications for the UNIQ summer school are now open. They close on 24 February at 5pm, so please don’t delay.

Further information and access to the online application form is available here.

Our team are happy to answer any additional questions you may have.  You can email them at uniq@admin.ox.ac.uk

Posted by Simon Kemp

French Film Competition

auberge

As in the previous few years, the Oxford University Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages is organising a French Film Competition, run with the help and generosity of Routes into Languages and the Sir Robert Taylor Society.

The Competition has been a really successful and fun way of getting young people interested in France and French culture. And this year we have opened it up to younger students: all UK students of secondary-school age – from years 7 to 13 – can take part. The challenge of the competition is to re-write the ending of a film in no more than 1500 words.

The films for this year –  Le Hérisson (The Hedgehog) directed by Mona Achache (2009, for Years 7-11) and L’Auberge Espagnole (Pot Luck), directed by Cédric Klapisch (2002, for years 12-13) have been chosen because they talk about reaching out to strange or foreign people. The first film sees a young girl forming an unlikely friendship with a prickly, hedgehog-like caretaker; in the second, a young Frenchman flatshares with eccentric students from different countries on his Erasmus Year Abroad – a situation many language undergraduates have to deal with!

Judging the competition is often a lot of fun and we are always impressed by the imagination and wit of the entries. There are no restrictions as to the form the entry might take: screen-play, play-script, prose, prose with illustrations… and this year, you can even upload a YouTube video or audio file! Entries should be submitted by email to french.essay@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk by noon on Monday 31 March 2014.

A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning student in each age group, with runner-up prizes of £25. For further details about entering the competition (including the points in each film where we’d like you to take up the story), please see the link below, which offers more details about how to enter. It’s great fun and an excellent exercise in creativity! So please do enter!

http://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/film_comp_2014

posted by Will McKenzie

Bons mots: le créneau

Image

Is it odd to have favourite words? Hopefully not too strange among language-learners, as it’s always been the case with me. How do we ever manage in English without the French si, the special version of ‘yes’ for exclusive use when contradicting the person you’re talking to? It’s very handy in conversation, and much more elegant than the English ‘oh yes it is’ (‘oh yes I did/she has/etc.), which is its most precise translation, and only suitable for pantomime usage. And how nice to discover that the French bélier, ‘ram’, not only means the male sheep but also the big wooden thing for battering down castle gates. So here, in an occasional series, are some French words that tickled my fancy as a linguist.

Firstly, le créneau (‘les créneaux’ in the plural). It means ‘battlement’, the up-and-down bit on top of a castle wall, and is related to the English word ‘crenellation’. You can use it literally: the poet Verlaine has a line about

L’archer qui veille au créneau de la tour (‘The archer standing watch on the battlements of the tower’).

And you can also use it metaphorically:

monter au créneau’ (‘go up to the battlements’)

means to wade into a discussion or controversy, particularly one where there’s attacking and defending to be done. That’s already more than we do in English with our own word, but the nice thing about the French créneau as opposed to the English battlement is how much further they take the idea of its up-down-up shape. Un créneau in French is not just a literal slot in the stone parapet at the top of a castle wall, but almost anything else that resembles that shape or reminds you of it in some way. It can be a crenellation-shaped design or pattern, square notches or teeth on a mechanical device, or the shape of a city skyline. More than that, it can be a figurative ‘slot’ between two blocks for something to fit into. You can have a

‘créneau horaire’

in your timetable available for a meeting. ‘Quels sont vos créneaux d’ici à vendredi ?’ (‘What times do you have available between now and Friday ?’) offers the online dictionary, Trésor de la Langue Française as its example. (I’m scheduling classes and tutorials at the moment myself, which is probably why the word springs to mind.)

You can

‘trouver un bon créneau’

in the market (‘find a good opening’) for your product. ‘Une petite société, à condition de bien choisir ses créneaux, peut rivaliser avec les géants mondiaux’ (‘A small company can rival the giant multinationals, as long as it chooses its market openings carefully.’) says the TLF.

My favourite usage, though, is the more concrete idiom

‘faire un créneau’

literally, to ‘do a battlement’.

Rather beautifully, it’s the normal French expression meaning to slot your car into the gap between two other cars, i.e. to parallel park. The TLF illustrates the concept with the handy phrase, ‘Je rate toujours mes créneaux’  (‘I always mess up my parallel parking’), which you may wish to memorize in case it comes in useful in the future.

 posted by Simon Kemp

Are the Three Musketeers allergic to muskets?

So here it comes. Peter Capaldi – Malcolm Tucker as was, Doctor Who as shortly will be – is twirling his moustache as Cardinal Richelieu in trailers for the much-heralded BBC adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844). It’s always good to see British TV take on French literary classics. Let’s hope The Three Musketeers has a little more in common with its source material than the BBC’s other recent effort, The Paradise, for which I’d be surprised if the producers were able to put up the subtitle ‘based on the novel by Émile Zola’ without blushing. At any rate, the Dumas adaptation looks exciting, as you can see above, with plenty of cape-swishing, sword-fighting, smouldering looks and death-defying leaps. Plus one element that is markedly more prevalent than in the book itself: gunfire. One of the odder things about Dumas’s novel for the modern reader  is its singular lack of muskets.

In the mid-1620s, when the story is set, the Mousquetaires are the household guard of the French king, Louis XIII, an elite force trained for the battlefield as well as for the protection of the monarch and his family in peacetime. They are named for their specialist training in the use of the musket (‘mousquet’), an early firearm originally developed in Spain at the end of the previous century under the name ‘moschetto’ or ‘sparrow-hawk’. Muskets were long-barrelled guns, quite unlike the pistols shown in the trailer, and fired by a ‘matchlock’ mechanism of holding a match or burning cord to a small hole leading to the powder chamber. By the 1620s they were not quite as cumbersome as the Spanish originals, which needed to have their barrels supported on a forked stick, but they were still pretty unwieldy devices.

Image

There are lots of weapons in the opening chapters of Les Trois Mousquetaires, where D’Artagnan travels to the barracks, and challenges almost everyone he meets along the way to a duel (including all three of the musketeers). Lots of sword-fighting, but no muskets in sight. One of the musketeers has nicknamed his manservant ‘mousequeton’, or ‘little musket’, and that is as near as we get to a gun until page 429 of the Folio edition, when an actual ‘mousqueton’ makes its first appearance. A ‘mousqueton’ is not quite a musket, though, and in any case it’s not one of the musketeers that’s holding it.

The siege of La Rochelle in the later part of the story seems a more propitious setting for firearms, and indeed, as soon as he arrives at the camp, D’Artagnan spies what appears to be a musket pointing at him from an ambush, and flees, suffering only a hole to the hat. Examining the bullet-hole, he discovers ‘la balle n’était pas une balle de mousquet, c’était une balle d’arquebuse’ (‘the bullet was not from a musket, it was an arquebuse bullet’, arquebuse being an earlier type of firearm). We are now 586 pages into the story, and starting to wonder if Dumas is playing a game with us. The suspicion is heightened when the musketeers take a jaunt into no-man’s-land for some secret scheming away from the camp: ‘Il me semble que pour une pareille expedition, nous aurions dû au moins emporter nos mousquets,’ frets Porthos (p. 639). (‘It seems to me that we ought to at least have taken our muskets along on an expedition like this.’) ‘Vous êtes un niais, ami Porthos; pourquoi nous charger d’un fardeau inutile?’ scoffs Athos in return. (‘You’re a fool, Porthos, my friend. Why would we weight ourselves down with useless burdens ?’) The key to the Mystery of the Missing Muskets is in these lines. Their absence from the novel up to this point is not simply for the historical reason that the heavy and dangerous weapons were appropriate for the battlefield, not for the duties and skirmishes of peace-time Paris. Even when his heroes are mobilized, Dumas remains reluctant to give his musketeers their muskets. Remember that, writing in the 1840s, Dumas is closer in time to us today than he is to the period he’s writing about, and his gaze back to the seventeenth century is often more drawn to romance than historical accuracy (as the cheerfully pedantic footnotes in my edition point out on every other page). For Dumas, the charm of his chosen period lies in the skill and daring of the accomplished swordsman, and his breathless narrative can wring far more excitement from a well-matched duel of blades than it could from a military gun-battle. Heroism in Dumas is to be found in noble combat, staring your opponent in the eye as you match his deadly blade with your own, not in clumsy long-range slaughter of unknowns. Musketeers his heroes must be, in order that they might belong to the royal guard and thus play a role in the dark conspiracies hatched around the King, the Queen and her English lover by Cardinal Richelieu, the power behind the throne. But the muskets themselves are surplus to requirements.

Dumas does relent a little on his musket-phobia by the end of the novel. On page 645, the musketless musketeers fire at their enemies using weapons grabbed from corpses. And finally, on page 705, when Richelieu catches the four friends conspiring on the beach, we are at last granted a glimpse of the soldiers’ own guns: ‘[Athos] montra du doigt au cardinal les quatre mousquets en faisceau près du tambour sur lequel étaient les cartes et les dès.’ (‘He pointed out to the cardinal the four muskets stacked next to the drum on which lay the cards and dice.’) As far as I can make out, this is the only point at which we see the musketeers with their muskets in the whole story, and it seems a fitting way to present them to the reader: lying idle while the musketeers are occupied with other, more important amusements.

posted by Simon Kemp

Bookshelf Film Club: The Class (Entre les murs)

Entre-les-murs_portrait_w858

François Bégaudeau was a young teacher of French language and literature at a school in north-east Paris, in an area that had been designated a ‘zone d’éducation prioritaire’ due to its social problems and low-achieving students. He then wrote a novel about his experiences, called Entre les murs (Within the walls). He then, with the director Laurent Cantet, adapted his novel into a screenplay for a film. He then played the starring role in Cantet’s film as ‘François’, a young teacher of French language and literature at a school in north-east Paris, in a… well, you get the idea. The film was a huge success, and won the 2008 Palme d’or at the Cannes film festival, and it’s easy to see why. Bégaudeau clearly knows what he’s talking about, and it’s rare to see a film set in a school that rings as true as this one. Bégaudeau’s teacher shows a passion for bringing out his students’ potential, but also shows the frustrations involved in having to teach French versification or the use of the imperfect subjunctive to a bunch of not always interested and often rowdy teenagers. He’s also not afraid to show his character making mistakes. The film’s turning point comes after the class’s delegates to School Council, Louise and Esmerelda, have giggled and whispered their way through a staff meeting, then promptly relayed all the sensitive information discussed by the teachers to the rest of the class, including all the grades people are due to receive at the end of the term, and the fact that François described one pupil in particular as ‘limited’ intellectually. The following day, as the class grows increasingly hostile towards him, François loses his cool and inappropriately accuses the two delegates of having behaved like ‘pétasses’, a word which makes the whole class erupt and will have consequences through the rest of the film.

I use this scene from the film in my fourth-year Advanced Translation seminars, where we always spend a good few minutes merrily discussing what exactly the teacher has called his students. When he is forced to defend himself later in the film, he claims that a ‘pétasse’ is ‘une fille pas maligne qui ricane bêtement’ (‘a girl who’s not too bright and giggles stupidly’). His students insist that it means a prostitute. I shall leave you to discover how the dispute is resolved. The word obviously causes trouble for the people doing the subtitles too, who have to come up with a term in English that can fit both meanings. The UK DVD release opts for ‘slut’, which strikes me as being rather more offensive and less ambiguous than the original. Or at least it did, until I discovered recently that for some people in this country it simply means ‘someone who doesn’t clean behind their fridge’.

The performances in the film are extraordinary – especially from the teenagers who play the pupils, who never once look like they’re acting a part – and the film is hilarious, gripping and moving. Sean Penn called it a ‘perfect movie’ when he awarded it the Palme d’or, and I notice that it also received a five-star review from Heat magazine. When the Cannes film festival and Heat agree on a film, it surely must be something special.  I recommend you see it straight away. (It’s available here, or to rent on Lovefilm, Netflix and the like.) Also, it offers good ammunition should you later find yourself at university required to learn the forms and usage of the imperfect subjunctive. The French kids have never heard of it either.

 

posted by Simon Kemp

A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!