Perhaps not destined for immortality alongside the films of Renoir, Truffaut and Godard (we’ll get around to them later), Panique au village (2010) is nevertheless one of the most striking and original French-language films this decade. I mention it now because, as The Lego Movie sweeps the planet with wild enthusiasm for manic silliness, delirious inventiveness and non-stop action performed by small plastic children’s toys, it’s a good moment to hunt out that film’s spiritual godfather. In fact, if the makers of The Lego Movie didn’t watch A Town Called Panic while they were coming up with their ideas, then there’s a surprising coincidence of tone between the two films.
The main characters of A Town Called Panic are a house-sharing group of three friends, one of whom happens to be a small plastic cowboy, one of whom is a small plastic Indian, and the third a small plastic horse. All three of them live in a perpetual state of frenetic excitement, speak very fast, and have a tendency to panic. If they seem familiar, it may be because they also starred in adverts for Cravendale milk on British TV a few years ago. The story begins when Cowboy and Indian plan to build a barbecue for Horse’s birthday party, but accidentally order over the internet a billion times more bricks than they require to build it. The resulting delivery destroys their house, but each time they try to rebuild it, someone steals the walls during the night. They discover the thieves to be a group of sea-monsters, who…
Actually, that’s as far as I can really get with summarizing the plot, which seemed to make sense when I watched the film, but now just leaves me confused and giggling. Let me just say that it’s very funny, and if you liked Emmet, Wyldstyle and Unikitty, you’ll like these too. Here’s a flavour of it from the trailer:
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 email@example.com 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!
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.
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!
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