Rewatching #ThreeColours and Other Films

Even before the lockdown, I’d started an extensive programme of film viewing with my older son. However, he is a bit of a stickler about his planning and is proving truculent about watching films which are not on his current list of ‘must watch in 2020’, even if they are classics or might be very much to his taste. So I end up watching and rewatching quite a lot of films on my own too.

One trilogy I am very glad I rewatched was Kieslowski’s Three Colourswhich arose quite spontaneously from a Twitter exchange with @jacquiwine and @messy_tony. Quite a few others joined in and we even created a hashtag with the British spelling #threecolours.

My favourite remains Blue, with its amazing music and such a poignant description of grief. I had forgotten details such as finding a nest of mice in the Paris flat, but I had remembered the scene where Julie trails the back of her hand against the rough stone wall and wounds herself. I found Olivier rather creepy and difficult to stomach this time round and wish Julie had chosen differently at the end. White continues to be difficult for me to watch, as I remember the lawless, difficult post-Communist years and feeling like a second-hand citizen in the West all too well. This time round I found it difficult to empathise at all with the Delpy character – she seemed like such a blank (perhaps deliberately so – the nail upon which Eastern Europe hangs all of their hopes, desires, ideals), while actor Zbigniew Zamachowski’s expressive eyes made me almost ready to forgive him even as he becomes as much of an asshole as his ex-wife. With Red, I was surprised that I’d forgotten it was set in Geneva – although at the time I had no connection to Geneva at all, so the location seemed less important and I just assumed it was France. The parallel storyline of Auguste and his personalised weather forecaster seemed almost a nuisance, despite its resonance upon the judge’s story, while the ending felt rather melodramatic and forced. I found the gradual unfolding of the prickly friendship between Valentine and the judge far more interesting, with Valentine being the most sympathetic (though not necessarily the most interesting) character in the whole trilogy. She is, after all, the only one who helps the recurring character of a frail, hunch-backed elderly person trying to push a bottle into the bottle-bank.

Another rewatch, this time with the boys, was the first series of The Wire (I watched it in fits and starts when it first came out, since I never had Sky or other paid for channels, so it felt quite fresh to me as well). The sense of hopelessness felt much more palpable to me now (or is it because I am older) and my favourite character remains Kima, although I might have annoyed my kids by exclaiming nearly every time I saw Dominic West or Idris Elba ‘Look how young they were back then!’

I have also resubscribed to Mubi and have enjoyed quite a few films there over the past month. The most noteworthy were Bong Joon-Ho’s stunning and moving Mother; Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love which is visually one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen (and a real tear-jerker); Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, viscerally disturbing but very powerful, charismatic acting from the two main characters; and a 1950s gem from Japan Our Town, featuring a larger than life main character struggling with the modernisation of Japan after the war. Lest you think I’ve turned completely Asian, I was also impressed with Melville’s Army of Shadows about the French Resistance, where the violence is buried only slightly deeper below the surface than in the Korean films. The historical facts add more depth and gravitas to the noirish direction we’re used to from his gangster films. Lourdes by Jessica Hausner was full of tiny satirical details about miracle healings at the pilgrimage site of Lourdes and yet ultimately made you question your lack of faith, and the Polish film Idadirected by Pawel Pawlikowski, has a young would-be nun discovering her family’s Jewish origin and their fate during the war.

 

Bilingualism and Other Passionate Diseases

MizubayashiAkira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs (A Language From Somewhere Else)

‘This is too semblant to others.’ ‘There is no good explication for that.’ ‘I got 19 on 20 for my French test, I’m such an intello!’ are sentences my children regularly come up with, while I patiently try to correct their English. (I’ve given up – temporarily – on improving their Romanian.) But I remember I used to speak a mix of languages (within the same sentence) when I was a child. It hasn’t stopped me from being able to enjoy watching films, reading, conversing in each of those languages (separately) as a grown-up.

Besides, languages are much more than a practical tool. They represent the gateway to a different culture and mindset. Which has always been one of the most enticing things in the universe to me: learning how others think, why they behave in a certain way, what they believe, what they hold dear… How can it get any more interesting than that?

Japanese writer and professor of French Akira Mizubayashi seems to share my fascination with language as an entrance point to a whole new culture. Except, in his case, he accessed it of his own free will at the age of 19 – thanks to a passion for Rousseau and Mozart’s Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro. Much more admirable than all those multilingual children out there, as it’s so much harder to learn a new language at an advanced age.

This book documents his journey into French culture: his years spent recording French lessons on the radio and playing them over and over, imitating the accent and tonality; his first study trip abroad in Montpellier and his awkward attempts at making polite conversation; meeting his French wife; attempting to raise their own daughter with both languages. But it’s much more than an autobiography. It is a declaration of love to the French language and a fond remembrance of some of his favourite teachers. It is also a highly readable, personal way of presenting the rather dry subject we had to study at university: theory of linguistics. Thirdly, it is also an elegant meditation on language and identity, with the author finally admitting that he is both at home and yet a stranger in both languages.

From frenchculture.org
From frenchculture.org

However, what I enjoyed most were those little nuggets of insight which made me smile. For instance, Mizubayashi remarks how much French conversation relies on vocative appellative expressions, i.e. ‘mon petit chou’, ‘mon poussin’, ‘ma poule’, mon grand’, ‘mon vieux’ and all of those other terms of endearment sprinkled liberally in a conversation with friends. I might add that even in formal contexts, on the radio, I hear this direct address: ‘Sachez que…. mesdames – messieurs’. It’s also considered somewhat abrupt and rude to enter a boulangerie or post office and just say ‘Bonjour’ instead of ‘Bonjour, madame or monsieur’. The author contrasts that with the Japanese language, where you almost avoid naming the other person, by deleting the ‘I’ or ‘you’ from the dialogue (it is implied in the verb forms). The relationship between two speakers in Japanese strikes him as two beings who sit side by side and look at a landscape together, while in France they would sit in front of each other and address each other.

This book managed to sneak into my TBR pile but I am so glad it did. Mizubayashi writes like a Frenchman, but he observes like an outsider. An anthropological and linguistic treat, a must for anyone struggling with bilingualism, as well as a fun memoir!

 

 

#20booksofsummer: Books 6 and 7

After the disappointment of my 5th book choice for the #20booksof summer, Ingrid Desjour’s Les Fauves, I turned to some lighter reads on a French theme. Or at least I thought they would be lighter… They both turned out to be darker than their titles or blurbs suggested, but both of them were perfect holiday reads. Even if I don’t really have any holidays this year.

parismonamourIsabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour

Alexandra is an American woman (educated in Britain), happily married to a Frenchman and living a golden life in Paris. Or so she thinks. But then her mother puts the thought into her head that her husband might be having an affair. When Alexandra discovers that this is indeed the case, she loses control and finds herself embarking upon a reckless affair with a much younger man – the son of her husband’s best friends. You just know that it cannot end well, and indeed there is plenty of foreshadowing (perhaps a little too much for my taste), as we see in the very first chapters a contrite and sad Alexandra at some later date ruminating about her behaviour.

After reading so many psychological thrillers which deal with adultery, it was refreshing to read a book which does not make a dark mystery about it, yet is far removed from the humour and lightness of chick lit. There are many quite candid and sensual scenes in the book, but it’s not at all gratuitous sex for the sake of it (as with Maestra, for instance). It’s a grown-up look at adultery, at how we become embroiled in things we initially believe we can control before they end up controlling us. The author does an excellent job of describing how torn and guilty people can feel, yet continue to do the things they feel bad about; how they can blind themselves to any danger warnings and find increasingly absurd self-justification for their actions.

And, of course, if you are a lover of all things French, there are plenty of alluring descriptions of place (including a few of my favourite spots in Paris) and Parisian lifestyle in this book.

colinnielColin Niel: Ce Qui Reste en Foret (What Stays in the Forest)

This is the second in a series of crime novels featuring Detective Anato in French Guyana. I haven’t read the first in the series, but fellow book blogger Emma highly recommended him. When we met the author at the Quais du Polar in Lyon and realised what a lovely person he was, with a fascinating background, who knows that part of the world really well, I couldn’t resist exploring further.

Anato is of Ndjuka descent, but grew up in France, and has only recently returned to his home country. He doesn’t speak the local language well enough and is still finding out surprising things about his family and his past. He gets called in to investigate the death of a scientist, Serge Feuerstein, an ornithologist based at a scientific research station deep in the Amazonian rainforest. The researchers are ‘sharing’ the forest with illegal gold mining ventures, so at first glance it looks like it might have been a territorial dispute. But Anato and his team suspect that the easiest answer is not often the correct one.

There were so many things to enjoy about this book: a cracking plot and dogged investigation; the contrast between the wilderness of the jungle and the attempts to impose French law and order; Anato and his team, all of them with their own personal troubles, but still working together to discover the truth; discussion of the integrity of scientific research and the future of research facilities in remote locations; the futile fight against illegal mining. Plus plenty of intriguing secondary characters and learning a lot about local culture and the diversity of society in French Guyana, in the so-called DOM/TOM (overseas departments/territories).

I’ll certainly be looking out for the third in the series (already out) and hope that it will be translated into English, to reach a wider audience.

Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, from Caribbean-beat.com. Photograph © Ronan Liétar
Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, from Caribbean-beat.com. Photograph © Ronan Liétar

 

 

The Saga of ‘The Lying-Down Room’ by Anna Jaquiery

the-lying-down-roomWhen reviewing for the Crime Fiction Lover website, I tend to get a little possessive about all the books by French authors or set in France. Since I live in this country for the time being, I feel like all of the books remotely connected with France (and its neighbouring countries – my desire for conquest knows no bounds: Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Spain) are mine by rights! So you can imagine my disappointment when someone else nabbed the debut novel set in Paris that everybody had been talking about, The Lying-Down Room by Anna Jaquiery. Of course Raven did a fantastic job of reviewing it, but this could have been me!

So I sensibly did the next best thing. The book was said to be French crime fiction, so I would read it in French – so there! Unfortunately, I could not find it listed in any French bookshop or library in the area or even online on Fnac. I did some further digging and discovered that, although the author was of French origin, she actually has lived all over the world and writes in English. So I bought the book in its original English, read it, was intrigued by its perfect blend of French sensibilities and English crime fiction conventions, and got in touch with the author to beg her to take part in my series on ‘What Got You Hooked on Crime‘.

So you’ll have guessed that I liked the book, but here’s a proper review of it now.

Serial killer tropes have been so overdone in crime fiction, but in this book it’s a little different. The serial killer seems to be targeting inoffensive, somewhat lonely old ladies, who have been a little neglected by their families. What is odd and frightening is these women are laid out and displayed after death in an almost grotesque ritual arrangement. Inspector Serge Morel, himself a complex character with unresolved issues, is looking into these crimes. Struggling with a Paris sweltering in the August heat, understaffed because of holiday season, he and his team – particularly the feisty, bright Lila Markov – struggle to find a motive for these murders and a connection between the women.

The investigative part of the book follows fairly traditional police procedural lines, albeit with strong characterisations. Yes, the Inspector has his problems: the requisite insensitive, media-hungry boss, a father descending into the chaos of Alzheimer’s, and a secret yearning for his first love Mathilde, which crosses the line into stalking. Yes, he has the obligatory strange hobby or quirky trait that fictional detectives need to have nowadays to stand out from the crowd: in this case, it’s origami. Yet none of it feels forced or formulaic – there is a natural flow to his personal story. Morel’s French/Cambodian mixed heritage is only briefly addressed, but will be more prominent in the next book. But I do hope the next book doesn’t lose Lila Markov, who is bristly, smart and utterly no-nonsense, making up for her boss’s occasional fey-ness.

Where the book then differs from standard police procedural is in offering us alternative points of view, including those of the pair who emerge as possible suspects. The middle-aged teacher Armand has a terrible secret from his own youth, while his protegé César is a mute young boy adopted from a Russian state orphanage. There is so much sadness and veracity in this part of the story – it is not at all sensationalised, but rather suffused with a profound melancholy and sense of helplessness. So different from another book I recently read (to be reviewed very shortly for CFL) about religious cults and the children who survive them.

And then there is all the local colour – the small asides and descriptions which place you in Paris and rural France – all done with the insider knowledge of a local, without the sometimes excessive showing-0ff for the sake of the literary tourists. And although it is not exactly French, it is an excellent book to introduce you gently into the world of French crime fiction for those who are unfamiliar with it and put off by its relentless ‘noir’ attitude or quirkiness.

 

April Showers of Reading – and a Wowser of a Thriller

I’m not going to finish any more books this month, so I might as well do the summary now. Total number: 11

2 in French (which is why it took a while for me to read them), 1 translated from French, rest in English in original.

5 crime fiction (perhaps my lowest proportion in ages), 1 poetry

GuerresaleIn French: 

Pierre Lemaitre: Au-revoir la-haut  – deeply moving account of soldiers’ return from the trenches of WW1

Dominique Sylvain: Guerre Sale (Dirty War)

 The ‘dirty war’ of the title refers to the war over natural resources and selling of weapons, which wealthy countries carry out on the African continent. In this book, however, it is barely mentioned within the African context itself. Instead we see a stream of characters with links to the Congo (perhaps too many characters, it gets hard at times to keep track), all acting out their sad tale of corruption, revenge and nasty secrets on the streets of Paris. Sylvain can write a good old plot twist as well as the best of them, but the opening and close of this novel prove what a great writing style she has too. This is the fifth in the Lola and Ingrid series, and I love the dynamic between these two unconventional investigators, but this time it was the police inspector Sacha Duguin who took centre-stage.

 

Poetry:

Collected Poems of May Sarton

Non-crime:

I’ve talked about Stela Brinzeanu’s ‘Bessarabian Nights’ and Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’ in the same post, dissimilar though they are in style and subject matter. I’ve also read two other books which I’ve occasionally heard labelled as ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘book club fiction’: Nancy Freund’s ‘Rapeseed’ and Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn: ‘The Piano Player’s Son’.  Women’s literature or book club fictions sounds rather disparaging if you allow it to, but this is not my intent at all. Plus, I don’t like labels (on people, books or anything, except perhaps food labelling). However, they were of the ‘family secrets and resentments’ type of story. They were certainly not of the dull school of literary fiction, where nothing much happens except admiring self in mirror or noticing raindrops on the window. The stories were certainly not lacking in incident – in fact, there was perhaps all too much incident, like soap operas almost, full of ‘he said, she said’ accusations, misunderstandings, tears, shouting, sibling rivalry etc. I want to cast no disparagement against these writers – there were some entertaining characters and quite a few passages of excellent prose there, but I have to confess that book-length is just too much for me for this type of story. I am really not the best critic, as I am not the right audience for this kind of writing, but if you like family sagas, both these authors can write well.

Crime Fiction:

Henry Sutton: My Criminal World

Tony Parsons: The Murder Bag

Tony Parsons, known for his ‘male chick lit’ type novels about the trials and tribulations of thirty-something men with relationship problems, is now crossing over to crime fiction. Can he carry it off? Well, you’ll have to wait and read my review on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

cemeteryMallock: The Cemetery of Swallows

An unusual story, straddling the Dominican Republic and Paris, with a nearly impossible set-up and a solution that seems to border on the supernatural. Reminiscent of Fred Vargas, Mallock (both the writer and his eponymous detective) has got a style all his own. To be reviewed soon on Crime Fiction Lover.

I_Am_Pilgrim_-_hardback_UK_jacketTerry Hayes: I Am Pilgrim

I don’t like spy thrillers, I don’t like lone rangers who are mankind’s only hope of survival… and yet I read this book very nearly in one sitting. It breaks all the rules… and gets away with it.  The first person narrator suddenly starts telling you in great detail things that happened elsewhere and what was in his enemy’s mind, things he couldn’t possibly know. It jumps back and forth in time, from country to country, from character to character, all the while with the main protagonist pronouncing sombrely ‘And that was my mistake… this is where things went wrong… if I had only known about that…’, which adds to the sense of ominous foreboding. It is at times simplistic and racist, but at other times complex and nuanced. It is incredibly exciting, a cat and mouse chase which will leave you breathless, yet the story is nothing spectacularly new (terrorist attack through biochemical weapons, anyone?). It has disturbing graphic descriptions of torture – and also moments of introspection, of cynical realisation of the unsavoury practices of police and government agencies in every country. To my surprise, I loved it: it really is a wowser of a thriller!

So, all in all, an excellent month of reading: 3 outstanding books in 3 different genres, 4 very good books and no duds, just books that weren’t perhaps quite my cup of tea. For Crime Fiction Pick of the month I would say ‘I Am Pilgrim’, simply because it was surprising how much I enjoyed it – the magic of storytelling indeed! See what other book bloggers have chosen as their crime fiction pick of the month over at Mysteries in Paradise.

Coming up in May: non-fiction about parenting Far from the Tree, crime fiction of course, and some German and Japanese literature for a change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Creativity of Molière

Inscription on backside: peint par Pierre Mign...
Inscription on backside: peint par Pierre Mignard en 1671 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am always a little wary of statements beginning ‘we writers’, as I feel it is wrong to believe that my sentiments and bad habits are universal.  So let me revise that to: ‘this particular writer is sometimes plagued by self-indulgent behaviour, laziness and self-pity’. When I am in the mood to whinge about how busy I am and how I have no time to write, I remind myself of the amazing creativity in the face of adversity of French playwright Molière.  Then I shut up about my own minor niggles…

 

What is so amazing about Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière? He was born in 1622 in a rather wealthy bourgeois family and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps in a career in public service. Instead, he chose to become an actor and join a wandering troupe of players – the equivalent of running away to join the circus.  Back then, actors were considered somewhat disreputable – in fact, they were not even allowed a decent burial in church grounds. Yet Molière chose to face this public and family disapproval to follow his passion.

Here are some other things I have learnt from him:

1) Writing is hard work – you need to be disciplined and persevere. Never complain about lack of time.  Molière overcame bankruptcy, censorship, fickle court fashions, disapproval by powerful clerics, ill health, an unhappy marriage, and still wrote more than 30 plays in 14 years, whilst also holding down a full-time job as a theatre director and performer.  He also had to please his royal patron, the Sun King Louis XIV, and make himself available for the daily formal ‘waking up’ ceremonies. The King occasionally demanded a new play in less than 48 hours and the public would not offer any applause or feedback until the King himself showed his pleasure for a certain performance.

2) You may reach the height of glory and still descend to the pits of despair and end up forgotten. In other words, you’ve got to do art for art’s sake, not just for money or glory. Although the King backed  Molière for many years, and even was the godfather of the firstborn son of the playwright, his support could never be taken for granted and he withdrew it on several occasions, which meant works such as ‘Tartuffe’ or ‘Don Juan’ were banned. In the end, the King abandoned him and never attended a performance of Molière’s final play, ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’.

3) You love your art to the death.  Molière is notorious for being so dedicated to his art that it actually killed him. During a performance of ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’, he suffered a coughing fit and haemorrhage (it appears he was suffering from tuberculosis). He insisted on finishing his performance, but died a few hours later as a result of these superhuman exertions.

Molière in classical dress, by Nicolas Mignard...
Molière in classical dress, by Nicolas Mignard, 1658. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) You play to your strengths. Personally, Molière appears to have been fonder of playing tragedy and would have liked to write tragedy as well.  However, he very quickly realised that his real talent lay with satire, mockery and comedy, and that this was what his public wanted from him.

5) You can have depth in any genre. Despite having to please a difficult courtly audience, who liked their comedy broad and farcical, Molière proved that, if you are a good enough writer, you can be funny and still layer in universal and profound questions about hypocrisy, falseness in human relationships, pretentiousness and truth.

6)  You don’t have to be perfect.  French language purists argue that there are lots of  errors, padding, grammatical inconsistencies and mixed metaphors in Molière’s work (much like the criticism made of Shakespeare). Yet French is known nowadays as the ‘language of Molière’. Corneille is the greater writer, Racine has the more profound tragic sentiment, but Molière is the most performed and the most quoted French dramatist. His plays have been continuously performed for the past 350 years and the public has always loved him, even when critics, philosophers, religious leaders etc. tried to diss him.

7) Learn from others. In the early years, Molière met with Corneille and even collaborated with him on a play.  He also encouraged Racine in his artistic endeavours, although the troupe never performed a play by the younger writer. His most famous collaboration, however, was with Jean-Baptiste Lully, the founding father of French opera and ballet.  Together they created a new genre known as the comédie-ballet, perhaps the forerunner of today’s musicals.

8) We don’t care about his private life. Yes, he was a bit of a ladies’ man. Yes, he married the illegitimate daughter of his lover. Yes, he wrote extremely well about being cuckolded, so it might have been based on personal experience. Do we care? No. His work stands on his own merit, much like Shakespeare’s, about whom we know even less.

As an interesting footnote, there are some who doubt the authenticity of Molière’s work and attribute at least some of his plays to another playwright (in this case Corneille, in Shakespeare’s case Christopher Marlowe).  It seems that readers will always need to invent complicated theories to fill in the gaps.  So perhaps I should rephrase again from the ‘we’ to the ‘me’.  Do I care about Molière’s private life and his failings as a human being? No. He still has so much to teach me.