Grand corps malade

Fabien grew up in Seine-Saint Denis, an ill-famed area north of Paris known to all as ‘le neuf trois’, for the number of the French department – 93. He was going to be a professional basketball player, until a dive into a shallow pool left him paralyzed. He was told he would never walk again.

Instead, he became Grand Corps Malade (translation: Big Sick Body), a slam poet. He came to fame in France in 2006 with an album called Midi 20 (Twenty past twelve). I remember listening to it on the radio on the way back home from work. My kids liked him, and I was intrigued. When I saw that he had written a book, Patients, a memoir of his time in the hospital and rehab after the accident, I picked it up.

I don’t often read in French. I wanted to see whether I could read an entire book and enjoy it, maybe even improve my comprehension of the written language. I had spoken for French 20 years but never studied or even read its literature.

I was immediately captivated by Fabien’s voice, and the story he told without sentimentality. The little frustrations: not being able to change the channel on TV, or scratch an itchy eyebrow. It was a simple story about character, and people, and kindness and courage. I was struck by the cast of so-very-French characters who helped him climb out of the paralysis in which he was locked.

Now, he walks with a cane and a bit of a limp. Very tall, very deep-voiced, he is a man with an extraordinary regard, one that is frank and full of humour. And his story is now a film, that he produced and co-directed with the filmmaker Mehdi Idir.

I spent a couple of weeks in the hospital once, a few years ago. The dual meaning of the word ‘Patients’ was brought home to me. Never my strong point, patience, and I probably got better and went home quicker simply to avoid having to be a patient for any longer than I had to.

It’s been ages since I went to see a film at the cinema but I can’t wait to go and see Patients.

Et toi? Have you seen any good movies lately?

Comedy drama queen

loloI can see myself in the not-too-distant future, reminiscing to the youngsters about the old days. How exciting it was, I will tell them, pretending not to notice as their eyes glaze over, to go and see the latest picture on the big screen, in technicolor no less! I will explain about the projectionist in his booth, the hot anticipation in the hushed movie theatre as we crinkled candy wrappers and munched popcorn. No doubt it will be as meaningful to them as looking up information in the library or making a call from a phone booth.

Perhaps they’ll pay attention when I tell them about the first time I went to see a movie in Paris. About how the screen was so small, the tickets so expensive and they had no popcorn but ice cream. Before the film started we checked under the seats for bombs.

In France, of course, we don’t have movies, we have cinéma. I am no fan of the French film; life is too short to be taken that seriously. I do enjoy a certain genre of popular comedy that the French do very well. The one that has inspired this post is the latest release from the French actress and cinematographer I admire most: Julie Delpy.

Delpy’s combination of acerbic wit and character-driven comedy drama is just my cup of cappuccino. She is best known for the trilogy of films directed by Richard Linklater – Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight – in which she co-starred with Ethan Hawke, as well as 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York. Delpy is often compared to Woody Allen. Her writing and direction is as good but her characters less annoyingly neurotic.

I love how she navigates so naturally in that space between romanticized ideals and real life. She is a queen of the fast-paced repartée. Her ability to do this equally well in English and French has my total admiration.

‘Lolo’ is her latest film and first attempt to seduce a mainstream French audience. It is about a single mother’s attempt to find romance against the odds of her sociopath adult son. The reviews have been mixed but given the bande d’annonce (trailer in English), I will be making the effort to go out and see it at the movie theatre. One day soon I’ll tell my grandchildren all about it.

Do you still go to the cinema? What’s your fondest memory of the movies?

Faire son cinéma

Sophie Marceau wardrobe dysfunction
Sophie Marceau’s ‘slip up’

To dramatize, to ham it up, to make a scene: however you translate the French expression ‘faire son cinéma’, it’s happening at the moment in Cannes.

This is one of the rare French expressions that you can actually say in more than one way: faire son cinema, faire du cinéma, faire tout un cinéma…they all mean the same thing. And the French are masters of the art.

It happens every year at this time when the Cannes film festival kicks off for ten days of glamour and glitz. Drama queen moments abound during the festival when the stars hit the red carpet on the steps or ‘la montée des marches’ of the Palais des Festivals.

Mostly they do a better job of going up the steps than François Hollande did on his recent trip to Haiti (he literally hit the red carpet). The French president is known to be a bit of a klutz and he certainly proved it here:

This year in Cannes Sophie Marceau’s underwear ‘slip up’ hit something of a false note. Since revealing her boob to all and sundry on the red carpet a few years ago, she has lost all credibility with the wardrobe malfunction. How desperate for attention can you get?

What really has the croisette buzzing this year is ‘Shoegate,’ sparked by the organizers’ refusal to let women wearing flat shoes go up the highly photographed steps to the première of the film Carol starring Cate Blanchett. There is a strict black-tie dress code in Cannes but festival organizers have formally denied that there is a ‘high-heels only’ policy. It wouldn’t surprise me. Heels are absolutely de rigueur for French women. As someone who makes it a policy to exclusively wear flats, I won’t be likely to get my red carpet moment.

It’s all the more ironic given that this year’s festival is supposedly dedicated to la femme. 

Here are some of my favorite pics from Cannes this year (I have such a crush on Gabriel Byrne!)

Do you have a favorite red carpet moment – in Cannes or elsewhere?

Why I watch ‘la télé’

TV controlMy name is Mel and I am a TV addict. There, I’ve said it. You do not want to get between me and my favorite programs: sitcoms, dramas, the odd soap. TV characters are not just my favorite form of entertainment, they are my close personal friends.

When I first moved to France, I felt alone. The televised offering on the basic French channels was frankly pathetic. There was almost nothing that wasn’t dubbed, and watching reruns of American cop shows when the words don’t match the lips was beyond me. Unless something is offered in the original language (even if that language is not English or French), I refuse to watch it. I don’t mind reading subtitles but I want to hear the real voices.

So we got cable and I was saved. We had the BBC! We even had a few channels with American programs in V.O. (‘Version Originale’ or original language version with subtitles). My life changed as I went to my happy place most evenings, once again in the company of friendly faces.

Then we moved to the country and there was no cable. Desolation set in. Until I discovered…wait for it: Sky TV! We weren’t technically allowed access in France but there were ways around it (if you work for Sky, stop reading now). We had a satellite dish installed on our roof and the Sky+ Box became my new BFF.

Suddenly there was a full complement of British TV channels, including movies, all in English! I raved about how wonderful it was for the kids’ English, how fabulous for them to have access to high-quality programming. You could even add subtitles in English to aid comprehension! Well worth the expense. Who was I kidding? It was My Box, no one else’s.

I still watch my box nightly and enjoy a fabulous lineup of original British and American television, mostly recorded in advance, enabling me to zap through the commercials. But that’s entertainment; for news and information I watch French TV.

There are many reasons to watch French television. Sitcom is not one of them. The French do certain kinds of TV really well, especially live shows. Investigative news and information (Envoyé Spécial, 13h15 le samedi/dimanche). Comedy shorts like ‘Un gars et une fille’, ‘Caméra Café’). I’ve never been a fan of the longer dramas and comedies – the scripting is wooden, more like televised theatre than natural speech, and the dialogue may be clever but is just not funny. Most French people watch films on TV and consider series television to be crap. When I see what’s on offer, I can only agree.

Television is a wonderful tool for learning a language. Watching TV in French did wonders for my comprehension. Not just of the language, although that improved immensely. It also taught me a lot about les Français, what is important to them, how they interact – all the social cues and subtext that make up French culture.

The commercials were also a reason to watch. Back in the day when advertisers still spent big budgets on TV, some of best spots were made in France. The subtlety of the humor was brilliant – but why couldn’t they translate that into decent comedy series?

The nightly news, ‘le 20 heures’, taught me to decode the world according to the French. It is not the same as the world portrayed in North America: international news plays a bigger role, although French politics are centre stage. How the French see the rest of the world, especially les américains, has been key to understanding so many things in this country.

Then I discovered the televised format the French do best: live talk shows. These programs are featured in the access-to-prime time slot leading up to the dinner hour. They usually feature a round table of guests and ‘chroniquers’ or TV hosts/editorialists. So while I get dinner ready and enjoy a glass of something, I get a very French view on politics, current affairs, music, film and entertainment. All in good fun.

For years we faithfully watched ‘Le Grand Journal’ on Canal Plus (a pay channel with free access at certain times.) It features the highly entertaining Les Guignols along with an all-star lineup of international guests promoting books, films, albums. Having worked in television, I can say that the technical production of a nightly program like this is amazing. Over the years I witnessed some of the funniest moments ever captured on live television in France, especially back in the days with Philippe Gildas as host and Antoine de Caunes as funny man. But the hosts changed and I never recovered my love of the show after Michel Denizot left to edit the French version of Vanity Fair.

Now my favorite talk show is C’est à Vous. The premise is a dinner party. The guests arrive, usually bearing a hostess gift like flowers or some interesting trinket, and sit around the table while a chef prepares a meal in the open kitchen. The program continues as dinner is served, replete with wine and dessert. It is all very civilized but with lots of humor and sans prétension.

Plateau 'C'est à vous'I love this show. It is so very French to entertain à table. Socially, people relax and the conversational exchanges are more natural. The program usually ends on a live performance by an up-and-coming artist on stage but much more intimate than the performances on the Grand Journal.

C'est à vous
Hostess with the mostest: Anne-Sopie Lapix on France 5

The program host, Anne-Sophie Lapix, is the essence of the modern French woman:  elegant, natural, not overly made up. Authentic and smart. I cannot praise her enough as she manages to hold it together with warmth and intelligence no matter how stroppy certain guests get or even in a recent medical emergency when one of the co-hosts, Patrick Cohen, fainted on set. So catch it if you can, although I’m not sure it’s accessible outside France.

Do you watch TV? C’mon, you can admit it – we’re all friends here.

La zique: The changing face of French music

La musique or ‘zique’ as it’s called in slang is celebrated all over France each year on June 21stLa Fête de la Musique. This popular French music festival kicks off the summer on the longest day of the year and inspires me to share a few of my favorite French artists.

No matter how well you know France, I’ll bet you’ve never heard of its most famous rock star: Johnny Hallyday. Johnny, as he’s universally known to tous les français, came to fame in the early days of rock ‘n roll with French versions of songs like the above cover of ‘If Black is Black’. Although he officially hung up his guitar a few years ago, he’s still an icon here.

Unlike its wine, food and fashion, French music doesn’t tend to export well. Which isn’t to say it’s not hugely influential. Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg…French* music greats have inspired talents near and far.

The tradition of la chanson française or chanson à parole is lyric-based music or sung poetry. Les paroles – the words – are the dominant feature. Which means you have to speak French to really appreciate it. And being of a nature to enjoy music that is more melodic, I was never much of a fan of the spoken-word style of song.

But understanding the words makes a difference. I’ve come to appreciate the quality of writing that goes into the lyrics of many French singer-songwriters. Like Stromae, a hugely original and talented Franco-Belgian singer who came to fame recently with the song ‘Alors on danse’. This new clip, ‘Papaoutai’ tells the story of a boy in search of his father.

Zaz is the name of a fresh French female singer who shook things up with this song, ‘Je veux’ (I want). Love the kazoo.

Franco-Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra relased an album called ‘Handmade’ a few years ago. Here she is singing the hit song, Beautiful Tango:

It’s a little bleak but I quite like this song, also in English, ICU, by singer-songwriter Lou Doillon. She’s the daughter of singer and activist Jane Birkin, who, by the way, is popular royalty in France for her marriage to the late Serge Gainsbourg and her other daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The fact is, more and more French artists are recording in English these days. I suppose it only makes sense from a commercial point of view but seems a shame for the chanson française.

I’m also a fan of starlet-harlot Vanessa Paradis. Since her split with Johnny Depp she’s looking and sounding better than ever. She’s rumoured to be in a relationship with French musician (also one of her band) Benjamin Biolay. Here she is with him performing a soothing chanson at this year’s Victoires de la Musique (French Grammys):

I love electronic music and there’s a lot of it in France. One of my favorite groups is Daft Punk. The French duo set the world on fire this year with Get Lucky but have been doing their thing together for several years now (never a word of French!)

I discovered Henri Salvador shortly before his death when he released what became a hit album. The king of the bossa nova still had it going on at 90. Here he is in a live performance of Jardin d’hiver with French-Canadian singer Linda Lemay.

And here’s one in memory of my dear mom. She adored Charles Aznavour, who’s not only the French crooner to have sold the most records worldwide but at 90 is still its doyen:

*Note that when I say French, I mean Francophone. A lot of French music stars are Belgian, including Stromae.

How about you? Who’s your favorite French artist?