Les feux de l’amour

Long before Netflix was born, way before digital came to town, years before anyone watched TV on their computer, a woman moved to Lyon, France, and found herself rather alone.

She turned on the TV for company and discovered six channels, all of them in French. Mostly offering news and information shows in prime time and talk shows or ancient American reruns during the day or late evening. Very occasionally, the artsy channel would run an old English-language movie in the original version with French subtitles. Usually after she had gone to bed.

One day, when the time had come to put her feet up in the afternoons, she turned on the TV just after the lunchtime news and discovered something vaguely familiar. A soap opera. Not one she had ever watched herself but had seen in other people’s living rooms. The characters appeared quite modern and, although they spoke French, their words sounded familiar. She had stumbled upon the longest-running French soap opera: Les Feux de l’Amour. It didn’t take long to figure out that ‘the fires of love’ was in fact ‘The Young and the Restless,” dubbed into French and several seasons behind the US original.

The woman, becoming gross with child, found herself tuning in every afternoon to this feuilleton, as she learned the French call serialized programs. She grew familiar with the doings of the Newman family and learned all kinds of new expressions in her adopted tongue for the sneaky behaviour of Victor, Nikki and Jack: “Que’est-ce tu manigances?” meaning: What are you up to? (or more precisely: what are you scheming/plotting?) “Où voulez-vous en venir?” (What are you saying/suggesting?)

For a few years the woman watched the show whenever the children were napping. It wasn’t very good but it was a connection to home. And after awhile, she was able to read the lips of the actors under the dubbing and figure out what they were actually saying. Her French improved by leaps and bounds from all this unconscious translating.

She became so used to the French voices that once, when she was visiting her family in Canada, she came across the Y&R in English and thought it sounded very strange indeed.

Then one day in France they got cable. And a wonderful thing happened: they had the BBC. The woman discovered a nighttime soap, one that felt refreshingly real after all those perfectly coiffed Americans. It took place in the east end of London, set around a pub called the Queen Vic in a place called Albert Square. The woman took to EastEnders like a duck to water. Her TV family had relocated to London from midwest America. She was home.

For many years, whenever the woman’s husband and children heard the strains of the show’s theme song, they relaxed a little. They knew that for the next half hour, peace would reign over the household. And the woman knew that no matter what else happened in her life, that every Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day there would be drama in Albert Square. And so it was.

The woman forgot all about the other show, the one that had saved her from homesickness in those early days. Until just the other day, when she opened her window in the early afternoon and heard familiar music playing at the neighbour’s house. Les feux de l’amour. It brought back many memories, of her early days in France, of feeling relaxed and coming home. And she was happy.

Do you watch any soaps? What’s your favourite TV show?

Histoires d’amour

Love stories are both universal and intriguing. Irrespective of age or gender, culture or nationality, whatever alchemy makes people fall in love with each other is a mystery. And it is a beautiful one at that.

What puzzles me more, and is a question I’ve been thinking about lately, is what makes people stay together. Once that first spark fades, some couples endure, others split. There are shared values, of course, and commitments both contractual and emotional. There are financial interests. There is sexual attraction, intellectual companionship and compatibility on so many levels. Still, it is a long haul. For better or for worse.

The idea of divorce, of breaking something that has been built together over a lifetime or even a number of years, is brutal. And yet it is something that happens roughly 46% of the time in France, a figure similar to that of other countries. Which means that those who do stay together must have their reasons. Just as those who split must suffer terrible pain.

What is the glue that attracts and then holds people together? Perhaps it is some combination of complementarity in character and need that each fulfills in the other.

The love story of Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron should never have happened. Or if it happened, by all rights it should have ended when he left the high school in Amiens where she was his French and drama teacher.

Their 24-year age gap is beyond what most people can fathom and certainly what most parents can accept. Apparently Emmanuel’s parents at first objected strenuously to the relationship. They could have had Brigitte fired, even jailed. He was 15, she 39. When it became apparent that it was happening, against all reason, they accepted Brigitte. In 2006, she left the husband with whom she had born and raised three children, then married Emmanuel the following year.

Shortly after her husband turned 40 as France’s youngest-ever President, Brigitte celebrated her 65th birthday in April. Truth is surely stranger than fiction.

Lately I’ve been watching two wonderful BBC dramas about love and divorce.

The first is The Split, a dramedy about a family of female divorce lawyers with their own relationship issues. Right up my alley. And with outstanding performances from the ensemble cast led by Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan. Here’s the scoop on the production from screenwriter Abi Morgan.

The other is A Very English Scandal, directed by Stephen Frears, in which Hugh Grant memorably portrays Jeremy Thorpe. Thorpe was a British politician and leader of the Liberal Party who became involved in a homosexual scandal in the late 1970s. Norman Scott, his young lover, is played by Ben Whishaw, whose performance I found even more gripping than Grant’s. The mystery here is the love story between the two men. Despite the fact that his mentor tries to have him murdered, and the scorned lover attempts to bring down the older politician in a biting yet hilarious courtroom drama, the glances between the two men reveal a very real and enduring love.

What is this thing called love? And why are we forever fascinated by it? There is something about the unlikely pairing of people that captures our imaginations and tickles our romantic hearts. Who more so than Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg?

It is perhaps no great mystery why, when a young Frenchman walked into a bar in Toronto back in 1985, this woman eight years older went home with him. What I still haven’t figured out is how we managed to bridge the gap of distance, language and culture, get married and remain together all these years.

But I’m so glad we did.

What’s your favourite love — or divorce — story?

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.

Eurovision Kitsch Contest

Eurovision_Song_Contest_2013_logo

The word ‘kitsch’ comes from German and describes a form of popular art that is adored by the masses but of questionable artistic value. What better word to describe the Eurovision Song Contest?

I have been a proud fan of Eurovision since arriving on this continent in the last millennium. Watching the annual televised event back in the 90s felt lonely and obscure, although Terry Wogan’s dry commentary on the BBC made me feel at home. This was way before reality TV, way before social media gave us hundreds of ways to connect with each other. It was a rare moment to combine the pleasures of:

  • Feeling European – one of the reasons we moved here but had difficulty experiencing in France
  • Nostalgia – the competition brought back memories of American beauty pageants when we so joyfully picked apart the tackiness of Miss Georgia’s dress or New York’s nose
  • Making fun of accents as representatives of far-flung countries called in with their votes in fractured French or English (suddenly my French didn’t seem so bad!)
  • Laughing at the costumes, staging and the songs themselves – if you’ve never seen a Eurovision event, over-the-top doesn’t quite do it justice

In recent years the trend for Eurovision contestants has been to push the limits of bad taste towards the frankly bizarre – European folklore and cultural stereotypes, Gothically inspired pop fantasy, machine-head metal and over-the-top ballads with wind machines and strange dancers. Check out last year’s dancing Russian Babushkas (who actually made it to the final).

One oddity of Eurovision is that you don’t have to be a national of the country you represent. Céline Dion won for Switzerland in 1988 (Note to the Swiss: if you would like to adopt her, I believe I speak for most Canadians when I say we’d be fine with that).

This year’s Eurovision was held in Sweden, home of ABBA, who won the contest in 1974 with “Waterloo”. Sweden won again last year with this less than memorable tune from Loreen. The tradition is that the winning country hosts the following year’s event. This gives countries that no one has ever heard of a chance to promote themselves to the rest of the world. One of my favorite parts of the show are the travelogues about the host country.

Last year’s broadcast from Baku, Azerbaijan continued the kitsch tradition with the theme ‘Light your fire.’ And this year’s edition, live from Malmo on the southern tip of Sweden, came under the banner of ‘We are one’. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole point of Eurovision is divisiveness, backbiting and politics. Deep rifts that go beyond the language barriers and dig in almost as deep as the nails of those beauty pageant contestants.

The debate rages as to whether it’s the song that matters. The voting is complex to say the least and has evolved over the years but to summarize, each country votes for itself, and if it sees it has no possible chance of winning, then votes for its closest neighbours (unless they are at war), or failing that, geopolitical region. When former Eastern block countries start voting for each other, everybody else gets blown out of the water.

And what about France? The French have a long tradition of la chanson française and this won them top honours at Eurovision five times in the early years of the contest, which kicked off in 1956. France hasn’t won since 1977 but as one of Europe’s ‘big five’ we are guaranteed a spot in the final. All the others must compete through the semi-finals in order to make it to the Saturday night spectacular – this year, with 26 singers and their backup groups and an international audience of 125 million viewers.

To be honest, it’s all getting a little too slick and commercial. The lines are blurring between Eurovision and reality shows like The Voice. This year’s winner is Emmelie de Forest from Denmark, and the song, Only Teardrops, has chart potential.

But that won’t stop me from tuning in next year. Vive Copenhagen!