Bonnes femmes

I am a good woman but please don’t call me a bonne femme. This is one of those literal translations that gets you into trouble every time. The word ‘bonne’, the feminine form of ‘bon’ or good, is loaded with the potential to insult or outright offend.

‘Une bonne femme’ is the familiar French expression for a woman or a wife. Once a perfectly respectable term, it has now become pejorative. It is not necessarily rude but it should be used with caution.

‘Contes de bonnes femmes’ are old wives tales.

Its homologue, bonhomme, means a friendly little fellow and is often used to refer to children or a bonhomme de neige — snowman. Bonnefemme de neige? Only with tongue firmly in cheek.

Many recipes include the words ‘bonne femme’.  They generally refer to simple, home-cooked dishes like soups, fish and chicken but some are actual culinary references, like sauce bonne femme. Here’s the recipe in English.

La bonne is also a maid. To refer to ‘une bonne à tout faire’ (good for doing everything) is a correct use of the term for hired hep but also has some rather naughty connotations — just google it.

The worst trap is, of course, the easiest one to fall in. Imagine you have want to say that a woman is good. A good person. Do not, under any circumstances, say “elle est bonne.” This has a sexual connotation that will upset or confuse or even just amuse your audience.

What is it with the feminine forms of words in French? Another word, chatte, is even worse. It is virtually impossible to talk about one’s female cat without feeling like an extra in a bad porn film. I speak from painful experience. Each year when I take my, ahem, pussy, to the veterinarian for her shots I find myself doing mental gymnastics to avoid the dreaded term. We have two cats, a male and a female, so at one point in the conversation it becomes necessary to distinguish them. The flush on my face as I leave the vet’s office is not just from schlepping the two cat carriers.

The photo featured above is from the 1960 ‘new wave’ film by Claude Chabrol, Les Bonnes Femmes. I haven’t seen it but want to after discovering the post about it on this fabulous blog for fans of world cinema.

The problem, ironically, is finding such films in France. You can stream it on Amazon Prime in the US but not in France. Here you can buy the DVD but what’s the point? I only want to watch it once.

I’ve been thinking lately how much of our cultural gender bias is embedded in language. I’m not one to agree with the substitution of ‘their’ for personal pronouns like his and her; that is a deformation of the language that my inner word nerd finds offensive. But I wouldn’t mind the creation of a new, neutral term.

And I would be very happy if someone found a way to say ‘bonne’ nicely in French.

Any thoughts?

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?

Pretentious, moi?

The biopic 'Saint Laurent' is is showing in competition at Cannes
The biopic ‘Saint Laurent’ is is showing in competition at Cannes

Last night was the opening ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival.

I love Cannes. More than anything, I love watching the red-carpet moments of the festival, when French journalists decked out in penguin suits scramble to catch a sound bite from movie stars as the paparazzi flash away.

I especially love hearing them ask questions in heavily-accented English, and then watching the expressions on the faces of the American stars as they struggle to come up with an answer. (‘What was the question?’)

Okay, it’s mean. And it’s petty. But I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of French arrogance long enough, I figure they owe me a few moments of fun.

I also love the live edition of the Canal+ talk show, le Grand Journal, hosted every year from the Croisette, with its star-studded line-up of guests. And where you can expect some unexpected and embarrassing moments. Last night Nicole Kidman and Tim Roth were on the set when ‘les intermittents du spectacle’ (contract workers in the French entertainment business for which there is no equivalent in English), staged an unexpected appearance – interrupting the live broadcast with a political message.

What I love less about Cannes is the pomp and circumstance of the festival. They take their cinema pretty seriously over here. Quite frankly, I rarely watch the film that wins the coveted ‘Palme d’or’ or Golden Palm, the top prize at Cannes. Who can stay awake?

French-Irish actor Lambert Wilson, who hosted last night’s event, said in his opening remarks to the gathered international glitterati that the French were universally thought to be the most arrogant, pretentious and rude people in the world.

I’d love to be able to crush that stereotype. But you and I both know that’s not gonna happen.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of crossing the Channel to take a 3-day writing course in London: John Truby’s Anatomy of Story Master Class, primarily for screenwriters but incredibly useful for anyone who writes stories and wants help with structure. He really knows his stuff and he gave a great course.

The thing about Truby is that he is the Hollywood writing guru – a script doctor from LA who’s worked on major studio productions in film and television. He’s there to tell you what works in commercial terms, to teach the craft and give writers the tools to succeed. He is not there to provide an existential analysis of the art form or to explore the film-making techniques of Lars Von Trier.

Among our group of writers, actors and producers from all over Europe, there were two people who continually interrupted with questions that challenged the legitimacy of the approach. Who looked down their very long noses intellectually at what they apparently considered to be ‘formulaic’. Who clearly thought they knew better than the expert himself.

Guess where they were from?

There are times when I am embarrassed to be French. Even by adoption.

‘Nuff said.

So, are you a fan of Cannes? Is your eye on the red carpet or the silver screen? I hear that Grace of Monaco, which is showing at the festival but not in competition, is terrible. But there are some entries, like Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall and Turner from Mike Leigh that I will be eager to see. How about you?