Un village français

France 3’s continuing little World War Two epic Un Village Français has just reached the end of its third season, with double episodes playing on Sunday nights over the festive break. This ongoing TV series, planned to run over 5 years, is an attempt to tell the story of everyday life in Vichy France. I for one, am rather enjoying it.

The series takes place in Villeneuve, a fictional town in Vichy-controlled territory in the Jura. The town, which is a subprefecture and certain larger than the “village” indicated in the title, is populated by a vast ensemble cast of men, women and children who are coping with war, occupation and a new totalitarian government as best they can.

The writers seem to emphasise verisimilitude and human interest, rather than strict historical accuracy: the active viewer forum on the France 3  website is stuffed with trainspotters pointing out errors in chronology, military equipment or administrative arcana. However,  if sometimes the scenarios spiral towards melodrama, the performances are solid.

Robin Renucci (right) plays Dr Daniel Larcher

Robin Renucci is magnificent as Dr Larcher, the town’s doctor and mayor, balancing his family and medical practice with demands of local politics under the Vichy regime. The belgian actor Patrick Descamps, noted in France for his other appearances as a TV detective, plays the increasingly disillusioned and alcoholic Inspector De Kervern, who must hold down a desk job in the town’s police station, while harbouring a Jewish woman in his apartment.

Occasionally the series seems rather didactic – for instance, one episode entitled Par amour concentrated largely on the intimate relationships developing between French women and the German troops stationed in the town.

In addition, each episode ends with a 5 minute historical “featurette” including interviews with French people who lived through the Vichy era, reflecting on their own experiences during wartime: here the show seems to take some inspiration from Spielberg-produced historical dramas such as HBO’s Band of Brothers.

Marie Kremer as Lucienne Borderie, Villeneuve’s primary school teacher

All things considered, Un village français is a worthy, well-made drama that makes up for its lack of Hollywood budget with its ambition: to recount the subtleties of an entire chapter in French history, told from the perspectives of the citizens of one provincial town. It’s certainly one of the best things on French TV.

After three seasons, the ensemble of characters is well-established, and the intrigues can only grow more complex as the war progresses.  By the end of Season Three, we have only reached October 1941. There are still 3 years of occupation to go.   I hope that funding for the show continues, so we can live with Villeneuve through to liberation.

Gustave Larcher: (Maxim Driesen, centre) nephew of the mayor and son of a communist terrorist

The Queen Ain’t No Bitch

I’ve succumbed to the hype and have started watching The Wire on DVD (in France it’s called Sur Ecoute and almost nobody’s heard of it). Currently I’m halfway to Season One, and it’s already freaking great.

Here’s a taste: D’Angelo (a middle-management drug-pusher with half a conscience) is teaching his underlings how to play chess – and the pertinence of the metaphor is lost on nobody…

And if anyone – ANYONE – tells me what happens for the next five seasons, I call the Five-Oh on their ass, OK?

Cooking in the Kitsch-In

Michel Drucker and friend

From our Own Correspondent is a venerable BBC institution that allows their journalists to spend 5 minutes of airtime speculating and reflecting on experiences and observations beyond the headlines.

Sometimes FOOC provides some stunning radio, (Fergal Kean writing his dispatch with his new son in his arms “learning the art of one-handed typing” is one of the BBC’s most famous broadcast moments).

But often the reporters let their hair down by talking meandering tripe and indulging in stale liberal truisms. Which is not fair at all, because that’s my job on this blog. BBC journalists are paid to know better.

Hugh Schofield’s contribution this week seemed particularly silly: basically a complaint about how crap French television is, how it’s dominated by sycophantic talk shows, and how culturally conservative is French society in general.

Mr Schofield seems to have forgotten TV is mostly crap everywhere, celebrity culture is by its nature sycophantic, and most societies display some level of chauvanism in celebrating their own artists.

So, (I can’t quite believe I’m saying this) let me put in a positive word for French TV.

Seriously, in terms of trading on middle-of-the-road popular culture and cosily flattering their guests, where are the differences between Michel Drucker and Sir Michael Parkinson?

Le plus grand cabaret du monde and N’oubliez pas les paroles may seem kitsch and bizarre to anglo-saxons, but having seen Ant and Dec‘s Christmas Special this year on ITV, I can testify that the French do not hold a monopoly on kitsch. Bruce Forsyth, anyone?

Yes, there are a lot of talk shows on French TV, but for an amateur student of the language and culture (even one as inexpert as myself), these shows are a goldmine of ethnological detail. As I mentioned a while back, On n’est pas couché might be regarded as the Rosetta Stone of the French media mainstream, and I still hold that opinion, even if Laurent Ruquier gets on my nerves these days.

Jean-Michel Aphatie

And there are some hidden gems – C’est pas sorcier is one of the best popular science shows I’ve ever seen. Arte constantly throws up little delights (I’ve previously raved about Himalaya Terre des Femmes), Manu Katché’s music show One Shot Not has a talent roster that rivals Jools Holland, and if I get homesick for the smokey forests of the Vosges, I can just tune into Rund Um: the magazine show in Alsatian.

But the only TV show I watch here regularly is Le Grand Journal (19.05-20.00 weeknights on Canal+), because there’s nothing better than coming home from work to a good argument between a female cabinet minister (normally Valérie Pécresse or Rosalyne Bachelot) and Jean-Michel Aphatie, whose combination of southwest accent and trenchant opinions make him France’s  most entertaining political journalist.

French TV may be crap, but at least it lays on some quality shouting about tertiary education reform while I’m making dinner. And I’ll take that over Shortland Street, MTV Cribs or Dancing with the Stars any day.

Around the World in 21 Days

Arte continues to throw up some amazing documentaries. Last night it was the Dutch-produced film Autour du monde à bord du Zeppelin – Le journal de Lady Hay. It compiled footage of the August 1929 circumnavigation of the globe by the airship Graf Zeppelin, with narration based on the journals and letters of the sole woman on board, Lady Grace Drummond-Hay.

The round-the-world trip was in part sponsored by William Randolph Hearst, who negotiated exclusive newspaper rights for the trip for English-speaking countries. The journey left from Lakehurst, NJ, passing through Friedrichshafen, over Berlin, Russia and Siberia to Tokyo, and then onwards over the Pacific to Los Angeles before flying eastwards via Chicago back to Lakehurst.

It was a grand and risky adventure: supplied with erroneous maps, the airship had to dump tonnes of ballast to climb over the Stanavoy Mountains in Siberia. Encountering a storm over the Pacific, the zeppelin lost radio contact for two days. Newspapers around the world reported that the ship had crashed.

Lady Drummond-Hay’s on-board companions are equally colourful. The Soviet representative is enraged when the captain Hugo Eckener abandons plans to overfly Moscow due to adverse weather. A stowaway is discovered: a young man trying to fly to Hollywood to become a movie star. And she constantly records the awkward relationship with her erstwhile boyfried, the journalist Karl von Wiegand.

However what is most remarkable about the film is its vision of the planet midway between two World Wars.  As the airship flew over Berlin, the passengers witnessed violent scenes in the streets below: Germans protesting war reparations. The Berlin flyover was intended to celebrate German engineering prowess, but instead, Lady Drummond-Hay records  her shock at the political violence. A few years later Germany turned to fascism, and swastikas were painted on the Graf Zeppelin‘s tail.

Graf Zeppelin over Basel, Switzerland, 1930
(Casas-Rodríguez Collection, 2009 – Creative Commons)

Retrospectively, this voyage marked the end of an era, a grand gesture summing up the excess and progress of the 1920s. Six weeks after the Graf Zeppelin triumphantly circled Manhattan at the end of its circumnavigation, the Wall Street stockmarket crashed. The world entered an economic depression that was really only resolved by a second World War.

Lady Grace Drummond-Hay is largely forgotten today, but in the 1920s and 1930s was something of a celebrity: a journalist and the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by air.

As war correspondents in the Philippines in 1942, Drummond-Hay and von Wiegand were captured by Japanese troops and spent three years in a prison camp. Returning to New York, Drummond-Hay died in 1946 of health complications arising from her captivity. A movie could certainly be made of her life: this documentary is a fascinating starting point.


The part of parenthood that Dr Spock never told you about

In between pretending to finish my dissertation, I’ve discovered a low-cost summer activity that doesn’t involve going outside and sweating: catching up on half a decade of television. After 4 years of not having a TV at home, I’ve realised there are actually a few good things I’ve missed.

So I borrowed the first four seasons of Weeds off a friend, and have been working my way through it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. If Weeds is a sitcom, the “situations” are twisted, and the “comedy” even more so. In Seinfeld, we laughed at Soup Nazis and George’s lack of luck with the ladies. In Weeds, people get shot dead and dissolved in baths of acid – and we still laugh.

Growing shedloads of pot in suburbia – what could possibly go wrong…?

In case you haven’t seen it, basically, Weeds is a show about suburban mom Nancy Botwin – after her husband dies suddenly, she turns to dealing marijuana to her friends and neighbours in order to make ends meet. But her efforts to support her family via a modest weed-pushing operation rapidly fall apart as alcoholic friends (Celia), idiot accoutants (Doug), DEA agents and couch-surfing brothers-in-law (Andy) foul her every move.

There’s something refreshing about a TV comedy that tracks the slow disintegration of a suburban family and their hangers-on. Weeds is very much a show for our time: at the end of season 3, (screened in 2007, just as the credit crunch was beginning to hit), the Botwins’ identikit suburb of easy-credit homes burns to the ground (something to do with Mexican mafia revenge, biker gangs and Nancy with a petrol can… oh never mind).

The last thing you want to deal with when you’re on the run from the Mexican mafia..

Illegal immigration, Mexican drug wars, euthanasia, police corruption, narcotics (lots), and sex (even more): life is complicated in Schwarznegger’s California. We’re a long way, geographically and spiritually from Saturday evenings with Bob Saget or the amiable but inane antics of Friends.

If occasionally the storylines lacks energy, the series is kept alive by a dynamite script. Andy spouts unlikely slacker wisdom at crucial moments, Nancy’s best enemy Celia goes postal every few episodes, and Shane (borderline sociopath and Nancy’s 13 year-old son) makes the most of being on cable with a dirtier mouth than the rest of the cast combined. And could you imagine Clifford Huxtable having this conversation (NSFW) with Theo?

Celia is actually stabbing Nancy in the back in this photo

But the show belongs to Mary-Louise Parker, who plays Nancy. Her character, who has the best of intentions but no business plan, seems only capable of digging her family into deeper trouble. Although her problems are of her own making, you feel truly sorry for Nancy, and somehow responsible for her predicament as her world teeters on the edge of the abyss.

So, Weeds has been well worth staying inside for. Maybe TV isn’t completely useless. I’ve heard The Wire‘s worth seeing too – anyone have some DVDs I can borrow?

Le Talk-Show: a beginner’s guide

Note pour mes chers lecteurs français: Ceci est une parodie. Il s’agit d’ironie anglo-saxonne. Au moins, à moitié.

Let me start with a gross generalisation: the French love to talk. If they can have an argument, they love it even more. Therefore, one kind of television programme is particularly popular in France: it’s what they call un talk-show.

Un talk-show is nothing like Oprah or Parkinson. Un talk-show is a sacred arena of French public life. It allows millions of French people to watch other French people talking to each other for hours and hours. If there’s an argument, it’s even better.

To be a talk-show guest in France, you must be a well-paid bourgeois academic, journalist, entertainer, author or politician. In fact, if you don’t manage to hold down at least two of these jobs at the same time, you will never be a talk-show guest, never own a Rolex, and you will have failed in your life.

The biggest triumph for un talk-show is to have a philosopher as a guest, because philosophers love to talk even more than average French people. Philosophers hold doctorates in talking. Thus philosophers are bigger than rock stars in France (although this is also because French rock stars are rubbish).  In fact in France, philosophers even marry rock stars.

There are at least 650 different talk-shows on French television each week, each of them with a studio audience. It is rumoured that the 35 hour week was introduced to allow French workers to participate as audience members in more talk-shows.  This rumour has not been denied by the French government.

The current apotheosis of le talk-show is On n’est pas couché, which is broadcast at a time which in any other country would mean ratings death: Saturday nights, from 11pm to 2am.  I am not making this bit up. This show is three hours long. But it involves people talking. Hence it is very, very popular.

Hosted by Laurent Ruquier (whose main job on the show is to not wear a tie), On n’est pas couché is difficult to explain to foreigners. It involves a series of conversations with a panel of well-paid bourgeois entertainers, authors and politicians.  Normally most of these people are part-time academics and journalists as well.

At least one of the guests will be subject to a chronique satirique, a very particular form of French humour, where a comedian plays a similar role to the medieaval fou du roi. It’s a bit like a celebrity roast, but without Dean Martin. For this section, Jonathan Lambert dresses up as a figure from the guest’s past (a old classmate or a drinking buddy). What follows is generally incomprehensible, and may involve smelly cheese:

But the real stars of On n’est pas couché are the Les 2 EricsEric Naulleau and Eric Zemmour. They have two important jobs. Firstly, to not wear ties. Secondly, they are the two polémistes. The job of a polémiste in France is almost as important as that of a philosopher, because their job is to create arguments.

Eric Naulleau hides behind a cuddly khaki shirt (without tie) and an air of left-wing journalistic social democracy. If he were British, he’d read the Guardian. But instead he’s French, has a sideline gig translating Bulgarian literature, and gets paid lots of money to criticise the latest work of guests on On n’est pas couché.

By contrast, Eric Zemmour is so right-wing he makes Rush Limbaugh look like a pussy. Zemmour is a self-confessed Bonapartiste (ie. he thinks the main problem with the modern world is that Napoleon isn’t ruling France at the moment), and he tells every guest that their book/film/philosophy/sporting achievement is contributing to the moral decline of the Republic. This invariably causes arguments, which, as noted earlier, is a good thing.

I am becoming convinced that On n’est pas couché is the Rosetta Stone to French culture. So if you find me staying home on Saturday nights furiously searching French wikipedia while watching Eric Zemmour tell Jean-Pierre Chevènement (once again) that he is the origin of the moral decline of the Republic, it’s because I’m trying to work out what the heck is going on.

Jonathan Lambert, Laurent Ruquier, Eric Zemmour, Eric Naulleau

The Good Samaritan Sketch

David Mitchell and Robert Webb are two comedians who are hard to avoid in Britain today. Mitchell in particular is carving out a niche on the panel show circuit, appearing on Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week and several Radio 4 shows.

Mitchell and Webb’s best work as a double act is on Channel 4’s Peep Show (which is actually written by others), but occasionally their own sketch comedy approaches genius. This is a scene from That Mitchell and Webb Look on BBC2: