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It’s French to Me

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It’s French to Me

In the years I spent flipping through NYU school bulletins not once did I see XXX.6666 Annoyingly Incorporating French Idioms Into Film Criticism Only People Who Speak French Will Be Able To Understand anywhere on the curriculum. Anyone who writes film criticism (at least the “serious” kind), or reads it on a semi-regular basis, probably knows exactly what I’m talking about here. I know my writers do, because some of them are guilty of doing this too.

In this week’s We-Love-Last Days issue of The Village Voice, some Random French Word (RFW) seems to appear in half the paper’s articles. I don’t take issue with the use of “déjà vu” and “musique concrete”—the former has fully absorbed itself into the American vernacular and the latter is a popular enough style of music that Robert Christagu can use it without meriting a punch in the neck—but this gives me the willies: Joshua Clover, who says he dislikes Gus Van Sant for the same reason he hates David Lynch (“Everyone I meet at parties loves them and, worse, expects me to love them too, which is to say, loving them is part of the rules about being a certain kind of person”), uses the word “auto-da-fé” in his article “All Van Sant’s Cowboys Get the Blues” so casually he might as well be talking about a piece of pie. You know what I dislike, Joshua? People I meet at parties who talk to their friends in a language they know the people in the direct vicinity can’t understand.

From the e-pages of Slant Magazine to Film Comment there seems to be no stopping the RFW from making its way into reviews, and sometimes I wonder, “Why French?” Why not Russian or German? (No offense to schadenfreude, which has been making incredible gains in the last few of years.) On page 61 of the July/August issue of Film Comment, Phillip Lopate writes this about Battle in Heaven: “The real battle is between the director’s exciting filmmaking gifts and his tiresomely immature épater la bourgeoisie stunts.” (Wow, Phil, that’s exactly what I was thinking!). Six pages later, Nathan Lee has this to say about his Cannes experience: “I had to reflect on that for a while before crediting her with sniffing out le mot juste.” (Guess I can’t go to Cannes next year because I’ll be too busy reflecting on the meaning of this sentence.) At least Lee is being ironic. But seriously, folks: Being in France at the time that you write your article does not give you a free pass to blow your pretentious load, just as going to a rave in Ibiza doesn’t mean you can pronounce the name of the city as if you were Castilian but still say all the other Spanish words in your mental database as if you were a redneck.

I say all of this having absolutely nothing against the Voice and Film Comment, or any of the writers who write for them (many of whom are great and their intelligence and insight sometimes makes me want to hang up the skates), but what do critics in alt-weekly circles look to achieve with the RFW? Is it to give props to the ghosts of Cahiers du Cinéma writers past or to show off that they got beyond French I in high school? I’ve learned to accept that a thesaurus is sometimes necessary when reading reviews, but when was a French/English dictionary (or Alta Vista Babel Fish) necessary as well? Either way, it’s fucking annoying and if ya’ll don’t stop, I’m going to start my own trend: the Random Spanish Word (RSW). I mean, think of the possibilities and potential for mass confusion:

“It’s not long before se descubre el pastel and you begin to miss the minimalist political paranoia of The Parallax View and even Three Days of the Condor, films that don’t spell out everything for their audience or assume no está el horno para bollos.”

On that note, happy (belated) Bastille Day everyone!

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.