Un marcel

15377B2E-6934-4DB7-BAA5-F7EEB0AB476DI always cringe when I hear the American expression “a wifebeater” to refer to a tank-style undershirt. The French term is much more civilized, un marcel. The shirt was first popularized in the middle of the 19th century by the workers at les Halles, the food market in the center of Paris. It’s called un marcel after its manufacturer, Marcel Eisenberg. It moved from being an undershirt to ubiquitous summer street wear; you’ll no doubt see a lot of them as the weather heats up.

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Le Bic Cristal

 

85d1e705-d142-4049-b68e-a9509892d15e-e1553465079731.jpegThe summer program I work for in Paris had a daily newsletter with bad jokes, a skill-testing question about French culture, as well as the details of upcoming activities. I was generally able to ace the daily culture question, but was utterly stumped by one about the most frequently purchased French product. I guessed Chanel No. 5, but was greeted with a pitying head shake. No, the most popular French product was not an exemplar of le luxe français, but rather the humble Bic pen. I hadn’t even realized that the pen I had used so often was French!

AD7BFB7B-C1CA-4682-A780-A0D2480A071BThe ubiquitous disposable ball-point pen known as the Bic Cristal was invented in 1950 by Marcel Bich and Édouard Bouffard. The revolutionary design caught on and challenged the supremacy of the leaky fountain pen. Today, it continues to outsell all contenders, with over 100,000,000,000 (that’s 100 BILLION) sold, or one every 57 seconds since its inception. The simple, iconic design that lets the user see how much ink remains has been enshrined at the twin temples of modern art, the MoMA in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. World dominance through disposability. Amazing.

97EB9AD0-C5B3-497A-8836-62E12DF3BA5C
Pack of 10 Bic pens

 

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La Trève

8C63C639-21F3-4A69-B013-C2D1E8617DF1I just watched a really engrossing Belgian police drama on Netflix. The original name was La Trève (lah trev), translated as The Break. The series centers around pill-popping Inspector Yoann Peeters, a brilliant detective who is emotionally unstable. Each season focuses on a single crime, in the first, the murder of a young football (the real football) player and in the second, the murder of a wealthy woman. Each episode takes another twist and turn with constant misdirection as the finger of guilt keeps turning to point at one person after another uncovering all the little secrets of each character. Two seasons are available, and I hope there will be more. It’s filmed in French with subtitles available in French and English. I think the pace would make it understandable to those with strong intermediate levels of French. I did learn a few new rather impolite words, however!

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Suite Française

85200B9D-4885-4132-8876-2B40BEEA0397As a francophile, of course I read Suite Française (sweet frahn-sez), by Irène Némirovsky, when it came out in 2004. The author was working on a series of five novels when she was arrested because she was a Jew living in France, then deported to Auschwitz, where she perished. Apparently, her daughters kept her notebooks without reading them until 1998, fearing that they were journals that would be too heartrending.

The first two volumes of the series were published together under the title she had intended for the entire group. The first volume tells the story of chaos on the roads out of Paris, as the Nazis advanced on the capital, and then the ultimate return as people decided that cohabiting with the enemy would be preferable to the difficulties of living elsewhere. The second novel tells the story of life during the occupation in the small town of Bussy, when love develops between a German officer and the woman who is required to billet him.

ACAE7E33-0450-41F2-AFE8-C0784F173495It seems unkind of me to say that I did not love Suite Française, given the tragedy that befell its author, but it struck me as being very much a first draft, that Némirovsky might have substantially altered and polished, had she lived. So when I saw that a film version of the second volume had been made in 2015, I didn’t rush to see it, even though it starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Michelle Williams, two actresses that I admire a great deal. I added it to my Netflix queue, with the intention of perhaps checking it out “someday.”

5B315E1B-EE15-4588-B45A-3A1B87E59415Well, someday finally came and I can highly recommend the film. Yes, there have been changes from Némirovsky’s original plot, but the essential elements are still there. Scott Thomas is the mother-in-law from hell who turns out to have a drop of good in her after all, and Williams is the dutiful wife whose husband is in a POW camp who finds herself drawn to a Nazi officer who loves music as much as she does. What the film – and book – do best is reveal how ugly people can be when they are trying to look after their own skins and how they can also transcend all the pettiness when it comes to serving a higher goal. Whether or not you were a fan of the book, or even have never heard of it, I think that you might enjoy Suite Française.

 

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Joueuse

1FE6FC6E-3AB5-4BF1-B4D8-7628D3EA0B66Sometimes, I find myself rewatching a film many years later and enjoying it even more the second time. Joueuse (shjoo-uhz), means “player,” but specifically a female player; it was originally released in 2009 and I think I must have seen it shortly therafter. I really prefer the English title, Queen to Play, as it is much more evocative of the story line.

The movie is set in Corsica, and the scenery is simply gorgeous. It’s the story of Hélène, a hotel chambermaid who also cleans house for an American ex-pat. After watching some guests at the hotel play a game of chess that was charged with sensuality, she bought a computer chess game for her husband’s birthday, apparently hoping to strike the same sparks. When the gift falls terribly flat, Hélène tries to teach herself.

E74B9CD9-FD1B-48C6-8018-4C9F61344AD4When she finds that she can only get so far on her own, she trades housekeeping services for chess lessons with her reluctant, grumpy American client. Hélène is very gifted and makes such great progress that her teacher urges her to enter a local competition. The title comes from the fact that the Queen is the most powerful piece in chess, which stands in opposition to Hélène’s relative powerlessness. The film deals with social class, relationships, pursuing dreams, and the role of women.

FB7F939F-A021-4997-A91A-C66EB2842DE3Sandrine Bonnaire plays Hélène, but I must confess she’s not an actress I am familiar with. Her American ex-pat client, however is the much more famous Kevin Kline. He must have an affinity for France, as he played a Frenchman in French Kiss with Meg Ryan (1995), in which he speaks English with a heavy French accent. In this film, the situation is reversed; Kline speaks decent French, but with an American accent.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a woman-power moment that I hope you will enjoy. I found Joueuse on Amazon Prime.

 

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Ce qui nous lie

A0B2DFBB-B088-4C7E-AD01-4EBD8357B6E0I recently enrolled Amazon Prime for the free grocery delivery (life changing – don’t even get me started) and have been exploring their film options as they have some options not available on Netflix. I had just had the film Ce qui nous lie (2017(suh key new lee) recommended to me (the English title is Back to Burgundy) and decided to check it out.

720A9360-6B24-4B15-85B7-B36C40DAE12B.jpegThe title means “what connects us” and in this case, the connection was the inheritance of the family vineyard by three very different siblings as well as all of the heavy emotional bagage of their childhoods. There are heavy death taxes to be paid and insufficient resources. The will stipulates that all three must be in agreement to sell all of the land, or certain parcels, or just the house – and agreement is not easy to come by.

9C97D1F9-1376-4E53-953F-D4FEBE3D51DDI’m the fourth of five siblings, and I doubt that we could come to an agreement of the day of the week, so their struggles rang true to me. The film is directed by Cédric Klapisch, who made his name with L’Auberge Espagnol (2002). English subtitles are available and you’ll get the bonus of new words to add to your wine tasting vocabulary. The ending is realistic, but probably not one that you had anticipated. Blood is thicker than wine, as well as water.

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Le Fabuleux destin de Vigée LeBrun

203672FD-E98A-4BD1-957D-46506C99B1D3I’m fascinated by the life and talent of 18th century portrait painter, Elizabeth Vigée LeBrun. I’ve written about her a number of times on this blog. A few years ago, I bought a video about her when I was in France to show to my students. Its production coincided with a major traveling exhibit dedicated to the artist that traveled from Paris, to New York (where I saw it), and then to Ottawa. I just found the video, voiced over in English, on Amazon Prime, with the title The Fabulous Life of Vigée LeBrun (the French title is Le Fabuleux destin d’Elizabeth Vigée LeBrun). It’s a 90 minute introduction to the life, technique, and turbulent times of this incredibly talented artist.

E8B66C48-3040-4964-B072-B56DBCA968F7The film intersperses clips of actors portraying the story with commentary by world-renowned experts on Vigée LeBrun. It reminded me of a few interesting stories, for example, she was refused access to the Royal Academy by the traditional route because her husband was an art dealer. Women were considered to have the same occupation of their husbands, so Vigée LeBrun was also considered to be “in trade.” When she did get accepted, through her connection as Marie Antoinette’s portraitist, her recption piece, an allegory of La Paix ramenant l’Abondance (Peace Brings Back Prosperity), used female figures as women painters were not allowed to paint from male nudes and recption pieces required historical or allegorical subjects.

364847A3-6330-4F13-9417-3FE0DC519BBBSo many of her male subjects from her earliest years have a far-off gaze as she found that this kept them from leering at her during the long hours of posing, even though her mother was there as a chaperone. When Vigée LeBrun was in exile in Rome, she was invited to paint the Pope, but declined as she would have had to do so while veiled. She struggled against sexism and carved her own path in a country that was headed full-tilt to a time of extraordinary malice and blood lust. If you enjoy learning about French history or art, I think you’ll really like this film.

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