Let’s Pretend I can Write in French


Virginie Vitry and Jean-Claude Brialy as scheming lovers in Le Coup du Berger

So I’m taking this class. French 61c: La Nouvelle Vague: Reinventing French Cinema. Cool, right? Film and French culture and history all rolled up into one nice, big, Francophilean package. Solid stuff. What could be better?

Let’s go back a bit.

So it turns out that Harvard has a language requirement. And to pass out of this requirement or to place into a level of a language you take this online test over the summer, it asks you some really arbitrary questions, and somehow generates a number—out of 800—which determines your lingual fate at the school. Anything over a 600 and you’re home free—no language at all for the next four years if that’s whatcha wanna do.

So I took this test over the summer and got over a 600, which qualified me for a “verification exam” once I got here. A sort of “did you cheat?” test. I figured it’d be an oral. Or a written. Or, you know, a different test from the one we took over the summer. But nah. The original one was cool. Why bother with something else?

I remembered (if only vaguely) pretty much every question. The whole affair took all of 20 minutes, I clicked submit, and a number appeared on my screen, along with a message congratulating me on passing out of Harvard’s language requirement. But I didn’t care about that. What interested me was the number, since I was trying to place into and not out of the program.

So here’s the number, ready?


Wait what? Doesn’t that recommend me for graduate level French? How the heck can a test which asked me to pick the correct translation of “below” from a list and informed me that “la maison est grande” decide that I’m ready for graduate level French? I could tell you that I’m not ready for graduate level French! Wouldn’t it be easier to just have a five minute conversation with me? That way they might be able to avoid the apparently inevitable problem of dewy-eyed Freshmen shopping advanced French literature classes. Which is certainly not something I did.

Anyway. Long and the short of it is that I ended up in a good, solid 60’s class. It was either that or intro to French lit 70a, which—though undeniably interesting and taught by a wonderful dude (trust me, he’s definitely a dude)—was maybe not quite my speed. Yet. See, the thing is that, though I’ve lived in France and I can understand French no problemo and can have a better than decent conversation with you should the need arise, my writing is, shall we say, a little bit less than stellar. The best that can be said of it is probably that it’s enthusiastic. Enthusiastically bad, maybe. But enthusiastic nevertheless.

(As a side note: I should currently either be writing a paper on the treatment of death in Act 5 of Hamlet and Chapter 6 of Ulysses or on the Life of Geretrud of Nivelles and its effect on our understanding of late Merovingian France, both of which are due tomorrow. But nah. I didn’t want to get any sleep anyway.)

So back to French 61c: La Nouvelle Vague. My prof, as it turns out, is something of a celebrity. Should you happen to know any connoisseurs of French-language American country music (a rather large sector of the French-speaking populace, I know), ask them if they know Ericka Knudson. Who knows, it might mean something to them. She’s from Texas and gets really excited every time she sees Anna Karina’s face. It’s sort of cute.

The ways it works: I have two one and a half hour classes a week. For the first one, I watch a movie and write a critique of it. For the second, I read about the history of the New Wave and answer some high schooly questions about what I read. Sometimes I write longer papers or skits or scripts. My final will be a short film.

All of this requires pretending that I write better French than I do. Fingers crossed I improve.

And fear not: you’re about to get an example of my truly epic compositional skill. A little bit of context, though, first. The first film we watched was a short by Rivette called Le Coup du Berger. It’s his first film (that survives at least) and it’s got the mark of an amateur stamped all over it. Which isn’t to say it isn’t fun. It’s about an unfaithful wife who devises a needlessly complicated plan to prevent her husband from questioning the sudden appearance of a lovely fur her lover has given her. The whole thing’s rather laboriously equated to a chess match (un partie d’échecs, pas un match) and even comes with voice over from Rivette himself explaining the metaphor.

We were assigned to defend the film against “le cinéma du papa,” but I was generally rather inclined to agree with the cinéma du papa.

Anyway. Don’t laugh.

Les Nouvelles Règles du Jeu*

Le film prend le form d’un partie d’échecs, avec des voix-offs qui éxplique la métaphore tandis que l’intrigue se déroule. C’est tout un peu posé, particulièrement dans le soin avec lequel le film est réalisée. On peut voir que Rivette sentait qu’il était révolutionnaire simplement parce qu’il parlait d’amour dans une manière nouvelle. Mais, parce qu’il voulait être pris au sérieux, il essayait d’être professionnelle, qui lui empêchait d’être vraiment innovant. . . particulièrement avec le conception de l’image—le caméra est à la même hauteur tout le temps, par exemple. Mais en dépit de tout ça, Le Coup du Berger a une certaine energie qui marche fantastiquement! Tous les scènes, les personnages, les dialogues ont une esprit qui est absent des films d’autre génération. Une partie d’esprit est à cause du amateurisme—le mauvais éclairage fait sentir plus réel et moins mis en scène, mais je pense que la plus grande partie vient de la joie évidente avec lequel la film était fait. Rivette a fait le film qu’il voulait et ça le donne une énergie qui unit le film.

Partout, on peut entendre le tic-tac d’une horloge. Au commencement, le tic-tac sent laborieux et ridicule, mais à la fin—à cause de l’énergie qui réussit à se développer—il sent réel, il ajoute à l’atmosphère. Le film est plein d’exemples comme ça: des choses qui, par eux-mêmes, seraient trop, mais comme partie de l’ensemble ils créent belle énergie et une image fidèle de la folie de la vie. Et ça c’est, je pense, le point: en dépit de tout ses problèmes de forme, de primitivité, de cinématographie, des symboles inélégantes, le fin—la “comeuppance” de Claire—est réel et vrai et moderne! Et ça c’est une triomphe (particlièrement dans son premier film) qui mérite respect, même si la reste ou la moyen du réaliser n’est pas parfait. Tout ça vient avec du temps.

*I thought I was super clever because of this title. So meta. I’m not even sure my prof got what I was going for.


And, for fun:

5876689_origTruffaut in a cameo in the last scene of Le Coup du Berger.
9019222_origAnd Godard in the same scene. Helping a buddy (Rivette) out.
7830713_origSame scene, Chabrol this time. Chabrol also helped Rivette write it (Bitsch was in on that too).

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