Jules Verne and a French Farce

After Paris, I left Paris to visit Brittany and a friend.  In the tradition of 19th century memoirs, I’ll call her Mlle M.  She lives in Nantes, a sunny Breton port town of about 200,000.  Although Nantes was heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II, much survived, including a gothic cathedral and a 15th-century chateau, onetime royal residence of Anne of Brittany, queen of France.  The chateau is made principally of white limestone and boasts a chaotic profusion of turrets and towers.  It’s circled by a deep moat, which, to judge by the ongoing renovations, will soon be turned into a circular park.

The most famous nantais is Jules Verne.  If you hike a little ways up a promontory overlooking the bay, you find a square whitewashed house containing the Musée Jules Verne, freshly renovated in 2005.  In the MJV you learn, of course, much about Jules Verne and his works — such as the fact that, when Captain Nemo dies in the book Mysterious Island, his dying word in Verne’s first draft was "Independence!" before Verne replaced it with the more conventional "God and Country." 

The real charm of the museum, though, isn’t what you learn about JV, but how you learn it.  The museums looks as if you had given a team of gifted high-school kids the task of creating a museum, and wads of money to do it.  The Brazilian jungle advanture La Jangada is evoked by a sort of wall-sized illuminated advent calendar concealing vignettes of important plot points.  The historical pot-boiler Michel Stroganoff is brought to life in a series of dioramas.  Yes, dioramas, complete with painted-cardboard curtains, painted-cardboard fat, strutting military officers, and painted-cardboard burning cities.

Finally, a series of displays traces Verne’s lasting inflence.  This includes a cadre of loyal fans — the Trekkies of the late 19th century.  They read Verne’s books obsessively, looked for secret codes, and produced obsessively authentic diagrams of the ships and vehicles in Verne’s stories.  Verne admirers were among he first American astronauts to orbit the moon and signed first editions of From the Earth to the Moon for fans.  Even today, young people in various French drama and media schools are still being inspired by Verne, creating everything from experimental, faintly ludicrous theater pieces to collage-animations based on the original illustrations of Verne’s works.

If you’re in or near Nantes, don’t miss the museum.  But be warned — most of the exhibits and explanations are French-only.  Note to the French Ministry of Tourism — if you’d like me to spend a year traveling around France translating French museum signs into English, make me an offer.  My only non-negotiable demand: a 17.5-hour work week.

Mlle. M and I then stuffed ourselves with crêpes and galettes (a Breton specialty).  I discovered a new flavor in France, caramel and salted butter.  Ordinary English doesn’t do justice to the deliciousness of this flavor-combination.  To describe it in Franglais, I would say that the majestic, earthy dignity of the salted butter flavor is challenged and mocked by the creamy feminine impertinence of the caramel.  You can get it in ice cream and crêpes.

Then we saw a French movie, Du Jour au Lendemain (Fr) ("From One Day to the Next").  I was particularly excited to see this movie because it’s ordinary entertainment for French people.  It won’t be entered into any film festivals and probably won’t be released in any non-Francophone country.

The hero of the film, François Berthier, is an ordinary Joe who works at the ‘Praxis Banque.’  One morning, his coffee maker malfunctions, spewing boiling water and coffee grains all over him.  He nearly trips leaving his horrid, Ceasescu-esque suburban Paris housing block.  The man whose dog has kept him up all night barking laughs off his polite complaint.  He reaches his workplace — a gray trangular cubicle — a few minutes late.  This minor infraction is enough to send his boss Magne, a pop-eyed, gravel-voiced bossmonster played by Bernard Bloch, into a tirade.  François’ life sucks.

The next day, though, something strange happens.  His coffee machine miraculously fixes itself, and generates the best coffee of its life.  François’ newspaper vendor apologizes for short-changing him once, and gives him 10 Euro back.  His boss simpers into François’ office begging forgiveness for his outburst of the day before.  He brings a box of candy, and a request for François’ help negotiating with a Spanish bank.  His luck has changed ‘overnight’ (the meaning of the movie’s title).  It’s like the old joke about what happens when you play a country music song backwards: you wife comes back to you, your dog comes back to life, your pickup truck starts working again. 

François spends the rest of the film becoming increasingly suspicious that he’s become the subject of a cosmic joke.  Where did all this good luck come from?  How long will it last? He begins to tempt fate by trying to break his life again, to see whether Fate will continue to preserve him from harm. 

It’s a pleasant little farce.  Benoît Poelvoorde, the  Belgian actor who plays François, has an appealing regular-guy vulnerability.  The plot has funny encounters between Benoit and his boss, some touching scenes between François and his ex-wife, and a pleasingly bittersweet conclusion.  I and Mlle. M. saw Du Jour au Lendemain in an ordinary multiplex, which was playing several Hollywood blockbusters, and had ad displays for Mission Impossible: III

Which brings me to the peroration of this long post, which will end the France travelogue.  There are reasons for the hostility against ‘the French.’  They look better than most of the rest of us, without really seeming to try.  This makes us jealous.  They also still occupy commanding positions in several areas of human refinement, which also makes us jealous.  Plus, their political system doesn’t work so good.  This makes us feel superior.

But (cue swelling string music in background) no matter how much tension there is between France and the rest of the world (especially the Yanks) on official levels, no matter how many spitballs get thrown across the Atlantic, we should all remember that most French folks are decent, likable humans.  They sometimes watch Hollywood blockbusters, they earn a living by typing up spreadsheets in offices, they sometimes eat fast food, they go on package vacations, save up to buy cars and houses and throw little parties when they finally buy them.  When you leave the well-trodden tourist paths, you generally find them hospitable and kind. 

Vive la France!

One thought on “Jules Verne and a French Farce

  1. ” They sometimes watch Hollywood blockbusters, they earn a living by typing up spreadsheets in offices, they sometimes eat fast food, they go on package vacations, save up to buy cars and houses and throw little parties when they finally buy them”

    Yes, but they know they really shouldn’t.


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