I am a Parisian cliché incarnate: sitting at a table outside a sidewalk cafe, halfway through a carafe of rose, tapping my pen on my notebook, trying to figure out how to write about Paris and the movies. It’s a good thing I don’t own a beret.
The problem is that I have been in Paris for five weeks, and I am here for one week more, and so far I have seen these movies: Jurassic World, Love and Mercy, Inside Out (called Vice Versahere), and the strange but definitely un-Parisian Johnny Guitar, playing here because for whatever reason the French apparently adore Nicholas Ray. My husband Tom went to the movies one day without me; he saw Mad Max: Fury Road. The French-est movie experience we’ve had was watching Be Kind Rewind on the laptop in our flat. It indeed is directed by Michel Gondry, but it is also set in Passaic, New Jersey, the furthest point from Paris on the planet.
I arrived in Paris with high hopes and a half-baked plan to visit every cinema in the city. The ghosts of film past are everywhere in Paris, I imagine, and I want to hunt them down. I have a list in my files provided by all the critics on Twitter. I am staying in Montparnasse, so nearly all the cinemas are within walking distance, and also Jean Seberg’s grave. I love French movies. I write film criticism for money. I am ready.
What I realized on arrival, a thing so obvious I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before, is that Parisian moviegoers mostly speak French. So there are two versions of many films—V.O.,version originale, which is mostly for English-language films subtitled in French, and version francaise, the dubbed version. We don’t see many dubbed movies in the U.S., unless they’re animated. That’s because a lot of movies are shot in English.
But if a movie is shot in French, and a lot of them are, then why would they dub them? Why, for that matter, would they subtitle them? This is Paris, dammit—speak French. So as much as I wanted to catch up on everything from Cannes I won’t get to see in the States for a long time, I’ve got a problem: je ne parle pas francais (not beaucoup, anyhow). I can’t understand it when I hear it, either. I only read it a little.
A scene from Paris: I go to see Inside Out, or I guess Vice Versa, with my husband, in V.O. The cute animated emotions are speaking English. The movie is subtitled in French. I sit down in the theater with my bag of popcorn (they give you the choice of sel or sucre here, and we’ve gone for sucre this time, which is mildly reminiscent of candy corn). I have my 3-D glasses, which I saved after Jurassic World and brought back because otherwise they charge you a Euro for another pair. I look around in amazement at the packed theater. It’s all adults in here, save the two kids down on the front row hopped up on candy from the bins at concessions. I am amazed, instantly fetishizing in my mind the Parisian film audience, which recognizes Pixar quality when it sees it and won’t even bring the children because it is le cinema, haven for adults!
Two days later, I’m walking down the sidewalk discussing this phenomenon with another American who’d had a similar experience. We exclaim together about the brilliance of Parisian cinemagoers. But in the midst of our rhapsodies, I flush a delicate rose color, having just realized that even Parisian preschoolers, worldly-wise as they are, probably don’t speak English nor read French all that well.
I am functionally deaf and mute in Paris. This is not a great set of handicaps for a film critic.
Or is it? I spend a great deal of critical breath arguing for attention to both form and content. But judging from how quickly I give up on the idea of learning anything new about film in Paris, I haven’t quite absorbed my own medicine.
Thankfully, the city is patient. One day, after lunch in Bercy Village, Tom and I go to the Cinematheque Francaise, mecca for cinefreaks the world over, and buy tickets for the Antonioni exhibit. I am less familiar with Antonioni than I ought to be. I have seen Blow-Up, which I loved, and a long time ago I saw L’Avventura without appreciation, though I’ve thought about it many times since then. I am game.
The exhibit takes place in one long room you’re meant to traverse twice, once down on the right and then back on the left. It’s laid out chronologically, with screens ringing the room playing clips from films and a table-like platform in the center with letters and artifacts. The placards on the table, we’re happy to see, are in both English and French.
But the film clips are mostly in Italian, of course, especially near the beginning of the show. They’re subtitled—in French.
I can’t read and translate fast enough to keep up with more than a few words here and there. Once the frustration wears off, something curious happens. My eyes stop trying to read at all. Instead, I start reading shapes and gestures and angles. The Italian spills musically from the woman in the Cronaca di un amore clip, and then La signora senza camelie, and by the time I get to L’Avventura again I am watching, really watching, unaware that I’m not picking up dialogue.
I have slipped from “what is going on in this story?” to “this is cinema,” which is, of course, a great deal of what Antonioni was after. By the end I’m wholly unaware of what I am watching, but I have sunk deeply into the screen. A large screen hangs near the back of the room, with a rear-projected bit from the final minutes of Zabriskie Point, and I watch it loop a dozen times, entranced.
I leave feeling as if I’ve been plunged into a dozen worlds, and knowing I’ve noticed color, texture, movement, and sound far more than I normally do, processing narrative as fast as I can. I probably won’t be paying for a ticket to an unsubtitled V.F. before I leave the country, but I have been chastened. When we turn on a movie that evening, I am looking at the frame again, not just through it.
Near the end of our trip, Tom and I venture out to Pere Lachaise, the massive cemetery we know best from Wes Craven’s segment in Paris, je t’aime, in which Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell nearly break off their engagement at the grave of Oscar Wilde until the ghost himself intervenes.
Our very first stop is a little hard to find, nestled into the middle of its section facing away from the graveyard: George Melies. The stone is green with age and topped with a bust of its owner, and reads CREATEUR du SPECTACLE CINEMATOGRAPHIQUE 1861-1938. “That’s a pretty kickass epitaph,” I say to Tom, who nods.
Melies sent us to the moon all the way back in 1902, and when you watch A Trip to the Moonyou still feel awe and excitement, mostly because it is about your eyes and your imagination. Even children still find it captivating. And little English-speaking and French-speaking children could watch the same version together, and I could, too, if I wanted.
I blow Melies a kiss on my way out.
It’s hardly fun to be deaf or mute, but they say when one sense goes, the others get heightened. Not hearing, I am seeing now. The ghosts have intervened after all.
Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Pacific Standard, Movie Mezzanine, Books & Culture, and other venues. Her book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, co-written with Robert Joustra, is due out from Eerdmans next spring.