Peter M Howard ::

First Impressions Redux: Foreign- and Local-ness in French film and culture


Wrote this for In-Country Studies, we had an option to revisit our First Impressions project, which I wrote on foreign and local film in France. In this piece I revisit some aspects of foreign and local film, and tie it in to my own experiences as a foreigner over the year.


Since writing my First Impressions earlier this year, I have been able to further experience the local culture, and in so doing, deepen my understanding of it. In revisiting those impressions, I will further explore conceptions of foreign- and local-ness, particularly in regards to film. My experiences regarding other media, particularly television and popular music have also influenced my impressions, as has my experience of the treatment of language in French culture, and of English in particular.

Film is, for me, a particularly useful filter through which to view my impressions of the local culture, and indeed, to explore how those impressions have changed over the year. As a film student and enthusiast, I wanted to both keep up-to-date with the film world at large, as well as taking the opportunity to explore the local French industry. Further, the treatment of foreign- and local-ness in film can act as a mirror to the treatment of foreign- and local-ness in the local culture as a whole. As a foreigner, I have brought my own conceptions to the culture, and have been received in various ways. Over time, I have been able to broaden my understanding of my own reception, just as my understanding of the reception of foreign film has broadened.

First Impressions Summarised

In my First Impressions project, I explored the treatment of foreign and local film. I looked at practices of dubbing and subtitling film. And I compared those as practiced on television.

My general impression was that mainstream (foreign) cinema releases are dubbed, while 'arthouse' foreign releases are subtitled. Further observation has reinforced that, and some specific experiences will be pointed to highlighting the practice.

Further, I linked the practice of dubbing mainstream releases to a general cultural reaction, an attempt to protect the local culture and language. Again, further observation has reinforced this generalisation, but my experience of the culture has pointed to far more nuance and a greater range of perspectives than I first imagined.

Subtitling as 'High' Culture

A number of particular experiences caused me to think about the use of subtitling in film. My first impressions were largely influenced by my previous experiences in Australia, where the presence of subtitling often sends a particular sign to the audience: either of exotic-ness, or of a certain highbrow intellectualism. In Australia, the movie-goer can expect to find a subtitled film at a Dendy, but at a Greater Union the cinema will often highlight the fact that a movie has subtitles, usually framed as a 'warning'.

There are two cinema complexes in the centre of Reims, the Gaumont, showing mainstream releases, usually dubbed into French (if not French native), and the Opera, showing arthouse films, either in native French or subtitled. I have only observed two films shown at the latter complex dubbed into French. When first released, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was shown dubbed at Gaumont and subtitled at Opera, but after it stopped showing at Gaumont, Opera switched to the dubbed version. And Winnie the Pooh was only shown at the Opera cinemas, dubbed for the entirety of its season. This can probably be explained by the fact that its target audience is unlikely to read subtitles. Star Wars, which could be considered a mainstream release, was shown at the Opera cinemas subtitled, while the Gaumont showed it dubbed. Upcoming releases of Harry Potter and Narnia look like they will get the same treatment: a dubbed screening at the Gaumont and subtitled at Opera. Even their trailers are shown dubbed or subtitled depending on the cinema. Though at first I would have expected all mainstream releases to only screen at the Gaumont, dubbed, the screenings at the Opera suggest that there is certainly a market for viewing films in their original language. Observations of and experiences with audiences at the two cinemas do seem to reinforce a difference though: audiences at Opera are generally older. I did always expect there to be a difference between the target markets, though I have been surprised at the range of films and of audiences at the Opera cinema.

At the Gaumont, I watched one film, A History of Violence, which is the only film I have observed subtitled at the complex. This practice was so unusual that when the first subtitles appeared, three French girls seated in front of me started yelling and complaining, escalating into arguments with other patrons, until a cinema attendant escorted them from the room promising to exchange their tickets. The general argument presented by the girls was that they shouldn't have to read, while other patrons retorted: "if you can't read, you shouldn't be here".

Finally, a comment from a uni lecturer reinforced the image of subtitled films as 'intellectual'. The lecturer was announcing a CineClub, at which she would be screening films weekly. The class was a first year Arts subject, and there was a clear suggestion that the films would broaden their cultural education, with the added comment that they would be shown "in version originale, of course".

Dubbing and 'Low' Culture

It is unfair to suggest that dubbing is, as opposed to subtitling, associated with 'low' culture. Dubbing is done for various reasons. But over the year I have observed some interesting things about the practice of dubbing. Most of the dubbing I have seen is on television, as I always prefer to watch a film at the cinema subtitled, regardless of the original language. It is worth noting that prime-time television is almost always dubbed, while movies shown late at night are more likely to be subtitled. This can be explained for practical reasons though: prime time television is often 'background' entertainment, and it can't act as such if the viewer has to read the screen all the time. Finally, I spoke about Reality TV in my first impressions, and the observations there haven't changed: the use of English tends to be about image. Most reality TV on MTV is subtitled, as is Jerry Springer, both of which can be seen as 'typically American'. Otherwise, Reality shows with a wider audience, particularly those shown at prime time, are usually dubbed.

Some dubbing practices are worthy of note. What I've found particularly interesting is the use of accents when dubbing. Main characters are almost always dubbed with a standard French accent, even when wildly inappropriate. There may be, for example, no difference in accent or mannerisms between black or hispanic or white Americans. And the accents given to minor characters often give away their alignment. Characters the audience should like are invariably given a French accent, whilst differences are magnified for untrustworthy characters, whatever their ethnic background.

The presence of a British or American accent also often gives signals about a character. British accents come in two varieties: educated aristocrat, or clumsy but likable tourist. Though British accents are usually applied accurately, I have seen them used simply as indicators, again regardless of a character's background. American accents often signal something negative: sometimes given to tourists, but often with a touch of arrogant-American-ness, or a strong southern 'cowboy' accent. I have not seen American accents given to non-Americans, but otherwise the accent can be quite arbitrary.

All these dubbing practices reflect certain ethnic stereotypes, and the use of accent as a marker of character is certainly not unique to France. I don't mean to suggest that these stereotypes are widely held or believed in, but their widespread use indicates a certain public image - audiences have to at least accept certain stereotypes to pick up on the signs. Though I had a vague idea that some of these stereotypes existed, I had no idea of the extent of their use.

The Media Market, Popular Music

My first impressions of film were largely influenced by my perceptions of the use of English, as it marks a clear distinction between films in the local market. Since then however, I have observed a wider range of perceptions of the use of the English language in various spaces. Out of the cinema and television, films are found in one other form: DVD. Thus, I have been able to observe further the treatment of foreign and local media, and the English language.

Wherever DVDs are sold, I have not observed any further market segregation as demonstrated by the two cinema complexes. This can largely be attributed, of course, to the fact that DVDs carry both versions of a film (where appropriate): the original sound and the dubbed track, and subtitles, allowing the viewer to decide how they want to view the film.

The media store leads into another area: popular music, where once again, one can observe significant market segregation along language boundaries. The music areas are divided by genre, but more significantly into 'French' (by language and not nationality) and 'International', which is of course largely English. At the local Fnac, the French section gets prioritised, while the 'International' music hides at the back of the store. There are two important exceptions: one is that French hip-hop can be found, though still separated, next to the English-language hip-hop. And the other is that the 'singles' section combines French and English music, reflecting what can be heard on the radio. I still understand the first as a form of cultural segregation, based on the general perception of hip-hop as an American import.

English in Public and Private Space

It can be said that films are received into and screened in the Public Space. It is there where value judgments are made, and there where debate over language and culture occurs. DVD release falls into Private Space, which is where, as I outlined above, the viewer has ultimate control over how to view the film. I have not witnessed any specific debate over language and film, but I have witnessed dialogue about language and culture, and in my own interactions with locals, have witnessed the varying receptions of the English language.

It seems, particularly at first, difficult to separate the English language from the American culture, which can be problematic, and certainly highlighted the initial sense of hostility I felt toward the use of the English language. But over the course of the year that has changed, and I only rarely sense any hostility toward the language. That is, perhaps, because I have grown more comfortable with the culture, and with my use of the French language, but I have also witnessed many varied responses to the language. Some locals hear English and immediately assume 'American', and they do tend to be the people who respond with some hostility, but many others assume English=England, or ask before jumping to any conclusions. Some locals want to practice their English with us, or go out of their way to welcome us, in English, even when speaking French. With people our own age, again, we get a range of receptions. Many accommodate our broken Franglais, some refuse to speak any English, and have us repeat ourselves until we get the French correct. This has usually been with good intentions - to improve our French, but there is often a certain hostility attached. One proud Frenchmen explained that France has a big problem with American culture affecting the youth, but would not hear that Australia has a similar problem - "it is different, because you speak the language". Never mind the differences of dialect, nor that Australia's local film and music is just as swamped by American product as is the French. Often those who are critical of the influence of American culture view it as oppositional to French culture, as though youth who listen to American music won't listen to French music. Though this view is perhaps supported by the segregation of French and International music in the store, it doesn't at all reflect what is heard on the radio or on music tv.

In short, though the French may have a reputation for being hostile to the English language, further observation suggests this is not widely applicable. Certainly they give that impression at first, and travelling elsewhere in Europe has supported that impression, but when it occurs, it is usually out of national pride. And the French everyman is certainly more receptive than the national stereotype.


My initial first impressions were filtered through foreign- and local-ness in film. Revisiting them, I have again focussed on film, as it is a specific cultural industry with which I have some familiarity. During the year, I have come to a deeper understanding of foreign- and local-ness in film, and indeed in French society. The 'othering' of French and Foreign, and the treatment of English in the wider society, are both reflected in the conflict in the film industry. My experience of film has influenced my understanding of language in the local culture, and in turn my personal experience as a foreigner has informed my understanding of language in film.