Saturday, 19 May 2012

Les Visiteurs

Godefroy and Jacquoille

I've just been rewatching the DVD of Jean-Marie Poiré's 1993 cult comedy Les Visiteurs (The Visitors) and thoroughly wishing I knew more French. As you probably know, it concerns the misadventures of a mediaeval knight and his servant (played by Jean Reno and Christian Clavier) who are accidentally transported by a spell to modern France (see synopsis). It works very well as broad farce (at the level of the mediaeval characters washing in the toilet bowl and trying to roast meat using an umbrella as a spit), and the English DVD credits predictably liken it to Monty Python and Blackadder. But I began to twig that there's a lot more going on at the level of wordplay and social satire, most of which is lost in translation to subtitles. That it's far funnier to French speakers would probably explain how it become one of the highest-grossing French films ever.

In some areas, the subtitlers made a very good effort. For example, the servant's name, Jacquouille la Fripouille, incorporates a pun on "Jacques" and "couille" (a vulgar term for testicle), so it could be interpreted as something like "Jack Bollock the Crook". This was neatly adapted to Jacquasse la Crasse (i.e. readable as Jack Ass the Crass). They also went to reasonable effort to find equivalents for some of the archaic French used by the knight Godefroy: for instance, rendering "fillot" / "fillote" (archaic words for a young boy / girl) as "youngling", and "ça puire" (the archaic form of "ça pue" - "it stinks") as "it stinketh". Nevertheless, not much else remains of the flavour of Godefroy's speech, which is described within the film as "a mixture of Old French and Latin", but was described by one reviewer - see Les Visiteurs: Dinnnnnngue! - as "un mélange de vieux français et de délire des 2 scénaristes" ("a mixture of Old French and the delirium of two screenwriters").

On top of this is the whole interplay of language and social class. Godefroy speaks some flavour of formal Old French, Jacquouille a more robust slang. In the future, they find the classes inverted: Jacquouille's descendant is the nouveau riche castle owner Jacquard, and Godefroy's is the impoverished (at least to opulent middle class) Béatrice, whose aristocratic speech is peppered with franglais and French Yuppie affectations such as "Okéééééé" and "Dingue!" (i.e. crazy / far out *) that Jacquoille enthusiastically adopts. There's also Ginette, a bag lady who speaks in a downmarket Parisian accent.

A number of accounts intrepret this mix of people and circumstances as a very edgy microcosm of French culture and how it reflects through language. There's a particularly good analysis in this light in Lucy Mazdon's  2001 France on Film: Reflections on Popular French Cinema: see page 41, Anne Jäckel, 'Les Visiteurs: a feelgood movie for uncertain times'. The section on language notes that the film became so popular that phrases such as "fillotes", "ça puire" and the closing line "Mais qu'est ce que c'est ce binz" ("But what is this mess?" **) became national catchphrases.

- Ray

* The subtitles translate "Dingue" as "Freaky". I strongly suspect this to be informed by Un vendredi dingue, dingue, dingue, the French title of the 1976 film Freaky Friday - the standard translation of "dingue" appears to be "crazy" / "far out".
** ... to put it politely. The argot term "binz" is more akin to "foutoir" - a bloody mess or shambles, with sexual connotations. In the content of Les Visiteurs - the modern Jacquard finding himself in 12th century France - "But why is everything so f*cked-up?" might be a better idiomatic translation of "Mais qu'est ce que c'est ce binz".

Addendum: I just found Mortecouille et Tudieu! Le vocabulaire médiéval, a glossary of archaic French with its modern equivalents, at Pauline Laloua's blog. Googling some of the phrases led me to the interesting coincidence (if it is a coincidence and not an in-joke by the screenwriters of Les Visiteurs) that the leading 19th century lexicographer of historical French was also called Godefroy.

Part of his multi-volume Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française et de tous ses dialectes du 9e au 15e siècle is on the Internet Archive (see internal search).The full set is on Gallica (see internal search). It's worth a browse if you like words. One I ran into with a distinct connection to  the above topic was "couillard". It's a siege engine like a trebuchet, but with two weights. A number of online accounts say of it "Quant à son étymologie, Napoléon III remarqua déjà qu'un seul coup d'œil sur sa silhouette suffisait à la comprendre!" ("As to its etymology, Napoleon III already remarked that a single glance at the shape was enough to understand!").

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