February 2, 2004
DECEMBER 18TH 2003
The French have jokes, but do they have a sense of humour?
This scene in the film “Ridicule”, by Patrice Leconte, shows a marquis
at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles telling other courtiers and
their crinolined companions about his discovery of humour during a trip
to England. He tries to illustrate this peculiar phenomenon by telling
a joke he has heard in England. No one laughs until another courtier
adds a witty, slightly dirty remark to the English joke.
Does humour exist in France? Before the French revolution of 1789, the
word HUMOUR was hardly known. People knew ESPRIT (wit), FARCE (prank),
BOUFFONNERIE (drollery) and HUMEUR (a state of mind, or mood), but not
humour. Only in 1878 did the French Academy, the institution that
stands guard over the French language, accept HUMORISTIQUE as a French
word. A year later Edmond de Goncourt used HUMOUR without italics as a
French word in his novel “Les Freres Zemganno”, but not until 1932 did
the academicians give their approval to the noun HUMOUR.
Writers and intellectuals musing about English humour searched for an
equivalent in France. Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire, France’s
best-known writer in the 18th century, tells the Abbot d’Olivet in a
letter in 1762 that the English pronounce humour YUMOR, and think they
are the only ones to have a term to express that state of mind. Madame
de Stael, the daughter of Jacques Necker, a finance minister of Louis
XVI, wrote in a discourse on literature: “The English language created
a word, humour, to express a hilarity, which is in the blood almost as
much as in the mind …What the English depict with great talent is
bizarre characters, because they have lots of those amongst them.”
CARICATURE, YES, AND SATIRE TOO
When Goncourt used the word humour in 1879, he was discussing
caricaturists. This was the year of the death of Honore Daumier, the
caricaturist who had become famous all over France after being
sentenced to six months in jail for his depiction of King
Louis-Philippe d’Orleans as Rabelais’s gluttonous giant Gargantua.
Daumier’s works–“Memories” is reproduced on the left–were published
weekly in LA CARICATURE, until the government prohibited political
caricature in 1835.
With Daumier, Charles Joseph Travies, Henry Monnier, Gavarni and later
Grandville, Cham and Gustave Dore, French caricature had its golden age
in the 19th century. These caricaturists had a field day during the
four years of the ephemeral Second Republic after the 1848 revolution,
when they were able to make fun of Louis-Philippe without risking jail.
Even under Napoleon III they could get away with most of their
satirical sketches about the Parisian bourgeoisie, the armed forces or
bouffant-haired ladies and mean landlords. During France’s wars in the
Crimea (1853-56), with Austria (1859) and, most notably, with Prussia
in 1870, the country’s caricaturists became fiercely chauvinistic. A
favourite target of Daumier’s pen was Germany’s chancellor, Otto von
Bismarck, and his spiked helmet.
To this day L’HUMOUR ENGAGe–political satire and caricature–features
prominently in France. Comic films and plays are either farcical or
witty, with plenty of wordplays and rapid-fire verbal exchanges. But
humour, in the English sense, remains an alien concept.
One of the fiercest critics of the government, “Les Guignols de l’Info”
(“The News Puppets”), a daily television programme similar to Britain’s
satirical “Spitting Image”, is a huge success. “Les Guignols” has
become sharper, even crueller, since it started in 1988. Hardly
anything is taboo now. SUPERMENTEUR (“Superliar”), President Jacques
Chirac’s alter ego, is a particular favourite. In the following
exchange he is pondering Mr Chirac’s legal difficulties:
“Les Guignols” has felt obliged to apologise only a few times–once to
Mr Chirac’s wife, Bernadette, whom it had portrayed masturbating with
LE CANARD ENCHAiNe, a satirical weekly, is equally feared by
politicians and public personalities because of its investigative
journalism and trenchant wit. CHARLIE HEBDO (Charlie Brown of the
Peanuts cartoon strip was godfather to the magazine) and HARA-KIRI
HEBDO, two satirical weeklies launched in 1969, are competing on the
same ground. HARA-KIRI, which was created in 1960 as a monthly French
version of MAD, an American satirical magazine, was twice censored by
the government before its relaunch as a weekly. It has absorbed LA
GROSSE BERTHA, another satirical magazine that was launched in 1991
during the first Gulf war. CHARLIE HEBDO went bust in 1981, just after
supporting Coluche, a comedian, in his bid for the presidency. It was
relaunched ten years later.
None of these magazines can boast a political caricaturist as well
known in France as Jean Plantureux, or Plantu. A satirical cartoon by
Plantu–like the one on the right–has been on the front page of LE
MONDE, France’s pre-eminent daily, for the past 20 years. Plantu used
to pick his subject himself, but Edwy Plenel and Jean-Marie Colombani,
who took over as the paper’s editors in 1994, made him give up the
right to choose his topic in 1995; now it is always the main story of
the day. Earlier this year Plantu vehemently clashed with his bosses
over a sketch (posted on his website) that showed Plantu’s trademark
mouse gagged while reading “La Face Cachee du Monde” (“The Hidden face
of LE MONDE”), a best-selling polemic about the editors’ arrogance and
abuses in their quest for political power.
“We still have the naivety to believe in certain things,” says Plantu.
“We do not have the detachment that characterises English humour, we
are more militant. If we have a cause to protest, however minor, we
tear open our shirts, run into the street and shout ‘Shoot me!'”
FARCI DE FARCES
If the Latin emotions of the French sit uneasily with humour, so does
the French logical mind. French children are instilled with Cartesian
ESPRIT (here meaning mind) at school and, even more, in the GRANDES
eCOLES, the country’s elite universities. When your correspondent was
at university in France, she was told her poor performance was due to
an Anglo-Saxon mind that made her unable to think properly, or rather
logically. A French Cartesian mind does not know what to make of a
nonsensical story, such as this one. “The governor of the Bank of
England began an address to an assembly of bankers with these words:
‘There are three kinds of economists, those who can count and those who
can’t.'” A joke of this kind would be met with incomprehension by
French listeners. It is not logical.
Self-deprecation, another essential ingredient of a “detached” sense of
humour, is not the forte of the French. But if France is too emotional,
too logical or too unsure of itself for humour, it can at least fall
back on farce as a way of releasing the emotions. The French love Jerry
Lewis, the American they call LE ROI DU CRAZY; he has even been awarded
the Legion of Honour, the country’s highest decoration. And of course
France produces its own farces. One of the best-loved of recent years
is the at times heavy-handed film “Le Pere Noel est une Ordure”
(“Father Christmas is a Shit”), directed by Jean-Marie Poire. It shows
Pierre and Therese, staffers at a charity, manning the telephones on
Christmas Eve to help callers in despair. Zezette, a pregnant woman,
arrives at the office, fleeing her violent husband, Felix, who is close
behind her. Felix, still wearing his working clothes as Father
Christmas, is subdued by Pierre and Therese and ends up in hospital.
The second visitor at the office is Katia, a manic-depressive
transvestite in search of Mr or Miss Right. The ensuing series of
catastrophes reaches its climax when Felix returns with a gun, a lift
repairman is killed, Pierre loses his virginity to Therese, and Felix
and Zezette dispose of the dead repairman.
“Le Pere Noel est une Ordure” was a big hit in France, but flopped
elsewhere, especially in America, where “Santa Claus is a Louse”, as it
was called, bombed. So did Mr Poire’s next film, “The Visitors”,
another farce, this one about medieval life, which also won a cult
following in France.
Why do French comic films not travel well when those made in Britain or
America–whether by Woody Allen, John Cleese or the Monty Python
team–seem to make people laugh all over the world? One answer,
perhaps, is that audiences in other countries simply do not have the
French fondness of puerile farce. Another, though, may be that the
things that make the French laugh involve linguistic somersaults that
only work in their own language. Much of French humour is JEUX DES
MOTS, untranslatable wordplays.
Cartoons are an exception. French-made cartoons and illustrated stories
are a huge success worldwide. Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo created
Asterix, one of the most successful cartoons ever. They are also the
fathers of Lucky Luke. And Jean-Jacques Sempe and Mr Goscinny together
created a series of books about the adventures of a little boy, LE
JE DIS, JE DIS! BIEN JE JAMAIS!
A meeting organised by the French Ethnological Society in 1997 about
“The Universe of Asterix” found that probably the most successful
French cartoon was translated into 72 languages, five regional
languages (such as Corsican and Alsatian) and 18 dialects, including
Berliner German and Cantonese Chinese. Yet the cartoon’s jokes were
hard work for translators. Much of the humour in Asterix consists of
wordplays, onomatopoeia and animal noises that are impossible to render
in another language. Translators tended to leave onomatopoetic
expressions like SNIP, TCHAC, PAF or TCHAC in the original, though they
mean nothing in Cantonese or Swedish. The cartoon’s text also makes
frequent use of the French language’s countless homonyms such as LA
TRIBU (the tribe) and L’ATTRIBUT (the attribute), or MA REINE (my
queen) and MARRAINE (godmother). They generally have no equivalent in
other languages, so the joke is lost.
The translation of “Asterix chez les Bretons” was particularly
difficult, says Henriette Touillier-Feyrabend of the National Centre
for Scientific Research, as its humour depended on using English
grammar in French. Asterix and his companions would, for instance, look
for the MAGIQUE POTION’S TONNEAU (the magic potion’s cask) rather than
LE TONNEAU DE LA POTION MAGIQUE.
Yet, despite translators’ best efforts, a MeSENTENTE CORDIALE remains
when it comes to funniness. At the end of the film “Ridicule”,
mentioned at the start of this article, the hat of the Marquis de
Bellegarde is blown away by the wind. Interrupting his lamentations, an
English lord (who has caught the hat) remarks that it is better than
losing one’s head. Ah, cries Bellegarde, this is English humour!
– COPYRIGHT –
(c) 2003 The Economist Newspaper Group Limited. All rights reserved.
ECONOMIST ARTICLE ON FRENCH HUMOUR ( DAUMIER)
December 18, 2003