Page last updated at 12:07 GMT, Saturday, 23 January 2010

Is French flattery of stars just holding on to past?

The age of flattery that flourished at the court of Versailles was supposed to have ended when the tumbrels rolled in the Revolution 200 years ago, but Hugh Schofield wonders whether it really did.

Johnny Hallyday, who has been described as the "French Elvis Presley"
Johnny Hallyday has been active since the 1960s

It was the films that got me thinking.

Once a month or so, I manage to overcome my reservations and go back and watch one of the new releases from the production factory which is French cinema.

And every month I emerge numbed and exasperated and vowing never, ever to go through the experience again.

Take one picture I saw recently - which unsurprisingly has not made it beyond French shores - called Le code a change (The Code Has Changed).

It was supposed to be a bitter-sweet comedy of manners dissecting the lives and loves of a group of invitees to a dinner party.

What we got was two hours of inconsequential, plotless twaddle, all set in a world suspiciously similar, one suspects, to the one inhabited by the director and her close friends, but not by anyone else outside of the Paris in-crowd.

Or take the comedy Le Vilain (The Villain) which has just come out. It is billed as an offbeat caper in which a bank robber takes refuge with his mum, only to find that she is a bit of an odd'un herself.

It had some well known actors and the cinematography was no doubt exemplary, but my 14-year-old daughter and I both agreed, on emerging, that there was one minor drawback: it wasn't funny.


Now having a go at French film is an easy game so that is not the point of this essay.

My point is that - in both these cases - what we had been led to believe was that these films were actually pretty remarkable.

President Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy's biggest problem at the Elysee, so they say, is the yes-men who only tell him what they think he wants to hear

It was not just the listings magazines or the internet puff sites that gave them a big hand. It was the serious critics in Le Monde, Le Figaro and elsewhere, who used adjectives like hilarious, tender, burlesque, complex, original.

In fact, when one looks around, one realises that there is an unusual level of flattery - one might even say obsequiousness - in French public life, especially when it comes to culture.

If you have ever watched French television, you will get the picture.

A typical mid-evening programme is a chat show on which the invitees are members of the small, unchanging - and therefore ageing - club of national celebrities.

Behind in rows of seats, a youthful audience hand-picked for telegenic good looks bursts into applause at every anecdote or hackneyed clip from the archives.

At the more serious end of the market, the annual literary season is in September, when there is a rush of new publications and the big book prizes like the Goncourt are announced.

Here, too, listening to the reviews is like being beaten about the head with a powder puff.

Nothing is ever mediocre, let alone bad.

Everything is uplifting, exquisite, crafted, delicate, challenging, or that most irritating of French words: "engage", which means "committed", though to what is never spelled out.

One could take this further and look at the way politics too is infected by the sycophancy bug.


Certainly as far as the presidency is concerned, there is never any shortage of what the French call flagorneurs which means toadies or, more obscenely, leche-culs (lecher means to lick).

One realises after a while that the French view their stars almost as members of the family

Nicolas Sarkozy may be reviled by the Paris intelligentsia - which he is - but at the Elysee, so they say, his biggest problem is the yes-men who only tell him what they think he wants to hear.

So what is this all about?

Is it all just a relic from the ancien regime: those lower down the pecking order fawning on those above?

Well, up to a point.

Actually, when it comes to French culture, I think it is more complicated.

The French collude in the over-praising for two reasons, one good, one bad.

The good reason is that they are genuinely fond of their culture. I may not have found Le Vilain funny, but a lot of people in the audience were in stitches.

One realises after a while that the French view their stars almost as members of the family. They enjoy going to see them in the same way they enjoy catching up with the latest family gossip.

That kind of conservatism is actually quite refreshing after the brutal neophilia (the constant need for the new and the culling of everything that is familiar) that one associates with British culture.

The bad reason is that it is all about self-protection.

Succumbing to sycophancy, after all, is a way of reassuring oneself that all is good in the world, when clearly it is not.

Seen like that, the French are merely deluding themselves that their culture matters the way it once did: sticking their fingers in their ears, if you like, and whistling to Johnny Hallyday.

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12 Feb 12 |  Country profiles

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