As a teen, I was pretty dazzled by all things French. I bought into the idea that French was the most romantic language and French culture a cut above.
I studied French in school for purely practical reasons – Marathi was too hard – and I was pretty good at it. I followed up with courses at Alliance Francaise, which was less exciting than I imagined.
But I am a disciplined person and I persevered up to the Diplome 1 level. I realised I was decent at the language but not one of those who had gained complete fluency. I struggled to understand recordings in which people were speaking what seemed to me extremely rapidly but was probably at a regular pace.
I lost the illusion that French is a particularly romantic language, though French men, even the older ones, came across to me as particularly flirty.
One of my life’s dreams was to visit Paris, and I did right after I got married. That sort of deflated my French bubble. It was one of my first trips out of India as an adult and we had a bad experience at our hotel. I also didn’t know how to plan an itinerary – doing too much and not grasping where and how to find cheap but good food. I had a much better time in Amsterdam than in Paris.
Fifteen years later, I chanced upon Call My Agent, a French series on Netflix. It revolves around an agency that represents film stars. The original aspect – which I was blissfully aware of till the end of season 1 – is that actual French stars play themselves in some fictional situation. As the series goes on, the stars playing themselves get more recognisable – Isabelle Adjiani, for example, but even without this, there is something … charming … about the series, perhaps because of its Frenchness.
It just has a different feel – people are cool and attractive in a less lacquered way than a commercial American series, for example. The pilot itself alludes to this contrast when (apparently famous) actress Cecile de France is desperate to be cast in a Tarentino film but balks at the request for plastic surgery. French actresses just don’t do this, we’re told.
There are four main agents, three agents and one receptionist – each so original and intrinsic to the series that I could not imagine a single one of them not being there. In series 2, they are joined by an obnoxious, but extremely hot, investment banker type, who again becomes hard to imagine the series without.
All the characters on the show are attractive in their own way, but they don’t conform to the stereotype of what that might be. For example, Andrea (Camille Cottin), who I developed the biggest girl crush on, has an enormous Gallic nose. And then at the end of the series, I realised that I found Mathias, an older, not particularly sharp looking (although sharp dressing ) man strangely hot.
I watched the entire thing with subtitles, and although it is (I think) possible to switch lannguages, I didn’t want. I enjoyed listening to people speak French and understanding what I understood (which was about 40% of the dialogue).
It is shot in Paris, which weirdly I fell in love with cinematically for the first time. I mean, I’ve been to Paris and I’ve been awed by how it’s like walking through a museum or something, but it didn’t touch me somehow. I think watching this series something clicked in me retrospectively and I have this sudden burning desire for all things French. If I visited Paris tomorrow (yeah, I wish) I think I might have a very different experience.
I found myself desperate to watch something in French, and I really really struggled to find anything (here’s where you give me suggestions. Only, I want something slightly frivolous with a good serving of glamour and fashion and yet smart, not anything entirely arthouse if that makes any sense). I could have done with something with that sensibility to read. But I couldn’t find anything either (again recommendations welcome. The Devil Wears Prada but French? All the lists give reccos like Les Miserables and I’m like ouff. I don’t want to read literature).
I’m reading Lauren Wiesberger’s When Life Gives You LuluLemons, which is not exactly hitting the spot, but is well written enough (probably her best written apart from The Devil Wears Prada which was more conceptually brilliant than amazingly executed) to suffice. As you can tell, I’m desperate. The perfect book for my current state of mind is Kate Muir’s Left Bank, which seems to appeal to only a select few (which includes me), but I can’t seem to identify anything perfectly along those lines – very Paris but still light and contemporary.
In the end, I watched Dior and I, a documentary about Raf Simons’s first collection for Dior (which was one of those iconic shows btw). And it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for but it was almost entirely in French (although there were subtitles) and there was lots of glamour and of course fashion. It’s a great in depth look at how a modern but yet very traditional fashion house works, apart from how someone like Simons, whose reputation does not seem to segue easily into Dior’s aesthetic, brought his own perspective to the house.
Then I segued into The September Issue which is about how Vogue puts together its mammoth September issue, featuring lots of Anna Wintour but also Grace Coddington, who I fell in love with. I realise I share something with both of them! I too pored over Vogue as a teenager stuck in a backwater and I dreamed.
Now I’ve just downloaded a bunch of fashion documentaries which will hopefully keep me sated till this phase passes. And I realise that I really miss ogling fashion and the need to be disdainful of it as a trivial and (even worse) capitalist enterprise encapsulates why I could not remain in academia.
In the meantime, I’m listening to French pop music from YouTube.