Monday, June 9, 2008

Quelle Horreur!

Eurovision and other insults to French culture.

It is difficult to overstate the weird, galactic silliness of the 52-year-old Eurovision Song Contest, which wrapped up on May 24 in Belgrade. Every spring, Eurovision fever seizes European countries, culminating in a televised finale that demolishes any tastelessness standards set by, say, American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. (That installment with Paul McCartney's tangoing one-legged estranged wife comes close.) But this year's Eurovision had all of France up in arms: Our competing entry was sung--quelle horreur--in English! Never mind that over half this year's contestants (including the Dane, the Germans, the Latvians, the Pole, the Swede, the Ukrainian, and more) also chose to sing in the language of rock music, la langue du rock. Cultural politics being what it is in France, cabinet ministers' heads may roll.

After a three-and-a-half-hour TV marathon in Belgrade (which, by contract, none of the rebroadcasters may cut), the cute half-clad Russian, Dima Bilan, singing in English, won. On the face of it, he had all the makings of a Europop star (including killer hipbones), but his victory really had nothing to do with the judges' assessment of his talent. In recent years, Eurovision has become ridiculously political--it's bloc voting, with every Scandinavian nation voting for all the other Scandinavians; the former Warsaw Pact countries hanging together; and places like Ukraine, Moldova, and Estonia aligning themselves according to the pipeline that brings them oil and gas. (Seriously. Ukraine voted oil-geographically, putting Russia first, Azerbaijan second, and Georgia third.)

You'd think the non-Scandinavian Western Europeans would realize they have no ghost of a chance any longer, but they still ostensibly believe in playing fair. The two French commentators--who included designer to the stars Jean-Paul Gaultier, the man who made a name for himself putting Madonna in a conical bra--mentioned none of this in their saccharine remarks, but veteran BBC commentator Terry Wogan (a kind of shaggy-haired Johnny Carson) made jokes and took potshots at everything, which apparently angered the Eurovision people enough that they complained to Wogan's bosses.

Dreamed up during a 1955 Monte Carlo junket by a bunch of Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union bureaucrats, both as a technical experiment in live broadcasting and a means to cheer up postwar Europe, the Eurovision Contest took off in the sixties and seventies, fostering the music style best known as Europop, which bears only a distant resemblance to the actual national music of the participating countries. In 1967, the year of the Beatles's Sgt. Pepper album, for instance, the (winning) British Eurovision entry was Sandie Shaw's "Puppet on a String." France's 1969 winner was Frida Boccara's "Un Jour, Un Enfant" in the very year when Serge Gainsbourg produced "Je t'Aime, Moi Non Plus" and Georges Moustaki sang "Le Métèque." (A cult Eurovision entry is Germany's 1979 disco "Dschinghis Khan," which only placed fourth but is one of YouTube's top-rated videos. It has it all--stiff, uncoordinated dance number in gold lamé, luxuriant mullets, relentless mechanical beat.)

Few Eurovision winners have managed to build any kind of career on their victory in the contest, the exception being the Swedish disco group ABBA in 1974. (Celine Dion, who confusingly competed for Switzerland in 1988 with an inoffensive French title, did win, but had to wait half a decade before achieving lasting fame in an entirely different style.) Yet its very dorkiness has given Euro-vision a new cool factor in recent years, hence the appearance of Jean-Paul Gaultier on the France 3 broadcast.

No matter: Participation in the contest is highly coveted by any young nation between Iceland and Azerbaijan (a new contestant in 2008). Israel has been a competitor since 1973 and won three times, the last in 1998 with an entry sung by a transsexual calling herself Dana International. For months now the Serbian press, highbrow and tabloid, has been heralding the contest--held in Belgrade because the Serbian entry won last year--as their country's final proof of rehabilitation after the Kosovo crisis.

You'd think more established nations, like, say, France and the United Kingdom (which, with Germany and Spain, are permanent members of Eurovision's own version of the Security Council, guaranteed a place in the finals by virtue of their major European broadcasting networks) would take things with a little more distance. You'd be wrong.

Irony was tried last year, and failed. There was an Israeli entry in French, English, and Hebrew called "Push Da Button" which was addressed to President Ahmadinejad of Iran; and a group of rednecks from northern France called Les Fatals Picards who overdid the hicks-from-the-sticks style with a song from an album called Pamplemousse Mécanique ("Clockwork Grapefruit"). Neither got anywhere. This year, possibly the best entry--Ireland's Dustin the Turkey, an engaging animatronic glove-puppet DJ-ing an electronic number with a lot more charm than his human competitors--was thrown out in the semi-finals (which prompted calls for sacking at the state-run Irish TV authority in the Eire Daily Mail).

And so France is abuzz with the scandale Sébastien Tellier. A protégé of the chart-topping duo Daft Punk, the hirsute and bearded Tellier, who was educated in one of France's most exclusive Catholic private schools, Saint Martin de Pontoise, sang in forgettable English a forgettable song called "Divine" (see it here, He was picked to compete at Eurovision by entertainment honchos at (state-run) France 3 during a live broadcast, prompting an angry outburst on the floor of the National Assembly by Gaullist member of parliament François Michel-Gonnot ("It's the first time in 52 years that such an outrage against French culture has been committed  .  .  . ").

Culture minister Christine Albanel soon came under fire. Albanel, a former Chirac speechwriter and a novelist, has quite a few enemies in her own party, who covet her plum job. Among them is Alain Joyandet, the junior minister for Francophonie, the Alliance of French-Speaking Countries, which France uses as its own little U.N. diplomatic pressure group (it was headed for a while by Boutros Boutros-Ghali). Joyandet read France 3 the riot act, then contacted the Eurovision Contest's executive producer, Svante Stockselius, to have the song altered. (Stockselius refused.) Tellier grudgingly added a couple of French lyrics to his song, but complained that it "didn't sound the same."

It brought back numerous earlier French tantrums, such as the reaction against the EuroDisney amusement park near Paris when it opened in 1992. A group of intellectuals led by the great theater director Ariane Mnouchkine called Euro-Disney a "cultural Chernobyl"--as if Notre Dame had been torn down and replaced by Sleeping Beauty's castle, instead of the whole thing being built in the middle of beetroot fields 35 miles from the Louvre. This sensitivity, you understand, springs from the duty of every French citizen to foster the "rayonnement de la culture française," an expression that has French culture radiating its beneficent influence like the sun.

All the same, there may be better ways to warm the planet's denizens by the glow of French culture than making French the compulsory language of all future entries in the Eurovision Contest. One came to mind recently as I searched the web.

I was looking for an electronic text of Balzac's great novel Les Illusions Perdues (1843) to send to a French-educated American friend. It soon became apparent that, while the most cursory of Google searches will produce three separate English translations (thank you Project Gutenberg and the University of Virginia) as well as versions in Italian and Russian, none was to be found in the original language. Further investigation failed to produce major French classics such as the plays of Molière, Racine, and Corneille (the 17th-century trio who collectively occupy in French letters a place roughly equivalent to Shakespeare's) except for a couple of plays on a provincial teacher's homepage and an archive in Quebec. It began to look as if French culture wasn't so terribly radiant after all.

As it happens, the Bibliothèque Nationale, French equivalent of the Library of Congress, now housed in a tall glass building on the Seine, was tasked by former president Chirac not long ago to provide an answer to Google Books's infernal gall. ("A commercial, American company, digitizing all books in existence? Even the French?" Chirac thundered, and promptly assigned a committee to counter this outrage.) Before that, Gallica, the website of the Bibliothèque Nationale, mostly held facsimile copies of books, exactly reproducing the original pages, typeface, and so on, which were hugely unwieldy (10 to 80 megabytes) and unsearchable. But surely, I thought, by now Gallica would have Les Illusions Perdues.

After half an hour getting lost on Gallica's new site, I called the library's press office. A polite young man named Jean-Noël Orengo explained to me that digitizing books cannot be done "just like that," "on a massive scale," "helter-skelter" (oh the horrors perpetrated by Project Gutenberg's tens of thousands of cheerful volunteers who have entered over 40,000 titles into its free online collection!); it must be done "correctly." (Thus did the zealots of the Counter Reformation battle those Bible-obsessed militants raring to let just anyone read Scripture. It's not for nothing that France was, for a very long time, a Catholic country.) Monsieur Orengo said I should write to the communications director of the Bibliothèque Nationale if I wanted to find out more.

"But surely," I countered, "you can guide me through the website? I'm in front of a screen. You're in front of a screen. Can't we just find one book together?"

"I'm not an Internet specialist," admitted M. Orengo, getting more flustered by the minute. "But surely," I repeated, having fruitlessly waded through lists of electronic works ranked by date of digitization, "the point of a website is that it can be used by everybody?"

This was obviously a new and surprising notion to my guide. It turned out that we couldn't find "my" Balzac, however hard we tried. I suggested we open another window to Google, and type the first sentence of the book, in quotation marks. No dice. I tried the opening sentence of one literary work that does exist on the Gallica website in electronic form, Molière's sublime Tartuffe. ("Allons, Flipote, allons, que d'eux je me délivre.") Google doesn't link to it. "Ah," said M. Orengo, in the tone of someone revealing an important and necessary truth, "but all web search engines are Anglo-Saxon."

We eventually hung up, he worried that his boss would unfairly think he'd got the library bad press, me vowing that if it took me all night, I would find that book on the website of the French National Library.

I couldn't. Typing Illusions perdues in the Gallica jungle eventually produced the text of another Balzac novel, Ursule Mirouët. I would take that one at least, I decided, and clicked on the "download" link. This brought up a two-page questionnaire, demanding from me in addition to name and address a "customer number," a Value Added Tax affiliation number, a bank account number, and the soul of my first-born. (I made that last one up.) Feeling reckless, I clicked back, selected the entire text on my screen, and pasted it in a new Word document.

I now own the electronic text of a minor Balzac novel published 160 years ago, which I stole from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. That'll give me the odd frisson next time I leave the country. As for our Eurovision Song Contest entry, it came in 19th out of 25 finalists, which, while better than the three losers tied for 25th place (the U.K., Poland, and Germany), is nothing to write the Académie Française about.

© Copyright The Weekly Standard & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

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