Thursday, June 18, 2009

I'll admit it, the French don't get Brüno

Sacha Baron Cohen's latest caricature is just a big bully, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

Something tells me that we French are going to have a problem with Brüno, the Sacha Baron Cohen alter ego who is threatening to do for Austria what Borat did for Kazakhstan. On the other side of the Atlantic, one effete Euro-metrosexual may look like any other, as he prances around pranking rednecks and Paula Abdul alike. But we’re not buying it.

Italian fashion, we can accept. British fashion, even – just look at the swell job we gave John Galliano at Dior. But a gay Austrian fashion reporter? To the Parisian, Austrian fashion doesn’t extend beyond field-green loden coats, anything with edelweiss flowers embroidered on it, and those voluminous silk curtains with puffball sleeves that women wear at the Salzburg Festival. Similarly, the idea of a gay Austrian doesn’t so much bring up the catwalk as the late Jörg Haider, the neo-Nazi politician. (Bet he went for leather instead of hot pants, though.)

The problem is that while stereotyping other countries, then happily slagging them off, is a sport enjoyed by all, there’s surprisingly little overlap between nations. The English think of Americans as bullying, simplistic colonials, over-fed and over here, given to murdering the language with their excessively loud voices. The French mutter darkly about a Yankee masterplan to destroy Gallic culture, secretly hatched by Disney, Google and the CIA. Many Islamists see blasphemous, licentious heathens: Sayyid Qutb, the leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, spent a year at a Bible Belt college in the Forties and came back horrified by the innocent community dances held in church halls.

Such caricatures, of course, tell us as much about those who hold them as their target. When Brüno camped it up last week on the Champs-Elysées, cracking jokes about Carla Bruni’s love life, he was acting like a typical Brit – only you, it seems, are unable to accept the fact that a 40-year-old woman is comfortable with having had lovers. Of course, we’re just as bad: no amount of Michelin rosettes for the likes of Gordon Ramsay will erase our view of the British as a nation bred on over-cooked meat served with improbable jams and peas hard enough to be used for grapeshot, washed down with warm beer or gallons of nut-brown tea.

In French eyes, the British manage to have sex crimes but no sex lives (replaced by hotwater bottles from Boots); you are simultaneously perfidious and worship "le fair play"; you have the raunchiest tabloids and the most Victorian assumptions about how politicians should behave in private; as with the ducks you so like to shoot, your males are better dressed than your females; and, of course, you poisoned Napoleon.

As Baron Cohen proved with Borat, such stereotypes lend themselves to being exploited. While the British are suspicious of French men, expecting a suspiciously natty, chain-smoking poseur, always ready with a flowery compliment or Brussels directive, you paint us Frenchwomen in a more flattering light. We are Basil Fawlty’s unattainable charmer, Madame Peignoir, or Juliette Binoche in Damage: thinner, better dressers, always hostesses, never housewives.

Baron Cohen’s problem as we see it is that he is a typical product of a public-school, Oxbridge education, and of Britain’s unique tolerance for shock tactics. You laud him as an example of cuttingedge Jewish humour; to us, he has much more in common with Monty Python or the Christmas panto. Like Borat, Brüno uses the methods of the school bully, as much behind the camera as in front of it – those who complain, like the Kazakh foreign minister or poor Paula Abdul, are dripping wet, can’t-take-a-joke spoilsports.

Or perhaps that’s just my own prejudices showing.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2009

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