I felt my first French film. I know that seems like a weird, kinda cheesy thing to say. But I felt it, because I watched it, I heard it and I understood it—without really knowing many of the words.
When I saw the film’s trailer a few weeks ago, even without fully understanding all the dialogue, I had one of those, “Oh, I want to see that movie!” reactions. Thanks to good ‘ole acting (facial expressions! body movements!) and editing (music crescendos! artsy montages!), combined with a handful of French words that J’ai compris (I understood), I was confident that I could tackle its 1-hour and 45-minute running time sans assistance. So I told myself it’d be the first fully French film I’d go see in Paris when it opens. And by fully, I mean not in French with English subtitles or even the opposite. (Up until this point, I’d seen two American films—The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight—both of which were shown in English with running French translation at the bottom.)
During the viewing of this French film, while there were certainly jokes I didn’t get and dialogue that was beyond my comprehension, overall, I totally understood the movie—by way of feeling it.
So, what was this beautifully touching film? It’s called La Famille Bélier and it’s about a young girl named Paula who, along with her brother, was born to deaf parents. While he also can’t hear, she can, and as a result, has taken on the role of family translator to help them all communicate with others. In turn, this means a lot of things are not only lost in translation for them, but just plain inconceivable, including the fact that Paula is growing up, becoming a woman and finding her own voice in the world—her singing voice because elle est une chanteuse. (She is a singer.) It appeared she had ignored (or just not pursued) this talent, because why would she if the family business is to run a cheese farm and nobody around her could hear her anyway? Luckily, she discovers her voice after joining the chorus on a whim. Oh, and because her crush has vocal chops, too.
Sadly, Paula’s parents can’t hear her sing, which is devastating because her voice is truly spectacular. (Louane Emera, the actress who plays the role, was a finalist in the French version of The Voice.) This sense of loss is demonstrated through a powerful scene during which Paula’s duet performance (with the crush) is silenced so that we, the audience, can grasp the depths of her family’s handicap. As a result, the only thing audible in the theater were sniffles from all the tears, moi included. (As if French love songs weren’t gut-wrenching enough!)
The main songs highlighted in the film—Je Vais T’aimer and Je Vole—are by French singer Michel Sardou, who without any prior knowledge of his history, fame level or talent, strikes me (perhaps naively so) as the French Neil Diamond.
While I was able to translate “Je Vais T’aimer” to “I will love you,” I could only guess what she was trying to say when she sang “Je Vole.” That is, until she started signing while singing so that her parents could understand her, which made the whole experience powerfully meta: me, not being able to completely understand the French, Paula’s parents not being able to hear her. The sign for “vole” involved her crossing her hands at the wrist and waving them so that they looked like wings. “Vole”, is appears, means to fly.
Mes chers parents je pars
Je vous aime mais je pars
Vous n’aurez plus d’enfants, ce soir
Je m’enfuis pas je vole
Comprenez bien je vole
In English (with only a little help from Google Translate), that’s:
My dear parents, I leave
I love you, but I leave
You no longer have a child tonight,
I do not flee, but I fly
Understand me well, I fly
Pretty heavy, beautiful, metaphorical stuff, right?
Needless to say, both songs have been on repeat since I saw the film and I feel thankful for the ability to be able to listen to them in their purest form. But I feel even more privileged to have felt them first—no subtitles needed.