Charlemagne (allegedly) said that “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” Countless people have expressed similar sentiments. Fellini: “A different language is a different vision of life.” Delacroix: “The individual’s whole experience is built upon the plan of his language.”
I’ve always thought that this kind of thing was bullshit. However, on Christmas night, my (limited) French skills did, indeed, show me a new world.
At the Studio Galande, a tiny movie theater on a little back street in the Latin Quarter–almost across the river from Notre Dame (42 rue Galande, 75005)–you can see the Rocky Horror Picture Show on Friday and Saturday nights. The movie has French subtitles (crappy translation, actually), and–more importantly–a highly rehearsed group of people who act out the movie, singing along with it and offering non-stop commentary, almost entirely in French.
Of course, there is the usual throwing of rice, although the water pistols of my teenaged years and their gentle sprinkle have been replaced by 2-liter bottles of water and some serious soaking. When I was a teenager, going to the Rocky Horror Picture Show meant knowing a few things to shout in unison with the rest of the audience at appropriate times–today, that’s basically a semi-professional production, and that’s what the highly rehearsed group of people do.
In Paris, this was a far more surreal experience than it is in the US, and it’s pretty surreal in the US. I’ll try to paint the picture. Since it’s me that’s doing the painting, it’s mostly a picture of language. Here’s what you have: (a) the movie, in English. (b) The subtitles, in French. (c) The performers (I’m not actually sure what to call them) doing their accompaniment in French. (d) The performers also doing their accompaniment in heavily accented English.
It’s an incredibly rich linguistic hodgepodge, and it all comes at you in this confused, non-stop torrent. It was far too much for me to be able to retain very many data points for you, but here’s a nice example of a way that the humor combined English and French. There’s a point in the film that shows a map featuring a city called Denton. So, you’ve got “Denton” splashed prominently across the screen. Now, if “Denton” were French, it would be pronounced like dans ton–“in your.” Right at that point in the movie, one of the performers holds up a sign with the word cul right next to the name “Denton.” Cul means “ass,” so now you have dans ton cul–“in your ass.”
If I may be permitted a bit of hubris: the thing that I was proudest of came during the Time Warp. If you haven’t seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show: there’s a big dance number featuring–yes–the Time Warp. (It’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right.) At various points in this, it would not be inappropriate to yell “ooh-ah.” So, at one of those points, one of the performers says Et maintenant, on va dire ooh-ah en verlan: ah-ooh. What that means: “We’re going to say “ooh-ah” in Verlan now–“ah-ooh.”” Why I was so proud of catching that–it requires some cultural knowledge, which is: what is Verlan? Verlan is the name of a kind of French slang that originated in the banlieus défavorisées (bad neighborhoods, mostly surrounding Paris) and has since become pretty broadly popular. Words are formed in Verlan by reversing things–verlan is itself l’inverse, “backwards,” reversed. So: what would ooh-ah be in Verlan? It would be ah-ooh.
So, that’s my bit of hubris. Hubris is always followed by a fall, and no doubt my hubris will be followed by me not understanding however it is that someone will say “good morning” to me tomorrow. As Brad says in the French subtitles to his song in the floor show scene: ça me dépasse–“It’s beyond me.”
An evening at the Rocky Horror Picture Show would be an unforgettable and unique Parisian experience, and I recommend it highly. I’ll leave you with two pieces of advice on the subject. (a) If you haven’t seen the movie before, the whole evening will mostly be lost on you, but if you have, this is an experience that you are unlikely to forget; (b) don’t, don’t, don’t sit in the front row (rang 1). Trust me on this.
- le travesti : transvestite. At one point in the movie, you are to shout Garçon, garçon, il y a un travesti dans ma soupe–waiter, waiter, there’s a transvestite in my soup. In the context of the film, it makes perfect sense.
- travesti (adj.): disguised; in fancy dress; in costume.
- Ça me dépasse: it’s beyond me.