Titles a la Francaise

Jon Frosch


A cinephile arriving in Paris quickly understands the French reverence for movies. From the first motion pictures by the Lumière brothers at the end of the 19th century, through the avant-garde and New Wave movements, to a fascination with cinemas from all corners of the world, film in France has always been accorded the same intellectual respect as the country’s cherished impressionists and its canon of sacred writers like Balzac or Hugo.

The French passion for film also has long included a love affair with Hollywood. American auteurs like David Lynch, Woody Allen and John Cassavettes have obsessive French followings, and a celebrity needled about a personal scandal in the City of Angels might be found at a French Legion of Honor ceremony in the City of Lights. There is, however, one small twist in France’s relationship with American movies: the title.

It seems that ever since American films started landing on French shores—and the French box office—French distribution companies have been tinkering with the titles, either translating them for language reasons or taking creative liberties, at times to humorous or provocative effect. French marketers have sometimes forgone the problem entirely by using the original title, as they did with movies as varied as Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, The Breakfast Club, Pulp Fiction and George Clooney’s recent Good Night and Good Luck. Other American titles have been translated faithfully: The Wizard of Oz, Some Like it Hot, The Godfather and Spike Lee’s latest, Inside Man, to name a few, were converted into their exact French equivalents (Le Magicien d’Oz, Certains l’aiment chaud, Le Parrain and L’homme de l’intérieur).

Occasionally, the French translation of an American title is literal to a fault: The titular “pieces” in Bob Rafelson’s early-70’s classic, Five Easy Pieces, were piano songs that Jack Nicholson’s character learned as a child, before he abandoned his prodigious talent to become an oil rigger. In France, the movie was called Cinq pièces faciles—a word-for-word translation, except “pièce,” in French does not mean piece of music. The resulting title evoked, rather, Five Easy Coins, Five Easy Rooms, or Five Easy Plays. A more flagrant gaffe was committed with Edward Zwick’s Brad Pitt schmaltz-fest, Legends of the Fall. The “fall” in the title was of the Biblical sort—a fall from innocence; in France, the movie was named Légendes d’automne, a title that referred to the season between summer and winter.

Of course, such gaffes are more the exception than the rule. Earlier this year, French film marketers deftly avoided a potentially uncomfortable linguistic snag with Bennet Miller’s Capote. The French word “capote” is a colloquialism for “condom,” and rather than mislead people more familiar with the contraception than the American literary figure, the writer’s first name was added to the title, resulting in the unambiguous Truman Capote.

Just as common as a direct translation or a crucial modification, however, is an entirely different title for an American film’s run in France. Sometimes the change is so subtle you hardly notice. In France, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was called Le secret de Brokeback Mountain (The Secret of Brokeback Mountain). According to Philippe Hellmann, CEO of UGC PH, the company that distributed the film in France, the alteration was practical; Brokeback Mountain was difficult for the French to pronounce, and inserting “Le secret” gave them something to latch on to. All the same, the new French name offered a slightly different—and not unworthy—spin on the film’s doomed romance; if the original American title reached for a sweeping romanticism, evoking a mythical place that comes to represent a sacred love, the French title was more concrete and socially grounded, pointing to the reality of a love that must be tucked away from an intolerant world in order to survive.

But the attempt to market an American film for French audiences by toying with the title can also come laced with a risk of devaluing the product through tacky packaging. Sixteen years ago, Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, an uncommonly delicate teen comedy (the best of its kind, in this critic’s humble opinion), was slapped in France with the inauspicious title, Un monde pour nous (A World For Us). Not only was this new title soapy and generic, it also betrayed the specificity of the original title—Say Anything is above all a film about the challenges of trust and candor in human relationships.

Suffering a similar fate last year was Mike Nichols’ Closer, a blistering dissection of modern relationship dysfunction, released in France as Entre adultes consentants (Between Consenting Adults). Not only did this title lack the original one’s bittersweet irony (the restless quest for romantic closeness only ends up making the movie’s characters lonelier); it was also all wrong for the film, suggesting a lurid, made-for-TV melodrama instead of the sophisticated entertainment Closer actually was.

Searching back over film history for more examples of the peculiar French penchant for overwrought or hokey title changes, one finds an embarrassment of… well, embarrassments. To Kill a Mockingbird was called Du silence et des ombres (Silence and Shadows), though the novel’s title had been translated literally; the 50’s favorite From Here to Eternity was renamed Tant qu’il y aura des hommes (As Long as There are Men); the Clint Eastwood stalker thriller, Play Misty for Me, became Un frisson dans la nuit (A Shiver in the Night); James Brooks’ tearjerker, Terms of Endearment, was released as Tendres Passions (Tender Passions); the Halle Berry-Billy Bob Thornton inter-racial romance, Monster’s Ball, was A l’ombre de la haine (In the Shadow of Hate ). These may not have all been great films to begin with, but one could certainly argue that their corny, often irrelevant French titles made them sound worse than they were.

A current victim is The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s autobiographical indie-exposé about an adolescent reeling from his parents’ divorce. The movie took its name from a N.Y. Museum of Natural History exhibit showing life-size replicas of a giant squid and whale battling it out—a metaphor for the divorce and a landmark in the main character’s path towards independence. In France, the film will face its July release date as Les Berkman se séparent (The Berkmans are separating), a title that suggests a mainstream romantic comedy rather than a literate, biting coming-of-age tale. Even for native English speakers, especially non-New Yorkers, The Squid and the Whale is as obscure a title as any, but still—couldn’t French marketers have come up with something more fitting? Perhaps something that doesn’t have the same broadly farcical ring as Meet the Parents/Fockers?

Errors of taste and nuance aside, there have also been title changes that reeked of crass marketing. Unsurprisingly, some of them are sprung rather glaringly from the tried-and-true “sex sells” strategy: campy erotic thrillers Cruel Intentions and Wild Things were reborn, in France, as Sex Intentions and Sex Crimes, respectively; The In Crowd, a trashy teen B-movie, came out as Sex & Manipulations; and genre send-ups Not Another Teen Movie and Date Movie became Sex Academy and Sexy Movie.

These last examples illustrate France’s most surreal title-changing practice of all: re-titling an American film with a different English language title. There are the random, goofy examples: The Loretta Lynn biopic, Coal Miner’s Daughter, was called Nashville Lady; Hurlyburly, a shrill L.A. ensemble piece, was Hollywood Sunrise; Bamboozled, Spike Lee’s heavy-handed agit-prop allegory, was released as The Very Black Show. But the most conspicuous angle taken in these English-to-English title changes is America itself: In France, John Landis’ famed frat-house spoof, National Lampoon’s Animal House, was called American College; Losin’ It, an 80’s comedy about teenage boys (led by a pre-Scientology Tom Cruise) on a quest to lose their virginity, hit French theatres as American Teenagers; Varsity Blues, about high school jocks (starring Dawson’s Creek’s James Van Der Beek) in Texas, was American Boys, while Bring it On, about vacuous So-Cal cheerleaders (presided over by Kirsten Dunst), was American Girls; On the Outs, a low-budget study of young women dealing with drugs, unwanted pregnancy and prison sentences in a Jersey City ghetto, had a limited release in France as Girls in America. Notice a pattern?

Given that English words are eating up more and more space in French dictionaries, it’s not surprising that France helps itself to our language when hatching new names for American films. Yet the use of “America” in titles seems a particularly pointed marketing technique, one that uncovers a potential side effect of the title-changing phenomenon: cultural stereotyping. Tongue-in-cheek as they may be, the previously cited titles sell the idea that American boys are raunchy and macho and American girls are either superficial airheads or pregnant drug addicts bound for prison.

Vérane Frédiani, one of the co-founders of La Fabrique de Films, the company that distributed On the Outs—aka Girls in America—in France, explains that the title her company came up with was, in fact, ironic: “The image that we French have of girls in America is the opposite of what’s in the movie.” (It is perhaps closer to what’s in Bring it On—aka American Girls.) “This made our title original.”

Sharing an anecdote of a screening for teenagers in a Parisian suburb that is perhaps the French equivalent of the neighborhoods featured in the film, Ms. Frédiani remembers: “Many young French people believe in the American dream. This film showed a different reality, and the kids left saying ‘We’re better off in France.’” One wonders if the film’s title, in alluding to a particular subject as the American norm, encourages this sort of reaction. The re-naming of American movies by French distributors would thereby bear an unexpected responsibility: that of shaping France’s perception of America, and by comparison, of itself. In this light, a silly commercial ploy also becomes a little window into the way France understands (or misunderstands) American culture, and imagines (or chooses to imagine) America.

Given the longstanding and authentic Gallic love for cinema, it may seem like nit-picking to question France’s low-brow title changing practices. Yet it is precisely the prestige of film in France—the way it’s celebrated not as entertainment, but as art of the most serious kind—that makes these titles made over à la française startlingly incongruous. And though it’s tempting to sigh and say, “But what’s in a name, anyway?” that would surely be selling short both the practical and aesthetic value of titles. Is it not, after all, a movie’s title which attempts to capture—in that one crucial word or phrase—its essence? To lure us off our couches and away from our desks, into the theatre? And, in the case of a good movie, to linger long in our memory, reminding us of those precious couple of hours in the dark?