Films are certainly a useful and entertaining tool for language learning, though watching random films may be confusing, especially when you pick a typical blockbuster: how can a movie be popular in a country and fail at the box office in another? Moreover, highly commercial material often contains silly or trivial language that you might not want to learn straight away.
This is why I advise you to stick to authors, people who truly represent the culture they’re from and have a more general, more global vision of their trade. One of these authors, or “cinéastes”, is François Ozon.
Ozon likes to put his characters in borderline or dangerous situations, such as a sudden loss, and he observes them while they react, fight, give up or transform their lives according to their nature. Everyone has a dark side and it may or may not come out at a decisive point; it’s up to us to take an option and then our existences will never be the same.
The director likes watching his characters as they move in that confused area, the space between our many selves, until they’re forced to make a choice. If Hitchcock’s movies were about “moral suspense”, the ones by François Ozon revolve around the idea of an “emotional suspense” leading to the finale, which is often unexpected.
“Potiche” is a good starting point for anyone who’s not familiar with Ozon’s works. From a learner’s point of view, it contains easy, everyday language and well-defined characters belonging to the middle-class in the 1970s. Being colourful and upbeat, the film possesses a general “feel-good” atmosphere and it’s certainly a pleasure to watch.
The issues it deals with, however, are as deep as in Ozon’s sombre films (“Sous le sable” or “Jeune et Jolie” for instance): feminism, capitalism, social clashes in and out of the family circle. As such, “Potiche” also becomes a symbol for French culture as a whole, since it discusses heavy topics with a smile. This would not be acceptable in other cultures, especially those that regard light-heartedness as unprofessional or foolish.
The title itself (“Potiche”) hints at beautiful but purposeless women, such as are to be seen on TV shows and whose only task is to look good. This is how the main character (played by Catherine Deneuve) feels in her superb mansion, until something unpredictable turns the whole situation on its head and she becomes an active, responsible businesswoman ready to face the modern world.
The ideal way of watching a foreign film for a language learner is with subtitles in the same language as the spoken one. But if you don’t feel confident with your French yet, just watch it with subtitles in your own language: the listening part will do you good anyway, even though you don’t get all the words.
Feel free to ask me any questions about French movies, in person or in the article discussion; I’ll be glad to help you.
Links for futher reading: