Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Review of "Entre les Murs"

Entre les murs, the film that won a prize at Cannes for its portrayal of a Parisian school in what was presumably une zone urbaine sensible, is now in the theaters. I haven't seen it, but here is a very critical review by a writer from Clichy-sous-Bois, who presumably knows similar classrooms firsthand. I would be grateful for comments from readers who have seen the film, since it's not (yet) available here in the U.S.

Leadership as Simulacrum

One does feel for Sarko: like a blindsided quarterback, he has to pick himself up off the turf and rally his forces, even if the shock of concussion has made it impossible for him to see the field clearly. In this respect he's no different from other heads of state, starting with George Bush, who managed in a news conference to look perfectly clueless about the financial crisis ("You see, all these markets are interlinked," he said, as though he'd just found out, and "his instincts" had told him to "trust the free market" until he was briefed by "the experts," who'd told him that he'd better not.) But if you compare Bush's White House speech last night with Sarko's Toulon speech today, you'd have to say that Sarko looks more like a convincing field general, even though he's not even playing in the right league. Sarko picked up on the theme of retribution: those outsized golden parachutes and executive compensation packages are guaranteed to get up the ire of Joe Sixpack and Jean Vache-qui-rit, so they're an obvious thing to go after. Too bad Sarko couldn't call for the firing of Chris Cox, as McCain did. (To be sure, he did call for the firing of Daniel Bouton in the midst of another crisis--and nothing happened. So much for jawboning from the Elysée.)

If you're a guy, of course, it's a good thing to be tough, to be able to take the hits, roll with the punches, and come back fighting. But if you're a head of state, or even a quarterback, for that matter, it's better to anticipate the hits and evade them, or call a draw play. Angela Merkel played this opposition better than any of the guys: she was calling for banking regulation and reduction of the US deficit before the guys were. True, she didn't need to curry favor with Bush and wasn't trying to entice part of the derivatives trade from London to her own capital. And she was unsuccessful, but not for lack of trying.

A Strange Career

One vows never to write another word about Bernard-Henri Lévy, and then events conspire to force one's hand. I can think of few other intellectual careers that have been built on consummate masochism, but Lévy seems to exist to write new books worse than the last, inviting critics to whip, lash, and scorn him yet again, Oh please! One more time! The ritual has become tiresome even for Proustian voyeurs who fancy the spectacle of a brainy dominatrix dripping hot ink all over BHL's permanently bared breast. (Scott McLemee inflicts some deep cuts with a finely honed pen, h/t Henry at Crooked Timber.)

The nagging question, however, is why does this go on, and the evident answer is that, inexplicably, people are willing to pay to put their eyes once more to the peephole. Indeed, the venal aspect of Lévyness, not to be confused with Lévinas, has lately been put in startlingly stark relief by the revelation that none other than BHL is the Monsieur X who will team up with another writer whom good people everywhere love to hate, Michel Houellebecq, in a slily promoted production to be released by Flammarion on October 8. At home Lévy has mastered the art of keeping himself perpetually in the public eye, while more recently he has stretched his tentacles around corpulent America, which can't seem to shake him off. Americans may no longer be able to stomach French wine, food, theory, or film (unless it's animated or about Piaf or penguins), but we seem to need an "intellectual," however ersatz, if only as an object of derision.

Clearly there will be no end to this foolishness until we collectively conclude that Lévy is too trivial to loathe and unworthy of our finer sadistic instincts. But as Augustine said in the fleshpots of Antiquity, "Lord, help me never to sin again, but not just now, please." Repentance is fine, but it can wait until tomorrow.

Michael Moore Take Note

Rationing by cost has begun to affect health care in France, widely regarded as possessing one of the world's best systems of medical insurance. Not everything is covered, however, and according to a new survey, nearly 40 percent of the French have decided not to seek some health-related service or item (such as a dental implant or eyeglasses) because of cost.

Tics de langage

Mais, voyons! There's a new book, apparently, on tics de langage: Pierre Merle, Panorama aussi raisonné que possible de nos tics de langage (Editions Fetjaine, 12,90 euros). This is a subject that has always fascinated me, because it's one of the more difficult aspects of a foreign tongue to get right. One tends to overuse those tics that one picks up, or to use them in the wrong register or the wrong social context. In reading Bruno Lemaire's book on his years as Villepin's chief of staff, I was struck by the deft way he used tics of the tongue to characterize Sarkozy, who was (and presumably still is) in the habit, for example, of prefacing every remark with je vais vous dire ..., a phrase with a sort of oracular pugnacity, suggesting an assertion that will brook no contradiction. When I was living in France in 1977, I found myself among people who frequently answered questions Oui, effectivement ..., a phrase that, if I'm not mistaken, has since dropped out of fashion but was once the nec plus ultra of crisp technocratic mastery of one's dossiers. Satirists have noted Sarko's overuse of the adjective remarquable, which in his mouth has the value of casual, noncommittal approval: Je vais vous dire une chose, M. Poivre d'Arvor, Valérie Pécresse a fait un travail tout à fait remarquable, je dis bien remarquable ..., which means about as much as an adolescent saying to a pal, Ouais, j'ai vu c'film, c'était vachement bien.