There’s something about the French (part 2 of 2)

Written by on March 6, 2014 in Cool Stuff and Reviews - No comments

Last month I wrote about my time in Paris where I discovered — once again — that there was just something about the French.

Fast forward to the beginning of March and my continuing obsession with immersing myself completely in all things French. Finding myself with a quiet evening alone, I found a French film that I’d borrowed from a friend ages ago and clearly failed to return, Un Couer en Hiver (A Heart in Winter). Rather than bringing me the relief I was searching for, the film left me streaked in tears.

There is something about French film-making that is so distinctly different from anything that could ever come out of Hollywood, and definitely than anything to come out of British cinema. There is a way that the French express emotion and love that is somehow difficult to describe. The word “intense” comes to mind again. But it doesn’t seem to really be sufficient. The film depicted a love triangle which wasn’t really a love triangle. It described an obsession that seemed to move from one character to another and then back again. It dug so deeply into the unexpressed feelings between two individuals that I could feel their desperation as if it was my own. Now I am obviously not French, but there is something in French films that I connect with on a level that Hollywood and British cinema could never reach. It touches me and I just “get it”. I pay attention even in the duller moments. I’m there in every desperate character and I understand their desire, their need, their desperation, their longing, and their love. And I leave the film not with that happy Hollywood feeling of happy endings, or even with the strange feeling of independent films, but with a seeming deeper insight into the intensity (there’s that word again) of the nature of the people described in the film, without necessarily ever wishing to experience their fate. Quite the opposite of the feeling squeezed out of us through Hollywood-type films, we leave there feeling grateful not to be the characters involved rather than wishing that we were. It kind of makes you happy to be you at the end of the film and not them, beckoning again that ever-necessary feeling of gratitude.

Fast forward another couple of weeks and I am seated in the Royal Opera House watching none other than one of my first French operas: Manon. Again, I should warn you, that few works of art produced by the French actually have a Hollywood happy ending. It’s not the Hollywood Disney version of “The Little Mermaid” where the original Hans Christian Anderson version suddenly develops a happy ending so that it’s now more appropriate to show to children. Hey I grew up reading the original story, as well as “The Little Match Girl”, with its original sad ending and I still survived. Perhaps it’s the raw reality that I saw as a child that draws me to French film-making to begin with. It’s more real that way. Yes it hurts to watch and read how horribly unfair life and love can be, but it’s the truth. Happy endings are a rarity these days, and it’s only within our own power to create them. We shouldn’t grow up believing that they just come naturally without us having to do anything to achieve them and expecting them to be delivered on silver platters just because… well… just because. We are no less and no more deserving than anyone else living anywhere else. If we want happiness and the kind of “endings” we all dream about, well there’s some work involved in making that happen, and we damn well better be grateful if we’re lucky enough to be born even slightly into an advantage into that everyday race of life that we all have to go through to get anywhere.

Now back to ManonThe beauty of Manon lies in the pure love story hidden beneath the other story or how a need for excess can lead to one’s demise. It’s a moralistic story, no doubt, but it’s also a story of real true love. Manon’s true love loves her from the first moment of setting sight on her and their love is just as they both expect, one of purity and beauty. But Manon also is drawn to wealth and luxury, and as a young, natural beauty it is handed to her easily by her many wealthy lovers. But even in luxury, she cannot completely forsake the love that she once felt all those years ago. Her true love also still feels the aching of that love — the pain of which, eventually, led him to turn to a life of priesthood. Just as he is about to finish his vows and give himself up to the service of God forever, however, arrives Manon once again. But this is a different Manon than the one he fell for all those years ago. This Manon is no longer naive and pure. She is aware of her beauty, her elegance, and her power as a woman. She has also been seduced by the luxurious lifestyle that she had become accustomed to living. Leaving with her, her lover is thrown into supporting her in this lifestyle and he detests how much he has been forced to sink as much as he still adores Manon. The end is one of desperate love again that demonstrates so clearly the purity and unwavering reality of the love between these two lovers but also sinks the lesson deep into us: that unquenchable lust for material things will never bring us the real happiness that we seek.

Yes I know that it’s just an opera, and I know that it was written quite some time ago, but there is something so perfectly ideal in this kind of unwavering love between two people that one can’t help but feel a secret desire for something of this kind of purity. The true love Manon’s lover feels for her is one that looks beyond fault, beyond mistakes, beyond human nature, and still loves. Manon is hardly an ideal character, but she is so “quintessentially female” (as one of the lines in French says) and so full of life that it is difficult not to adore her despite her many errors of judgment, her materialistic nature, and her love of pleasure. And there is a kind of innocent and pure adoration for this woman seen in her lover that we can’t help but desire and admire. It’s a beautiful, tragic story that leaves you aching but still somehow wanting more.

And, yet, just as poignant is the unwavering moralistic lesson that hangs in this cautionary tale: the more your selfish need for material gain, the further your place from love and true happiness. The love between Manon and her lover is too pure, too perfect to survive very long. So that we are not at all surprised by just how quickly the writer of the opera takes it away and puts an end to it. Because really we can’t choose to follow selfish materialistic tendencies and still have a heart open for pure love and simple happiness. So what do we do if we want both to be happy and financially comfortable? Hmmm, perhaps that’s a good topic for a future entry…

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.

Leave a Comment