Saturday, 17 November 2007

The Movie 'Ratatouille' and the American View of France

Well, I have addressed some classic movies and some far less classic. In this posting I am going to have a quick look at a recent release 'Ratatouille' (2007). This is an animated movie aimed at children. It features a rat living in France who develops the tastes of a connoisseur and moves to Paris where he can enjoy the cuisine on offer. Haunted by the ghost of a successful television chef he goes to the chef's restaurant and aids the dead chef's illegitimate son to return the restaurant to its former glory but conjuring simple but popular, delicious dishes. There is of course lots of running around, problems with the rat's relatives turning up, some romance for the human lead in the kitchen and generally a fine all round package.

What my issue is, is not about the whimsy of a connoisseur rat but how France itself is portayed in the movie. In the same way that well into the 1960s even after the clean air acts in US films London was always portrayed as being foggy, so there is a fixed view of France that seems to be even more lingering. It is as if every American director (in this case Brad Bird who directed the excellent animated movie 'The Incredibles' (2004)) is compelled to watch the Gene Kelly movie 'An American in Paris' (1951) to get his/her view of France. One assumes that the France portrayed is France in the 2000s and yet every television featured in the film is black and white. Paris is shown as full of those 19th century apartments with gurgling pipes and crimes passionelle being conducted behind closed doors but so noisily the public can hear; huge dated restaurants of the old style. The clothing seems contemporary and the female chef Colette (voiced by Janeane Garofalo who I always have time for) who rides around on a powerful motorbike seem like nods to the contemporary world. However, for the rest the movie seems like France circa 1964. France does have old world charm in small villages but so does most other countries in Europe; but France is also the country of high tech, DVDs were common there well before the rest of Europe as were smart cards on public transport and the minitel a sophisticated telephone/public information system in every bedroom before anyone had the internet at home. For the Americans, France always seems to be stuck in the Autumn, presumably when they go and visit it. If you have ever played the computer game 'Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars' (1996) you find exactly the same environment in Paris with golden afternoons and brown leaves blowing in the boulevards.

I can accept that 'Ratatouille' is supposed to contain elements of nostalgia in it, but it is rather alarming if this is the USA's view of what contemporary France is like. It would be the equivalent of a French or British film showing Americans clustering around to watch the McCarthy trials or go out to the corner drugstore for a soda and pretend that is the USA today. Either set your movies in the past and make this clear or have them in a correct present otherwise a lot of American children are going to be rather shocked when they travel on their trips to Europe to find countries actually more advanced than their own (and with four seasons), not stuck in some setting their grandparents knew forty to fifty years ago.

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