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On Watching Movies in Multilingual Europe (as a Monolingual American Cinephile)

Europe Entertainment
by Sean Malin Aug 12, 2013

I sputtered back to the salesperson the price she had quoted me for my ticket. “TWENTY-four Swiss franc?” I asked if anything came with the ticket. “Of course!” she said, as if I were a combination extraterrestrial and Village Idiot. “We give you a take-home visor for the different, how do you say, the images in three dimensions? You own that! And you also get to choose your seat.” She mentioned that I also got a personal carafe of wine; while she intended this bit of news kindly, she must not have noticed that I was alone.

Anyway, only an American traveling alone would buy a 24-franc ticket to see The Great Gatsby, drunk, in Zurich.

By this particular night, I had been in Switzerland (via Paris) for almost 20 days. I had only watched DVDs I brought on the flight with me: March of the Penguins (no, I had never seen it) and a Redbox copy of Rango (yes, it was several days overdue). Since I spend my professional and social lives watching movies in Los Angeles, this seemed like some sort of a betrayal against myself, and I reckoned that I’d disengaged enough from media to reengage with it a bit that night. I had not anticipated a $30 charge for a ticket. I was not prepared for three sets of subtitles — French, English, and dialectic German — to block half of the audience’s field of vision. And I had certainly not expected to leave the theater with a 3-D helmet that only worked on Baz Luhrmann films.

This was not the first time I’d seen a film with subtitles, but it was the first time the screen was more subtitle than image. I have never been so distracted in my entire life. I wanted to see the film because, in the United States — and in all of Europe as well — Gatsby was an “event film.” Traveling or otherwise, 24 franc or more, I had to see it. As might be expected, I look back on that night in May and think of it as a big waste of money, time, and delicious wine.

Since I don’t speak a word of French, I was forced to assume the film was pretty good.

When I returned to Paris at the end of the month, a more artsy film — The Past, from the same director and writer of the Oscar-winning film A Separation — was playing at a luxury theatre south of Sacre Coeur. For my tastes, this was also something I had to see. It would not be open in American theaters for several more months, and had just won an acting award at Cannes. When I saw that it was playing at Le Palais Theatre in Montmartre, I bought the 10-Euro ticket immediately.

The Past was shown as Le Passe in the language it was made: French. Naturally, it had no subtitles of any kind, but like a trooper (or an idiot) I stayed to finish the showing. When it ended, Parisians stood up and clapped heartily, several women cried, and there was a lot of ballyhooing. Since I don’t speak a word of French, I was forced to assume the film was pretty good.

Why did I sit through Le Passe, The Great Gatsby, and later in Bern, Switzerland, a film print of Paris, Texas with German subtitles physically scribbled onto the screen (seriously)? That’s an easy one. I was lonely. I felt isolated in my mind because of my limited language skills. I hadn’t seen a movie in weeks after ending the previous week with five movies under my belt. I was in shock and I was by myself, so I sought comfort.

As bewildering as these experiences were for me — and trust me, watching a film with scribbled subtitles is nothing if not Dali-level Surreal — I got what I wanted. I felt like a great patron of art seeing The Past in Paris. I imagined myself as a member of the literati watching The Great Gatsby. And I certainly felt vindicated as a film critic watching the amazing Paris, Texas.

It’s almost worth traveling by yourself for a month to feel like part of a community to which you were previously foreign. But I should have known to buy more wine.

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