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La vie en rose

Monday January 22, 2007

Samantha David

Since it was loosely based on A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, it isn't surprising that Ridley Scott's recent slush-fest, A Good Year, is less of a rom-com than a glossy advert for rural France.

Ah, la France profonde! Ah, living the dream! Ridders and Pete have captured this fantasy down to the last detail: a life of golden sunshine, amusing locals and fabulous cooking in kitchens with wooden boards, stone pitchers, and fresh vegetables in wickerwork baskets.

As we all know, there are no taxes, dentists or parking fines in France. Just baguettes, and funny, friendly little Froggies pedalling their bicycles through the sunlit meadows. 

Ah! Le Paradis! Strings of onions, little cups of strong coffee, stripy T-shirts, dried sausages, enormous cheeses, women caressing their ripe melons . . .
It's no wonder the Brits love France. Life is so much more civilised here. Take meals, for example. No one actually eats at the 800-odd MacDo's throughout the country. No one buys those pre-prepared frozen meals in the hypermarket. And no one buys the Pot Noodles, freezers or microwaves either, come to that. Meals are eaten outdoors in the dappled shade of the plane trees. Grandpapa in a battered straw hat, Grandma with a pinny over her generous bosom, Tante Yvette wearing scarlet Resistance lipstick . . . all of them laughing at the puppy as the Mamans et Papas flirt with adultery and sip glasses of rough, ruby-red Beaujolais Nouveau.

Beaujolais Nouveau? In June? Why yes, of course. It must be June, because the trees are covered in luscious ripe cherries. It's always June in France. Even when it rains. 

Rains? It doesn't ever rain in Provence, does it? Yes, of course it does, silly! It rains quite suddenly, right out of the blue, just when a stunningly beautiful couple is returning from a picnic, strolling hand in hand across a flower-strewn meadow. Then it rains.

Absolutely no one in France is fat ? unless they happen to be a Wise Old Family Retainer of course. Or a comedy baker. French women are all slim, with long straight hair and such perfect skin that they need no make-up, just as French men are all sultry, dark-eyed, and constantly fellating a smouldering Gitanes. 

All of which is utter nonsense, of course. Look behind the postcards and you'll see all the usual modern ills: drink, drugs, debt, divorce, depression . . . just like anywhere else. Brits arriving in France expecting to spend their lives sitting in the sun having witty conversations with their cosmopolitan new mates tend to bugger off within a year of arriving.

Life in la France profonde is dominated by petty bureaucracy, village gossip, and the weather. The summers are hot and tourist-infested, the winters are long, cold and often desperately boring. Jobs are as scarce as visits from La Scala, and on either side of "les grandes vacances" restaurants, cafes and bars have a habit of closing at 8pm.  

What rural France has in spades is beauty, tranquillity and space. You can compose, write, sculpt and daydream undisturbed. You can cultivate organic vegetables, roam the countryside, keep large dogs, watch eagles soaring overhead. And you can live in a huge rambling house. You can even tart it up if you like. Or you can just fill it with kids and watch them grow up far from the madding crowd. It?s the perfect place to downsize and live life at a snail's pace. I chop wood for heating and cooking, and can spend hours discussing celebrity HIV tests with the grannies sitting outside the church.

All of which is a far cry from the irritating, sugar-coated fantasy pedalled by Ridley, Mayle et al. A Good Year was greeted by the natives as a trivial waste of celluloid, with French reviewers dubbing it "stereotypical", "packed with clichés" and "appalling from start to finish". Dearo, dearo. The press was particularly incensed about the French being portrayed as a nation of dirty, espadrille-wearing, Renault 4 drivers. Apparently they object to their country being viewed as a Disneyesque playground, peopled with folksy stereotypes laid on especially for the entertainment for the "Anglo-Saxon elite". 

Translation: they don't like rich Brits and Americans making patronising films about France and the French. Plus ça change . . .


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