The French do go on about their "cultural exception" and how erudite and educated they are while we Philistine Britons sneer and joke about how pretentious it is and how we just don't get the Gallic obsession with Serge and breathless Jane and films focussing on smoldering cigarettes in glass ashtrays and inexplicable angst, and dialogue punctuated by endless pauses and puffs and pouts on stinky filterless cigarettes and horribly long unreadable sentences like this one. I know; believe me I have sneered and joked and mocked along with the best.
But I should say, to the sound of words being munched and mutterings of having 'gone native', the French do culture exceedingly well, especially culture for children. Their approach is different to ours: they are less inclined towards the mainstream: hands-on museums; wonderfully kitsch 'it's-behind-you' pantomime; dreamy heroines in frou-frou dresses not to mention spangly benighted Princesses. They tend towards the understated, subtle, complex, dare I say it, sophisticated. It tends to be less fun more formal.
Take the wonderful films Kirikou and Azur et Asmar, by director Michel Ocelot for example. As animation goes they are old school and about as far removed from great Uncle Walt and Pixmar's slick productions as they could be without being cave paintings. The plots are the stuff of fantastic fables, the drawings colourful but technologically simple and the characters crudely drawn and two dimensional. And for all that the films are enchanting.
Last week, La Fille's class went to the cinema and I was drafted in as a parent helper. We took our seats in the vast auditorium and I waited for the titles to roll. But before the lights went down, we were introduced to two men sitting either side of the stage in front of the screen. One was behind a set of drums and a variety of interesting percussion including shells and tinkly things and African drums and a tweetie-whistle and the like. The other, to the left, was behind a keyboard surrounded by more tinkly things and a plastic concertina-ed pipe that went whooooooooo when he whirled it around his head. They took turns to explain how they would be playing the 'soundtrack' to the film and to describe the instruments they would be using and what it would mean when we heard the whooooooo sound of a plastic concertina-ed pipe being whirled around. I looked around and expected the 100 or so assembled three to four year-olds to be fidgeting but they were all ears.
The lights dimmed, the film rolled. It was The Little Mole or Krtec, a simple cartoon animal created in the 1950s by a Czech animator Zdeněk Miler. The 1950s are a long way from Dreamworks, but the films were enchanting and the two musicians played along so that their music was a parallel performance in itself. It made me realise how much we take film sountracks for granted and how interesting when the two medium are semi-separated.
La Fille and her classmates, along with the other schoolchildren present loved the film and loved the music as an entertainment in its own right, so much so they broke out into spontaneous beat-clapping several times and were whistling with the flute and cheering with the symbols and tweeting with the tweetie-whistle and whoooooing with the plastic whirly pipe at every opportunity.
It was unlike any other film screening I have ever been to. It was very French. It was absolutely magical. Vive cultural exceptions.