May 16, 2018

The French Connection — Jean Sablon, Classic Comics, and “Un village français”

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s too soon to write at length about A Village in France (Un village français) a television series available on Hulu that at this writing, after five outstanding seasons, belongs in the company of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones.

When a series is this unique and engaging, powerful and true, it renews your interest in the nation that for two intense weeks has been at the center of your viewing life. You want to know more about the German occupation and the Resistance. You want to go back to films like Grand Illusion and Army of Shadows, directors such as Jean Renoir and Jean-Pierre Melville, writers like Albert Camus and composers like Claude Debussy, who died 100 years ago, March 25, 1918, the last year of the Great War.

Streaming Down the Highway

So I put some Debussy on the car stereo on my way to and from the DMV inspection center; it’s the piece pour deux pianos he composed for his friend Jacques Charlot, who was killed in combat (“tué à l’ennemi en 1915, le 3 mars”). Which leads to Django Reinhardt, whose music accompanies the frenzied dance scene in Season Five of Un village. The great gypsy guitarist takes me to James Jones, who wanted to write a novel based on Django and instead wrote about the student protest movement in The Merry Month of May, which reminds me of what was going on in the streets of Paris 50 years ago this month, which recalls the day in the 60s when I was swatted by a gypsy’s bear on the Boulevard St. Germain, which led to an encounter with a sympathetic bystander named Michelle, whose name brings up the Beatles song in which Paul McCartney shares some French with the singalong millions learning how to correctly pronounce “Sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble.”

The thoughtful French girl who came to the aid of the bear-dazed American that day in Paris reminds me of one of the many elements that make A French Village such an extraordinary show — strong, complicated female characters, including the Resistance leader Marie Germain, the sweet-smiling seductive activist Suzanne, the shamed and shameless Hortense, the indomitable Madame Morhange, and Rita, the storyteller who touches the heart of “the butcher of Villeneuve.”

A Wartime Childhood

There are numerous moments of intimate magic in Un village français where characters embattled by the risk of discovery, brutality, deception, carnage, and death find refuge in telling stories, writing and putting on plays, singing cabaret songs, playing games like rock, paper, scissors, and staging cockroach trials. This playfulness under fire also underscores the importance of children in a series centered on a school that becomes a hospital, detention center, combat zone, and dance hall, according to the unrelenting emergencies that converge on the fictional town of Villeneuve.

Having been immersed in a show so evocative of children and their games and dreams and schemes, it’s no surprise that I’ve been thinking about my safe, secure midwestern wartime neighborhood where the only risks were getting scolded for staying too long at the Saturday matinee or breaking your glasses swordfighting with sticks or being “it” in a game of hide and seek.

France haunted my early childhood in the form of a song by Jean Sablon and comicbook versions of the novels of Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo. The most frequently played side of the Sablon record my father brought back from postwar Paris was “Sur le pont d’Avignon,” which was a French lesson in itself. I learned that pont meant bridge, “l’on y danse tout en rond” needed no translation, you just did it, and Avignon was a town in France about the size of my town, Bloomington, Indiana. But it’s “Je tire ma révérence,” the song on the other side, that makes me think of the under-the-gun intimacy, the ebb and flow of love and loss so movingly conveyed in A French Village. For all the bouncy, jaunty fun of “Sur le pont,” it was the other song that made the deepest impression on my childhood self and that to this day retains an untranslatable quality of emotional mystery.

The title on the record label would have appeared impressively foreign to a six-year-old because of the accent marks in révérence and words rounding the top of the Disque “Gramophone” 78 rpm (“78 Tours”). When Sablon sang “révérence,” rhyming it with “France” (Frahn-sa), it was as if the world rhymed, life rhymed. I didn’t ask what the title meant. One online site suggests “I bow out,” and it was actually Sablon’s signature farewell in performance, like Bob Hope’s “Thanks for the Memory,” which I was familiar with in those days from radio nights with my parents. But now that I think of it, and having heard the song again, fresh, I’m thinking also of the last line of Keats’s farewell letter, “I always made an awkward bow.” Except the next part sounds like a happy/sad Chaplinesque stroll into the sunset: “Et dites lui trois fois/Bonjour, bonjour bonjour pour moi.”

It could be that I didn’t ask what the words meant because the music intimated that our little family (“we three” my parents used to say during family hugs), and our cozy living room and radio shows and comicbooks and Siamese cats would be gone one day before we knew it, forever, with nothing left but the memory that lives in this music.

My parents never threw that record away. Somehow it survived the moves and the divorce and the retirements, and here I am with an ancient 78 and nothing to play it on. This being the 21st century, however, all I need do is go to YouTube and I can see the actual red-labeled record spinning on a turntable with the dust of many playings in the surface noise.

Classic Comics

France and the war came into my grade-school life by way of Classic Comics. Of the first six issues, three have French connections: No. 1, The Three Musketeers, where I learn about comradeship (“All for one and one for all”); No. 3, The Count of Monte Cristo, where I escape from the Chateau d’If, find a treasure, and perform a glorious revenge; and No. 6, A Tale of Two Cities, the French Revolution according to Dickens. The most memorable and momentous of the lot, was No. 9, Les Misérables, the words spelled out in big scary letters on the cover showing Jean Valjean being pursued by Inspector Javert through the sewers of Paris. At the back, along with a brief biography of Victor Hugo, was a page about “La Marseillaise” with verses of the song and the story of how the mayor of Strasbourg asked a young patriot named Joseph Rouget de l’Isle to compose “a song for men to sing at the barricades” that expressed
Lafayette’s American ideas of government: “In one night Rouget created the stirring words and music …. The marching men did the rest. Their challenging, fighting voices gave it life.”

In case I had any doubt about the significance of Franco-American relations (at six what did I know?), the next page was about “The Statue of Liberty — A Gift From the French.” It’s hard to read the fanfare of the last paragraph with a straight face in May 2018: “And so the Statue of Liberty stands — in wind and rain — sunshine and storm — a beacon light guiding wanderers from many nations to the land of the free — and the home of the brave.”

About Brothers

The most terrifying cover was on No. 18, another Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where a hideous giant with wild eyes and tongue lolling is holding the cathedral in a death grip. At the back was “The Story of Staff Sergeant Schiller Cohen and his Fortress Stinky” illustrated by cartoon depictions of planes going down in flames. My Uncle Bob died when one of those B-17 “flying fortresses” crashed on a training flight in Nevada. At the time, all I knew was what happened to my mother when the woman from the Red Cross came up the stairs, knocked at our door, and said her brother had been killed. I told the kids in my first grade class that it happened in the war, “over there,” somewhere in France.

Classic No. 20 is another Dumas, The Corsican Brothers, which opens by noting that Louis and Julien were “joined together by a bond that nothing on earth or beyond could ever sever … the bond of mental telepathy, in which twin brothers connect telepathically.” In the back, after two playful pages about “Modern Twins in Service,” young readers learn about “Things for Which We Fight” (“These rights, these privileges, these traditions are precious enough to die for”), which is followed by “The American’s Creed” and “The Emblem of Invasion,” complete with an image of the badge and a detailed description of the origins of the “flaming sword unsheathed to fight for those things men desire most in rhis world — peace, freedom, and the brotherhood of man.”

Although this level of reading was over my head at the time, the message got through. I drew flaming planes with grinning Japanese pilots, caricatures of Hitler, innumerable swastikas, which had the fascination of the forbidden. We played war in Dunn Meadow, in front of the Union Building, and the Art Deco castle complete with battlements and a moat over the Jordan River (a creek with crawdads), and a bridge. We were having so much fun liberating France and routing the Nazis that our parents had to come round us up after dark on long summer nights.

I’ll write more about A French Village after I’ve seen all seven seasons. I hope the library will order the DVDs. For now, the series is streaming on Hulu and MHz Choice.