Two Out of France: Words and Picture

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TWO stories out of France in recent days - each somewhat unsettling in its way - have nonetheless provided a little relief from some of the heavier items on the news agenda as well as some food for thought.

One is the report that the French, long defenders of linguistic unity, have begun to encourage the use of regional languages such as Provencal and Breton.

And the other is a controversy about the rights to a famous postwar photo of a young couple kissing in front of the Hotel de Ville in Paris. Do the two retired printers who say they were the pair captured on film by Robert Doisneau in 1950 have some claim on the famous image, widely reproduced in posters?

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If the answer is that they don't, because, as photographer Doisneau maintains, the picture shows not these claimants but a pair of paid models, then something is amiss in what we might call the collective French national photo album. What does it say about the truth of an image if what the world has thought was a spontaneous moment of passion recorded by a photographer who was fortuitously on the spot turns out to be a posed shot?

More on that in a moment, though. It's unsettling enough, this idea of bilingual education coming to France. After all, France has been the country that for centuries has regulated usage of its language through the august body known as the Academy. The natural linguistic richness of France (eight distinct languages and more than a dozen dialects, aside from the languages immigrants have brought in) has been kept under strict control by a strong central government in Paris for years. But now in response t o the relentless spread of English and to the homogenization of culture within the 12-nation "superstate" many fear the European community will turn into, the French are rediscovering regional languages.

Well, why not? one wonders. Who would want to oppose a manifestation of cultural diversity, to use the current American buzzword? The move to regional languages may be an expression as much of the basic security of France in its nationhood as of its sense of threat from cultural incursion from abroad. The second flowering, if that is what it is, of Provencal, the language of the medieval troubadours, may be rather like the phenomena of recent years in England, when exceptionally hot warm summers have bro ught forth flora and fauna that don't usually thrive there.

Are these "museum" languages, "picturesque" ones that are being cultivated by government officials with budgets to do this school program or that dictionary? At a time when so many political entities seem to be deconstructing themselves into ever smaller units, the values of cohesiveness may be getting shortchanged in favor of diversity and multiplicity. Separatist groups seem to be an issue almost everywhere; even Scottish nationalists in their kilts may seem problematic rather than eccentric.

Meanwhile, back to the Hotel de Ville: Mr. Doisneau seems to have acknowledged, in discussions with Jean-Louis and Denise Lavergne in 1990, that they were indeed the subjects of his photo made 40 years before; they had recognized themselves in a reproduction of the image on the cover of a television magazine. They are now seeking compensation for what they charge is a violation of their privacy. But at a court hearing in the matter a few days ago, Doisneau maintained that the couple pictured were Francoi se Bornet and Jacques Cartaud, two actors whom he paid to pose. Mme Bornet is now seeking an additional 20,000 francs.

The implications for the photographic world would be considerable if anyone who ever wandered into a shooter's viewfinder were allowed to make a claim. But one is tempted to root for the Lavergnes in this, or at least to want to believe it is they in the picture, partly because they are still together after all these years and it is heartening to think that the intensity of the relationship evident in the photo has been matched by durability; but also because Doisneau's photographs are among those images

that define a place at a certain period, in this case, France in the first years after World War II, and one would like to think they were spontaneous events recorded, and not posed compositions.

A judgment on the two suits is to be given June 2.

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