A month or so ago at a party the movie Chocolat came up. While some people at the party loved the movie, I was reminded during the conversation of the strange and damaging cinematic subgenre that Chocolat epitomizes, which subgenre is made up of films set in foreign places but produced entirely in English.
While Chocolat is a decent, if flawed, film when evaluated by things like acting, cinematography, or plot, it seems to ignore the basic fact that it’s set in France. Sure, there are bits and pieces of French culture scattered about the film, yet the means though which culture is conveyed (i.e. language) is disregarded. The movie seems to be arguing that “culture” is simply a veneer of clothing, food, etc. that can be detached from language. This attitude is especially bizarre considering the film’s star, Juliette Binoche, is actually French and its leading man, Johnny Depp, lives in France.
Another example of an English-speaking foreign film is Memoirs of a Geisha. This film is particularly annoying because the characters all speak with accents. Anyone who has become fluent in a second language should be able to attest that native speakers of a language don’t have foreign accents in their own language. In other words, Japanese speakers don’t have a Japanese accent when they’re speaking Japanese; the accent is only evident when they are speaking another language. In turn, there is no reason that English-language films should portray foreign speakers with accents. After all, we (the audience) are supposed to be suspending our disbelief. We’re supposed to accept the fact that though the characters are speaking English, they are actually speaking Japanese. Yet, if that is the case, why does everyone have an accent? In the end the filmmakers should have either cast A) native speakers and have them speaking Japanese or B) Japanese-Americans who could speak to an American audience without an accent. As it is, the film takes a kind of “petting-zoo” approach to different cultures which gawks at the strangeness of others more than trying to understand them. (Memoirs of a Geisha is particularly annoying because eventually the characters are suddenly able to communicate with English-speaking Americans, despite the fact that they were never shown learning English. It’s a move reminiscent of the absurdity in Disney’s Pocahontas.)
A petting-zoo approach to different cultures is hardly an appropriate one. It emphasizes difference and division, while ignoring the complexities and humanity of different people. There may have been a time in American film when this was the only thing audiences were willing to accept . However today, with the widespread availability of legitimate foreign films, as well as the globalizing influence of the internet, anyone could easily find a movie that is both about a foreign culture and made by that culture.
Of course, it’s likely that these petting-zoo movies exist because they are more marketable than straightforward foreign language films. Yet, while I accept the fact that filmmaking is a business, it also seems dangerous for filmmakers to pander to lazy audience members by glossing over language. Anyone who has become multilingual should be able to attest to the fact that some things just can’t be translated. If subtitles are an imperfect compromise, they at least represent an acknowledgement that language is important and that it’s impossible to really understand people without speaking to them in their own tongue. If we aren’t willing to acknowledge that, let alone do it, maybe we shouldn’t be watching movies about other people anyway.