Decentring France

Multilingualism and power in contemporary French cinema

Author: Gemma King

In a world defined by the flow of people, goods and cultures, many contemporary French films explore the multicultural nature of today's France through language. In a cinematic landscape increasingly characterised by multiculturalism and linguistic diversity, a number of contemporary French films are beginning to represent multilingualism as a means of attaining and exerting social power. This book is the first substantial study of multilingual film in France. Unpacking the power dynamics at play in the dialogue of eight emblematic films, it argues that many contemporary French films take a new approach to language and power. The book begins in central Paris in Polisse and Entre les murs, then travels to the banlieue in Un prophete and Dheepan. It then heads to another culturally loaded but very different space with Welcome and La Graine et le mulet, whose border-crossing stories unfold in the port cities of Calais and Sete respectively. Then, in London River and Des hommes et des dieux, the book steps off French soil, travelling to the English capital and former French colony of Algeria. It explores characters whose lives are marked not only by France, but by former colonies, foreign countries and other European states. In its depiction of strategic code-switching in transcultural scenarios, contemporary French multilingual cinema shows the potential for symbolic power inherent in French, other dominant Western tongues, and many migrant and minority languages. The book offers a unique insight into the place of language and power in French cinema today.

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‘Starting off with a brief overview of French cinema from the silent period to the present, King then focuses on eight films that are both multicultural and multilingual, and examines how the use of Kurdish, Tamil, Arabic and other languages within these films empowers the cultures they represent as well as the languages themselves. King argues that by refusing to “center” the French language in contemporary French cinema, these films – among them Jacques Audiard's Dheepan (2015) and Un prophète (2009), Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs (2008), Philippe Lioret's Welcome (2009) – force cinemagoers into a deeper engagement with issues of class, race, nationality, and cultural privilege.'
G. A. Foster
CHOICE, Vol. 56, No. 2

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