As a British version of Call My Agent launches, Viv Groskop provides a thorough guide to the art of swearing, Paris-style
Why did British viewers fall so hard for Netflix’s Call My Agent (Dix Pour Cent)? Tant de raisons. So many reasons. It’s beautifully made. Funny, compelling, playful, with both an engaging core cast of four and a thrilling rotating carousel of starry guest turns from Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Adjani to Béatrice Dalle and Sigourney Weaver.
It’s about a milieu – the world of showbiz agents – that’s exciting, glamorous and the perfect source of self-knowing comedy. This is also a world that’s usually behind closed doors: we get to witness indiscretions that would never usually be made public. Who doesn’t want to see an actor of the magnitude of Jean Reno (albeit a fictionalised version of him) flip out because he hates wearing his Father Christmas costume?
In some ways the mission of Call My Agent is a diplomatic one, essential in these troubled times. It launched in 2015 and began to pick up viewers watching with subtitles over the following years. In the UK it was basically cultural catnip for grieving Remoaners. (C’est moi.)
But the biggest reason why British fans hold the show so close to our hearts? It allows us to pretend that anyone – oui, n’importe qui – can speak really, really fabulous French simply by watching Call My Agent. This includes people who can only vaguely remember, to quote Eddie Izzard: “Le singe est dans l’arbre.”
Having spoken to many fellow fans of the show who are not native French speakers, we all share this secret: we think we’re watching it without reading the subtitles. (In reality we are watching with subtitles. I don’t recommend turning them off: it’s too much of a wake-up call. And I speak French.) This phenomenon is true whatever your real-life level of French.
Because everyone’s Call My Agent’s French is totally fluent. We all think that if we spotted Grégory Montel (Gabriel Sarda) outside a Parisian café, we would casually hop over and say, “Putain de merde! Bordel! Comment ça roule, mon pote?” (“Holy shit, it’s you! Fuck me! How’s it hanging, dude?” Literally: “Prostitute of shit! Whorehouse! How is it rolling, mate?”)
This is the key to Call My Agent French: it’s not like classroom French. This is the French they didn’t teach you in school. I can remember being excited when our French teacher told us about “Zut alors!” (“Blast!”) This is the next level. The language in Call My Agent is peppered with filler expressions like “pute/putain” (whore/bitch – used to express surprise, admiration, horror), “ta gueule” (literally “your mouth”, used to mean, “shut up” or “get out of here”), “salaud/salope” (bastard/bitch).
One of the best combinations and one which might make up an entire conversation between Call My Agent French speakers is this: “Putain de bordel de merde.” (“Prostitute of whorehouse of shit” meaning “for fuck’s sake” or “I can’t fucking believe it”.)
We’re maybe right to congratulate ourselves in the midst of this giant linguistic self-delusion. Even French YouTubers who have produced watch-a-long guides to the series analysing the dialogue describe this as “very fast slang French”. If you can understand anything without the subtitles, you’re doing well.
Which is the other part of the appeal of the show: this is how people really talk, off-script, in negotiation, in the heat of the moment, behind closed doors. The language has an intimacy that is rarely accessible unless you’re a near-native speaker and get into the kind of relationship where you might well have a confrontation. (If Grégory Montel is reading this, he knows where to find me.)
Which brings me to the unofficial French teacher in Call My Agent. I’d argue it is indeed moped man Gabriel Sarda. He’s the canned whipped cream addict who does not allow his diminutive stature or low self-esteem – nor indeed his canned whipped cream addiction – to get in the way of seducing the ladies.
His use of swearing is the most natural, the most articulated and the easiest for a foreigner’s ear to understand. (He says, slowly: “Oh… bordel…” most episodes.) The more mature agent Mathias Barneville (Thibault de Montalembert) is more restrained, and while Andréa Martel (Camille Cottin) cusses like her life depends on it, it’s very often under her breath.
The pièce de resistance, though, is Arlette Azémar (Liliane Rovère). When she says, “C’est une vraie connasse” (“That woman is a real cunt”), you know it means trouble.
What effect will fans’ passion for the original show have on our appreciation of the British version, about to launch and featuring cameos from Kelly Macdonald and Helena Bonham Carter? Well, it’s got to be disappointing that it’s not in French, right? But let’s hope it brings something fresh and exciting and is not just un gros bordel (a fat whorehouse, aka a big old mess).
Viv Groskop is the author of Au Revoir, Tristesse: Lessons in Happiness from French Literature.
This feature appears in the current issue of the Idler (May-June 2022) – out now.
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