I have always been an avid follower of French cinema.
Almost every film one sees has a particular message, or brings back memories of an era which showed radical change in society – whether in political terms, sexual liberation or economic expansion.
Memories of the 1960s are being revived on a grand scale in a hit movie of the summer, Les Vacances du Petit Nicolas, which has been seen by 1.3 million people in the two weeks since it was released.
Based on a 60s comic-strip character that was France’s answer to Dennis the Menace, it presses all the right buttons for Gallic audiences who lap up the nostalgia of that period with greater enthusiasm than one would have expected.
But the French are as unpredictable a nation as they are difficult to govern.
The period in question, when Brigitte Bardot reigned supreme in St Tropez and General Charles de Gaulle was guiding the nation from the Elysée Palace, certainly brings back a time when France was on a great course of rejuvenation, unlike the doom and gloom that she is undergoing today – a crisis in search of an antidote hard to find.
The film tells the story of Nicolas, whose parents own a 404, the family saloon car produced by Peugeot in 1960, and who stay in a hotel bedroom with floral wallpaper and get into an argument when his father flirts with a pretty German tourist.
The movie was panned by the critics. Le Monde described it as a ‘stupid and cynical’ attempt to depict a mediocre French family as paragons of virtue.
But it was loved by audiences for its portrayal of happier times.
Critics are often unaware that the public gets comfort from remembering the good old times when life seemed less complicated than it is today.
‘We are in a period of crisis. The present isn’t funny and the future is uncertain, so the past appears very comfortable to us,’ said Thierry Dubois, a comic-strip author who is himself riding on the wave of nostalgia.
Dubois has ‘penned’ a hugely popular comic entitled La Nationale7 en Autorama, about the Capital RN7 road that took Parisians to the French Riviera before the motorways were built. His work, although set in the 1960s, shows queues of cars driving past churches and donkeys in quaint villages, or stopping to let the driver refresh himself (it was always a him in those days) with a bottle of red wine.
The images tell of a nation in which unemployment was minimal.
‘Immigrants came from Catholic Poland rather than Muslim Algeria and alcohol was a mitigating factor when you had a car crash,’ according to Dubois. ‘The Nationale7 was the holiday road in a period when everyone started taking holidays because of their new found prosperity,’ he said. ‘It has become an emblem of Les Trentes Glorieuses. Everyone took holidays at the same time in those days and Paris was deserted in August, unlike today.’
Dubois said the long drive to the Cote D’Azur on the RN7 was in practice not always a pleasant experience. There were traffic jams and accidents (often because of the claret consumed by the roadside) and his father’s Citroen D6 (‘we were sick in the back because of the suspension which was terrible’).
But the French have forgotten all this in their quest to recall bygone glories.
‘The advantage of nostalgia is that you get the past without the problems,’ said Dubois.
Hence I believe this is the reason why the film is so popular with the French public who are, at present, seeking to remember the good times in the hope that they might have them again.
Pessimism is self-destructive and often make matters worse. It is far better to fantasise while the going is rough, and the French would rather be deluded by optimism so as to make life more bearable when the odds are stacked against them.
Vive la France has an echo that brings cheer when least expected. I applaud their courage and the nation’s tenacity in casting aside misery in favour of a dreamlike perception. Although through tinted glasses, what will emerge may bring them the merriment they so badly hanker after.