I’d seen it on the shelf of my New York video store, and I realized it had to be the same film. There was the same cover with the French actor Benoit Poelvoorde staring down in black and white with that giant gun. I remember the poster in France everywhere, but always with the long title: C’est Arrive Pres de Chez Vous. But now there was a different title on the jacket, it was shorter and had a different font even: Man Bites Dog.

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Fast-forward a few years later – video store in Paris. I spot a cover of a film I’d seen as a kid-the same bizarre drawing of a plane tied up in knots. But it didn’t say Airplane on it. It read “Y-a-t-il un pilote dans l’avion?” (Is there a pilot on board?) My first thought was that it wasn’t a title- there were so many hyphens and punctuations, plus it was so long I assumed it was a warning from the video store, like “Please play in zone 3 regions only!”

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My question then is the question I still have today. Airplane translates fairly simply from French into English. Airplane – Avion. So why the long hyphenated title that ends with a question mark? OK sure perhaps there was an instance in the film when someone probably said the line “Is there a pilot on board?” And it got a big laugh. But since when does the best line of a film become the translated title? If we’re following that logic then why not rename Casablanca“We’ll always have Paris.” Or Star Wars – “May the force be with you.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at dinner parties and someone will ask me what I thought of so and so film, but I’m unable to answer because I don’t recognize the title they’re referring to. “But John. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s a cult film with DeNiro, Christopher Walken, Voyage au Bout de l’Enfer”. No response.

And then they speak louder and translate the title into English as if that will make it easier for me. “Voyage to the End of Hell, John!” Voyage to the End of Hell? My face draws a blank. “You still don’t know it?” …. “Sorry still nothing.” Then they get upset because they’ve had too much drink and they think I’m trying to play stupid just to annoy them. “Could it be Deer hunter? I’ll then ask later. “No John, it’s a story about Vietnam and Russian Roulette… not Bambi …. are you drunk?”

No not drunk, but I do have many questions. For example, I want to know why French distributors love putting the word “maman” in their titles, even though most of the time the films themselves are about kids, not mothers. Look Who’s Talking was named Allo Maman c’est Bebe. Home Alone was born Maman j’ai rate l’Avion. And even their offspring, Look Who’s Talking Too and Home Alone 2 still held on to Maman – Allo Maman c’est encore Moi and Maman j’ai encore rate l’Avion. Just looking at the titles, I see a fairly simple translation, so why bring Maman into all of this? The only explanation I have is that distributors are experimenting with a form of subliminal marketing, their goal – to target not the kids, but all the mamans buying tickets. What better way to get maman to the cinema than put her name on the title? Especially a title that finishes with an exclamation point like Maman! – As if they want each poster to scream at mothers as they pass by. And then why stop there? Why not go all they way and retitle the films. Allo maman here’s the ticket window! or Maman it is good the popcorn non?”

But my favorite recently has to be Brokeback Mountain which I assumed would simply be retitled Brokeback Mountain or perhaps Mont Brokeback ou Brokeback Montagne. But no. It’s The Secret of Brokeback Mountain. All of sudden with the title change, they’ve turned a gay cowboy love affair movie into some suspense filled thriller…one with a (shhhh don’t tell anybody) … secret. I could see the trailer now. “Both men share a secret. A secret neither of them knows. A secret, audiences this fall will be shocked by……The Secret of Brokeback Mountain…the cowboys this time….. are gay.”

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This isn’t the first time the French have over embellished. Remember Notting Hill? In France they needed to tell you before you go that Julia Roberts has a Coup de foudre (love at first sight) à Notting Hill. Die hard II. Again not enough. You needed to know Bruce Willis has 58 minutes pour vivre!!!(58 minutes to live!!) Thanks for ruining the movie for me guys.

But for every French over embellishment, there’s the equally annoying American understatement. 37°2 le Matin (37.2 degrees Celsius in the morning) I guess was too poetic for the US market, plus they don’t do Celsius, so out came Betty Blue. With a simple name change à l’américaine, Jean-Jacques Beneix’s tragic love story that degenerates because the protagonist becomes slowly psychotic is now a charming tale about Betty, who’s got a case of the blues. “She’s blue. That’s all.”

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Sometimes the Americans will simplify the title so much, you wonder if they even got the context. When Le Diner de Cons (Dinner with idiots) was retitled The Dinner Game, my first thought was that the translator could have even been one of the guests invited in the film, because obviously he didn’t get the joke. I could just imagine him with his wife, “Honey it’s just a simple game my friends play when they invite me over for dinner.” “But sweetie, if you can’t name the con, doesn’t that usually mean you are the con?”

And then there are those weird instances when the French will leave the title in English, but change it into another English title. Varsity Blues for some reason became American Boys. Apparently Not Another Teen Movie was better as Sex Academy. Anger Management; hey let’s call it Mad Control. Odd.

 Keeping Lost in Translation the same was smart. Much smarter than what the Portuguese did, when they gave it the title O amor é um lugar estranho which basically means (“Love is a strange place.”)

And yes, sometimes, I admit, the translation is needed, like with the recent film about Truman Capote, which in the US was simply entitled Capote. Now capote in French means condom, and obviously, Condom is not a super title for a film about an American literary figure. (Just like Diaphragm maybe isn’t a great title for a film about Marguerite Duras.) The unambiguous Truman Capote is a perfect translation and thank god they didn’t feel obliged to name it The Secret of Truman’s Capote.

 I guess I’ll never get the real answers to why films are renamed the way they are. Sometimes I wish there was some sort of Wizard of OZ, oops sorry Magicien d’Oz behind all of this. I picture him like a little gnome, working away tirelessly in his Man Names Film office. I’d visit with him and he’d explain to me the process for retitling movies, and if I were nice, perhaps he’d show me the machine that retitles the Mickey Rourke films.

Instead, it’s my poor wife who’s had to bear the brunt of my never-ending questions. Long conversations during drives through the Loire Valley aren’t about the environs, but why Who’s the Boss is renamed Madame is Served. Late into the night, I harass her and her sisters on why Charlie’s Angles became Droles de Dames and how Dukes of Hazzard could possibly be Sheriff Scare me. Nobody seems to have an answer. And perhaps that’s the beauty of it all. You don’t need to know why the Man Names the Film or if the Film Names the Man. It’s all a big secret, and it’s coming to a theater near you.

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