Subject to the Subjunctive 2: Recadrage

Oh… Il faut que j’y vais demain,” interrupted Marguerite, suddenly reminding herself, in the midst of our conversation, of an appointment she had the following day.

One of twelve children and, years later, the single working mother of four, Marguerite has juggled her share of doubts and fear and fought many battles in her life. She would have made an exceptional Chevalière du Subjonctif, had she used it properly, let alone known it existed.

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At 80, she shares her life with Eugène, a close family friend, and on the day of our visit, the happy eighty-second birthday boy. The rounds of Riesling toasts to his health were not to blame for her jarring mistake. Both she and Eugène grew up the children of working-class families in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, a small town in the heart of Alsace. The object of a tug-of-war between France and Germany, the region changed hands four times in recent history, from 1870 to 1945, and was French for a small third of the seventy-five years.

As is the case for most Alsatians their age, Marguerite and Eugene’s native tongue is our dialect, an off-spring of the German spoken in southern Germany. The little French they spoke as children — a mere act of defiance towards the World War II occupiers — never grew strong enough to dethrone l’alsacien. They entered adult life proud French citizens but foreigners to the French language.

 

Marguerite’s blunder is a marker of social class, region, and time: It is typically made by working-class Alsatians born in the 1930s of parents who were German citizens. What she and Matthias Schoenaerts happen to have in common is language upbringing. Although “misidentified as French,” the actor is Belgian of Flemish origin and a Dutch native speaker, in a country where French is spoken by half its people.

That he missed — and probably ignores — a basic subjunctive structure in Rust and Bone is startling, no question, but his foreign background — in both real and fictitious life, as his character’s first name, Ali, may suggest — won the empathy of the FSL teacher and Alsatian I am. Linda is right, he “has behaved like an animal.” Now does his grammar faux-pas make him sound like one? Not to my ears, at least … but to director Jacques Audiard’s? Did he choose to ignore the actor’s slip or was it actually part of the script? Whichever the case, he seems to think subjunctive mishaps as convincing as belly fat — which he insisted Schoenaerts put on for the role — to portray working-class guys.

All right, assez tourné autour du pot, time for the recadrage announced in the title — though nowhere near as firm as Le Chat’s. I admit to being shocked by a subjunctive gone amiss as much as any grossière faute de grammaire, but I can’t say that the proper use of the mode strikes me as powerful. The punch of Cotillard’s words comes from composure and insight, not grammar — unless those ears of mine are no longer to be trusted.

Worth further talk, wouldn’t you say, Linda?

Rendez-vous next month for episode 3 of our subjunctive series!

— Claire

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