‘French in Action’: Now on an Internet near you

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‘French in Action,’ a 1987 public-television, total-immersion language course in the form of an annotated romance -- there are fellow fans, I know, already shaking in excitement from these few words -- is now available online in its 52-episode entirety, for free. (You can also buy it on DVD, if you are rich, and it is bootlegged higgledy-piggledy on YouTube.) Produced by Annenberg/CPB (whose Annenberg Learner site hosts the series) along with Boston’s WGBH and Yale and Wellesley universities, it is a pedagogical romcom whose secret weapon is a cast so incredibly good-looking that you really, really want to be able to talk to them. It is learning by desire.

I watched much of ‘French in Action’ around the time it first appeared and I was still dizzily under the spell of my first trip to Paris -- a spell I am still under, frankly -- and interested in learning the language, if only to read ‘Tintin’ in the original. I wrote briefly about the series in 2008, when I discovered it rerunning at 4 a.m. on the LAUSD-connected PBS station KLCS. (I’ve kept several episodes on my DVR since, in case of emergency.) Even without understanding much French, it’s entertaining as a kind of audio-visual collage and an evocation of a time and place.

Here is what I wrote then: The first eight minutes of each episode are taken up with what amounts to a serial romantic comedy, featuring Robert (Charles Mayer), a young American with a bad sense of a direction, and a French art student, Mireille, played by Valérie Allain. The remaining two-thirds are a kind of expanded recap of the first, as Prof. Pierre Capretz, the man behind the system, helps you understand what you heard, using clips of old French films (not so old at the time), TV commercials and cartoons from the pages of (someplace like but not necessarily) Paris Match. With its beautiful young people and Paris locations, it suggests a language course as directed by Eric Rohmer -- indeed, Rohmer’s “L’amour l’apres-midi” figured in a recent episode. As with many things I think are mine alone, it has a considerable cult, much of it worshipfully devoted to the stunning Allain. (Jean-Luc Godard used her, nakedly, in “Armide,” his portion of the messy opera anthology film “Aria”). The fan site Mystère et boules de gomme is the place to go to know all.

In 2010, Yale hosted a 25th anniversary reunion -- I suppose they were counting from the production or the inspiration and not from the date of the original broadcast, but why wait? -- at which Capretz and his stars appeared. Amid various panels and presentations, Mayer and Allain ad-libbed an accidental meeting between their old characters, who have much to catch up on.


Je trouve cela émouvant, moi!

-- Robert Lloyd