I have always been obsessed with words. I learned to talk long before I could walk; I haven’t stopped talking since. I read things and write things, and I’ve dedicated my academic life to studying English words and the stories that we have created from them. I am a words person. For someone so obsessed with words, it may come as a surprise that my favourite film is in a language that I barely understand.
Amelie is the esoteric and Technicolor love child of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and screenwriter Guillaume Laurant. Released in 2001, it tells the story of Amelie Poulain, an ordinary young woman and the extraordinary ways she interacts with her world. It’s a love story, a coming of age story, and a ghost story all at once. It’s a film I’ve seen more times than I can count, and it’s a film that speaks to my world view possibly more than any other piece of media.
Oh yeah, and it’s a film with dialogue that’s completely spoken in French.
Like most foreign-language films released to primarily English-speaking audiences, Amelie is accompanied by English subtitles that correspond to the French dialogue. These subtitles are, of course, there to help the non-French speaking viewer understand the film and follow its plot.
The presence of subtitles in Amelie is something I absolutely have taken for granted. For me, as a monolingual English-speaker, the subtitles are an integral part of the film. But they are not an original part of the film. Jeunet and Laurant did not write the screenplay anticipating that their words would eventually be translated into English – and that certain aspects of their original vision would be lost in the process of translation.
When searching for a way to defamiliarize a familiar film, I was immediately draw to the concept of translation and how one’s understanding – or lack of understanding – of a particular language affects the viewing experience.
What would happen if I viewed Amelie without the English subtitles, completely in French? How would the viewing experience change by removing part of the film that was crucial for my understanding?
Watching a familiar story, but without the ability to understand the dialogue completely was an alienating experience. Even though know I the plot of the film, and what lines should go where, being unable to place them exactly was unsettling. It felt like part of the story was missing.
In some ways, removing the subtitles created a kind of surreality within the universe of the film. It was at once both familiar and strange – like the world of Amelie that I know, but also unrecognizable. Although Amelie is by no means a surrealist film, removing the subtitles creates a surreal effect.
Perhaps the most striking thing was that removing the subtitles made me realize just how much I tend to focus on words and dialogue when viewing films. After all, I’m a writer and an English major – I love words. And while dialogue is a very important part of many films, it is by no means the most important part. As I am learning, film is both an audio and a visual medium – neither aspect is necessarily more important than the other, just different.
Not being able to understand the dialogue of the film forced me to turn my attention to the other aspects of the film, such as cinematography, music choice, and the overall mise en scene of the movie. Even though I’ve viewed the film many times before, I picked up on visual cues and subtle details that I did not notice before.
The whole exercise makes me wonder about the nature of viewing foreign language films as a whole. The experience that I have watching Amelie with subtitles is completely different than that of someone who is fluent in French.
There are issues of translation – certain words, phrases, and jokes are impossible to translate from French to English, and vice-versa. There are issues of cultural context – French society is different from Canadian or American society.
As a foreign film, Amelie exists in a duality – almost like a doppelganger, but significantly less sinister. There’s the French version, and the French-with-English-subtitles version. I would argue that the addition of subtitles is significant.
Are they the same film? Versions of the same film? Is watching a film with subtitles a diminished experience, or does it add an extra dimension to the experience?
Ultimately, I walked away from my viewing experience with more questions than answers. But that’s okay. Alternative viewing experiences are supposed to make us ask questions and to view the familiar In new and critical ways.
When it comes to subtitles and foreign films, there will always be things lost in translation when you go from one language to another. However, what we lose in translation is made up for in the valuable insights gained through an alternative perspective on a familiar film.