The Monday Intertitle: Loose Lip Synch


There’s a lot to enjoy in Alain Resnais’s PAS SUR LAS BOUCHE (I’m slowly familiarising myself with his post-sixties career, aided by the fact that Fiona seems to enjoy all of them, despite never having cottoned to MARIENBAD.) In fact, what is there NOT to enjoy in it? But most enjoyable of all may be Lambert Wilson (above, right).

Lambert is playing Mr. Eric Thompson (NOT Emma Thompson’s dad, the one who re-voiced The Magic Roundabout for the BBC), an American in Paris, and with his exquise comic timing he is partaking in a proud French tradition — the unconvincing American. For while his attempts to speak French clumsily and with an American intonation are quite good, they’re not exactly believable, and that adds to their hilarity.

The first French talkie was LES TROIS MASQUES (1929), a Pathe-Natan shot at Pinewood by special arrangement with John Maxwell, the Scottish lawyer-turned-exhibitor-turned-producer who had been working with Alfred Hitchock. Pathe head Bernard Natan seems to have gotten along well with Scots — his TV company was co-founded with John Logie Baird. But LES TROIS MASQUES is a dreadful film, stilted and static in the manner associated with the worst of early talkies. It’s as if British reserve somehow soaked into the celluloid and stifled any Gallic joie de vivre.


Much, much better is CHIQUÉ, a forty-five minute comedy set in a Montmartre dive and exploiting that old joke about the American tourist who doesn’t realize the apache dance is an act. Adrien Lamy plays the American, who says things like “Pas Anglais! Amurrican I am!” He’s wonderfully, hilariously awful. The film is everything its predecessor is not — fluid, rhythmic, pacy, atmospheric, alive. Pierre Colombier directed it, and went on to make Pathe-Natan’s best comedies.

Another early precedent for Lambert’s perf must be the 1931 film version of the same operetta, co-directed by Nicolas Rimsky, who also plays Thompson. A Russian playing an American in France — I assume he’s enjoyable, but I haven’t tracked down the film.

My faulty memory tells me there are other examples of Frenchmen playing Americans, also Brits playing Americans, and also Americans who aren’t actors playing Americans, but I can’t seem to put a name to them. Let me know if you think of any!


Everything in the Resnais film is in quotes — a theatrical piece from a bygone age performed, archly, on artificial sets by artistes who disappear by slow dissolve each time they start to exit a scene, with a sound midway between applause and a batting of wings. Such artifice courts sterility, but in Resnais’s hands it’s both funny, the way it would have been on stage in 1925, and something else — a scientific experiment in temporal bilocation, perhaps.

9 Responses to “The Monday Intertitle: Loose Lip Synch”

  1. Not that it makes any difference to anything you’ve written, but I believe Lambert Wilson is half-French, half-Irish. Also always thought he was bilingual in French and English, though when I tried to check this out just now, I couldn’t find confirmation of it. But it just made me wonder whether his unconvincing American accent might not have been deliberate.

  2. By the way, for the least convincing American accent by a British actor EVER, I vote Kenneth Branagh (this film is hilarious, by the way. When it came out, critics compared him to Welles and Hitchcock).

  3. Wilhelmenia Higgins Fernandez’ “Kee Et Voo?” in Diva?

  4. Wilson has made English-language films and speaks good English –he’s in Julia and Five Days One Summer. I felt his accent here was a reference to this proud history of fake yanks which I can’t quite remember. Whether he deliberately made it worse than it had to be or not, the very fact of Resnais casting a Franco-Irishman suggests he was looking for a stylised effect — which is what’s been written anyway.

    WW Fernandez speaks French with the authentic awkwardness of an American, and American with the authentic awkwardness of a non-actor. “Un-bee-leave-a-bill!”

    Oh, Branagh’s American is not just a dodgy accent, but an actor ACTING American as hard as he can. chewing gum and assembling a whole playlist of various US stars’ mannerisms and putting it on shuffle. It’s a toss-up whether this is more or less cringeworthy than his Woody Allen impersonation. In this one, he stands out particularly against Andy Garcia’s unfussy, unshowy turn, a masterclass in screen acting which Branagh apparently didn’t learn anything from.

    The Welles-Hitch comparison made sense as an analysis of the obvious, clunking INTENT behind Dead Again. He really wanted to be those guys. But he’d already screwed the film by casting both himself and Emma Thompson (that name again!) in dual roles, neither of which either was suited for.

  5. Lambert is definitely bi-lingual. he’s a marvelous actor and a key member of the Alain Resnais company. So key in fact that he told me Resnais called him up to apologize when he discovered that he didn’t have a part for Lambert in his latest film. (He also tell me Resnais is a great Bob Hope enthusiast. Whodathunkit?) Several years back Lambert put out an album of Broadway Ballads: Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Kurt Weill and of course Sondheim. He’s French, he’s out, he’s gorgeous, he sings Sondheim — IOW, everything I want in a man!

  6. About the funny screen cap you selected with Arditi equiped with horns (i.e. cuckold), it seems Alain Resnais pinched the idea in a very clever Léonce Perret comedy called LES BRETELLES (THE SUSPENDERS, 1913). Check the picture on my Blog:
    Regarding Lambert Wilson, he is indeed half-French and half-Irish and studied in RADA. His father was the famous French stage and movie actor Georges Wilson.

  7. La Faustin Says:

    C’est la reine des archives, là-haut …

  8. Lambert’s first screen appearance is with his father Georges in Jacques Demy’s Lady Oscar. They play soldiers.

  9. …and by coincidence I know a story about Georges. Richard Lester cast him as the commander of the musketeers, but “I hadn’t done my homework. I thought ‘With a name like that he MUST have some English’ but in fact he couldn’t speak it at all.” Lester fed him his lines from offscreen and then dubbed him with the very English Michael Hordern.

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