advanced conversational french

Advanced French for Film Buffs: 3 Cult Classics to Teach You Conversational Nuance

Argot (slang) is part of the lingo of Monsieur Tout-le-monde (the Average Joe). 

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to learn early on when studying French that “police” is policier in “correct” French, but flic in argot.

Verlan, which is taken from l’envers (meaning “reverse”) and entails switching up the syllables of words, is a bit trickier, but totally manageable (and pretty fun) once you get the hang of it.

Once your ears are attuned to verlan and other types of everyday speech, however, taking your French to the next level requires practice with real dialogue.

There’s no better way to do this than with French movies, but more specifically with French cult classics.

Hopefully, this already sounds intriguing, but let’s explore the reasons behind it before diving in.

Why Learn Advanced Conversational French with Cult Classics?

So why cult classics (and not just “classic” classics), you ask?

Well, while classic films in any language, like “La Belle et La Bête” (Beauty and the Beast) and “The Wizard of Oz,” tend to touch upon universal themes, cult classics are often chock-full of culturally-specific references and therefore tend to have a more localized (and often highly devoted) fan-base. They are full of double sens (double meanings) and jeux de mots (wordplay). You know—rhyming, alliteration and all that jazz you learned in English class.

In the Anglophone world, films like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Pulp Fiction” have acquired cult status. We all have that person in our lives who endlessly references “The Princess Bride” (and has memorized every line of dialogue)You know (or maybe are) the type. So let’s take this phenomenon and look at how to turn it to your advantage in learning French.

How to Get the Most out of Advanced Conversational Dialogue in Movies

1. Turn off the subtitles. When films have a lot of cultural references or make heavy use of specific dialects, the subtitles tend to be rather general and the nuance of the dialogue tends to get lost. If you turn off the subtitles altogether, instead of reading the film, you’ll be able to listen more closely to not only what is said but also how it’s said.

2. Do your dictées (dictations) and translate. Take a 30-second passage from a film and transcribe it. After you’ve finished the dictée, translate the passage into equally conversational English.

3. Mix in conversational practice with FluentUTo fill in those times when you don’t feel like watching an entire film, and to keep exercising all your French vocab bases, give FluentU’s advanced videos a whirl.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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These digestible clips make authentic French conversations more accessible, helping you practice whenever you need it. You can learn about the program’s features in their entirety by signing up for a free trial.

4. Take note. Make flashcards with the unfamiliar words and expressions you come across. As an advanced learner, why not make French-French cards? Taking an example from above, you’d put policier on one side of the card and flic on the other. When reviewing the cards, come up with an example sentence and say it aloud.

5. Get fancy. After you’ve worked out the meaning of a line of dialogue, try converting it to the French registre soutenu (the formal register).  

To get you started, I’ve picked out three awesome French cult classics and will show you répliques (lines of dialogue) from each below. Just be aware that, as with some English-language cult classics, these may tend toward the less-PC and include more “adult” subject matter such as violence, racism, etc.

So are you ready to get serious about learning with advanced French dialogue? Here we go!

Advanced Conversational French: 3 Epic Cult Films to Teach You the Talk

1. “La Haine” (“Hate”)

La Haine (The Criterion Collection)

As a warm up, let’s start with the 1995 film “La Haine,” directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, that has a cult following in and out of France.

“La Haine,” which has a gritty, black-and-white aesthetic, depicts racial tensions in France. The film is set in the Muguets housing project in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, a banlieue parisienne (Parisian suburb)

“La Haine” takes place the night after a series of riots that resulted in a police officer’s brutalizing of a young Arab man held in custody named Abdel Aziz Shokair. The film follows a trio comprised of Abdel’s friends: Hubert (who’s black), Vinz (who’s Jewish) and Saïd (who’s Arab).

The temperamental Vinz wants nothing more than to avenge the violence that Abdel experienced. Hubert, on the other hand, who’s waiting for the day he can get out of the projects, wants to lay low and not provoke the police. Saïd, caught in the middle, takes up the role of peacekeeper.

In terms of the film’s dialogue, not only is it rather fast, but it’s heavy on argot and verlan, making it great for picking up new vocab.

Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the extremely poignant “La Haine” also has several touching, funny moments, which provide comic relief.

Here’s an exchange that takes place between Vinz and Saïd (starting at around 43:37):

Saïd: Eh Vinz, tu vas vraiment fumer un keuf si Abdel il meurt ?
“Hey Vinz, will you really kill (or beat up) a cop if Abdel dies?”

Normally, the verb fumer means “to smoke,” and since “La Haine” is about the aftermath of a riot, it wouldn’t be completely tiré par les cheveux (a stretch) to think that Vinz is literally talking about setting a cop on fire. However, fumer in this argotique (slangy) context means to faire du mal (to hurt), perhaps with an arme à feu (firearm). Get it? Keuf is verlan of flic, meaning cop.

Vinz: Bah ouais qu’est c’tu crois, tu veux être le prochain rebeu à te faire fumer dans un commissariat ?
“Well, yeah, what do you expect, do you want to be the next Arab to get killed in a police station?”

Okay, let’s take a look at the first half of Vinz’s response to Saïd: Tu veux être le prochain rebeu seems straightforward enough, until you get to rebeu. Your first instinct might be to pull out your dictionary and look it up.

After all, rebeu looks like something you’d see in a Zola or Flaubert novel. Rebeu, however, means arabe (Arab). It’s verlan of beur, which is actually, in turn, verlan of arabe, making rebeu a doubly verlan-ed word!

In the next part of the sentence, we see se faire fumer (figuratively speaking, to kill) which is the pronominal form of fumer (figuratively, to kill). Some synonyms are se faire frapper (to get beat up) and, in more formal French, se faire sanctionner (to get punished).  

Saïd: Non.

Vinz: Bah moi non plus.
“Well, me neither.”

Saïd: Toi non plus tu veux pas être le prochain rebeu à te faire fumer dans un commissariat !?
“You don’t want to be the next Arab to get killed in a police station, either!?”

Getting the subtle humor and subversiveness of this exchange requires knowledge of the perceived dynamics of racial identity in French society: Black, Jewish and Arab people often live alongside one another, and yet a strict division of their cultural identities is often maintained. Here, however, when Vinz, a Jew, says “me neither,” he puts himself in the position of his Arab friends, Abdel and Saïd.

2. “La Cité de la peur” (“The City of Fear”)

La Cite de la peur [Region 2]

To give you some background, this 1994 comedy film was directed by Alain Barbérian and the script was written by a sketch comedy trio known as Les Nuls. 

“La Cité de la peur” takes place during the prestigious 5-day Cannes Film Festival where Odile Deray, a press agent, presents a new film, “Red is Dead.” While the film itself is pas terrible (not so great), at each screening the projectionist is killed, using the same tactics as the villain in “Red is Dead.” The murders that surround the film, rather than the film itself, are what drive the film’s popularity.

“La Cité de la peur” chronicles the misadventures and hijinks of Odile, Simon Jérémi, the star of “Red is Dead,” and Serge Karamazov, an incompetent security guard. While the film is full of very specific French cultural references, it also parodies and spoofs American blockbusters like “Pretty Woman,” Love Story” and “The Terminator.” There are also several cameos from French and American actors and directors.

Here’s an exchange that I love (the starting point is 36:36):

Odile: Bon Simon, va falloir m’le vendre ce film ! Trouver des gimmicks, des phrases choc…
“Okay Simon, you have to sell me this movie. Find some gimmicks, shock phrases…”

Simon: Quel genre ?
“What kind (of gimmicks)?”

Odile: Genre heu… Bah heu… Genre des phrases choc, quoi…
“The kind…uh…well…uh…shock phrases, that kind of thing…”

Simon: Quel genre ?
“What genre (as in, comedy, tragedy, horror)?”

Odile: Genre des phrases choc !!
“Shock phrases, that kind of thing!!”

Simon: Ah.

Talk about a dialogue de sourds (literally, “a dialogue of deaf people”)! In French, un dialogue de sourds refers to what happens when two people who think they’re talking about the same thing can’t seem to understand each other.

This exchange relies on the different meanings and usages of genreOn the one hand, it can be used in the same way it is in English, to refer to a particular style, class or type of art form. The genre of “La Cité de la peur” is comedy, for example. On the other hand, it can be used in the expression quelque chose du genrewhich translates to “something of that sort” or “that kind of thing.” As in:

Mets quelque chose (du) genre classe pour la teuf chez eux.
“Wear something classy for the party at their place.”

Genre can also be used as a synonym for à peu prèswhich means “approximately” or “more or less”:

Ça fait genre trois ans que j’habite dans ce bled.
“It’s been about three years that I’ve lived in this neighborhood.”

By the way, bledborrowed from Arabic, is a familiar word for quartier (neighborhood). It can also mean “hometown” or “home country,” and is often used this way.

Whew! Going back to “La Cité de la peur”: Simon switches between the two meanings of genre. Odile, on the other hand, understands only one throughout. She understands Simon’s use of genre to refer to “that kind of thing.”

3. “C’est arrivé près de chez vous” (Literally, “It happened near where you live”)

Man Bites Dog (The Criterion Collection)

Okay, now for a doozy.

This one isn’t French—it’s Belgian.

“C’est arrivé près de chez vous” (released in the Anglophone world under the title “Man Bites Dog”) is a 1992 dark comedy mockumentary (a fiction film shot in documentary style).

“C’est arrivé près de chez vous” was directed by Benoît Poelvoorde, who also plays the lead role of Ben, a…let’s say…”eccentric” serial killer, who allows a camera crew comprised of Rémy Delvaux (who wrote the film’s actual script) and André Bonzel (the actual film’s producer), to follow him around. As the film progresses, the crew takes part in the killings along with Ben.

This is not a film for the faint of heart, but if you can get past the macabre details, Ben’s perceptiveness, his encyclopedic knowledge, his penchant for architecture and his stream-of-consciousness style rants make for really rich dialogue that artfully mixes slang with more formal French.

Take this monologue (starts at 1:07 in this YouTube clip—in the full-length film it starts at 15:20), known as the leçon d’urbanisme (city planning lesson), in which Ben is leading the crew through a residential neighborhood:

Regarde ! Qu’est-ce qui te choque la première fois que tu vois ça ? La première chose qui te saute aux yeux ? Les briques ! C’est les briques rouges ! Et le rouge c’est la couleur de quoi ? Le rouge c’est la couleur du sang, le rouge c’est la couleur des Indiens, c’est la couleur de la violence ! Hein ? Alors que le fléau de notre société, et tout le monde s’accorde à le dire, est la violence, ils vont te foutre des briques rouges ! Mais le rouge c’est aussi la couleur du vin mon vieux, et vin, qui dit vin dit pots-de-vin! Parce que tout ça c’est magouilles et compagnie, c’est politico euh… Je-ne-sais-pas-trop-quoi mais tu vois ça c’est des histoires de fric ! Et ça, ça me désole. 

Okay, let’s break this down, shall we?

Ben is getting warmed up in the first two sentences, so they’re relatively easy to understand.

Regarde ! Qu’est-ce qui te choque la première fois que tu vois ça ? La première chose qui te saute aux yeux ?
“Look! What shocks you the first time you see that (building)? The first thing that jumps out at you?”

It’s worth noting that choquer and sauter aux yeux, literally “jump to your eyes,” are synonyms.

Les briques ! C’est les briques rouges ! Et le rouge c’est la couleur de quoi ?
“The bricks! It’s the red bricks! And what is red the color of?”

Then the free associations begin:

Le rouge c’est la couleur du sang, le rouge c’est la couleur des Indiens, c’est la couleur de la violence ! Hein ?
“Red is the color of blood, red is the color of Indians, it’s the color of violence! You see?”

Alors que le fléau de notre société, et tout le monde s’accorde à le dire, est la violence, ils vont te foutre des briques rouges !
“Whereas the curse of our society, and everyone is ready to say it, is violence, they (the urban planners) put up red bricks!”

Here we see alors que, arguably one of the most versatile conjunctions in French, followed by la fléau de notre sociétéIn French, fléau is often used figuratively to mean “plague,” “curse” or “bane,” as in “the bane of my existence.” We then see the verb foutrewhich is a très familier (very informal) way of saying mettre (to put or to place). 

Mais le rouge c’est aussi la couleur du vin mon vieux, et vin, qui dit vin dit pots-de-vin!
“But red is also the color of wine, my friend. And when we talk about wine we also talk about bribes!”

Here, Ben continues to riff off the color red and of course, wine. From vin (wine), he makes the leap to pots-de-vinwhich are not pots of wine but bribes.

Ben then concludes:

Parce que tout ça c’est magouilles et compagnie, c’est politico euh… Je-ne-sais-pas-trop-quoi mais tu vois ça c’est des histoires de fric !
“Because all of that is scheming and the like (cheating, forgery, for example); it’s politico…uhh…I-don’t-really-know-what but you see, it’s all about money!”

Et ça, ça me désole.
“And that makes me sad.”

Imagine! Of all the things that could make Ben, a serial killer, sad, the red bricks of an apartment complex are what manage do the trick!

So you see (no pun intended—okay, maybe a little)?

Learning conversational French at the advanced level isn’t hard.

Pop in a few French cult classics, and in no time people will think you’re a native!

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