What Jesse said:
[Unfortunately, I can’t remember what Jesse said about Ridicule. He definitely liked it, and he was very indignant at my hesitation to spend an evening trying to keep up with subtitles. But at some point over the last year, while I was coming up with excuses to avoid watching the film, I managed to misplace the email with his thoughts. Oops. Maybe he’ll send it to me again later so I can update this. Update: Jesse re-sent his thoughts!]
Ridicule: I really enjoyed this French-language movie about the triumph of style over substance, or, how being witty and socially adept was the primary concern of bored French aristocracy in the 1700’s. Some pretty funny moments and amazing cinematography.
I am really not a fan of subtitles – for two important reasons. The first reason is everything that I miss while I am reading. Dialog in a film is usually important, obviously, but the visual is even more so – in fact, if it wasn’t crucial we’d all still be listening to radio. For me, the opportunity cost of subtitles is simply too high for anything other than documentaries. The second reason is that subtitles are regularly plagued by errors. Unless written directly by the film writers, subtitles tend to introduce changes to the meaning of dialog, and often these changes are significant.
This is why I put off watching Ridicule, and as it turns out, I was right. Both of my concerns became reality during a painful hour and forty-five minutes.
Ridicule is supposedly about wit in late 18th century France. I don’t know anything about 18th century France, but Jesse will agree that I know all about wit. Wit is complicated. Wit is precise. It requires a high level of intelligence and vocabulary from both speaker and listener. Most importantly, for a phrase to be considered witty, there needs to be agreement on the meaning of the words. There can’t be ambiguity in any of it, unless the ambiguity is intentional.
And therein lies the problem. I have no idea if any of the characters are witty in French, but if they are then that wit was completely lost in the translation of the subtitles I had to read.
Not only was the subtitled dialog distinctly lacking in wit, I even found it incredibly difficult to follow the story. Actually, that’s an understatement – I literally have no idea what the plot was about. An old man gets peed on. Some people flounder around a swamp to catch fish by hand. Someone steals a shoe and throws it in a fireplace. A guy hangs himself. All the while, people claim to be witty. That’s all I got.
Maybe Ridicule makes sense to people who can make sense of French. But it did not make sense to me, and I think the subtitles might have been written by this guy.