Friday, November 25, 2011

the incoherent accents of Hugo


Saw Hugo. It's more for big kids than little ones, imho. I enjoyed it and found its retro-whimsy entertaining, but the 3D is frustrating for someone who wears prescription glasses. It has a talented cast of veteran British actors who don't get nearly enough screen time (Kingsley may get a best supporting actor nod come Oscar time). Also, I'm an unabashed Chloë Moretz fan, and she is every bit as good in this film as I expected. She is one of the best teen actors in history and she keeps getting better.  She has the facial expressiveness of Brando, and I don't say that lightly. Unfortunately, the film rests on the performance of its lead, Asa Butterfield, who is, sorry to say, flat and unconvincing as the orphan genius tinkerer Hugo. Partly this is because his dialogue is awful and clunky. No one talks that way, especially not a scared orphan. He also lack the facial expressiveness of Moretz but is in constant juxtaposition with her, so he pales even the greater in comparison.

For a little linguistic aside (since this is The Lousy Linguist, not The Lousy Film Critic), the film is set in Paris, but everyone has an English accent, including the Atlanta born American actress Moretz. Rumor has it she auditioned for Scorsese with the accent and he didn't know she was American (though I find this hard to believe since she has been a well known actress for several years now).

Moretz did an acceptable job affecting the British accent, as far as I could tell, though I'm not that good at spotting phonies unless they're really bad. I did detect the occasional break, though. More to the point, why is everyone speaking with a British accent in Paris!!!

Accents in movies are a storyteller's way to set the mood, so to speak. I find it to be one of the most incoherent, yet successful, tricks in the movie biz. When Hollywood makes a movie about WW2, the Nazi's all have German accents.

But here's the linguistically incoherent part. Back then, during WW2, when Nazis spoke to each other ... they didn't have accents! Not to each others' ears. When French people speak to each other in French, they don't sound foreign to each other. They sound like native speakers. Yet, Hollywood (and other film markets too, I'm sure) has decided that "sounding foreign" sets the mood for a film set in a foreign land.  Even more incoherent is when film makers think they are being more "authentic" by having actors speak in foreign accents, when, linguistically speaking, this is about as INauthentic as you can get. When native speakers of any language speak to each other, they don't sound foreign. Yet, when audiences watch films set in foreign lands, the key to making the audience feel the sense of authenticity, is to make the actors sound foreign. Cognitive dissonance anyone?

10 comments:

nick said...

"But here's the linguistically incoherent part. Back then, during WW2, when Nazis spoke to each other ... they didn't have accents! Not to each others' ears."

But as you say, the point of the accents is for us, the audience. And to us, they do sound foreign. Within the reality of the film, all is well and we can pretend they are speaking German to each other. Yes, it would be nice if everyone in films spoke the language they were supposed to be speaking, but I don't think it's as dissonant as you say. (And I also agree that it's annoying when a British accent is used as the "default foreign")

nick said...

I guess what I am saying is, what sounds more incoherent? Nazis speaking with German accents, or with native American English accents? It is clearly the latter, as they are not supposed so sound native to an American audience.

Chris said...

nick, yep, fair points. It's interesting how story tellers have to think about these things to get the audience to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. Part of the magic of movie making.

That's also part of the story in Hugo, as well. The early days of movie making when film makers had to figure these things out on-the-fly.

Luke said...

The English accents bothered me for the first 1/4 of the movie, and then I had to just accept it (rather, ignore it). It just made no sense to me, and, frankly, was distracting as the movie clearly was intended to submerse the viewer into 1920's Paris. The only thing I can think of is that Americans are more familiar with an English accent than a French one, since we share more cinematic culture with the English (especially in trying to train the young actors to speak in an accent, probably way easier to go English accent).

richardelguru said...

Did you find it interesting that everything written in the movie was actually written in French?
Having all the displayed signage in Fr. isn't remarkable but when the children were seen doing some research, the book they were reading was also in French. So, no accents for the ears, but for the eyes....
Indeed not since the first Harry Potter, when a scene was shot in both Bringlish and 'Merican with a book having 'philosopher' in one and in the other 'sorcerer', has so much attention been paid to the written word in a movie. :-)

Chris said...

Richard, I hadn't noticed that and I didn't know about the Harry Potter change. Weird.

Unknown said...

While I've not seen Hugo, it always bothered me that (and I'm going to spell this wrong) the Thernardiesrs (the innkeepers) in the stage productions of Les Miserables always have some sort of bastardized cockney thing going on.

Unknown said...

I've not seen Hugo, but I've always been bothered that the (I'll probably spell this wrong) Thernardiers - the innkeepers - in the stage productions of Les Miserables always have some sort of bastardized Cockney thing going on.

Mafalda said...

Aha ! this makes me think of B&W French films during the war : everyone spoke French ! but the British spoke it with a British accent, the Germans with a German accent, the Americans, with hum... a British accent too ! Always found it very funny (and ridiculous)

dizzy5 said...

The movie "The Train" suffered from French and German characters speaking French and German accented English to represent those same characters speaking real French and German with the leading "French-man" Burt Lancaster speaking American accented English which was supposed to be French. At one point the Nazi soldiers shoot the breeze (here, not literally) in "German-English" with two Resistance fighters who are disguised in Werhmacht uniforms. So as to maintain their dangerous charade, the Frenchmen, who only speak "French-English" and not "German-English" but must answer somehow to avoid discovery, grin wordlessly, shrug and roll their eyes, but of course are desperate not to speak out loud. The conversation is tense but short so our lads get away with it. I'd say the two mugged in wordless stereotypical Jacquerie fashion, pulling faces and all that, except that would give them away, too. "Germans" don't mug and wave their hands around, Gallic style, allowing a brief moué to answer all the questions of Man and explain the whole human condition, do they? Mais non! I mean, "Nicht !" Or just, "No!" Arrest them! They are mugging in..in.."French!!" And if they had slipped, what would come out? Movie "French-English"- or maybe they would try to fool the soldiers with their high school German, which to the Germans, in the story, would sound exactly like Resistance fighters trying to speak German (and they'd be caught) but we in Cloudland
would hear French-accented English, the only language we ever here them speak. Whew. Very inside.
I almost cared about this stuff until the director got the steam trains to start crashing together and the aerial bombardment of the marshalling yards. Beyond cool, way beyond, in 1968 or whenever.
Oh, and, the movie "Hugo" was terrible, embarrassing, cringe-inducing (I love that one! We didn't have it in '68), uneven, badly acted and 3-D ain't shit.

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