And so to Lyon.
Thierry Fremaux, director of the Cannes film festival, has started a new festival in his home town of Lyon. The idea of the festival is to focus on the film history of a great director and its first , and perhaps easiest choice, is Clint Eastwood. Clint in turn has asked that the festival celebrate his two great teachers Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. For me, this is a chance to catch up on early Don Siegel films. There are two that I haven’t seen before: a 1946 movie the Verdict with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre and a wonderful Robert Mitchum thriller set in Mexico. Both films show a great director at work. Despite the stereotyped scripts and the evident constraints of the budget, every frame is perfectly chosen. Rewatching Invasion of the Body Snatchers confirms it a classic, one of the perfect screen dramatisations of paranoia
The festival is superbly organized and every screening is full of appreciative cinephiles. As the one bit of business I have to do is accomplished in my first hour, I spend my time in the cinema or wandering around Lyon. I have been many times to the city but always very briefly and in a rush. Now I walk around the old town with its two great rivers running through it and seek out the restaurants for which the city is famous. Eating alone in a good restaurant with a novel or newspaper is one of the pleasures of age. One meal I spend devouring the catalogue for the festival. In addition to the main strands, the festival has a miscellany of newly restored classics, one of which Pierrot Le Fou I have already seen in Cannes. The synopsis for the plot of the film describes Anna Karina’s and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s previous relationship as a ‘flirt’ where the implication is of a sexual fling. This is, of course, very different from English where ‘flirt’ implies skirting an explicitly sexual relationship.
Each year I give a lecture on the OED to Birkbeck undergraduates and when I go to prepare it in the British Library, I decide to look up ‘flirt’. As so often the entry is fascinating. For one thing it is one of the few words that the illustrious dictionary fails to find in the philological record. The august tome surmises that its meaning is onomatopoeic adding a series of words – flick,flip, flerk, spurt, squirt – which reads more like a joke than a serious attempt at etymology. The word appears in the sixteenth century and its original meanings are much wider including the notion of a sudden blow or movement, often specifically linked to verbal sallys. But the notion of ‘playing at courtship’ is there from the earliest although this meaning seems to become dominant with its use in novels of the eighteenth century. I then turned to the Petit Robert to find out why the French had such a different meaning. I was already formulating the kind of cultural generalisations which spring to mind when engaging in this type of comparative philology. Perhaps the French are incapable of accepting the concept of ‘playing at courtship’. Almost all such generalisations are rank nonsense as this one proves to be when the Robert reveals that ‘flirt’ is an English loan word in French – largely assimilated in to the language in the 1860s – and with exactly the same range of meaning as the English . Intriguingly the Robert, published in the 1960s, does not give the meaning that I had read in the Lyon film catalogue and therefore what started as a question comparing French and English uses of the word becomes much more narrowly focussed. Sometime in the last forty years, ‘flirt’ has changed its meaning in French without a corresponding change in English. In fact when I give the lecture a French speaker says that in her opinion while the meaning has become more elastic over the last forty years, it still implies a platonic relationship. Further research ( i.e. asking some young French speakers) does not resolve the matter entirely. It would seem that for at least some speakers of contemporary French the meaning of “not serious” has been retained while the meaning ‘not sexual’ has been discarded. Why this should have happened in French and not in English is difficult to decide.
As I leave the library , reflecting on these matters, I bump into Ozlem Koksal, a young Turkish woman just finishing her thesis on film at the Consortium. I always enjoy my encounters with Ozlem who treats me like an aimiable old relic only just connected to the modern world and badly in need of all sorts of guidance. “ What are you up to?” I say. “Oh I’m just here to BLirt”. “Blurt? “ I say “ No, BLirt – flirting in the British Library “ says Ozlem in tones that suggest that my general knowledge is as deficient as the rest of my intellectual equipment.
20th October 2009
And so to Lyon.