There’s a famous French movie, from 2001, that you may have seen before: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (= “The wonderful fate of Amélie Poulain”, in its original French title), also known as Amélie or Amélie from Montmartre.
It’s a film about life. About the specific things that make us all human. About finding joy in these little things, and spreading it, without getting lost.
You surely saw it at least once. Maybe you even studied it, in school, or at l’Alliance Française!
You probably missed some telling details in the conversations, though — even with the subtitles on. Why? Because characters (in any French movie or TV show) can show aspects of their personalities and backgrounds with just a few lines. And you might miss those clues if you only read what they say, because they really exist in the subtleties of spoken French.
Let’s get behind the subtitles and practice your oral French comprehension by diving into a few spoken French subtleties in the film Amélie.
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The waitress Georgette speaks with her own accent. In the clip I included in the video lesson, you can hear her say:
Mon vieux, je sais pas comment sera le nouveau mais en tout cas, ce sera jamais aussi pire que l’autre timbré là, avec son magnétophone.
= Oh dear, I don’t know what the new one will be like, but at least it will never be worse than the other crazy guy, with his tape recorder.
First, she’s using informal spoken French, eating vowels and using informal vocabulary and grammar:
- Je ne sais pas (= I don’t know) becomes “Je sais pas,” pronounced “Chais pas”.
- Sera (= will) becomes “S’ra”
- She conflates Jamais aussi mauvais (= won’t be as bad as) and pas pire que (= not worst than) into the technically grammatically-incorrect, “jamais aussi pire que” (= “never as worst as”).
- Que l’autre timbré (= than that other crazy guy) becomes “Qu’l’aut’timbré” (impressive eating of vowels!)
- Timbré (= “stamped,” literally) itself is an informal slang word for fou (= crazy)
That makes for a real-sounding character. But these shortcuts also hide something that you can only hear: her slight Eastern French accent.
The actress uses her childhood accent from la Meuse, a rural area between Paris and Germany, to add specificity to her character’s background with only a few lines.
Can you hear it? The nasal vowels are a bit more nasal. And the “a” sounds a bit more like “o”.
You can hear it in the way she accentuates “l’autre timbré, là” (the “im” is a bit more nasalized, and the “là” sounds a bit like “lo”).
It’s close to the more well-known accent of Northern France, and it’s associated in the media with a character that’s more down to earth and less sophisticated than snobby Parisians.
2) The talking picture
Another character in Amélie speaks with a Southern French accent: the photobooth picture talking to Nino one night.
Did you catch the accent, in the clip from the video lesson?
The picture pronounces Tu la connais (= you know her) with a “é” (as in “Fiancée” or “Beyoncé”) sound instead of the Parisian “è” (= as in “hey.”)
The character also slightly pronounced the “n” sound with the nasal vowels, and the final silent “e.” For example, with Dans tes rêves (= in your dreams.)
The character is (probably) a dream of Nino, the male romantic interest. But that talking picture still has its own personality, because Nino has an active imagination!
The Southern accent is often associated with a warm, outgoing (or boisterous) personality, so this subtle difference gives this quick character a more friendly demeanor – and helps him stand out!
3) Amélie’s ploys
The way people talk can reveal things about themselves… even with a single word.
For instance, Amélie uses the sentence:
Justement elle y pense. Elle est en train de réfléchir à un stratagème…
(= Indeed she’s thinking about it. She’s currently planning a ruse…)
Here, she’s using the four-syllable word “un stratagème” (= a ploy, a ruse.) Generally, in informal spoken French, we tend to prefer shorter words. So we would use the synonyms un plan (= a plan) or un moyen (= a way, a mean.)
So her use of the formal word un stratagème shows that she does spend a lot of time thinking about plans, and ploys… instead of tackling her problems head-on. That’s her character flaw!
The movie talks more about that character flaw, especially later in this particular scene. But you can already tell a lot about Amélie from that one word, if you have the nuanced spoken French knowledge.
4) How a real French conversation sounds
You can practice listening to basic everyday French (and improve your oral comprehension) with conversations from the movie!
For example, when Amélie calls the photobooth company, she starts with:
Bonjour monsieur, je vous appelle pour vous signaler qu’un de vos appareils est en panne.
= Hi, I’m calling to tell you that one of your booths is out of order.
(By the way: En panne = Hors service = broken, out of order.)
“Bonjour, je vous appelle pour…” is a common structure when making a phone call. It’s a polite, thoughtful sentence: she probably rehearsed that opening sentence in her head, before calling. You can use it too!
Then, the person on the other end of the line asks a question that we can’t hear. Amélie answers with a second sentence, in a more informal spoken French:
“Euh… (Ben) non, mais j’ai l’impression qu’y a un truc qu’est coincé.”
= Hmm, no, but I think there’s something that’s stuck.
Signs of spoken French:
- Ben → Short for Bien or Eh bien (= Well), a “filler word” in spoken French
- Euh → Another very, very common “filler word” that doesn’t mean anything
- Un truc → Informal French for “quelque chose” (= something, a thing)
- Il y a (= there is) pronounced like “Ya”
- Qui est becomes “Qu’est”
In written French, we would say:
Non, mais j’ai l’impression qu’il y a quelque chose qui est coincé.
This shows that she probably didn’t rehearse that second sentence before calling, but she answers something consistent with her lie (that she actually broke that machine herself, so she can meet the repairman.)
There are other great conversations in that movie as well, but you can use other resources to gain confidence with everyday spoken French, too!
- Learn about some embarrassing mistakes in Emily in Paris (and how you can do better).
- Check out the French TV Show Au Service de la France – so you can understand the jokes, too!
- Enjoy some fun French comprehension practice with my favorite radios and French newspapers – including the major one that I subscribe to.
À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!
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