Learn French with TV: An Analysis of of Irma Vep

Salut!

Irma Vep is a 2022 HBO mini-series that you can use to get better at understanding real, everyday spoken French. And it’s really good, too!

The show alternates between English and French dialogues, so it can help your practice listening to and really understanding fast spoken French.

Today, let’s dive deeper together and break down a specific scene in French, and see how you can use it to get better at real everyday French.

C’est parti.

1) Learn French with TV shows: What’s “Irma Vep” ?

Irma Vep is a miniseries for HBO, written and directed by French director Olivier Assayas ([pronounced “Assa-yass”.])

The series is about cinema. And relationships. Changing times and nostalgia. And much more.
And it’s French cinema, so “of course” there’s a lot of people talking about love, creation and deeper topics.

It’s an American show, but it’s set in Paris. Half of the cast is French, and their characters speak French among themselves.

The cast is great:

  • magnetic Alicia Vikander,
  • very, very cool Devon Ross playing her assistant,
  • French actor Vincent Macaigne doing a plaintive voice,
  • French actor Vincent Lacoste playing a smug version of himself, a rising star of French cinema,
  • Character actor, screenwriter, director and radio columnist Hyppolite Girardot,
  • Pale Tom Sturridge (who starred in 2022 The Sandman, and 2009 The Boat That Rocked)

Fun fact: The French title for “The Boat that Rocked” was… “Good Morning England.”

The scene we’re going to analyze today is a dialogue between characters Zoé and Grégory.

Zoé is une costumière (= a costume designer,) played by Jeanne Balibar, a singer and actress, a figure of theater and French movies, who recently received a reward for her role as fascinating singer Barbara in a 2018 biopic.

Grégory is un producteur (= a producer) and an overall fixer, played by Alex Descas.

These two characters speak in a blend of formal and informal spoken French that flows like music – especially Zoé.

2) Learn French with TV shows: Irma Vep’s framing

Before getting into the transcripts and commentary on that scene, let’s review Irma Vep’s backstory and framing. It’s explained in the show over the episodes, but knowing about it from the get-go can clear up some confusion and elevate your enjoyment of the show.

In 1912 (= mille neuf cent douze), in the early days of cinema, French director Louis Feuillade started shooting the 10-episode, 7-hour long silent serial Les Vampires, about a gang of nefarious criminals calling themselves “vampires,” led by their muse called Irma Vep. “Irma Vep” is an anagram for “Vampire.”

Click here to watch the full series on Youtube: Les Vampires (1915)

In 1996 (= mille neuf cent quatre vingt seize), French director Olivier Assayas directed a movie called Irma Vep. The movie is a fiction about René Vidal, a moody director trying to remake the 1912 serial, with Chinese actress Maggie Cheung playing herself as an actress cast as Irma Vep.

Olivier Assayas then married Maggie Cheung, but they divorced after three years.

Finally, in 2022 (= deux mille vingt deux), Olivier Assayas directs this HBO new mini-series. That show follows René Vidal again, as he’s trying to remake Les Vampires, in English, this time with the American actress Mira Harberg, played by Alicia Vikander. (And “Mira” is an anagram for “Irma.”)

The 2022 show mentions a previous iteration of Irma Vep, and the failed relationship of René Vidal with the main Chinese actress (called “Jade” in this version.) The 2022 show also features a lot of clips from the original Les Vampires.

Basically, it’s a series of nesting dolls, and people playing variations of themselves or self-inserts by the director.

And it’s fitting, for movies talking about Les Vampires, who was so revered by les surréalistes in its heyday – especially for its main actress Musidora, who was a poet and writer herself.

3) Learn French with TV shows: Subtitles with translation

In the video lesson above, you get to watch the scene several times, with different subtitles and at different speeds. Here are the full French subtitles with their English translation.

Subtitles in French with English translation

– Tu m’as appelé ?
Did you call me?

– Oui. On a un problème, il faut que tu leur parles.
Yes. We have a problem. You need to talk to them.

– De quoi ?
About what?

– Bah tu sais très bien de quoi. Je t’ai dit. S’ils dansent, ils veulent être payés comme danseurs.
You know about what. I told you. If they dance, they want to be paid as dancers.

– Mais il n’y a pas de chorégraphie, ce ne sont pas des danseurs. Ils font la fête dans un club. Ils improvisent, où est le problème ?
But there’s no choreography, they’re not dancers. They’re partying in a club. They improvise, where’s the problem?

– Alors ça, tu ne me l’expliques pas à moi. Tu le leur expliques à eux.
Well, you don’t tell me this. You tell it to them.

– Oui, euh, Grégory, je suis navré, mais… Personne ne nous a avertis qu’on allait danser. Et si on danse, ce n’est pas le même cachet. Et on avait même pas été avisés qu’on serait convoqués à six heures du matin.
Yes, hum, Grégory, I’m sorry, but… Nobody told us we’d be dancing. And if we’re dancing, well, it’s not the same pay. And no one told us we’d be summoned at 6 in the morning.

– Tu les a convoqués à six heures du matin ?
You summoned them at 6 in the morning?

– Oui. C’était à la feuille de service. Je ne peux pas les habiller tous en même temps, je t’ai demandé des renforts tu as dit non, alors j’ai fait ce que j’ai jugé bon de faire.
Yes. It’s on the service list. I can’t dress them all at the same time. When I asked you for help, you told me no. So I did what I judged was best.

– La prochaine fois avant de faire comme tu juges bon de faire, tu me demandes mon avis.
Next time before doing what you judge is best, you ask me first.

– Mais je me plie en quatre pour vous arranger vos coups, je me bats pied à pied pour vous éviter les crises de nerfs de René, et je n’ai droit qu’à des reproches. Aucune reconnaissance !
But I’m bending over backwards to fix your tricks, I’m fighting every inch of the way to save you from Rene’s tantrums, and I only get blame in return. Zero gratitude!

– Les humeurs de René, je m’en charge.
Rene’s moods, I take care of it.

– Est-ce que tu te rends compte de la galère que c’est de réunir tous ces costumes d’époque ? Tu le sais, ça ? Anissa, mon ancienne assistante qui travaille sur un sitcom, elle a le double de budget du mien et elle n’a qu’à descendre chez Zara pour trouver toutes ses fringues.
Do you realize what a hassle it is to gather all these period costumes? Do you know that ? Anissa, my former assistant who works on a sitcom, she has double the budget of mine, and she only has to go down to Zara to find all her clothes.

– Si tu veux faire des sitcoms, fais des sitcoms. On s’en est déjà parlé.
If you want to do sitcoms, do sitcoms. We have already talked about it.

– Oui, eh bien nous en reparlerons ! Parce que je ne suis pas bien traitée sur cette production. Si c’était ma première fois, si j’étais une parfaite étrangère ici, tu ne me parlerais pas comme ça. Je demande juste qu’on me respecte. Un peu de respect. Je veux un peu de respect. Personne ne me respecte ici.
Yes, well we’ll talk about it again! Because I’m not treated well on this production. If this was my first time, if I was a total stranger here, you wouldn’t talk to me like that. I’m just asking for some respect. A bit of respect. I want some respect. No one respects me here.

– Mais si, on te respecte ! On en parlera ce soir. J’ai besoin seulement de traiter les urgences !
But we do respect you! We’ll talk about it tonight. I only need to deal with emergencies!

4) Learn French with TV shows: Subtitles with informal pronunciation

The characters don’t actually say everything in the subtitles! They cut vowels, syllables, sometimes whole words… That’s because they use some everyday French pronunciation. Let’s see what it means.

Subtitles in French with English translation (and commentary)

– Tu m’as appelé ?
– Oui. Hmm, on a un problème, il faut qu’tu leur parles.

Cutting the “e” is very common in everyday spoken French. Instead of saying the correct “que tu leur parles”, she simply says “qu’tu leur parles,” because we like to speak a bit faster. Both characters tend to use very precise pronunciation and vocabulary, yet they still use some shortcuts, as you can find throughout these subtitles.

– De quoi ?
Bah tu sais très bien de quoi. Je t’ai dit. S’ils dansent, ils veulent être payés comme danseurs.

Bah is a filler word, like “oh” or “duh.” It comes from “bien” (= well), but it’s more informal.

– Mais y a pas de chorégraphie, ce n’sont pas des danseurs. Ils font la fête dans un club. Ils improvisent, où est l’problème ?

Il y a (= there is) becomes “Ya” in everyday spoken French.

– Alors ça, tu ne me l’expliques pas à moi. Tu le leur expliques à eux.
– Oui, euh, Grégory, ‘fin je suis navré, mais… Personne ne nous a avertis qu’on allait danser. Et si on danse, bah, c’est pas l’même cachet. Et on avait même pas été avisés qu’on s’rait convoqués à six heures du matin.

Un figurant (= an extra.) And here, le cachet (= acting fee, performer’s fee) – not un cachet d’aspirine (= an aspirin tablet) !
Navré (formal) = Désolé (common) = Sorry. Notice that there’s a lot of cut vowels in this character’s lines.

– Tu les a convoqués à six heures du matin ?
– Oui. C’était à la feuille de service. Je n’peux pas les habiller tous en même temps, je t’ai d’mandé des renforts tu as dit non, alors j’ai fait c’que j’ai jugé bon de faire.

Ce que j’ai jugé bon de faire (= “what I judged was the right thing to do”) is a more formal way to say: “Ce que j’ai cru être la meilleure chose à faire” (= What I believed was the best thing to do.) or better yet, J’ai fait de mon mieux. (= I did my best.) Instead, Zoé uses a more personal turn of phrase. Grégory hears it and quotes it back to her.

– La prochaine fois avant de faire comme tu juges bon de faire, tu m’demandes mon avis.
– Mais je me plie en quatre pour vous arranger vos coups, je me bats pied à pied pour vous éviter les crises de nerfs de René, et je n’ai droit qu’à des reproches. Aucune reconnaissance !

Je me plie en quatre (= literally “I’m folding myself in four” = “I’m bending over backwards.”) Je me bats pied à pied (= “I’m fighting every inch of the way.”) These colorful expressions are a bit formal or outdated for everyday spoken French, but they fit Zoé’s character.

– Les humeurs de René, je m’en charge.
– Est-ce que tu te rends compte de la galère que c’est de réunir tous ces costumes d’époque ? Tu le sais, ça ? Anissa, mon ancienne assistante qui travaille sur un sitcom, elle a le double de budget du mien et elle n’a qu’à descendre chez Zara pour trouver toutes ses fringues.

La galère (= literally “the galley” = informal word for trouble, difficulty)
Les fringues = slang for les vêtements (= clothes)
Anissa, elle n’a qu’à… = informal use of la reprise.

Click here to learn more: French Grammar: Repetitions in Spoken French

– Si tu veux faire des sitcoms, fais des sitcoms. On s’en est déjà parlé.
– Oui, eh bien nous en reparlerons ! Parce que je n’suis pas bien traitée sur cette production. Si c’était ma première fois, si j’étais une parfaite étrangère ici, tu n’me parlerais pas comme ça. Je demande juste qu’on me respecte. Un peu de respect. Je veux un peu de respect. Personne ne m’respecte ici.

Nous en reparlerons = formal way to say On va en reparler / On va en r’parler (= We’ll talk about this again,) using nous (formal “we”), the future tense (instead of the more casual futur proche) and pronouncing every letters (instead of cutting the “e” in re-)

Mais si, on te respecte ! On en parlera ce soir. J’ai besoin seulement de traiter les urgences !

→ Here, “Si” means “yes,” to deny the negative sentence that comes before. After a negation, we use it instead of the more ambiguous oui.

Click here to learn more:

Learn more about informal French:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!


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