LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: WRITING INSIDE SOMEONE ELSE’S BORDERS

NOTE: This post was originally written on 20 December 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

I’m borrowing for this post the famous phrase “location, location, location”, coined by Harold Samuel to describe the three things that matter most in the real estate market. I won’t be dealing with property, however, but with the limits in the choice of settings for fiction, inspired by a film and a novel. The film is Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (2021) and the novel Víctor García Tur’s L’Aigua que Vols [The water you want] also of 2021. Though vastly different, both are incursions into a community by a foreign storyteller who might not be best qualified to tell the story precisely by reason of his being an outsider. I question here the assumption that authors are free to tell any tale they please regardless of where it is located, with some caveats about nationalism and national history.

When he made in 1992 the truly horrendous 1492: The Conquest of Paradise, with Gerard Depardieu playing Christopher Columbus, English director Ridley Scott was asked many times why he had wanted to make this film instead of leaving the matter to Spaniards. He always replied, increasingly annoyed, that no Spanish director had showed any interest in commemorating Columbus as a national hero in the 500th anniversary of his first American landing and, so, the story was his to tell. This elicits two immediate contradictory reactions: a) fair enough, b) did Scott personally ask all Spanish directors about their intentions? Actually three reactions, the third one of dismay, since a variety of Spanish directors have indeed told the story of Cristóbal Colón; Scott was clearly not familiar with them nor interested in their films.

The Last Duel seems affected by a similar situation: since no French director had bothered to tell this notorious rape revenge story, set in 14th century France, why shouldn’t Scott tell it? The answer is that, as many reviewers and spectators have noticed, we may be no longer willing to accept films in which the original languages and national cultures are replaced by English and by a generically Anglo-American approach. There have been thousands of Anglophone films set in non-Anglophone locations, of course, but somehow The Last Duel makes this artifice particularly annoying. Imagine a French film set in the American west in which all the characters speak French simply because that is the language of the film producers, and you will quickly understand how wrong Scott’s film is. Add to this the socio-cultural distance between the 14th and the 21st century, and between Scott’s post #MeToo context and his historical material, and you have the explanation for why The Last Duel has failed at the box office.

I know that the point I am making is close to pure nonsense if we think of the long tradition of telling stories set in other lands which proliferates in Anglophones cultures. Although Italian by birth, Romeo and Juliet have always spoken English, even in the film version by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. Shakespeare’s blatant cultural appropriation is not usually disputed by Italians, just as Danes don’t bother to complain that the characters in Hamlet should be speaking Danish. I think, however, that this type of cultural colonialism is suspect, to say the least. I am imagining now what it would be like to have Ridley Scott come to Catalonia to make a film about, for instance, the execution of Lluís Companys –the President of the Catalan Government murdered by Franco’s regime in 1940 with the Gestapo’s collaboration– in which not a word of Catalan was heard because the whole cast spoke in English (would Edward Norton play Companys?). No matter how that would help to publicize Companys’ tragedy internationally, I would be mightily annoyed as a Catalan native. If, supposing, Scott were interested in Companys (after all, the subject matter of The Last Duel is far more remote), then the best thing he could do would be to put his production machinery at the service of a Catalan director, such as Manuel Huerga who has already worked on a film on Companys, or put himself at the head of a Catalan team, including a Catalan cast, so that the film’s credibility would be enhanced as much as possible. In The Last Duel any credibility the film might have is thoroughly destroyed by the American accents and American body language of actors (and film screenwriters) Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, totally impossible to accept as feudal French aristocrats.

Am I saying that a ‘to-each-their-own’ approach is the only narrative possibility? Not quite. What I am saying is that even though in many cases it makes sense to accept the artifice and conventions of filmmaking, the structure of feeling regarding this matter may be changing. It was easier for Ridley Scott to convince us in 2000 that New Zealander-Australian actor Russell Crowe was a Roman general than it is now to propose that we accept Matt Damon as a medieval French warrior, and not just because the Roman civilization is long gone whereas France is very much alive. The principle that Quentin Tarantino established in Inglorious Basterds (2009) by which film characters should speak realistically in their own languages or with an accent if they spoke another language has never caught on, nor has the idea that cultural-linguistic barriers need to be acknowledged. Watching the rather overrated Encanto this Christmas, I was really appalled by Disney’s insistence that using accented English for Colombian characters who logically should only use Spanish makes sense. It does not, and it should not.

Now for the novel by Víctor García Tur, L’Aigua que Vols, a text written in Catalan but set in Québec. Again, I acknowledge that I am defending an almost non-sensical argumentation if I think that my favourite Catalan author, Marc Pastor, has set some of his novels (like Bioko or Farishta) in exotic locations, using only Catalan as the language for all his characters; the same goes for Albert Sánchez Piñol’s La Pell Freda, in which the main protagonist is Irish. That did bother me (why couldn’t this guy be Catalan, I wondered?), but less than I am bothered by the Quebecois family in García Tur’s novel, perhaps because Pastor and Piñol write in the tradition of the exotic novel inherited from the Anglophone nations, whereas García Tur is writing in the realist tradition that is prevalent in Catalan. Funnily, I had a conversation with the author at the time when he was writing L’Aigua que Vols, and he was very much surprised by my point of view. Even more funnily, he writes in the postface that he understands the dangers of writing about a foreign community which he does not know first-hand, and promises not to do it again. He then proceeds to announce that his next novel will be science fiction, a genre in which writers are far freer to choose who they write about.

L’Aigua que Vols tells the simple story of a family reunion called by the matriarch, 76-year-old Marie, a widow and former theatre actor. The four siblings –JP, Helène, Laura, Anne-Sophie– visit the downtrodden house by the lake, bought by their late father, and get updated about the state of each other’s lives. They speak plenty but cannot be really said to communicate, and nothing terribly dramatic happens until the end of the novel, though in a rather subdued way. As I read the text, written in a beautifully flowing Catalan, I was thinking of those enjoyable French films, such as Guillaume Canet’s Les Petits Mouchoirs (2010) and its sequel, which always make me wonder why we don’t have any movie that effective in Spanish or Catalan. At the same time, I was always wondering at each turn of the page, why García Tur’s characters were not Catalan, and why their ramshackle home was not located by a Catalan lake. As I read, I was all the time under the very uncomfortable impression that they were dubbed, which was very much complicated by the author’s note presenting the Catalan text as a translation of a French-language Quebecois novel published in 1996. What a complicated pirouette…

It took me a while to understand why L’Aigua que Vols is not set in Catalonia, though at the same time I hope I am totally wrong. The novel is set in 1995, the date of the second (failed) referendum for independence in Québec; the first one was held in 1980. The siblings discuss their preferences, with Laura being very much in favour of independence and even attempting to buy her brother JP’s vote for the cause, though this is not centrally a political novel. At one point, however, JP gives a rather long speech about how tired he is of the whole independence debate, and how he envies Parisians because they don’t wake up in the morning thinking of their nation. They just go on with their life. JP also argues that it must be nice for people in ordinary countries unencumbered by independentist issues to complain about their nation. In contrast, he says, the Quebecois can never criticize their nation because it feels disloyal. My impression is that this is how García Tur feels about Catalan independence but he chose a roundabout route to express himself, putting his own feelings and opinions in the mouth of a Quebecois character. His novel is, then, a sort of roman-à-clef where everything Quebecois stands for something secretly Catalan. I just wish this was not the case, and the novel was overtly about Catalonia. It just would feel more authentic.

To conclude, what I propose is that each storyteller carefully considers their choice of location, beyond their first impulse. If tempted to set a story elsewhere, within someone else’s borders, the question to ask should be why this is necessary. Can a local person tell the story better? Why is the foreign location necessary if the tale can be set within one’s own borders? And always consider the opposite possibility: would Ridley Scott be happy with a French-language film about Queen Victoria?, would García Tur enjoy a novel in Quebecois French with a cast of all-Catalan characters set in Catalonia? I may be limiting the scope of much fiction, historical or contemporary, but I believe these are questions that need to be addressed. Location, location, location…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/