On Connaît La Chanson (1997), Directed by Alan Resnais.*
Alan Resnais, the French director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year in Marienbad, passed away last year. Among his lesser-known works is one of my favourite films, On Connaît La Chanson. This week I watched it for maybe the fifth or sixth time while training for the forthcoming Hackney Half Marathon.** But I hadn’t seen it for a long time, perhaps for five years or so. Certainly not since I started writing up my thesis. It’s a beautiful ensemble piece which is a love-letter both to Paris and to Dennis Potter. It uses a variety French chansons to illuminate the characters’ inner emotions (à la Singing Detective) and thus acts as a beautiful little initiation into the variety of French pop in the twentieth century.
One of the reasons that I took to the film initially is that one of the characters, Camille Lalande (the character hanging off the Eiffel Tower in the illustration above) is a guide. And I think I first saw the film when I had just completed my training as a guide, or was towards the end of it. I could see that certain situations in the film were inspired by the real-life things that guides have to cope with all the time (know-all clients specifically being one of them). As a semi-pro guide I can tell you that her guiding style is awful! But mebbe that’s for another post. Here I’m concerned with OCLC and academia. For anyone who is planning to write, is in the process of writing or even has completed a thesis it is one of those unusual films – a film about doing a PhD. Or more specifically, Camille goes from candidature to completion of her PhD during the course of the film. And anyone who has been through that process will empathise with certain situations and feelings that she experiences.
The first thing, and something that I touched on in an earlier post, is how one can get bored with one’s own subject. And if you’re bored thinking about it you’ll be even more bored talking about it. Camille explains her thesis to an acquaintance and is shocked when she realises that he thinks it’s as boring as she does. Often when you’re inside the PhD even though you yourself may think it’s really dull you still want everyone around you to think that it’s the most vital and interesting subject in the room. If only because you want them to convince you that what you are doing is worthwhile. The boredom often becomes bound up with anxiety – not an anxiety about the examination but an anxiety that you’ll never finish the Thing.
This boredom-anxiety is a threat because it can lead to you becoming depressed. Such is the case with Camille. The one thing that she has chosen to focus on in her life (she appears to be working casually as a guide and has no partner or offspring at the beginning of the film), the thing that defines her to herself and to her loved-ones, has become something that gives her panic attacks to the extent that she passes out during a tour of a château.*** Even having passed her viva she continues to be plagued by thoughts of the pointlessness of the comically obscure subject she has chosen to write about.
To try and make someone who hasn’t done a thesis understand how stressful it can be is quite a difficult thing. ‘What, you mean all that sitting in libraries is stressing you out? Oh, you had to give a paper in front of six people? You mean you can’t stand the pressure of talking about something for a couple of hours about the one thing that you’re the world expert in? Poor you.’ To misquote Keith Miller, ‘Pressure is a Messerschmidt up your arse. A thesis deadline is not.’
Well, yes. Such a bracing quote can help buck you up but it doesn’t alter the fact that writing a thesis can be a long, lonely process that lacks the cameraderie of the mess hall, the glamour of a pilot’s uniform and the thrill of 500 mph dogfights. So what to do about the doldrums when they arrive?
For me there were three strategies. First, booze. I don’t think this is recommended by the medical profession and I wouldn’t advocate it except at times of maximum affluence, minimum responsibility and maximum leisure time. An unlikely combination of circumstances for those in the thesis game.
Second, acceptance. This is the course that Camille chooses, aided by the friend who was bored by her thesis. He recognised her as being depressed, a diagnosis that she outragedly rejects at first. By the end of the film she realises that she is depressed, and the fact that a friend is also in the same boat comforts her that she isn’t uniquely afflicted. Sometimes it’s very difficult to admit to yourself that you’re having a bad day let alone to someone else. To do that you have to get out of bed and get out into the world, which can be the hardest but most crucial thing to do. The amount of times I’ve felt, not better necessarily, but rather on the way to not feeling worse is by chatting to someone and owning up to feeling down. It’s not a loss of dignity to feel sad, or self-indulgent, or weak. It’s just a thing to be got over in time. And sociability I think is the key to that.
Third, putting a perspective on the PhD. And by that I don’t mean pretending that it’s not a big thing. It is. To a lot of people it will be their greatest accomplishment to date. That’s a big deal. But by perspective I mean that you need to see it as part of your job, not an end point to a stage in your life. On a practical level the PhD is a job qualification that should lead to you being a member of the professional academic community, whether you choose to work in academia or not. Which means that doing a PhD is not unique; there are other wannabe professionals all over London doing just what you’re doing, only for a different set of letters after their name. Such as MITG.****
And that was something that helped me when I was fed up. Sitting on the tube, on the bus, walking around and observing the multitudes of people in London beavering away at improving themselves. Thousands and thousands at Birkbeck, in schools and universities, in FE Colleges and the City Lit. London is a community of strivers.
In this way Camille’s sister, Odile (in the red coat), is an exemplar. She’s a furious, energetic ball of strive. But a more useful (and real) example is that of Resnais himself. One aspect of the artistry of what he does in OCLC only occurred to me while watching Fast and Furious 7 at the weekend. Superficially they’re very different films (though I can’t help thinking that Vin Deisel’s ‘acting’ style would very much lend itself to the dreamlike blankness of Last Year in Marienbad). Yet what characterises them both is that they are ensemble pieces. For F&F7 this is a problem. The characters lack depth (even though they’ve had 14 hours or so to acquire it over the course of the franchise) and each time we have to spend time with them in conversation (in between bouts of increasingly ludicrous action) the film slows down. In OCLC on the other hand one doesn’t even notice how the skill of the director, even while using magical realist techniques that render the story as fantastical as F&F, introduces the characters to you in such a way that they become real people that you care about.
And Resnais did this to the very last year of his life, making films until into his 90s. Such tenacious creativity is worth remembering when feeling down about the pile of work to be done. Keep going.
*Not to be confused with On Connait la Chanson (2011-present) which appears to be an example of one of the few Canadian crimes against humanity.
** No, I’m not asking for sponsorship – if you want to give some money to charity come along to my Movember walk later in the year.
*** A tragi-comic moment – her group can’t tell whether she’s genuinely ill or play-acting as some character from the past. This prompted thoughts of the rivalry between guides and costumed interpreters that came up when chatting to a colleague at a seminar recently who has worked as a costumed interpreter at Historic Royal Palaces. She was (good-naturedly) put out when I made clear my feeling that interpreters (who are tied to a property) are a rung below guides (who wander where they will).
**** Member of the Institute of Tourist Guides
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).