About the Cult of French in Action

Il y a vingt ans, French in Action, an ambitious French language video course for anglophones debuted in the classroom and on public television. It was the brainchild of Professor Pierre Capretz of Yale University and was produced by WGBH, Yale and Wellesley College with funding from Annenberg/CPB. The world has never been the same for those of us who fell under its spell.

« Nous allons inventer une histoire… » repeats the gray-haired Capretz with a twinkle in his eye as the adventure begins. Robert (« Rhobehrrrr » played by Charles Mayer), an easily disoriented lad in a Yale T-shirt with suspiciously good French for an “American” (his mother was French, supposedly) is visiting Paris “pour se trouver.” He falls for Mireille (Valérie Allain), a beautiful blonde studying art history at the Sorbonne. (If you are a hetero male, you inevitably fall for her, too.) Mireille lives with her parents and her sassy younger sister Marie-Laure (Virginie Contesse) at 18, rue de Vaugirard. Throughout the series they are stalked by a mysterious mustachioed man in black (Jean-Claude Cotillard, who also serves as the show’s mime. Interesting to note, he is the father of Marion Cotillard, who would have been all of nine years old when FIA was filmed).

There is a certain Dharmic quality to the relentless cycling on public television of Robert’s clumsy, unconsummated courtship of Mireille in the summertime Paris of 1985. Whatever the year, whatever the season, and however bad your day’s been, c’est une belle matinée de printemps au jardin du Luxembourg and Mireille in her white blouse and red skirt saunters onto the scene « comme une fleur. »  French in Action succeeds by cultivating the fantasy that there’s a Mireille on a Luxembourg Gardens park bench waiting for you, too. In this way, Allain as Mireille has done more to promote French among young male English speakers than anyone since William the Conqueror. Sources say Charles Mayer as Robert has had his fair share of admirers (of both sexes), too. Capretz rightly understood that nothing fixes the short attention span of the young like a good jolt of hormones.

Capretz’s more widely recognized innovation was the « immersion method »: students hear nothing but French spoken at natural cadence from the second lesson. A bit scary perhaps, but after each dialogue the charming professeur himself is on hand to dissect it with the aid of entertaining animations, video clips from French cinema and TV, and, of course, a mime. Without hearing a word of English, we get it.  After 52 half hour lessons we are changed forever and as a happy accident we can speak French. (Ou presque.) Says John Walker on the Cool Tools website « Simply by watching this series of videos through two times, you could parachute into Abidjan and get along in day to day life from the moment you hit the ground. It’s that good. Really. » (Walker assumes that you could make it to the ground without taking a bullet.) As a language course, French in Action is unparalleled. But twenty years on, it is clear that FIA is much more. It is a monument to Mitterand-era Paris and French culture, to the breathtaking splendor of then 20-year old Valérie Allain and to the genius of Dr. Capretz. Merci, professeur. Du fond du coeur merci.

Until 2007 there was a blog by New York City writer Liliana Segura at fancyrobot.com. A 2003 post about Valérie Allain shamelessly repeated untruths about the actress and engendered a four-year comments thread about FIA that became the de facto fan site. Over this period anyone Googling information on Allain or FIA landed there. Even Charles Mayer, the French Canadian actor who played Robert found the thread and contributed his recollections to the delight of all. A link to fancyrobot on Wikipedia’s Valérie Allain page referred to it as a “cult page.” The link is still there, mais helas, Fancy Robot the blog is no more. I had thought that four years of conversation had vanished into the ether until a visitor here put me onto web.archive.org. The Fancy Robot FIA discussion is available from this site from the link above, and is also reproduced as a separate page on this blog for easier reading.

As an expression of my desire to resurrect the spirit of the Fancy Robot thread, I submit this site to you, dear FIA fan, as a place to enjoy the camaraderie of your fellow cultists and to keep the conversation going. I will add posts to site when I have time, but I hope my role will take a back seat to yours. One thing I will ensure is that our discussion remains civil and respectful. If you’re looking for vid caps of Mlle Allain sans son pull blanc there are places on the internet to go, but one of them won’t be here. The rude behavior that now characterizes the formerly more respectable Yahoo! Valérie Allain fan group you will find nulle part here at FIA fans.

Alors, commençons!

47 Réponses

  1. I actually bought the entire program from Anneberg/Yale University Press, and think it’s worth the price. I don’t mind that the publishers are realizing some profit for having created such a great product. You can get textbook and workbooks from Amazon, etc., at lower prices. DVDs and the 62 or so CDs–I don’t know. I’m always excited to run into someone else who knows about FIA and thank my friend for alerting me to this site.

  2. I thought French In Action was great. I used to watch it on PBS and it did help me learn French.

  3. Man I took this course in college. I still look at it. I am going to use it for my own kids. If your from the creole speaking Caribbean, this course helps with the transition and increasing your knowledge of creole and where words come from. En-Avance !!! Bonne Annee.

  4. First, I love you all and all the program. I love to see French in Action continue with Robert and Mireille and the rest of the cast.

    A French in Action tour is an splendid idea. I am old, but I will take the tour!!.
    With love for French in Action
    Mohammad « Mike » Beheshti

  5. Aside from the obvious reasons to love FIA, I myself was in high school in 1985. At 18 years old, I went to Paris by myself, and without knowing it from FIA, I happened to stay at Hotel Home Latin, while friends of mine stayed at a hostel on R.Vaugirard. We spent many hours in Jardin dLuxembourg (as I have in every return visit). Since then, when I have watched and re-watched FIA, Robert’s stay at Home Latin and the park have been magic transport to 1985 Paris.

  6. I’ve visited many of the sites of FIA on visits to Paris, even the family residence on Rue Vaugirard. A friend and I spent an uncommon meal at the Grande Cascade where Mireille once had lunch with her tonton Guillaume. Although we had a reservation months in advance and confirmed it, they still couldn’t find it then seated us next to the kitchen – even though the restaurant was still not crowded at an early hour. The nine course meal wound up being amazing and the restaurant is gorgeous. There is even a pool of gold at the foot of the interior stairs where molten gold was pooled during the time of Napolean.

  7. I heard Virginie Contesse was found and the knowledge is public! Can anyone confirm this?

  8. I have heard that Virginie Contesse has been found working at sales store in NYC. Is this true? Can someone verify the store that she works at for me?

  9. jp: I am planning a trip to Europe now that I am home for a while. I think I will emulate your photo tour of FiA locales.

  10. Haven’t heard from FIA in months; are you still on the wire??

  11. I took Destinos for Spanish and jumped eagerly onto French in Action. It is a good course but a verbatim transcript is sorely missing. None of the sites googled seem to work for it and Learner does not have it….
    Anybody has any ideas?

  12. My friend Dan and I were in the 8th grade when FIA was first on PBS. His French class was watching « Telefrancais. » I took the trouble to convince him that it was better to learn French from a hot French girl than from a talking pineapple.

  13. why wasn’t marie-laure caught by the man in black?

  14. It’s none of my business but I hope she’s doing well. that myspace of hers seems unreal. It’s the same student I saw so many years ago with a touch of gray in her hair

  15. as i have previously written, entire course is available on video files at:

    http://www.monova.org/details/1693371/FRENCH%20IN%20ACTION%20%2852-EPISODE%20COURSE%29%20%5BV1.0%5D%20%5BWMV%5D%09.html

    MAC users will have to do a google search: « how to play .WMV files on MAC ». there are several programs you can download to enable you to watch « windows media » on your MAC.

  16. the written material for the course can be downloaded here:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/6150224/French-in-Action-Basic-Course-52-Lessons-by-Pierre-Capretz?autodown=pdf

    sometimes the dialogue is hard to hear.
    if you still can’t understand what has been said, you can copy the text into « google translate »

  17. Monsieur,

    On Safari, did you remember to *un-block Pop-Up windows* before starting, as someone posted earlier? That’s the first step. That’s easy to do; it’s right there on the Safari menu; you don’t even have to go inside Preferences.

    After un-checking « Bock Pop-up Windows » option, click on any one of the FIA videos listed on the learner.org web site. A square will pop up saying:

    ***Safari can’t display content on this page.

    Some content on this page requires an Internet plug-in that Safari doesn’t support. The application “Windows Media Player” may be able to display this content. Would you like to try using “Windows Media Player”?***

    There will be « Cancel » and « OK » buttons. Click « OK », then wait. It’ll take a little while, but soon a Windows Media Player screen will show up. After some buffering, it should start your video.

    Hope this helps,

    Madame

  18. Madame,
    I have a relatively new mac and I wasn’t able to open the learner.org files with Safari. If there is another site or way, please let me know. Merci comme meme!

  19. Monsieur,
    Have you tried watching the episodes at learner.org using the Safari browser? I have a 3-year-old Macbook and I can’t watch them with the Firefox browser, but it does work with Safari. Bonne chance!

    M. Breen, that’s a fantastic deal. I don’t remember what I paid for my DVDs on eBay but I know it was a lot more than that! And the trouble with using eBay is that many sellers sell homemade copies rather than the original DVDs. So I did spend too much, but at least I avoided that fate and got originals in the original cases. Just a warning for other potential buyers.

    Madame

  20. I’m wondering if anyone can help me find all the episodes available for mac? both the monova.org and the learner.org don’t seem to work. can someone help out a fellow FIA enthusiast? merci beaucoup!

  21. For those asking about FIA on DVD, let me implore you not to toss your hard earned money to Annenberg/CPB for their exhorbitant $500 set. Instead check out: http://www.dvdhunters.com/french.htm
    They sell the entire series on DVD for under $100. I have them and they are excellent. They come boxed as 12 DVD’s with Annenberg/CPB on the cover.

  22. I think it would be nice to have a section (thread) where people could ask what someone said in French in Action. Something titled like, « Que’st-ce qu’il a dit? ».

    For example, someone could post something like this:

    In episode 3, what does the man say at 17:30?

    And then maybe someone who has a very good understanding of French can help out.

  23. salut ! someone has put the whole 52-part « french in action » video course on a peer-to-peer website ! you can download the entire series. the video course is in .wmv format (so mac users, don’t even think about it). the course is available free at learner.org, but only if you live in the USA or canada. but the peer-to-peer site is http://www.monova.org/details/1693371/FRENCH%20IN%20ACTION%20%2852-EPISODE%20COURSE%29%20%5BV1.0%5D%20%5BWMV%5D%09.html

  24. I have been watching FIA since 1985, which would make me the same age as Virginie Contesse! I still watch it and everytime it comes on I always say I want that blue dress! I have been on the hint for a dress like that since the show came on!
    Seriously though, FIA sparked my love for all things French! I still have not been to France but I feel I have lived then for over 20 years thanks to the adventures of Robert and Mirelle! It has helped me with my French studies and entertained me when I am down!
    I am so greatful to this site for letting me share my passion for this wonderful series!
    Merci,
    Diva Dabs!

  25. Actually, I found the whole series in wmv files at ebooks30.com

  26. Amazingly, the entire video series appears to be available, gratuit, at http://www.learner.org/resources/series83.html?pop=yes&pid=733. You need to, at least temporarily, allow pop-ups in your browser.

    For example, check out http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=733
    FF

  27. Very good idea. Since he has posted here before, he may still be interested in FIA, although he has clearly moved on to much more serious theater and movies.

  28. I was thinking of reaching out to Charles Mayer via his website to see if he’ll be interested in doing an interview with us, similar to the Demandez au Professeur format. Once the interview is done with Professeur Capretz, nous pouvons envoyer un courrier electronique a Charles Mayer. Et apres ca, Valerie? It will be great getting input from the cast of FIA.

  29. Nice pictures. Valerie has grown young, in a lovely French way.

    Charles Mayer’s site covers his professional life as an actor, from French in Action through recent years, although nothing recent. He has not aged much either.

    Is Valerie aware of this site? She has never posted, but Charles did once a couple of years ago.

  30. Try facebook for Virginie Contesse. I don’t know if she is the real one from FIA yet. Her photo looks like possibly a 35 year old version of the actress.

    I sent her a message: Êtes vous le Virginie Contesse du  » ; Français dans Action » ; série sur PBS ?

  31. Where can recent photos be viewed of Valerie, and Virginie Contesse

  32. You can also try your luck with amazon or ebay. The links to both are on the home page of this site. You can acquire used copies for a lot less than the learner.org prices. Good luck.

  33. John,

    Vous pouvez acheter less FIA course DVD’s on http://www.learner.org. Be warned, they cost close to $500.

    Bonne chance…..

  34. Is it possible to buy the FIA course on DVD? If so could someone let me know how this can be done.
    Thankyou.

  35. I am trying to get informatiobn on Virginie Contesse « Marie Laur « i « French in Action Program

  36. Valerie with her kid:

  37. If Gianni is right, Valérie is still young in 2008, at 43 and French, and Charles at 50 is now middle aged, as are most of their audience. Perhaps they would kindly post current pictures to this site.

  38. The weight of the evidence seems to indicate 1965 as Ms. Allain’s birth year. I am sure she would get her age right on her own MySpace page. I was also born in 1965, just five weeks after Valérie. Would have been nice to have been her playmate growing up. :-)

  39. Charles Mayer posted at that fancyrobot site that they filmed the series in the Summer of 1985. He said that Valérie was 20 and he was 27 at the time of filming. So if that’s true, then she would have been born in 1965, not 1966.

  40. My heart aches for miss Allain.

  41. I am very curious why there is virtually NO photo documentation of Valerie Allain’s almost unmatchable beauty (in her prime) online. This girl was so much more beautiful than hundreds of girls who were more famous, I just don’t get why she got so little exposure. Usually girls that beautiful get hired A LOT.

    I got hooked by FIA only because I happened to flip past it once and
    saw her for just a second and said « Dang, she looks pretty hot » so I watched for a few minutes and another shot came on – I’ll never forget it – she’s in a navy blue summer dress with her hair down meeting some people and I realized that she was one of the hottest, most attractive women I had ever seen in my life, and she seemed to have that crucially important thing that is so rare in beautiful women – self-posession.

    There are only a few others for me that have all the physical, interpersonal and expressive elements like that: Romy Schneider, Grace Kelley, young Lauren Bacall…etc.

    So: who agrees with me that the shots you really want to see of Miss Allain are the ones where her hair is DOWN?

    It’s almost always tied up in a ponytail on FIA and when it is, you can’t really tell how super-gorgeous she is, right? Only once in a long while do they have a shot of her with her hair down and THAT’S when you see the heavens open before you.

    Where are all the FIA photos of her looking super-hot WITH HER HAIR DOWN??!
    THOSE ARE THE MIND-BENDING ONES WE WANT TO SEE! ENOUGH WITH THESE INFERIOR PONYTAIL SHOTS ALREADY!

    If we were a respectable cult we’d have the really super-hot ‘hair-down’ pix online. Unfortunately I’m not enough of a nerd to go do it myself.

    Cheers to all my co-cultists!

    And Cheers to Valerie: You were the most beautiful woman of your time.

    ij

  42. I loved the video segments so much over the years. I took French while in High School for 3 years and was awarded Outstanding Foreign Language Student for all 3 years. However this was well before the show debuted. The professor who I had for 3 years was using the full immersion technique for learning language since 1980. I used to be completely fluent for many years but not using it I have lost much.

    While watching public access TV one evening, I saw the beauty of the series Mireille and began watching the series every time it was on, and even went as far as downloading the files from the website to re familiarize my mind with the language. I have friends in Grasse and Paris whom I still speak with on occasion. When I travel to Paris for business, after about 48 hours being surrounded by the language, I am back to speaking it again and within a week, I sould as if I am native to the country.

    Cheers,

    KD

  43. Simon,

    I’ve noticed that VA’s Wikipedia page lists her birthday as April 3, 1965 while her IMDb page has it as April 3, 1966. Know which it is? Her MySpace page has her age as 42, which would make 1965 correct. If 1965 is correct, then she was 20 years old, not 19 as I first had it in the above article, during the shooting of FIA. (My birthday is in May of 1965, so I’d like to know if I’m her senior, or her junior!)

  44. Hi!

    You have said: « A link to fancyrobot on Wikipedia’s Valérie Allain page referred to it as a “cult page.” » Well, let me tell you, I was the responsable of that comment, or at least the firts person on the Wiki in say that FIA has become in an object cult.

    As probably you know the Wiki’s page over VA (in English and in French!) always has been a stub, because it doesn’t have the right info, missing important dates, links, etc.

    In short words, I decided to put the link to the Fancy Robot stuff in a hope that someday VA will have a decent Wiki page, full of true facts and knowledge over her life and work. It (still) doesn’t work, at least on Wikipedia. But after read your article, I feel that a new era has begun, with a truly and strong cult community now for FIA and someday for VA.

  45. Latest pic of Valerie and family?

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