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.