Culture Film & TV

The Philistine’s Guide to Film in Translation

The genre we expect to be scared of is horror. So, why do we fear the foreign-language film? Is it down to its definition; the ‘foreign’ that is synonymous to ‘alien’? I argue the fear of the subtitled film is the fear of the unknown – or not the unknown, but what we do not know. We are stunted by the assumption that we are not smart enough to watch it. Or, not the fear of what we do not know, but what I do not know; in naming this piece the philistine’s guide to film in translation, I clarify that I am the philistine. I take on this label in an act of reclamation: as a philistine, I do not feel hostile towards the arts but towards the way they are used to set up a cultural hierarchy in which only the ‘intellectual’ may access some areas. I speak only English, but, thankfully, being able to read that language is the single requirement for enjoying the subtitled film.  

The foreign-language film does not condemn us for not speaking its language. It does not call us stupid. Instead, it gives us subtitles so we know exactly what is going on. It teaches us but it is not didactic. For this reason, I have selected Dogtooth (Kynodontas, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, dir. Luis Bunuel) as defenders of the subtitled film. Both I have chosen simply because they are very bizarre films: they epitomise my notion that the foreign film is not one type of thing, not one type of serious, inaccessible, exemplary thing. Instead, it can be disturbing, funny, and confusing all at the same time and for its own sake rather than as features of the clique that is foreign-language film. Powerful and powerless, meaningful and meaningless. 

Dogtooth is a Greek-language drama that tells the story of three adult siblings living in a microcosmic totalitarian society: their family home. Under the rule of their manipulative father, the siblings are stuck in an eternal childhood. Though they know nothing beyond the confines of their house, the unknown language is their own: learning a fake vocabulary through tape recordings, to them the ‘sea’ is ‘a leather armchair with wooden arms like the one we have in our living room’. This false definition confuses the fear of the foreign-language film; the language that locks the children in is domestic. The only instance of the outside world is ‘Christine’, brought in by the father to sexually service the son. Christine marks where the unknown becomes the stranger: foreign-language films give us the possibility of meeting characters we would be far less likely to meet than their English equivalents. 

As well as an unknown person, ‘stranger’ can mean ‘to be weirder’. The foreign-language films allow us to explore the weird. The disparity between domestic and international cinema extends to cultural differences. The foreign film can depict the odd, the taboo, and the downright distressing as it is detached from our cultural norms. Alongside the moments of extended childhood, Dogtooth is a hypersexualised tale of abuse, incest, and violence. It is made to shock, an aim assisted by the subtitles. We hear things we don’t understand and use our eyes to read what we would usually hear, heightening the disorientation created by the action. Foreign-language films allow us to be confused. We are allowed to not know what is going on. The foreign film wants us to be a neophyte as if we already knew everything it would have nothing to show us. 

There is a stigma around the foreign-language film: that because it is subtitled it is immediately high art. That you must be rich and posh and cultured to watch it, transforming a means of entertainment into a means of fuelling intellectual elitism. That your eyes are stupider than your ears and are unable to understand English as easily. That is why, to refute this notion, I move on to the absurdist film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In this French-language comedy, nothing and everything happens. Following the attempts of a group of friends to dine, the film contains a priest-come-gardener, dream sequences, ghosts, a hidden theatre, invading mobsters, and consequently, no dinner: despite the excess of events, the group gets no closer to its goal. The watcher never really knows what’s happening and is never given any reasons why the things that happen do. It epitomises the film without meaning: if foreign-language film is the unknown, this film is there being nothing to know. 

The philistine loves the foreign-language film because it is the place where ignorance truly is bliss. The unknown in cinema manifests as a possibility. The unknown in subtitled cinema manifests as infinity. The complaint that the subtitled film asks too much of you should be translated to a praise: it gives you so much. Through subtitles, it gives the watcher access to a new language, but it does not test them on it after the credits roll. Watching films is not an intellectual exercise but something for enjoyment. So, the only real tip in this so-called ‘guide’ is to remember that the subtitled film is not a single film or homogenised group, but a label used purely for the sake of categorising award shows and streaming platforms. If you didn’t enjoy one film with subtitles, simply try another. The foreign-language film does not ask its watcher to have a big brain, just an open mind.