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La petite vie (#98)

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I set a few rules for myself when writing this blog.   One of these rules was to write about things which are generally current, pertinent and of interest.

On the surface, this post sort of defeats the above rule.  It is about a television sitcom series, La petite vie, which ran for several years, but which went off the air in 1998.  In a sense, you could say it’s not very current, thus its pertinence could be questioned, and if its pertinence can be questioned, it might not be of interest.

However, contrary to the above arguments, I believe the show still carries an unmatched legacy in Québec pop-culture and society which keeps it current;  people are still parodying it (kids still wear Halloween costumes of the main characters), people still talk about it, and re-runs & box sets are still as popular as ever.  The two main characters, môman and pôpa (pronounced with a heavy East-End Montréal accent), still continue to “appear” in costume at award gala ceremonies as award presenters.  It’s pertinent for many reasons; the show attracted (and continues to attract) the attention of an entire society and generation on a scale never seen before, it galvanized the type of humour Québec identifies with and how Québec it views itself (you can judge how someone or a society views themselves by their own self-depricating humour), comedians and subsequent shows (both sitcoms and in a sense even dramas), seem to have based many of their themes around the overall context of La petite vie.  And finally, the show is just plain interesting.

La petite vie literally translates as “The small life”, but it’s actually an expression in French with a bit deeper meaning (and direct relevance to the show).  It basically means a small life” in English (or “a petty life”), in the sense that your whole world revolves around a very small circle, small area, and your views, outlook, and goals are equally small.  You just live life in a tiny comfort zone with little care (and perhaps even little knowledge) of anything outside that comfort zone.  It’s not bad – it’s just small.  Problems which happen to people living “a small life” may not be very big problems in the grand scheme of life — But because these mundane problems constitute “everything” that is happening to these people (owing to their life being so small), the smallest things become overblown and huge issues (ie: it could be the end of the world that the garden hose sprung a leak, that the neighbour gossiped about your daughter, that a little milk got spilled…).

I’d put La petite vie in the category of “ridiculous” comedy, yet genius in its punch lines which makes it absolutely hilarious.  It’s filmed with live characters and centres around a working class East-End Montréal family.  The middle-aged mother and father are the two main characters.  It’s their interactions with their four children and other people around them which constitutes the essence of the scripts.   The parents are magnetic poles who attract everyone into their home, where the series is mostly filmed.  It plays on the absurdity of the oil-and-vinegar personalities of the family members, and makes for amazing comedy.

I’m not sure English North America has something comparable featuring live actors.   The closest comparisons which come to mind are actually cartoons – a mix between The Simpsons, and The King of the Hill.  Now picture those two cartoon series being filmed by live actors, with their ridiculous plots, crude language, and recurrent expanded secondary characters.  It would be an extremely tough act to pull off by any stretch of the imagination.  The only way it would work would be if the humour was quick, witty, and punch lines definately would have to carry the show.  That’s La petite vie – and they actually managed to pull it off!

During the period of its airing, the show twice attracted the largest Canadian television audience in history, exceeding 4 million viewers, and individual episodes regularly attracted over 2 million television viewers.   It appeared nation-wide on Radio-Canada, but also aired in Europe and around the world on TV5 Monde.

Its appeal was enhanced further by way of the self-deprecating humour of a “stereotypical” Québec working-class family;  along with lots of action in the kitchen, adult and near-adult kids charting their own courses in all directions but still running back to the safety of mom & dad, quirky interactions with neighbours, a clash of old and new values, small family scandals, and that ever-so-recognizable East-End Montréal accent.

I want to re-stress that it’s shot in a fast-paced, often very heavy Montréal East-End accent (it might be a bit difficult for Anglophones to follow if their French is at a less-than-upper-intermediate level, at a minimum — but that’s only because the language is extremely heavy on joual combined with a heavy Montréal East-End accent).   The show’s comedy just wouldn’t come through the same if it was made in any other accent or with any less joual.  The accent basically set the subtext for many scenes because the accent is stereotypically associated with a certain type of personality (just as a New York or Texas accent is often stereotyped with a certain type of personality ).

Now you can understand a bit more why I thought it might be useful, in more than just one way, to write a series on our 32 different accents in Canadian French, in addition to offering other tid-bits here and there on Joual and other language quirks (it’s all starting to slowly come together now — and you’ll be a mini-expert on Québec and Canadian French culture in no time 😉 ).  In addition to providing us with an identity and regional culture, accents and the level of speech we use do carry much in the way of sub-text about who we might be as a person.  Whether that sub-text is true or not, that’s a completely different debate (click HERE and HERE for the earlier two posts relevant to the “Eastern Montréal and Laval old town” accent, and HERE for the post on Joual).

In many ways, when people think of Québec television, they think of La petite vie.    Although the series spanned a good chunk of the 1990s, younger generations (post Y2K) still know it, and still find it funny.   It’s one of the few sure-bet cultural phenomena which has permeated into every Francophone home in Québec (as well as Francophone homes across Canada) .   The show is an institution unto itself.

I’m not going to go into all the characters.   Nor will I delve deeper into the plot, nor its awards (suffice to say it’s an award winner).  I can leave it to you to research on your own if you’re interested (the French Wikipedia article is fairly comprehensive in this sense.  It can be viewed HERE, and Google Translate, with which to read it in English, can be opened HERE).

A few stars and characters in the show were the topics of some earlier posts:  Marc Labrèche was a main actor, Rémy Girard was a regular actor, Janette Bertand made appearances, as did Normand Brathwaite, Claude Legault, and Danny Turcotte.

Box series are available for sale.  If you wish to purchase the box set, you might wa to check out Archambeault or Renaud-Bray’s websites (also the subject of a previous post).

If, for whatever reason, you do want to develop an ear for Montréal East-End accent (and not just limit your language learning to more neutral or “friendlier” accents, such as Standard Québécois, the Greater Montréal accent, or some others), then the box set of this series might be the answer for you.   At least it would be sub-titled if you’re entering the realm of accents for the first time.  But I would not recommend tackling this front unless you’re already fairly comfortable in French, or you find that most of your interactions in French are with people who grew up on the Islands of Montréal, Laval, and part of the South Shore (Longueuil).

You may be able to find official footage online.  Please stick to official sites and do not pirate.  Works such as this is part of our cultural heritage.


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