Cross-cultural Comparison
through Film
Sabine Levet
Foreign Languages & Literatures, MIT
Teaching Culture
• Culture is the logic by which I give order to
the world. Part of this logic is ‘tacit, invisible,’
it is ‘everything that goes without saying.
Raymonde Carroll, Evidences invisibles
• Silent Language, Hidden Dimension (Edward
Comparative Approach
• Juxtaposition of two cultures
• Comparing a variety of materials with Cultura:
questionnaires, statistics, newspapers,
images, and films.
Comparing a Film and its Remake
Because it unfolds within a limited time frame,
a movie must work from a large number of
implicits common to the film makers and the
audience, a large number of things which are
‘self-evident’. R.Carroll
Comparing a Film and its Remake
The variations between the foreign film and
the American film are the result of deliberate
choices. Analyzing these differences can
reveal the underlying cultural presuppositions
upon which the original movie and its remake
are built.
We are led to believe that European films
adapt, readapt, cite, pay homage to, parody,
but do not remake, the former activities being
linked to artistic and literary traditions of high
culture, the latter being representative of
American films and their ties to commerce
and commercial interests.
The truth is that every national cinema is both
a business and a producer of art. The remake
is integral to an understanding of the relation
between the two positions. (Forrest and
Comparing a Film and its Remake
• It is important to put aside value judgment in
order to let both remake and original unveil
the mutual enrichment that only emerges
from a juxtaposition of the two. (Claire Vassé)
Comparing a Film and its Remake
• Our goal is not to decide which version is
best, as some critics would do, usually
evaluating a movie against ‘the original’,
which becomes the norm, or the real thing.
• It seems more interesting to underscore the
cultural differences which come out when two
versions of the same story are juxtaposed.
Brigitte Humbert
Comparing a Film and its Remake
• We do not hand our students a list of
differences between the American or French
cinematic tradition.
• We ask them to look, compare, and make
sense of what they see. They discuss it in
class and with their online partners.
Homer’s Odyssey
The Simpsons Exported to Middle East
The Simpsons Exported to Middle
• The issue of adaptation.
• Is it still the Simpsons?
• Can it work?
Trois hommes et un couffin
Three Men and a Baby
Trois hommes et un couffin
Three Men and a Baby
• Students are asked to watch the French film
before the remake, and ideally to watch both
films in one sitting or in close succession.
• They receive a list of questions to show that
have seen the movie and to pick up on
Trois hommes et un couffin
Three Men and a Baby
• Two steps:
- global analysis of the differences
- scene-by-scene comparison
Looking at the differences
• The storyline.
• The relationships between the men, and
between the men and the baby.
• The relationships between the men and the
others: women, friends, the police
What is different? What has been added,
removed, or changed in the American
Looking at the differences
• When comparing the two movies, you will
probably have to use comparatives. But make
sure to avoid value judgments.
• Avoid statements such as “movie X is
funnier,” “scene X is less interesting”.
Compare only to present objective facts, such
as “there is more action in the American
Looking at the differences
• The main goal to observe and analyze (not
judge) the differences, and try and
understand the underlying reasons behind
these differences.
• After we list these differences, we will try to
answer the following question: what caused
the American director (L. Nimoy) to make
these changes?
Trois hommes et un couffin
Three Men and a Baby
• Students work in class and online
• They work alone and in small groups
- they share their observations
- they discuss with their partners to make
sense of the differences
The story line - forum
“The most obvious plot change I noticed was how the
drug exchange finally played out. In the French
version the dealers got their drugs and the police
were left out of the loop. In the American version the
police are able to capture the drug dealers. I wonder
if this difference can be associated with the
perception and treatment of police in France versus
the United States.”
The story line - forum
“Although I can see how the difference adds more
action to the American version, I think the portrayal of
cops in each movie reflects the cultural viewpoints
towards them. For example, it seemed to me that in
the French version of the film the cops were
portrayed as stupid and that they make a lot of
mistakes - such as when the cop did not pay close
enough attention to realize Michel snuck the drugs to
the man in the park. Based on what we have seen
from the questionnaires, it seems as if this portrayal
of a cop would be more appealing to French culture.”
The story line - forum
“Cela me fait penser à d'autres films où les flics ont
l'air de parfaits abrutis : je ne sais pas si Luc Besson
est connu outre-atlantique (c'est lui qui a fait "le
cinquième élément" et "taxi"), mais il est spécialiste
de la démagogie en ce domaine, avec des policiers
crétins et caricaturaux, tous plus débiles les uns que
les autres. A bien y réfléchir, je ne retrouve pas dans
ma mémoire de films récents où la police est mise en
valeur. Retournons aux bons vieux classiques avec
des commissaires et des inspecteurs intelligents et
les Maigret ! Maigret c'est notre Columbo à nous !)”
The story line - forum
This reminds me of other movies where the cops look
completely stupid. I don’t know if Luc Besson is
famous on your side of the Atlantic, (he shot the Fifth
Element and Taxi) but he is used to this type of
demagogy, with completely stupid and caricatural
police officers, each one more stupid than the others.
Now that I think about it, I can’t recall a recent movie
where the police would have a good role. Let’s get
back to the good old classics, with clever police
commissioners and inspectors and the Maigret
stories! Maigret is our very own Columbo.
The story line - forum
“A propos de la différence dans le traitement de la
drogue dans les deux films: On retrouve ici une des
différences entre les cultures française et américaine
dont on avait parlé lors des questionnaires : les
Américains ont tendance à faire appel aux autorités
dès qu'il en ressentent le besoin, tandis que les
Français pensent plutôt que les lois sont faites pour
être transgressées.”
Comparing Scenes
Découverte du bébé /Discovery of the baby
Retour de Jacques / Jack’ return
Mère de Jacques / Jack’s mother
Retour de Sylvia / Sylvia’s return
Scène Finale / Final scene
Comparing Scenes
• Teams of students
• Work with clips of specific scenes and with
• Look at differences individually then work in
• Discuss with their online partners and
connect their observations with what they
have observed so far about the other culture
Jacques/Jack and his Mother
Interaction between the characters
Non-verbal communication
Background, music, rhythm, etc.
Sylvia’s Return - forum
“[It was] interesting to see how much more
enthusiastic Sylvia was in her body language and
comments in conversation with Mary directly and the
men in the English version. It appears as though she
is genuinely happy to be reunited with her daughter.
In the French version, it's not that she is unhappy to
see her daughter, but she does not express the same
level of enthusiasm and excitement upon her arrival.”
Sylvia’s Return - forum
“I think that might be just because the French (from
the Cultura questionnaires) seem to be not as open
and expressive with their emotions.”
Other observations (sample)
Les hommes français se touchent,
les américains se regardent
Couffin, 2:19 et 2:23
Baby, 0:51 et 2:34
Les hommes français offrent de l’aide; la
Sylvia américaine la demande
Sylvia: Dormir,
d’accord, mais quand?
Pierre: Mais vous nous
laissez la petite
quelques jours [...]
Sylvia: J’ai amené ses
affaires pour quelques
Sylvia: [...] I need help. I
need someone to help me.
Michael: We’ll help. We
will help! [...]
Sylvia: I was hoping you
would say that.
La famille française a des problèmes, la
famille américaine respecte la morale
Sylvia: Mes parents, je
suis fâchée avec eux,
et puis d’abord, ils sont
en Bretagne et puis, ils
s’en foutent de moi.
Peter: [...] Mary should
move in with us
permanently, we should be
her family. [...] She needs
a full-time mother. That’s
why we think that you
should move in too. [...]
Michael: Yes, of course,
four is better than three.
34 /15
Le film français est plus sombre et classique,
l’américain est dynamique et moderne
Couffin, 2:23
Baby, 3:26
Film critics
• Students read film critics after they have
worked on the film
• French film in France, and in the US
• American film in the US, and in France
• Sometimes as a way to test how much they
have uncovered about each movie/culture.
Film critics
Serreau's real problem is her inability to tell a
joke. Unless you find the mere idea of a man
changing a diaper automatically hilarious,
Three Men and a Cradle has precious few
laughs. Shot in a strangely grave, twilight style
ill suited to the sitcom premise, the movie plods
dully from one foreseeable irony to the next.
Yes, little Marie is adorable, but can one cute
kid be responsible for an entire nation losing its
esthetic marbles? C'est un grand mystère.
David Ansen, Newsweek.
Comparing two trailers of a same
La marche de l’empereur
March of the Penguins
(see also Movie are made to be seen, Canal+)
Comparing two trailers of the
same movie
Overall impressions?
What type of movie?
Why these differences?
Comparing commercials for a similar
“Faire du ciel le plus bel endroit de la terre,”
Air France
“Going Home,” American Airlines
Remakes in many languages
• Long list of remakes .
• Working with posters, trailers, scenes, film
• Additional materials (focus on culture).
Bibliography and Online Resources
Carroll, Raymonde. Cultural Misunderstandings. The University of Chicago Press, 1988
Fabe, Marilyn. Closely Watched Films, An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique. University of
California Press, 2004
Forest, Jennifer and Koos Leonard, eds. Dead Ringer, The Remake in Theory and Practice. State University of
New York Press, 2002
Verevis, Constantine. Film Remakes. Palgrave MacMillan, 2005
Carroll, Raymonde. Film et analyse culturelle: le Remake. Contemporary French Civilization, 13:2 (1989): 346359
Humbert, Brigitte. Films français, remakes américains.
The French Review, Vol.82, No.5 (2009): 962-980
Film Reference
The Internet Movie Database
Cultura > Learn About Cultura > Teacher’s Guide > The Modules > Films

Cross-cultural Comparison through Film