At the Cité internationale de Villers-Cotterêts, the French language is loosened

At the Cité internationale de Villers-Cotterêts, the French language is loosened
At the Cité internationale de Villers-Cotterêts, the French language is loosened

When the grandparents of 10-year-old Bertille suggested she visit the Cité internationale de la langue française, in Villers-Cotterêts (Aisne), the little girl grimaced. Not really excited to delve into French, this subject that bores millions of kids at school. Two hours later, Bertille comes out with a smile on her face, with – incredible! – the desire to return there. “There are lots of games, it was great and fun. »

This “wow” effect often comes to the ears of director Paul Rondin, reinforced by the attendance figures for this highly political site, inaugurated by Emmanuel Macron last October. More than 120,000 people have visited the site since November. The seed germinated nicely in the former hunting estate of François I, on the edge of the Retz forest. It was here that the king signed, in 1539, the order imposing French in place of Latin in legal and civil status documents.

“The French-speaking world is doing very well! »

Exit the “dead language”, make way for the living, which has vibrated throughout the world for millennia. “It’s an exceptional place to live,” praises Paul Rondin. Cultural and social facilities of this magnitude no longer exist in the territories today. To the grumpy people who think that French is doing badly, this place shows on the contrary that the French-speaking world is doing very well! »

Throughout fifteen rooms, covering 1,200 m2, the visitor is immersed in the power of the language, amused by its joyful earthiness, in the mouths of Raymond Devos, Muriel Robin, Dany Boon. Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa with a mustache smiles in front of Jeanne Moreau who hums her famous “Whirlwind of Life” from the film “Jules et Jim” on the big screen.

In this first room emerges the most impressive installation of the course. The most symbolic too. A giant library, equipped with a few quizzes between two rows of (real) books. Inside, an imaginary librarian recommends a book, depending on our mood. Read by the light of a candle, a light bulb or the stars. Feeling with your feet on the ground or in the clouds when closing a book. Do we find escape or self-understanding there?

The giant library where quizzes and books are nestled in the heart of the Château de Villers-Cotterêts. LP/Arnaud Journois

In an alcove, the voice of Jean-Louis Trintignant lulls us to the meeting of the Little Prince and the Fox. Saint-Exupéry’s novel is the most translated in the world after the Bible, in 550 languages. “Draw me French,” The Little Prince might say. The language threads its way through the ages, abundant, luxuriant.

“Languages ​​are alive, intertwined”

Under a starry dome, the words light up according to their origins. Who imagined that “ketchup” had its Source in Malay (Indonesia-Malaysia)? That “violin”, “shower”, “soldier”, “compass”, “pumps”, “fork” (and tutti quanti) were borrowed from the Italians. “Avatar” emerges from Sanskrit, “mattress” from Arabic. “It’s my favorite space,” confides the director. It shows how languages ​​are alive and intertwined. And makes those who talk about the purity of the French language think. »

Faced with migratory words, we read the translations of “milk”, “plush”, “chief”, “wallet”, in other languages. La Cité also talks about the 320 million French speakers in the world. “We are surprised that it is so much, it makes us proud,” say Marie-France and her husband, Bertille’s grandparents.

Paul and Penelope savor each room. These Americans love the language of Molière. He, a 72-year-old former dancer and choreographer, started learning it when he retired, seven years ago. He speaks it brilliantly, has read Le Clézio, Annie Ernaux and loves the films “En corps” and “La passion de Dodin Bouffant”. “French, for us, is the language of literature and great films. » Between the Eiffel Tower and the museum of the painter Gustave Moreau, the couple pushed on to Villers-Cotterêts. “An essential step,” smiles the elegant Francophile.

The journey is to be savored. Peck at numbers, listen to a nursery rhyme, smile at the slang words that permeate a culture. The staff of the Cité have appropriated the Quebecois “divulgâcher”, an alternative to “ rob, to unveil “. Here a wall of hidden words, there two men correcting a dictation. Words play with portmanteaus, apocopes and palindromes. French, a plural language, the language of exile and welcome, also colored by around thirty patois in the four corners of France. The sword of Alain Decaux, of the French Academy, seems to greet our departure. We have not seen the hourglass of time pass in these torrents of words.

From Piaf to Aya Nakamura, French-speaking hits soon to be exposed

The Cité internationale de la langue française is preparing to program its first temporary exhibition, “It’s a song that resembles us, global success of French-speaking popular music”. She will tackle French-speaking songs across the world and the decades, giving pride of place to women like Juliette Gréco and Françoise Hardy.

We will be able to see Aya Nakamura’s sequinned strapless dress, the casting of Edith Piaf’s hands, Kassav’s guitar in the shape of the African continent, diving back into the birth of Céline Dion’s “D’eux”, the best-selling French-language album in history. The exhibition will take place over 400 m2, in five thematic rooms, from cabaret to music hall, from the street with “Le Déserteur” by Boris Vian, to pop, including the dance hall. A grand Joséphine Baker ball will be given on June 8. There are two free workshops left to prepare your ballroom dances, on May 18 and June 1 in the afternoon. Also note the Wampas concert on July 20, for 10 euros.

International city of the French language, in the town center of Villers-Cotterêts (Aisne), open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Entrance 9 euros, free for under 26s. Combined train ticket from Paris + entry at 18 euros, 9 euros for under 26s. 10 minutes walk from Villers-Cotterêts station. Access: 50 minutes by TER from Gare de Nord. Tickets combined with the châteaux of Pierrefonds (15 euros) and Coucy (20 euros). Temporary exhibition “It’s a song that resembles us” from June 19 to January 5, 5 euros.



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