We are back in breezy Cleveland after several weeks spent catching up with family and friends in France. The heat and drought have been abnormally intense and long in most of Europe this summer. My hometown has not been spared. The green city I love has seemingly vanished. The land is sun-scorched. The grass is sparse and yellow. The plants are starving. Something is badly off.
I was seven when my family moved there. It was a particularly dry summer in most of France. Not so in our new region in the North East, where we were welcomed by green hills and meadows. Now even the parts of France whose climate used to be temperate have to cope with repeated heatwaves. I never experienced summers like this growing up. I never felt the urge to retreat in a dark room to escape the mid-day heat for days in a row.
My parents acquired a large fan during a previous heatwave three years ago. Some of their friends further south have invested in air conditioning. I know it does not sound particularly extreme to Americans but we simply did not need these things before. I could feel a growing sense of disorientation when talking about it with friends and family there.
On a very warm night earlier this month I went to see Les Olympiades by Jacques Audiard. The film, released a few years ago, was featured in a summer series offered by one of my favorite local theaters. It was my chance to catch up a bit with French cinema. Catch up I did — even more than I expected.
The four main characters of the film, one man and three women in their mid twenties to early thirties, intersect in a Paris neighborhood rarely showed on films, the Olympiades, mostly known for its large Asian population and its generic tall apartment buildings. They share talks, friendship, sex, and perhaps love. They are educated, funny, moving, and far from settled.
Two of the main characters are non-white: Emilie is of Chinese origin while Camille is a Black man. In her interactions with her family and other Chinese characters Emilie alternates seamlessly between Chinese and French. Emilie’s and Camille’s backgrounds are present but they are by no means central to the story. They are just two of its many dimensions.
Emilie and Camille are above all young Parisians in the early 21st century, regardless of their origins. That in itself is a refreshingly new perspective. One that departs from the 20th century France I knew and lived in. Another climate change of sort — not necessarily easy to adjust to for some French people, but certainly more hopeful.
Not everything has changed anyway, as suggested by the exchange I overheard between two women while exiting the theater:
– Elle joue bien, la petite Chinoise. (The little Chinese acts well.)
– Même si les visages de Chinois sont toujours un peu indéchiffrables. (Even though Chinese faces are always a bit hard to read.)
Still, on a quiet night of this strange summer, I could feel while walking leisurely in the heart of that dear familiar city that things had shifted. The country I come from was no longer entirely recognizable to me.