Friday, 17 April 2020

Bécassine - Breton Adventuress

An accident prone moon-faced Breton serving girl whose adventurous life was extensively recorded in a series of illustrated books in colour, widely regarded as among the earliest examples of what would later be known as bandes-dessinées (BD). Diligent but clumsy, Bécassine is naive and good natured, forever stumbling into danger and encounters with master-criminals. Habitually, her face is drawn without a mouth. On occasions when her mouth is shown it has no more weight than an apostrophe. Out of the house, she is rarely separated from her red umbrella which comes in handy whenever there’s a potential assassin to dispatch. The narrative proceeds via a grid of small coloured line drawings with explanatory text printed below. Much like the alternation of silent movie sequences and captions. Some pictures are emphasised by a circular enclosure - speech bubbles were still in the future. Bécassine began life in 1905 as a strip cartoon in a weekly comic. In 1905 the first book version was published - by 1962 there were 27 in the series. All but a few were illustrated with the lightest of touches by the magnificently named Émile-Joseph Porphyre Pinchon (J P Pinchon).

In this book (Les Mésaventures de Bécassine), our heroine has to deal with an idle and inept team of painters and decorators before heading for a remarkably diverse version of Paris where she stumbles from one adventure to another like the silly goose that she is. A bus ride to Trocadéro ends with her being co-opted as a Breton representative in an exhibition of French regional costumes. Events move fast and Bécassine is on a train to the seaside where she carries out her duties with exemplary devotion. Her Breton origins are the point of the books - there’s a long tradition of looking down on the Bretons on the part of metropolitan France. Especially for Parisians for whom they serve as dull and backward stereotypes, thus validating the high esteem in which they hold themselves. Residents of Brittany take exception to this and point to the region’s rating as 5th. in France in terms of GDP per capita. The city and region of Rennes has for decades been one of the fastest growing in France. But the need to have someone to look down on is very strong and it may be the fate of the Bretons to continue to play this role despite all evidence to the contrary. Finally Bécassine was filmed as a live-action movie released in 2018 which I suppose is a tribute to its enduring appeal. It might be of some interest if only to see if the leading player has had her lips digitally erased.

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