Stand by for the second installment in the marvelous transatlantic row triggered just a couple of years back after French intellectuals denounced the threat of "cultural imperialism" posed by "Dallas."
After first criticizing the American television series as the epitome of cultural mediocrity, the French have now decided that anything J.R. and Sue Ellen Ewing can do, they can do better.
Now, the Ewing family is alive and well and living under an assumed French name in a cha teau on the banks of the river Loire. The family has got rid of its oil wells and invested instead in a local newspaper. This being France, family members take a somewhat more prudish approach to the subject of money than they did back in Texas. But they seem to have lost many of their previous inhibitions towards sex.
Launched early in January after an American-style promotional campaign, France's answer to "Dallas" is a 26-part, $6 million blockbuster called "Chateauvallon." Like its American counterpart, it relies on the formula of high living and low goings-on. This country's cultural commissars have high hopes that the series will succeed in weaning millions of French television viewers from their unhealthy addiction to happenings at Southfork ranch.
The original French attacks on "Dallas" were inspired by Socialist culture minister Jack Lang, who devoted a speech at a United Nations conference in Mexico in 1982 to calling for "a crusade . . . against a financial and intellectual imperialism that no longer or rarely grabs territory but grabs consciousness, ways of thinking, ways of living."
Recalling the heated debate about "Dallas," "Chateauvallon's" executive producer, Jacques Dercourt, commented with a smile: "We can't be accused of succumbing to 'cultural imperialism' with our series. In fact, we are trying to combat it with something that is distinctly French, a series in the literary tradition of Balzac and Dumas."
What makes "Dallas" a la franc,aise interesting from a sociological point of view is the subtle cultural and psychological changes that the characters undergo as they are transplanted across the Atlantic. Over here, the same character types are visibly mellower, less driven, more concerned with what the French call l'art de vivre -- the art of living -- than their American counterparts. "They are less flashy than in 'Dallas.' They don't jar your eyes so much with their fake eyelashes, red cheekbones and pulsating lips. But something essential has been lost: the excitement of a filmed comic strip that provides the basic principle for the American series," wrote Annette Levy-Willard in the Paris newspaper Liberation.
In their French reincarnation, the Ewings are known as the Bergs. The family is ruled by a 70-year-old patriarch, Antonin, who is universally feared and respected. He dies in the sixth episode and is replaced by his divorced daughter, Florence, who bears a curious resemblance to "Dallas' " Sue Ellen.
None of the 200-odd characters in "Chateauvallon" is quite as single-mindedly unpleasant as J.R. Ewing. Even the villains, of whom there are quite a few, are partially redeemed by a peculiarly French sense of honor and family solidarity.
"It's quite acceptable for one of our male characters to sleep with the chambermaid. But it wouldn't do for him to go 'round peeping through keyholes," said Dercourt.
Like their opposite numbers in "Dallas," the characters in "Chateauvallon" can be observed spending money, making love and wielding power. But the treatment of these three essential ingredients of television soap operas is quite different -- and brings out the cultural contrasts between France and the United States.
"In the States, money is triumphant and everyone is quite open about it," Dercourt remarked. "In France, it is a mystery. There is plenty of money around in 'Chateauvallon,' but we never quite find out where it comes from. Money has a dishonest smell to it in this country. Everybody wants it -- but the mechanics of how it is made are always hidden."
Added Jean-Pierre Petrolacci, the principal scriptwriter of "Chateauvallon": "Americans seem to devote their entire lives to the task of making money. The French are much more concerned with devising ways of hanging on to the money that they already have."
The French attribute their attitude toward money to their Catholic traditions. Historically, this is a society that has relegated the task of handling money to outsiders and still looks with much more favor on public service than on business. The reverse side of the coin is that the French pride themselves on being free from Protestant hang-ups about sex.
The opening credits of "Chateauvallon" show characters writhing naked with each other in bed as the theme music wells up in the background. Each episode contains sex scenes blatant enough to be banished from American television altogether. One of the heroes, an unscrupulous politician, is shown in a succession of explicit poses with a succession of different women.
The theme of power is also dealt with quite differently in "Chateauvallon" than in "Dallas." In Texas, power seems to flow out of oil wells. On the banks of the Loire, it derives from family connections and aptitude for political maneuvers.
"France is a more politicized society than America," said Petrolacci. "In America, you have two political parties which do not differ from each other very significantly in terms of ideology. In France, the political spectrum is much broader -- ranging from communist to fascist. The debate is much sharper here."
In "Dallas," power is depicted as a means of acquiring money. In "Chateauvallon," it becomes a goal in itself.
To come up with ideas for "Chateauvallon," Petrolacci and his team of scriptwriters waded through years of newspapers to see what news items had grabbed the attention of their fellow countrymen. The result is a fictional amalgam of many of the scandals that have shaken France over the past decade. Part of the plot, for example, revolves around a thinly disguised account of the suicide in 1979 of the French labor minister, Robert Boulin.
The appeal of "Chateauvallon" for French television audiences is necessarily altogether different from the appeal of an American TV series such as "Dallas" or "Dynasty." "Dallas" is popular in France precisely because it confirms every cliche' that has ever been coined on this side of the Atlantic about America. In Lang's phrase, it is "a shattering indictment of American society."
The appalling cynicism displayed by a man like J.R. Ewing is fine in an American. In a Frenchman, says Petrolacci, it would be quite unacceptable. This explains why, in order to get "Dallas" to take root in French soil, it was necessary to invent a different formula. "We French are quite ready to make fun of Americans," remarked the creator of "Chateauvallon." "But we don't like making fun of ourselves."