Meaning making and French Moustaches

by Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

I am going to analyze a bit of my favorite movie, La Moustache, directed by Emmanuel Carrère.

First of all, the movie is French, in both language and production location.  For me, before I ever saw it, its French-ness was a sign that I would probably like it.  I’ve liked a lot of French movies in the past, and like all humans, my thoughts, my interpretations of signs are time-embedded: I use my past memories of enjoyment to anticipate meanings for future experiences.  French-ness likely does not have this same meaning for most viewers, however.  In fact, to an English-speaking American audience French-ness might be a sign that the film will be difficult or impossible for them to understand.  While subtitles might mitigate the language barrier, perhaps an American audience has other assumptions about French films –that they aren’t likely to end happily-ever-after, or that many of the characters will chain smoke, and La Moustache, merely by being French, may evoke these initial interpretations in American viewers.  The interpretations of La Moustache I suggest above were probably the furthest things from the mind of the movie’s makers.  Thus they are good examples of how a sign’s meaning does not exist statically in someone’s thought or in a DVD on the shelf at a video store.  Rather, as Mieke Bal explains in “On Meaning Making,” “signs and meaning are… contingent on the alliance to a social group” (19).  In the case of La Moustache, I am hypothesizing that an American group might make certain assumptions about things French.

The opening scene of the movie, as well as the first moments of the Youtube trailer, juxtaposes tension-building music with the image of a man shaving his moustache.  It is this contrast, combining a moment so mundane and music so dramatic, that holds our interest.  As this is part of a movie, we recognize, due to our knowledge of the medium, that this moment will lead us to action, conflict or drama.

The movie centers around Marc and his wife Agnès.  It starts in a seemingly simple, everyday moment, as Marc decides to shave off the moustache he’s worn since before he and Agnès ever met, and eagerly waits to find out how his wife will react when she sees him.  But she doesn’t react at all.  And then neither do his friends or his colleagues.  Marc’s new clean-shaven look should be a sign that evokes surprise, or at least mild interest in his friends and family, but instead, they don’t notice that anything is different; they fail to recognize it as a sign at all.  Marc does not know how to interpret his friends’ indifference he alternately thinks the indifference is a sign that his wife is playing a cruel joke on him, that he is going crazy and that he is in danger.

As his central thesis, Bal points out that, “a sign is not a thing, but a function, an event” (9).  One of the things that makes La Moustache a great movie (and a great example for thinking about semiotics) is that the central conflict centers around the sign-event and the meaning (or lack of meaning) in Marc’s shaven lip.