Jeanne Koré Salvato

There’s a French expression « se remettre en question. » It’s tricky to translate literally, but if you did, it would come out like this: to re-put yourself in question.  Which does not help a lot! On an on-line forum, a French speaker offered this opinion, “It can also be used to question someone’s behavior. It’s the French “Think about your life!” thing.” And here’s an example.

“Il pense avoir toujours raison. Il ne se remet jamais en question.” He thinks he’s always right. He never questions himself.

This expression occurred to me when I watched a French movie starring Juliette Binoche.  But before I talk about the film in terms of this expression, let me ruminate on the expression itself.

Now this idea of questioning yourself as a positive value is most interesting.  I have noticed that as Americans we don’t do that a lot.  We like to present ourselves as confident, with knowledge of what we’re talking about. It’s the comedians who do this for us, this putting ourselves into question.  One comedian, whose name, unfortunately, I don’t have, began her brief skit by saying that Americans don’t like soccer.  They love American football.  “It’s who we are.  Violent.  Let me take the ground you’re standing on.”  Clever how she got to the colonialist critique by admiring football. In fact, we rarely question the other person we’re talking to, never mind questioning ourselves.  When was the last time somebody asked you, “What do you think?”

When I was married, I hit upon an idea for my husband at the time, who is a great talker, and did not brook interruption, to set his watch to go off at half hour intervals.  As the watch chimed, he’d interrupt himself and address me, asking, “What do you think?”  This little marital trick saved the day at a dinner party once where an esteemed guest was getting up to leave as the conversation around him turned a bit off-color.  The alarm went off, my husband asked what I thought, and I was able to change the subject to the guest’s liking.  He sat back down.

Just after this humanitarian organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, I went to a meeting of this group, held in a drafty church in Paris. 

Convened as a way to discuss its mission, which is medical care in emergency situations, and to engage with the French public, the meeting became the first instance where I heard the phrase, “il faut se remettre en question.” (We have to challenge ourselves; do some self-examination.)  I was impressed with this idea, but I must admit that my French was not yet good enough to understand what they were questioning!

The cynic in me is amused at this following dilemma facing Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF). Photographs were taken of vulnerable patients without informed consent.  Here’s what Wikipedia says. “Some images were criticised as exploitative and objectifying. They included a photograph of a mother mourning the death of her baby, with the boy’s body visible; child rape survivors and sexual and domestic abuse survivors, with details of their experiences included. Intended to increase awareness of dire conditions prevailing in places where MSF works and the need for their programmes, the images were used on MSF and community websites and in print publications. Licensing of the images were available for sale to image databases. The ethics of exposing devastated or victimised individuals, sometimes with partially identifying information was questioned. Following the criticism, MSF decided to cease use of the images. The removal of the images was in turn also criticized.”

In sum, the use of the images was criticized, and the removal criticized as well. 

Imagine, dear reader, that you take a position on this debate.  To se remettre en question, you could ask what value the other position holds. I remember a student of mine being thrilled after an essay exam for this reason.  “I used it, Miss.  I used, ‘while it is true that images can be exploitive, it is also important to recognize the need to put the dire conditions of these countries before the general public.’” This formulation I drummed into them as a way of nodding to an opinion you disagree with.  The students had to find something that they agreed with in the opposition, and at the same time, maintain their own position. You could, of course, say the reverse: “While it is true that we need to place the dire conditions of these countries before the general public, it is equally important not to exploit these patients.”

Now that you understand this expression, I’d like you to weigh in on the dilemma presented in a recent French movie, staring Juliette Binoche. 

Juliette Binoche is adored in France the way Meryl Streep is adored in the States. Her film, called Between Two Worlds, opens with Marianne (Juliette Binoche) applying for a job in northern France with large gaps in her resume.  The only work she could get was as a cleaning lady on demanding industrial jobs.  A woman from the hiring agency stops her.  “I’ve read your books,” she says.  And she goes on to say I don’t know if this is a good idea for you to pretend like this.  “You are taking a job from someone who needs it.”  And Marianne replies that the story is stronger than the doubts that she herself holds. And so it goes: Marianne is an undercover journalist, cleaning first office buildings during her shifts and writing pages of the book at night. 

Here’s the problem.  Chrystèle, a co-worker, who is a single woman with young boys, accepts Marianne’s offers of friendship.  Chrystèle helps Marianne obtain work on the ferry from France to England where Chrystèle also works.  Marianne comes by a car which she uses to drive Chrystèle and herself to work.  The working conditions on the ferry are deplorable.  Ninety seconds per room, to change the bed, clean the bathroom and the bedroom.  Chrystèle shares her life with Marianne, giving her a birthday gift, slowly confiding in her.  And Marianne is typing everything up in the evening.  Naturally, Chrystèle accidentally finds out the truth.  She is furious.  She feels used, exploited.  The whole friendship is tainted.  Ruined.  Marianne invites all the cleaning crew from the ferry to the book launch, and the ones who come celebrate the book, grateful that people will think differently about the cleaning crews on the ferry. Chrystèle doesn’t go.

Watching the movie got me thinking again about this notion of putting yourself into question, or re-evaluating yourself, as my bilingual daughter would say.  Marianne’s character does not question herself, not really.  And that is what the movie asks us.  If she had re-evaluated herself, would she have come across as less bougie, less paternalistic, albeit well-intentioned?   Or is that the needed journalist’s stance, at a remove and always in quest of the story? 

Somehow it seems to me that our two vagabonds don’t need to re-evalute themselves, and I wonder why that is.  Through their actions and the way the play unfolds, so much is put into question already.  If they questioned themselves, I fear the play would fall apart like a house of cards.  They do question one another, however, which because they are so similar, may well be an approximation of re-evaluating themselves.  What do you think, dear reader?

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