Category Archives: France

Australia-phobia in the Dressmaker

The global response to the 13 November Paris terror attacks have been understandably focused on its tragic impact on the lives of its population, on both those directly targeted by the terrorists and those who will fall victim to the increased fear that ensues. Some critical responses have attacked an exceptionalism that elevates the suffering of a European centre above more regular terrorist tragedies that occur in the South. What has not been commented on is the underlying affection the world holds Paris, not just as a privileged rich Western city, but also as a place of great beauty. With some distance from the tragic event, we can reflect on this romance, felt particularly intensely in a place far distant from the centre.

One of Melbourne’s contributions to the expression of global solidarity was the projection of the tricolour onto the edifice of the National Gallery of Victoria – International on St Kilda Road.

This was followed a few days later with the announcement of the Winter Masterpiece program for 2016 – an exhibition of French impressionist paintings Degas: A New Vision.

NGV Director Tony Elwood emphasised the scale of the exhibition: “It’s the most complex exhibition that the NGV and Art Exhibitions Australia has ever embarked upon”. Curator Ted Schell pointed out the connection with the Paris attacks:   “He’s the quintessential artist that expresses the essence, the life, the freedom, the joie de vivre of Paris in the late 19th century and we need that message to be carried, especially now after the tragedy of last weekend for poor Paris.”

The Paris attacks have raised a question about Melbourne’s position in the world. As an international city, it rightly joins others in the expression of solidarity with the citizens of Paris. But it also joins other cities at the bottom of the world in wanting a bit of Paris to itself.

Buenos Aires claimed the title ‘Paris of the South’ by modeling is central Avenida Cordoba on Baron Haussman’s urban design of the Champs-Elysees. Melbourne has the more modest claim of the ‘Paris end of Collins Street’, but it also has a romantic attachment to Paris in its unconscious. While its artistic heritage springs from the studios of Montmartre, intellectually its ideas are framed by the pantheon of French intellectuals, Barthes, Foucault and lately Rancier.

Winter Masterpieces is the most visible sign of this. Melbourne’s winter affords the opportunity to wear European clothes and become immersed in its grand art movements.  The program began in 2004 with Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay, followed by Dutch Masters, Monet, Dali, Art Deco, Picasso, Napoleon and last year the Hermitage.

There may seem nothing noteworthy in this. It is typical of middle class taste as found anywhere. But it’s particular significance for Melbourne has been revealed in a new Australian film.


Dressmaker has received a very warm reception as the latest instalment in a lineage of films including My Brilliant Career, Wake in Fright and Muriel’s Wedding. The plot involves a daughter returning to the small country town of her birth to deal with the trauma that caused her to leave – the claim that she had killed a boy.

The film makes much of the gothic scene of the remote Victorian town. Most of the trees are dead and the soundtrack is haunted by crows. The town’s inhabitants are seen as mean-spirited and provincial. The policeman Sergeant Farrat takes a fetishistic delight in the garments that Tilly Dunnage has brought back from Paris. He swoons over Dior and reveals his secret proclivity for cross-dressing.

But the power of the film is particularly in its casting. The presence of US megastar Kate Winslet as the returning daughter casts a stark shadow over the pathetic comic characters of Dungatar. Judy Davis plays her mother whose athletic feistiness shows up the dullish-nature of her neighbours.

Like Strictly Ballroom, the romantic interest is only found on the margins – in this case Teddy McSwiney from a poor family in the town camp. But the film exceeds its comic remit by consigning the whole town to flames at the conclusion. The haughty devastation brought on by Paris-trained daughter brooks no sympathy for the inhabitants whose lives are ruined, nor thought for the history of the town is extinguished.

The film ends with Tilly Dunnage on the train, approached by the conductor who asks where she is going. ‘Paris’ she says wistfully. Unperturbed, the conduct recites, ‘Hmm, well we stop at Ballarat, Broadford, Bacchus March and Melbourne’. Dunnage looks at him blankly. ‘Melbourne, then’.

Here then is the quintessence of Melbourne exceptionalism. It’s Paris end of Collins Street marks a distinction from the embarrassing ‘country towns’ that it finds company with at the end of the world. Here is the divide too readily exploited by reactionary voices that accuse the ‘latte set’ as out of touch with ordinary Australia. Is it possible the rapidly decreasing ‘ordinary Australia’ ends up as a myth, used to make those in its metropolitan centres feel closer to the north?

While Dressmaker does present a zero-sum game between French and Australian cultural pride, the final solution adopted in the conclusion is so extreme that it can serve to awaken some consciousness about local identity. The wish to destroy your own culture does seem the height of ‘bad faith’ (or indeed mauvais fois). The ever more dramatic negation of Australianness does seem to confirm its resilience. Indeed, why else are we still here?

I must confess to some discomfort in writing this post. The call to cultural pride in the face of foreign influence has a particularly nasty face in contemporary Australia, with the rise of neo-Fascist groups like Reclaim Australia that demonise Muslims. In today’s Australia, it’s hard to find expression of cultural pride that is sophisticated and cosmopolitan, rather than jingoistic or reactionary.

Maybe, in the end, that’s something Australia can learn from France, where national identity is tied to ethical values forged during the Enlightenment and subsequent revolution. Maybe Australia needs to be more French in order to dream less of being French.

From heresy to beauty products–the idea of South in France


It is tempting to position the South as a victim of the North. Certainly, the conflict between the French North and South appears to be a story of ruthless oppressor that violently subjugates a peace-loving and tolerant victim. Is that necessarily so? Whichever way, French history straddles a cultural fault-line that continues to move in opposing directions.

France contains at least two nations. While the north was populated by Franks from Germany, the south was a separate entity ruled by Visigoths in the Middle Ages. They were more closely connected laterally with the Catalans than vertically with the Franks. During its independent history, the South, known as Occitania, was a site of resistance to imperial rule.

Their first form of Christianity was Arianism, which taught that God came before Jesus. Around the tenth century, an interest in ‘courtly love’ emerged under the influence of poetry from Andalusia. The word “troubadour” was derived from an Arabic root ta-ra-ba meaning “to be transported with joy and delight”. The literary genre of ‘chanson de geste’ emerged celebrating refinement of taste in contract to the tales of war and heroic deeds prevalent in the north.

Cathars expelled from Carcassonne in 1209.
Cathars expelled from Carcassonne in 1209

At the same time, the religion of the Cathars developed, which denigrated earthly life and adopted values of simplicity and abstinence. In 1208, a Papal legate was assassinated in Saint-Gilles which prompted the Franks in support of Rome to cleanse the South of heresy. The Albigensian crusade led by Simon de Monfort became legendary for its brutality. In 1209 the town of Beziers was sacked and none of the population was spared, even those who sought refuge in the church. When the commander was asked by a Crusader how to tell Catholics from Cathars once they had taken the city, the abbot supposedly replied, Neca eos omnes. Deus suos agnoscet, “Kill them all, God will know His own.”  The second crusade against the South involved the siege of Montségur (Montsalvat) during which the inquisition was first established.

The successful completion of the crusade led to the Frankish domination of the South and the status of France as a unified country. Nonetheless, the South continued to be a source of suspicion, characterised as stubborn and greedy. During the reformation, it contained Protestant strongholds. As administration became more centralised around Paris, French was enforced as the language of administrations.

Frédéric Mistral
Frédéric Mistral

From the Revolution, the South was identified as a source of political change. Some autonomy was restored to the Midi, as it was now called. In the nineteenth century, writers such as Augustin Thierry and Michelet celebrated the South as a source of democracy. In 1854 Frédéric Mistral founded the Félibrige, dedicated to supporting Occitan literature, which gradually shifted to support for the Catholic Right. Inspired by his Nobel Prize in 1904, the Chilean poet Lucila Godoy Alcayaga changed her name to Gabriela Mistral. The mystical legend of Cathars was established by Napoléon Peyrat with the 1871 publication Histoire des Albigeois. But at the same time, there was pressure to standardise French under la Vergonha (the shaming), which prohibited the teaching of Occitan in schools. In reaction, the youth movement

Hartèra emerged to promote Occitan, as one of its posters says:

To hell with the shame…
Our patois is a language: Occitan;
Our South is a country: Occitania;

Our folklore is a culture.
We want respect for our difference.
Share, mix, walk!!

During the 1930s, there were attempts to identify the Cathars as ancestors of the Nazis, particularly through the romantic myth of Montsalvat. However, during Second World War, the area of France not occupied by Germans corresponded to that of Occitania. In 1940, editors of Cahiers du Sud, including Simone Weil and Louis Aragon called a gathering in Marseille to found a community of tolerance. As Weil said at the time, ‘Catharism was the last living expression in Europe of pre-Roman antiquity. It is from this thinking that Christianity descends; but the Gnostics, Manicheans and Cathars seem to be the only ones that remained faithful to it.’ After the war, the South became a site of creative experiment. In 1946, the Dada poet Tristan Tzara founded the Institut d’Etudes Occitanes in Toulouse.

Popular interest developed in 1960 with a two-part television series Les Cathares, drawing on Peyrat’s romantic history. The South became an issue in the revolutionary movement of May 1968

imageNow the South has become a significant luxury brand, associated with the region of Provencal in cuisine and home goods. Olivier Baussan founded the company l’Occitane, ‘L’OCCITANE has drawn inspiration from Mediterranean art de vivre and traditional Provencal techniques to create natural beauty products devoted to well-being and the pleasure of delighting and caring for oneself.’ This company has now extended its southern taste to other countries. The brand L’Occitane do Brasil expresses the authenticity of a first natural sun care line made exclusively in Brazil.

Part of the mythology of L’Occitane revolves around the ‘everlasting’ flower immortelle, the source of eternal youth.

Meanwhile, the flower has become a rallying point for revival of Occitan culture. In 1978, the band Nadau composed the song L’immortèla (The Edelweiss) which tells of the flower of love and the mountain journeys of the southern people,

Up we’ll walk, Little Peter, to the edelweiss
Up we’ll walk, Little Peter, until we find that place!

Occitania follows a familiar path in Europe, where civilisations known for their tolerance and poetry fall victim to the northern military regimes. This internal colonisation then provides the rehearsal for the subjugation of peoples beyond. Once the target of heresy has shifted to the colonies, then the internal other becomes a subject of nostalgia and commodification.

Rather than a single identity, countries like France seem constituted by a dialogue between opposing halves. While the heretic South helps to sharpen the values of the North, the brutality of the North conjures the idea of a sensual and tolerant South.

Dumont d’Urville’s epic tale of the noble New Zealander

imageInspired by Bougainville’s accounts of Tahiti, Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville sought out a mission to explore the south. His first commission was in the Aegean, where he ‘discovered’ the Venus de Milo. In 1822 he was part of an expedition south, when it was still considered possible that France might recover some its recent losses with the acquisition of New South Wales. In his second voyage south, 1826-9, he studied the Pacific peoples and developed the distinction between Micronesia and Melanesia. Finally, in 1837 he was charged with the mission of reaching the magnetic south pole.

Dumont d’Urville was a keen scholar of Pacific cultures. He added Polynesian dialects to his wide range of languages, including Latin and Greek, English, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Hebrew. He died in a tragic train disaster with his family in 1842. After this death, a manuscript was discovered titled Les Zélandais: Histoire Australienne. He had decided against publishing this semi-fictional account of Maori life during his lifetime in case it threw doubt on his scientific writings.

Les Zélandais tells the story of the enlightened chief Moudi, who had been civilised by the influence of a virtuous Pakeha. Moudi’s rival, the barbarous chief Chongui, craves the Pakeha’s beautiful daughter Kadima and eventually forces her to marry him. They have a son, Taniwa, who resists his father’s brutal ways. Chongui sends Taniwa to Sydney in order to obtain fire arms. On his way back, Taniwa is shipwrecked, and eventually brought into Moudi’s kingdom as a captured slave, called Koroké. He soon proves his worth as a warrior and then falls in love with Moudi’s daughter Marama. Moudi eventually acknowledges Koroké’s virtue as a son-in-law, but is puzzled at the lack of knowledge of his family. Eventually Chongui wages successful campaign and takes Taniwa and Marama as captives. But Taniwa escapes and joins Moudi in a final battle against Chongui, at the climax of which the missionaries appear to instill peace and Taniwa is united with Marama.

The novel is based on the understanding that civilisation is not exclusive to Europeans. Even in the most savage cultures, such as Maori, it is possible to find individuals able to recognise the higher values of reason, godliness and charity. While seemingly favourable to the Maori as a redeemable people, Dumont is opposed to the concept of ‘noble savage’. Dumont subscribes to a more Hobbesian view of nature:

O happy Civilisation, fruit of the spirit’s meditations, fecund mother of enjoyment and bliss. Through you alone, roaming man of long ago, at the mercy of his passions, left his forests, gathered in groups and founded those superb cities which are evidence of his power and superiority among the beings of creation… In vain, a few jaundiced philosophes, a few morose critics have tried to deny your excellence and to defend an alleged state of nature which existed only in their disturbed minds. That state of nature is, in reality, only a state of debasement in which man is barely distinguishable from the beasts which surround him, and these same melancholy reformers would themselves blush at being taken back to that state. (p.84)

imageDumont’s elevation of the Maori is made possible partly by the denigration of the Australian Aborigine. While in Sydney, Taniwa hears of the hopeless state of native Australians:

‘this, my dear Taniwa, no more than thirty years ago was nothing but a vast, wild desert. Its inhabitants amounted to the birds in the air, the animals of the forests and a handful of those pathetic human beings whom you see going along our streets sometimes, almost naked, hideous and incapable of applying themselves to any kind of work or any kind of trade.’ (p. 127)

But in taking Maoris as his central characters, Dumont can’t seem to help using their position to pose questions about European culture. Taniwa is puzzled by the spiritless life of the people he observes in London:

‘I would never finish if I tried to report all their stupid customs, all their absurd practices which I have witnessed in quarters which pride themselves on being so enlightened. In short, where those people are concerned, their time is to contrived that every moment of their lives is devoted to imaginary duties and puerile offices, and it leaves them no time to devote to noble reflections of the spirit and to sublime and profound meditations.’ (p. 126)

Dumont’s more conservative position sees the South as a confirmation of European ideals. The benefits of civilisation among the Maori demonstrates the power of Western morality. To achieve civilisation, barbaric traditions have to be disowned. Yet, there is still something remaining in the Maori life that has a spiritual force often missing from the business of empire (particularly British).

Quotes taken from J.S.C. Dumont d’Urville The New Zealanders: A Story Of Austral Lands; (trans. Carol Legge) Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992