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U.S.A. Popcorn Adventure #98
August 20, 2009

La Vie C'est Bon!

Madeline + French Art and Culture

"In an old house in Paris, all covered with vines" begins the classic story of Madeline, adored by parents and children alike for over sixty years. Of course, it's risky to bring a beloved story to the screen but the 1998 version of Madeline captures both the spirit of the books and the magic of Paris. The story of a little girl in a Parisian boarding house includes elements from the book -- Frances McDormand plays Miss Clavell, overseeing the appendectomy, and keeping the girls in "two straight lines" -- but also adds some fun with a plot to sell the orphanage and Pepito, "the son of the Spanish ambassador" and his moped. Madeline is mischievous and endearing, and the film sets the storyline in 1950s Paris; it feels perfectly modern and is true to the magical storyline that we have all come to love. Our kids loved the scenes of the kids discussing the merits of vegetarianism at the long dinner table, and were thrilled when Madeline runs away to the circus. We felt as though we'd been on a beautiful Parisian vacation and visited with a dear friend."

Continue your French lesson by spending a few lazy summer hours pouring over the works of the French Impressionists. We checked out a book about Monet and showed the kids a few of our favorite paintings; it was fun to share a few vague facts that we remembered from Art 101, and they liked hearing that Monet and his cronies revolutionized the art world with their simple scenery and unorthodox methods of applying paint to canvas. Our local art museum has a few of Claude's masterpieces, and though they weren't the iconic images from the book, the kids loved connecting the artist with a local canvas. Our museum happens to have a huge bronze sculpture of a foot -- a foot that had belonged to a huge statue of Louis XIV that was destroyed in the Revolution -- providing an natural segue to talk about how the French Revolution affected our own country's notions of liberty. The kids were impressed that so much history could come from a few pieces of art; then, since all that concentrated learning made us hungry, we stopped at a specialty food shop to sample some French cheese. Maybe it was the yummy bread, maybe the encouragement of the passionate young cheese monger behind the counter, but we soon had that wonderful vibe of having traveled to a new place and expanded our minds... just a tiny bit.  Vive La France!

Film Title: Madeline
Directed By: Daisy Von Scherler Mayer
1998, Rated PG, 89 mins

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Film:

  • Why It's Worth It: If your children love the Madeline books, they'll find this adaptation a more-than-suitable exploration of the wonderfully plucky young woman who must survive life in a French boarding school. Our kids adored it, watching it over and over again, and we found it true enough to the book to appreciate it, too. It was shot in Paris -- reason alone to watch -- and cast with wonderful adult actors (Frances McDormand, Nigel Hawthorne and Chantal Neuwirth).
  • Red Flags: Although the film is rated PG, we can't quite figure out why - it's fine for anyone who loves the books. The movie makes Madeline an orphan, but she is neither sad nor needy and this isn't a major plot point.
  • Further Viewing: If your children have seen Madeline so many times they can recite the lines, expand their world view:
  1. An American in Paris -- the happy-go-lucky radiance of the Gene Kelly-Leslie Caron classic will make you want to dance, dance dance --  Kelly even dances on the ceiling, and of course, Caron does it all backward! This is the movie in which Kelly dances on the ceiling, sings Gershwin, including "S'Wonderful"  and the dance sequences are famous and make the screening worthwhile, for any age. Even our young sons sat still for the glorious final sequence, which is an easy way to show kids how dance can tell a story and also references several styles of French painting - including Toulouse-Latrec, Renoir and Rousseau. 
  2. The Red Balloon and White Mane -- If your kids haven't seen Red Balloon yet, try it while they are young; it has only sparse dialogue but a magical view of the city from the eyes of a child. White Mane, from the same director, is equally mesmerizing for small children, telling the story of a young boy who falls in love with a horse.
  3. Small Change -- Directed by Francois Truffaut, this gem is a lyrical and unique look at childhood from a youthful point of view. Parents should watch this title with their older children (there are some references to abuse) as an introduction to the important work of Truffaut, who pioneered The French Wave.
  4. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg --  a heartbreaking and lovely romance told with music, that will make you cry as it explores a wartime love affair. For older children, this title won Cannes' Grand Prize in 1964.

Our Tips for Talking with your kids about this film:

  • Cinema Savvy: Ask the kids how they think the Madeline from the book compares the Madeline from the movie. And then, how is that character different from, for instance, Hannah Montana or any other modern female character. Critics have noted that Madeline isn't portrayed as particularly "special" -- she's just a normal girl who happens to handle the unusual things that happen to her in a brave way.
  • Literary Savvy: The Madeline books have stood the test of time, and are beloved world-wide. Click here for a brief article on author, Ludwig Bemelmans.


Exploring French Art and Culture on your Staycation

Extended Film Suggestions for younger and older children

Notes on Cheese Tasting with Children

Age Recommendation: five and up

Time Allotment: an easy afternoon

  • Cheese Tasting: Your goal is to find two or three cheeses that extend your kids' palates beyond Parmesan and Laughing Cow.... so head to a good cheese shop or a well-stocked cheese counter at a grocery story (our local Whole Foods is currently listing cheeses by region). Find someone behind the counter to help you choose two or three different cheeses. If you bring the kids along, this is likely to be the most fun part of the adventure - just seeing the different shapes and colors of the cheese is informative and pretty fun. There are so many variables: goat, cow or sheep cheeses, there is hard and soft, and there are strong, mild and not so mild flavors.  For first timers, stick with a brie and a hard cheese, like a mimolette. Tasting at the counter can be fun, or bring everything home and stage a nice tasting. Cheese should be served at room temperature, and kids can taste it with either a french baguette, or fruit such as an apple or a pear. The goal is to expand your child's palate, and ideally pique their curiosity!  Click here for a quick kid-friendly explanation of why cheese was made in the first place!
  • Marie Antoinette and the French Revolutionary The spirit of the French Revolution infuses much of France, but for us it offers an excuse to revisit the wonderful films and books that took that upheaval as their subject matter. We loved Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, as well as Antonia Fraser's biography. Of course, Les Miserables says all that can be said (and more).

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Adventure:

  • Local Artwork: Check in with your local museum to discover which Impressionists they have so you can prime the kids before visiting. Once at the museum, see if they can find the paintings - by asking the guards, or reading the guide book.
  • Books: Little ones will love anything with Babar and Madeline. Or, introduce them to the famous French artists with these clever art-oriented books: Monet (Getting to Know the Worlds' Greatest Artists) - includes everyone from Michaelangelo to Georgia O'Keefe.
  • Food:  Although your city may have a fancy French restaurant, the goal with kids is to try something simple. Go Bistro - they're casual, always have pommes frites (French fries) and are most likely to be child friendly. Most kids will try an omelet or a croissant - then, you're off and running!

Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.

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