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The French Connection

Woody Allen is slouching on an interviewer's couch, saying "Tres facile." Next, there are some shots of TV news, then a professional soccer match, then a fashion show with a bit more flesh than you usually see in Houston, Texas.

On a recent Wednesday night, a large ballroom at the Wyndham Warwick hotel was packed with people watching all of this on three large-screen TVs. It was all in French -- the shows, the speakers, the jokes, the comments from the audience. At center stage, in spirit if not in actuality, was a little satellite dish that holds the key to 24-hour French programming. Hook it up in your back pasture via the DISH Network (an expenditure of less than $200), pay $10 a month and you and the cows can get French culture.

TV5 (pronounced "Tay Vay Sanc") is a mixture of French-language programming from public stations in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada that goes out to more than 100 countries and is customized for U.S. viewing tastes. (According to Laurent Mellier, press attache for the French consulate in Houston, we like more movies than the Canadians, who like more documentaries.)

For Christophe Muller, director of the French government's Invest in France Agency for the Southern States, the evening meant "a fight against the stereotypes that France is not an open country." For Thomas Philipon, 24, a chemistry major at the University of Houston who hails from Orleans, France, it meant a chance to reconnect with home. For Bernadette Hsieh, a Frenchwoman (married to a Chinese man) who has lived in Houston 25 years, it meant a turning point in her efforts to teach her grandchildren the French they do not know. Hsieh brought along three of those grandchildren -- twins Noel and Angel, 8, and Ana, 10 (students at Heflin Elementary in Alief), who appeared impressed by their surroundings, if not sure what was going on.

TV5 offers no advertising, no commercials and no English. Actually, on Saturday nights, movies with English subtitles are shown; otherwise, you need to be fluent in French or armed with a good French dictionary. The French government is hoping to reach the many French-speaking people who come to Houston from Europe and Africa, Canada and, of course, Louisiana -- as well as all the Houston students studying French.

Some initial conclusions drawn from a quick review of TV5's upcoming programming schedule:

Documentaries are just as ponderous but possibly more obscure than those we've come to love on U.S. public TV. Part six of a series on aviation offers: "On October 22, 1797, a French aeronaut, Andre Garnerin, was the first man to successfully jump out of an air balloon with a parachute. Two centuries later, another Frenchman, Patrick de Gayardon, became the world-champion sky surfer. The 200 years between these two events have seen many improvements, through trial and error, risks and hardships."

Movies are also sometimes hard to follow, and have a Gallic twist. For instance, India Song: "In the 1930s, on the Ganges River, during summer monsoon. Anne-Marie Stretter amuses herself by going from one man to the next but nonetheless refuses the vice-consul's advances. He departs, but later that night, he cries out his love for her. Touched by his passion, she leaves the country in which she had witnessed only misery and hunger." Le Pacha: "Chief Inspector Joss is deeply hurt by the death of his partner Gouvion, killed during a holdup. To avenge his friend, he devises the perfect frame-up; he lets two gangs in on the same job and then sits back as they kill each other off."

French soap operas are just like those in America -- dopey and incredible. In the French versions, they do have fancier names. In part five of Les Yeux D'Helene (a nine-part series): "Things are getting worse at Le Reserve -- all the clients have left! Although Dominique's condition is stable, Frederic and Cornelia remain at his bedside. The fact that his twin brother risked his life for Helene only makes Frederic more jealous of her." And in part six: "Helene decides to accept Arnaud's generous gift: his own eyes. Will the operation be a complete success? If so, will she have feelings for Dominique, despite his scars?"

How could we all not sign up for French TV? How can we stand not knowing who gets the eyes?

-- Margaret Downing


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