Phil Connors doesn’t speak French.
While it might be reasonable to assume Phil does learn to play piano beyond the two songs we hear him play since this is at the point he is actually trying to better himself and affect the world around him in a positive way, the French bit is much earlier. It also comes from a bit in Rubin’s original screenplay, not with Rita but with “Tess Harper—Jefferson County Poetry Society.” Basically, it’s a clear example of Phil doing the same thing he does with Nancy in the movie; he makes stuff up to get what he wants. This is only Day 10. He hasn’t gotten to the depression that arguably makes him realize he’s an actual human being like everyone else around him…
I just realized, this also means he’s probably lying when he says, “Small town people are more real, more down-to-earth.” Later, he might actually believe it. But, at this point, each line is just a move to win over Rita.
Anyway, in the original screenplay, Phil meets Tess like he meets Mary in the movie, in passing on the way to Gobbler’s Knob. Later, while out with Rita, he finds Tess again, this time at a poetry reading. But, he’s already had the important scene with Tess…
(Rubin plays around with order more in the screenplay than we get in the film. If Tess had made it into the film, the order might be more like, random meeting on the street, then series of days for the date, and the poetry reading would be like Nancy’s appearance outside the Alpine Theater or in the “god” scene or even the ball, an update to see what that character is like without Phil.
It is worth noting, here in the parenthetical, that Tess is one of the “sixty-three eligible women in Punxsutawney” in the original screenplay. In his voiceover, Phil tells us that forty-nine have been “accessible” and the “last few are proving more of a challenge.” Those last few include Tess.)
What would later turn into the sweet vermouth on the rocks scene with Rita and the French poetry bit originally comes from Tess. Tess is apparently more of a drinker than Rita, though.
(To be fair, when Rubin made the Tess to Rita switch, Rita orders Cognac. The choice of sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist came from Ramis’ wife’s usual drink.)
Tess’ drink of choice: whiskey. And, Phil in the original orders white wine, so he’s not the drinker he is in the film. The interesting thing about this scene as it plays in the original with Tess and how it plays with Rita is a lot of role reversal. For example, in the movie Rita mentions studying 19th century French poetry and Phil laughs. In the original, Phil mentions he’s a reporter covering Groundhog Day and Tess says, “Kind of a puissant little assignment, isn’t it?” The direction after: “Tess smiles politely, then turns away. She opens her bag and takes out a book of POETRY. Phil notices.”
Phil responds to the whiskey the next time with a line of poetry: “Ah, Whiskey, the sliding river queered all, finger and tongue, but no less for wear did I choose that querulous brew…” And, he introduces himself not as a reporter but as the “poet laureate of Pennsylvania.”
Phil’s voiceover followup is the telling bit here:
You may be thinking, “What a jerk,” as if perfecting the sleazy pickup were my goal in life. But put yourself in my shoes. If you only have one day to live, you have to work quickly.
Phil has a unique perspective on what working quickly entails, considering it takes him three tries to get the scene right with Tess and four with Rita, going great finally until that slap (plus another 8 attempts with Rita ending in slaps, of course). But, yes, in order to get anything done within that one day, things have to move quickly.
Ramis gave Rubin notes in their early meetings, and one of them was to “give the best lines and scenes to the main characters.” This meant, in this case, getting rid of “the throwaway character Tess.”
Simon Gallagher (who I should really try to talk to online sometime if possible, since I keep arguing with a theoretical version of him) explains that “it would have taken somewhere around 12 years to become completely fluent” in French. Wolf Gnards suggests “it would take him, at least, 2 years to learn enough French to read French poetry.” The interesting background to the only French we hear Phil use is that it is “a stanza (“La Fille Que J’aimera…”) from a Jacques Brel song I [Danny Rubin] just happened to know.” That means it isn’t 19th-century French poetry, by the way. Instead, it’s song from 1957.
(The lines Phil quotes run from about 1:44 to 1:52 in that video)
In French, what Phil says is,
La fille que j'aimera
Sera comme bon vin
Qui se bonifiera
Un peu chaque matin
(That peu is peut according to Rubin, and I don’t know enough French to know the difference.)
The translation goes something like this:
The girl who I will love
Is like a good wine
Which gets better
A little each morning
It’s enough to impress Rita, certainly. But, even if Phil’s French might be a little off, which I’ve read it is, or if that’s not actually 19th-century French poetry, with all the other details he has gotten just right, between the bar and the fudge shop, Rita probably didn’t even notice. She’s falling for him at this point. Well, being pushed more than falling, but the effect is the same, at least for a while.
(Then the slap)
See, the next thing is this: Phil’s got a book of “French poetry here. Baudelaire. C’est fantastique. I will read to you.” He’s trying too hard. We get that. He probably does, too. He’s pulling out all the stops here. Though he doesn’t know it, obviously, this is his last ditch effort to take advantage of this day in selfish terms. But, I see a bigger problem in that last sentence—“I will read to you.”
Sure, there might be some women who would swoon at a guy reading French poetry. But, absent evidence we’ve seen so far that Rita is one—and having heard this particular line so many times lately—I find a weird bit of… well, maybe it’s condescension, maybe it’s a bit of the misogyny inherent in Phil’s earlier line, “This is a man we’re talking about, right?” This is befitting of Rubin’s original version of Phil, counting up the “eligible” women in Punxsutawney and tallying them off one by one. Rita isn’t someone Phil is in love with here, not yet. She’s just another conquest, an object. Phil has to fall apart himself before he can start to see Rita better. He claims, “The first time I saw you something happened to me. I never told you, but I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could.” And, maybe he’s got deeper (or at least growing) feelings for Rita from the start. But, before he can get her, or deserve her, he first tries to woo her the way he wooed women back in Pittsburgh, the way he wooed Nancy and Tess and the rest of those 49 women in Rubin’s Punxsutawney.
The interesting thing here is that Phil’s rock bottom is chasing after something he really wants—presumably—but he doesn’t know how to chase it. There’s a line I like from Daniel Quinn: “If the world is saved, it will not be saved by old minds with new programs but by new minds with no programs at all.” Phil isn’t saving the world, of course, but he is stuck with old programming. His depression, his suicides—that’s his own cosmic reset button; he’s installing new software. And, what I call “god” day in the movie—that’s his beta test.
Does Phil speak French? No, I don’t think so. But, to coin a possibly cheesy line, the French probably speak Phil. They would understand this character just like we all do.
Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to learn a new language, and then another, and then another, so I can not only communicate with everyone but read all of their poetry.
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