If this scene looks familiar, it might be that you have seen the 1938 film Hôtel du Nord by Marcel Carné (or snippets of it on the internet) and recognize this as the place where Arletty delivered her now-famous line about “atmosphère”.
Actually she didn’t say it here at all, but on a film set that had been built at great expense outside the film studios in Billancourt to look like this section of the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris. Originally Carné wanted to shoot the film here, on location, but it turned out that there was too much noise from commercial barge traffic and the like, so he had to retreat to the studio.
I must admit that when I first looked at this scene on YouTube or DailyMotion I only understood one word, atmosphère, but after repeated listenings I started getting accustomed to Arletty’s accent and began to understand what was going on.
It turns out that she wasn’t talking about the romantic atmosphere of Paris. She was reacting to something nasty that was said to her by Edmond, her pimp and lover, played by Louis Jouvet.
Edmond in this scene is wearing a baggy 1930s suit and tie and has a fishing rod slung over his shoulder. Today he is just going fishing along the canal, but he knows he had better get out of France very soon because two of his former gangster buddies are looking for him and want to kill him. She says she wants to go with him, to a foreign country or the colonies or anywhere.
His reaction is: No, it would be the same anywhere. I’m suffocating. I need a change of atmosphere, and my atmosphere is you!
She replies: This is the first time I’ve ever been called an atmosphere. If I’m an atmosphere then you’re some sort of hick town out the sticks. (t’es un drôle de bled)
Then after a short rant she delivers her famous line: « Atmosphère ! Atmosphère ! Est-ce que j’ai une gueule d’atmosphère ? »
This is a puzzling line for us foreigners, but my current theory is that it simply means: Do I look like an atmosphere? Or: Have I got the mug of an atmosphere?
This line is not in Eugène Dabit’s novel, in fact the whole scene was invented by the screenplay writer Henri Jeanson, who never dreamed it would become a cult scene that would be replayed over and over by drama students in the 21st century.
What makes the line so funny is the mocking, sarcastic way Arletty says it in her delightfully slutty lower-class 1930s Parisian accent. In effect she is informing Edmond that his days as her pimp and lover are over and he should bugger off and get the **** out of her life.
At the end of the scene she hands him his fishing bag and stomps off the bridge, shouting “Good fishing and good atmosphere!”
For those who don’t recognize the scene, the mayor’s office has helpfully set up a sign entitled Atmosphère, atmosphère… next to the bridge with a drawing of the film set. What makes the scene look different today is that the trees, which were saplings in 1938, have now had nearly eighty years to grow up into large leafy chestnut trees.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.