Films dubbed into French: meet France’s Tom Hanks AND Tom Cruise

The doublage artist has had a long and successful career as the voice of two Hollywood icons

Jean-Philippe Puymartin’s fortune is his voice
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In Kevin Costner’s 1991 adventure Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, King Richard pops up in the final scenes, as Robin is about to wed Maid Marian, and bestows a kiss on the cheek of the bride-to-be. 

English-language viewers would have recognised the actor who plays the monarch (and who previously played Robin), even before his face is revealed, thanks to Sean Connery’s unmistakable Scottish burr. 

However, for French audiences there was no in-joke. Dubbing made it not so much a case of ‘lost in translation’ as the actor’s voice ‘missing in action’.

The world of dubbing (doublage in French) – in which the words of big and small-screen stars are spoken by foreign-language counterparts – was explored in the 2011 French comedy Hollywoo. Comedienne Florence Foresti starred as a voice-over artist who was aghast when the American actress she dubbed quit a successful series, leaving her out of a job. 

Hollywood heavyweights

No such issues for 64-year-old Jean-Philippe Puymartin, who has been working in the doublage business for 20 years, as an artistic director and, more notably, as the French ‘voice’ for Hollywood heavyweights Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise. 

The Paris native has doubled for Mr Hanks since the 1988 romantic comedy Punchline, and for Mr Cruise since 2003 drama The Last Samurai, taking over the reins from fellow French star Yvan Attal.

 “I have the impression he was doing it a bit over the top,” Mr Puymartin said of his predecessor. “He didn't really like dubbing and said so a bit too often, I think. When it came to The Last Samurai, we did some more tests and I got the part. I've been dubbing Tom Cruise’s characters ever since.”

He has met both Hollywood superstars, albeit under different circumstances. “I was living in Los Angeles and I got an invitation from the supervisor of all the Spielberg films I'd worked with, who I'd done Forrest Gump with. 

“She said ‘come and see, we're mixing Amistad. It's really interesting’. I spent a day in the studio and she introduced me to Tom Hanks. He looked at me very sympathetically, and said ‘Oh, my French voice!’.

Meeting Hanks

“He invited me back six months or a year later, to the set of The Green Mile. Mr Hanks was in his prison guard costume and I spent the day watching him work. It was absolutely fascinating.”

In comparison, his encounters with Mr Cruise were fleeting. “We bumped into each other very quickly, in different places and at big occasions. I didn't really have time to talk to him because we just said, ‘hello’, to each other. 

“One was the first Mission Impossible, where he came down in a helicopter. And the second time was at the Cinémathèque in Paris. He was passing by, he didn't linger, and that was that. It was always nice but it was a bit quick.”

Away from rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty, the business of doublage is a serious one. Mr Puymartin explained that he “started for the wrong reasons and I stayed for the right reasons”. 

Read more: Seven films set in France (and only one is in Paris)

Theatre work

He joined the Comédie-Française, one of the oldest active theatre companies in the world, at the age of 21, having already directed his first short film. 

Although he was keen to continue developing his craft behind the lens, his work at the Comédie-Française took up all his time. 

“We rehearsed, we performed, we rehearsed our play, we performed other plays in French. We often did three or four shows, sometimes five at the same time, in the same period,” he said. 

That inspired him to direct Ferveur, exploring life inside the Comédie-Française, which he and a friend shot as and when they could get their hands on a roll of 35mm film. “It was a huge success once it was released but I had big financial problems editing it,” Mr Puymartin said. 

“I ran into problems and was even banned from banks – at that point I had to find other solutions. I knew that dubbing existed but I didn't really know what it was. My position at the Comédie-Française made it easy for me to contact companies and be received more easily than others, and I was lucky enough to be given a trial run very quickly, after around only a year.”

An artform

Doublage is a job that requires very particular skills, Mr Puymartin said. “First of all, you have to be an actor. You can't just improvise and say, ‘I've got a great voice and I'm going to do dubbing’ because otherwise it just becomes reading. 

“You have to have great qualities, speed, and an understanding of what's going on in the image. You have to go inside yourself and understand what's going on, how it's going on, at what level it's going on. 

“There are a lot of constraints in dubbing, which is why there are a lot of actors, excellent actors, who don't like it at all. They treat it a bit like a by-product. It's true that we always lose a little in dubbing. But we try to lose as little as possible, to be as close as possible to the original. 

“I find it fascinating, and I've been doing it for about 20 years now too. I've been the artistic director of the French versions of several big Spielberg films, and recently did Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. It's a really exciting thing to do.”

Read more:  TV and films to improve your French in May

The chameleon

It has taught him a lot, too. “You have to be very chameleonic,” he said. “Most actors are a bit like sponges. When you act in the theatre or the cinema, you soak up a role or a character. You look for everything you can find and build a character like that. 

“With dubbing, you are obliged not only to interpret a role and a character but also to step into the shoes of another actor who doesn't breathe like you, who doesn't think like you. You have to make yourself totally transparent.”

Although Mr Puymartin is sworn to secrecy about current and future doublage projects, he’s proud of what he has achieved to date. “It suits me perfectly. I've never really tried to be in the limelight. Maybe when I was between 20 and 23, when I was doing roles on television, I was happy to be recognised and all that, but it wasn't something that filled me with happiness, either. 

“It's true that doublage is quite anonymous, but what's really interesting is that I'm still playing in the theatre and touring on a regular basis, and there are people waiting for me at the exit who say: ‘you're the voice of Tom Hanks’.

“I did it for the wrong reasons, because I needed the money but, little by little, taking the full measure of what it represents and of the happiness that it brings, now I’ve mastered doublage, it is a real pleasure to act, to play.”

Language barrier

In 2018, a petition to have foreign films and TV programmes shown undubbed in France attracted some 69,000 signatures. It was launched by English teacher Delphine Tabaries-Poncet, who worked at a lycée Béziers (Hérault). 

 Read more:  To sub or to dub: the dilemma of film fans in France

France’s obsession for dubbing foreign-language films, she said, was stopping her students from developing strong English skills.

She first noticed the effect dubbed films had on learning when a Romanian boy joined her class. His grasp of English was better than his French classmates, which she attributed to his exposure to English language films and TV.

An annual survey by global education company Education First last year ranked France as the Northern European country with the worst level of English. Worldwide, it was ranked 43rd on the English Proficiency Index (EPI).