The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 12: My Trip to Paris (4)

Screenshot from Largo Winch

After three busy days I spent the fourth resting. I caught up on some reading (the novel ‘The Outsider’ by Camus) and watched episodes of the television series Largo Winch on M6. In 2003, the second series of the show was just going to air, and I’d already become a fan through seeing the first series on Canadian TV. It was a change seeing the program dubbed into French. (And also strange, as the BD – bande dessinées – was originally published in French in Europe, and is quite popular, yet the TV series was filmed mostly in Canada and in English.)

(taken from Wikipedia)

The fifth day, I went to La Défense, a large business district. My mother and I met my father for lunch and sat on the steps of the Grande Arche.

Part of what I find fascinating about Paris is that the Grande Arche is in line with the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Élysées, the Place de la Concorde (with its Egyptian obelisk), and the Louvre in what is called the ‘Axe historique‘. How incredible is it that the layout of the city was partly planned around monuments? (If only they did that here…)

After lunch, I met up with another fan of the show Largo Winch, who went by the online handle of ‘Eska’. She had been to the set when the show had filmed in France, and she had lots of goodies to share. It was great to spend some time with another fan. Afterwards I took the RER back to the Charles-de-Gaulle/Etoile station (located under the Arc de Triomphe) and came back to the apartment.

For dinner, we headed to a world-famous jazz club, Le Bilboquet. I’ve already written about my experiences at Le Bilboquet, but I will say that it was my favourite night out. The wait staff were incredibly friendly, the food was excellent, and of course the music was top-notch. I wish I’d been able to spend more time there, but it wasn’t a cheap night out. I note in my journal that our meal was over €300. I had espadon (which I didn’t realize was another word for swordfish – I feel slightly embarrassed that I didn’t know) with potato, my mother had the Chateaubriand, and my father had duck. (I’ve since become quite fond of eating duck,  but at that point it seemed strange.) We stayed till past midnight listening to the music and sitting on the terrace outside, enjoying the warm night.

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 11: My Trip to Paris (3)

Oh, my third day in Paris was a lot of fun!

Beauvoir / Sartre Grave (Montparnasse)After a nice lie-in, we went to the Cimetière du Montparnasse. There are hundreds of famous people buried here (including the chess great Alekhine, philosopher Baudrillard, Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant, and Man Ray), but of course, I was here to see the grave of Sartre & Beauvoir.

The cemetery is huge and we covered as much as we could, though we had trouble finding some of the graves we wanted to see. We found Baudelaire’s monument, but not his grave, for instance. However, we did manage to find several others. Mostly I like to visit graveyards to see what sort of grave art has been used. Unlike lots of cemeteries here in western Canada, European cemeteries have far more interesting grave monuments. Mausoleums are almost completely unheard of here. However, in Montparnasse, there were many. We even had to take shelter against one when the sky opened up and poured down on us. (We had, of course, forgotten to take an umbrella.)

Montparnasse cemeteryRather damp, we left the cemetery to go tour the Catacombs. Yes, from one bunch of dead people to another… though the Catacombs are an awful lot of bones, and it’s not even close to the same. Creepier by far. (However, it’s also one of the cheapest attractions I saw in Paris – only €2,50.)

Before that, we had a bite of lunch at a café, and I had the misfortune to eat some crevettes (shrimp) that were a bit off. By the time we got to the Catacombs, I was starting to feel ill. Not the best way to start a tour of human remains. In my journal, I note ‘Well, if you’ve seen one pile of bones you’ve seen them all’, and after awhile it did seem that way. The photo below is the section of bones from the old Les Innocents cemetery. Being an Anne Rice fan (with many references to the cemetery in Interview With the Vampire), I couldn’t resist.

The Catacombs

At the exit, our bags were searched. I hadn’t realized until then that people would try to steal bones. It didn’t even enter my mind. I did remark to my mother that it would be rather interesting to go back in time, if only to tell those people who expected to be buried at Les Innocents and the other graveyards that their bones would in the future become the basis of a major tourist attraction. Immortality? Peut-être.

(And, the perfect ending to my day? Seeing an ad for Vittel featuring David Bowie. Awesome!)

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 10: My Trip to Paris (2)

In re-reading my journal, I’d nearly forgotten that the summer of 2003 was a bad one for Paris. When I was there in June, the temperatures hovered around 30C, but later in the summer, a number of elderly people died from the heat. The heat made it difficult for me. Hard to sleep, hard to walk for long periods without feeling exhausted… but I did it anyway. I only had ten days and I wanted to make the most of it.

During my first full day, we went to Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité, and viewed the Roman ruins under the square, as well as viewing the World War II memorial (of which at that time I knew nothing). I knew Paris had a long history, but somehow seeing the remains of Roman buildings made me realize exactly how long that history has been. There’s nothing here to compare. (As Eddie Izzard says ‘I’m from Europe, that’s where the history’s from.’)

I thought the rose windows at Notre Dame were impressive. Not so impressive were the masses of tourists and their noise. It negated the sense of sacred space. Though I’m not religious, cathedrals like Notre Dame (or Yorkminster, or Notre Dame in Montreal) should be places of awe and meditation. I love old churches for their art, for the stones worn smooth by centuries of use, and the smell of candle wax and incense. So to visit such a grandiose monument and be frustrated… it was a disappointment.

Me outside Notre Dame, in the heat. The bushes behind me were filled with tiny, chirping sparrows.

Another frustration… my poor skill in the French language. If I had a dollar for every person prior to my trip who said ‘Oh, it’ll come back to you!’, I would have had a lot more spending money. I was intimidated. The French I thought I knew had vanished. People spoke so swiftly that I had difficulty catching more than one or two words.

Of course, it didn’t help that I had a massive case of jet lag. Day two ended with a delicious meal – I note in my journal that I had a veal dish with a mushroom and white wine sauce, kir as an apéritif, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. A bit of chocolate always helps… and my third day would be better after a proper sleep.

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 9: My Trip to Paris (1)

I went to Paris in June of 2003, as a very generous birthday gift from my parents. My father was working there for six weeks. I hadn’t been working at all, having been diagnosed with a chronic illness, and without their generosity, I would never have been able to see the city that has since figured so prominently in my life and my writing.

I didn’t always have an interest in France. As I’ve written previously, about Simone de Beauvoir and about French authors, my abiding interest was sparked by a Philosophy of Literature class. I read Sartre’s La Nausée, and Edmond Jabès’s The Book of Questions, and Andre Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja.

So, though my French language classes in elementary, junior high and high school were lamentably poor, and my grasp of the language shy and shaky, I was off to see the City of Light with my own eyes.

I arrived on the 15th of June, having flown Calgary via Montreal to Paris, landing at eight-thirty in the morning. Yes, I remember…. because I wrote it down. A friend of my mother’s bought me a journal for my trip. Exhausted, my mother and I took the Air France bus into the centre of the city, alighting at the stop nearest the Arc de Triomphe and hefting our bags for the walk to the apartment just off the Avenue de Wagram.

Later that morning, I had my first café crème. Not the most exciting of things to report, but it was a revelation. I’d had coffee before, of course, including cappuccino, espresso and the like, but the taste of this café crème was like nothing else. It came in a white porcelain cup and saucer with a paper-wrapped lump of sugar on the side and a small spoon. It was delicious.

I remember the morning being pleasant, sunny with a light breeze. The café we’d stopped at had been crowded with the Sunday brunch crowd and our table still had dishes from the previous occupants cluttering it. Compared to at home, the service was slow, but it didn’t matter. Through my tired daze, I was already fascinated with this new city, so different from home.

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 8: Daniel Auteuil

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salon_du_livre_de_Paris_2011_-_Daniel_Auteuil_-_002.jpg

Daniel Auteuil is one of the very few actors whose films I will watch without reserve. If I could find more of his films here, I’d be in heaven.

The first film I saw was Sade. Set during the French Revolution, it focused on the imprisonment of aristocrats by the Jacobins, including the infamous Marquis de Sade. The film has been compared both favourably and unfavourably to others about the Marquis (including Quills), but I prefer it. The acting and storyline are not overdone and the historical drama is solid. Due to the lack of choice at my local video store, this was the only film I saw for several years. Fortunately the ease of renting online and buying from Amazon helped change that.

From viewing Sade, I then found the films Le Bossu and Ma saison préférée. I recommend both, but it is films like La fille sur le pont and 36 Quai des Orfèvres that I absolutely adore. He’s also starred in comedies (Le meilleur ami), as an unlikeable businessman who has to find someone to pose as his best friend, and the occasional English film (The Lost Son), where he plays a private eye living in London, an exile from his native Paris, who begins to investigate the trade in child slavery.

When I stop to think about what it is exactly about Daniel Auteuil that draws me in… I just can’t put a finger on it. I really can’t. He’s not classically handsome, like Cary Grant (or any other dark-haired actor you might care to name), but I can’t ignore his on-screen presence.

As Sade, he evokes horror and distaste in the other characters, yet manages to win over the young Emilie as well as the audience. Sade is famous, but Auteuil also makes him easy to relate to, very human. As Gabor in ‘La fille sur le pont’, he compels Adele, intrigues her, and tricks her, but he’s a man with many failings. His characters have depth along with the charisma.

In addition to the films mentioned above, I also highly recommend: Peindre ou faire l’amour, Caché, and MR 73. Or you could just go down the list at IMdB.

And a very happy birthday to my favourite writer and friend, Tiffany Reisz!

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 7: Movies set in Paris

Sometimes I get a little homesick for Paris. Strange, considering I’ve only been there once, and that was some time ago. But, every once in a while I need to watch a film (or two) set in Paris to get my fix.

First up, the very excellent Before Sunset. It stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and is the sequel to Before Sunrise (set in Vienna). I’m not a huge fan of either Hawke or Delpy, but I just can’t get enough of this film. It’s a pas de deux; Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) meet again in Shakespeare & Co., 9 years after they failed to meet up again in Vienna six months after their first meeting. It’s a very quiet film; there’s not much drama, but a lot of talking. It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoy its intimacy.

Second, La Vie En Rose (La Môme), starring Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf. The role won Cotillard the Best Actress Oscar, an award incredibly well-deserved. I took everyone I knew to see it in the theatre, merely as an excuse to see it again. Gerard Depardieu also stars, and Jean-Pierre Martins (from the French rock group Silmarils) played Piaf’s lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan. I’d listened to some of Piaf’s songs before, but this film cemented my admiration and love of chanson. Cotillard lip-syncs, but it would have been difficult for her to match Piaf’s unique voice. Unlike Before Sunset, La Vie En Rose is full of drama; Piaf’s life began in Belleville, and her father was a circus actor, her mother a singer. She traveled with the circus until her father left her with family at a brothel. When she returned to Paris she eked out a living singing in the street, where she was discovered. That part of her life alone would be enough for a film, but there’s more. Always more.

And third, the film Fauteuils d’orchestre (Avenue Montaigne), with Cécile de France, Albert Dupontel, Dani, Sydney Pollack and Valérie Lemercier. Jessica (de France) comes to Paris and finds work in a café across from an arts complex. An art auction, a piano concert and a Feydeau play are occurring on the same evening, and the resulting meetings of all the other characters with the cheerful Jessica are the meat of the film. The interconnectedness is charming; it’s a film that never fails to leave me smiling.

So there you are: three films that help evoke Paris for me. Do you have a place you’re fond of? Or is there a film that evokes a remembrance of a favourite place?

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 6: Musée d’Orsay

http://www.flickr.com/photos/justaslice/3477561971/

I went to Paris to go to the Musée d’Orsay. Okay, so I went for a few other things as well (food, coffee, Shakespeare & Co. …), but the Musée d’Orsay was first on my list for museums. Though the Louvre is larger and its collection diverse, the Musée d’Orsay enchanted me.

The museum houses a massive collection of Impressionist era art: Rodin’s ‘Porte de l’Enfer‘ (The Gates of Hell), Manet’s ‘Olympia‘ and ‘Le déjeuner sur l’herbe‘, Degas’s ‘Dans un café‘ (L’absinthe) and ‘Petite danseuse de quatorze ans‘, and more than I could ever truly appreciate in a single visit.

I have an especial fondness for Impressionist art, due to its (general) lack of religiosity and its dramatic use of colour and composition. My favourite art history class at uni was the one that dealt with the Impressionist (and later) period. To see these famous works up close and in person – there are no words for my awe.  Degas’s ‘Dans un café‘ (L’absinthe) had struck me with its use of the diagonal composition in the foreground of the painting, something which immediately attracts the eye.

Seeing Rodin’s ‘Gates of Hell’ up close and personal again was fantastic. I’d originally seen a cast of the Gates at the Rodin sculpture garden at Stanford University in California, and it was a treat to see them again in Paris. The Gates are my favourite of Rodin’s sculptures; all the detail could keep me occupied for hours.

The museum itself is a wonder to see – housed in a former train station, the light and dramatic arches are stunning. I photographed the header at the top of my blog in the museum. From the walkway near the clock, you can see through the center of the clock over Paris, including Montmartre and the Eglise Sacre Coeur on the hill. I would have liked to spend an entire day in d’Orsay, but I only had a few hours. It’ll be first on my list of museums to visit when I next go to Paris.

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 5: Audrey Tautou

Audrey Tautou Cannes I have a bit of a thing for Audrey Tautou. Okay, more than a bit. I can’t quite define what it is that I like about her. She is talented and gorgeous, but there’s also an intangible something that has caught my fancy.

I, like most of the English-speaking world, first met Ms. Tautou in the film Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain. The film is a fantasy Paris narrated through the eyes of the fanciful dreamer, Amélie, where clouds turn into animals, old men find their childhood toys, and she can dream of love.

The film is a delight to watch and has become one of my favourites, perfect for a quiet afternoon with a cup of tea.

But what about her other work?
Another of my favourite films is Priceless (Hors de prix), where she co-stars with Gad Elmaleh, playing a young gold-digger who mistakes a bartender for a wealthy target. It’s a charming comedy and the premise seems funnier and far more interesting in French than it might be as done by Hollywood.

She starred in the blockbuster The Da Vinci Code with Tom Hanks, though I can’t say that it is among my favourite films. I far prefer her in films such as Dieu est grand, je suis toute petite, where she plays a young woman who falls in love with a veterinarian who is a non-practicing Jew. She decides to convert, and the film is part comedy, part philosophy.

If I had to make a list, I’d recommend the following films:

  • Dieu est grand, je suis toute petite (God is Great and I Am Not)
  • Dirty Pretty Things
  • Coco avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel)
  • Hors de prix (Priceless)
  • Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie)

No matter what, if you haven’t seen a film with Audrey Tautou (excluding The Da Vinci Code), then you haven’t really had the chance to appreciate her talent. And in the meantime, I’ll go watch Priceless or Amélie and see if I can figure out just what that something is.

Link: IMdB

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 4: Simone de Beauvoir

Without a properly long post on Simone de Beauvoir, I’d be neglecting one of the main reasons why I am so fond of all things French. (Okay, maybe not ALL things French – I could do without Sarkozy, for example.)

I admire her immensely for what she did with her life: becoming a writer, being financially independent at a time where women were still expected to marry and have families, and for living her life the way she wanted. She’s no saint, and certainly some of her views turned out to be poor choices (her support of Communist Russia, her poor treatment of some of her friends and lovers), but her body of work of approximately 20 published books, plus numerous articles is such that it ought to be given more prominence. Not just in philosophy (where until recently she had been neglected, considered Sartre’s pupil and not his equal), but also in fiction.

She won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize, for her book ‘Les Mandarins’ in 1954, eleven years after the release of her first novel, ‘L’Invitée’. I read ‘L’Invitée’ (published in English as ‘She Came to Stay’) first, tackling the first two volumes of her autobiography straight afterward. I consider her non-fiction work the stronger of the two, perhaps because her novels are often apparent copies of her life.

Her book ‘America Day by Day’ is a fascinating travel diary of her time in the USA and has occasionally been compared to Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and contains her observations on the American way of life.

What makes daily life so agreeable in America is the good humor and friendliness of Americans. Of course, this quality has its reverse side. I’m irritated by those imperious invitations to “take life easy,” repeated in words and images throughout the day. On advertisements for Quaker Oats, Coca-Cola, and Lucky Strike, what displays of white teeth – the smile seems like tetanus. The constipated girl smiles a loving smile at the lemon juice that relieves her intestines. In the subway, in the streets, on magazine pages, these smiles pursue me like obsessions. I read on the sign in a drugstore, “Not to grin is a sin.” Everyone obeys the order, the system. “Cheer up! Take it easy.” Optimism is necessary for the country’s social peace and economic prosperity. (p. 23)

She wrote a travel diary for her journeys in China as well, and she was a dedicated diarist and letter writer at certain points of her life, most notably when she and Sartre were apart. Her letters to Nelson Algren, her American lover, were published in 1999, and her diary from the Second World War was published recently as a part of the Beauvoir series being released by the University of Illinois Press. (I own the three volumes currently released by the press and eagerly await the remaining four.)

So what is it about her in particular that I find so fascinating? She lived her life on her terms. She never married, but instead had a longterm companionship with Jean-Paul Sartre. They each had lovers and affairs, but stayed a partnership until Sartre’s death in 1980. She slept with men and women, though in public accounts she doesn’t seem to have come out as bisexual. In reading letters since released, she seems to downplay her affairs with women.

She supported herself as a writer. She earned enough income from writing (though until she quit her job as a teacher, she had that income also) that she was able to be financially independent. She and Sartre pooled their funds and not only supported themselves, but often other family members and lovers, friends, and those who asked them for assistance.

She supported the feminist cause. She wasn’t originally a supporter of women getting the vote (French women didn’t get the right to vote until 1944), but she did seem to come round to it eventually. She published the two volume treatise ‘The Second Sex’ (‘Le Deuxième Sexe’) in 1949, and it is considered to be one of the first books of modern feminism. The famous line “One is not born, but becomes a woman,” is from this text. In her treatise, she identifies women as The Other; that is, deviant from the norm (men). I won’t go into it here; the book deserves an entire post to itself.

Her range of books and her journals and letters evoke that period of French life. Though most of her letters were not published until after her death, their existence in the public sphere is invaluable. Letters and journals give the minutiae of a life, rather than just the public face. She was always aware of her public face, and it can be seen in the latter two volumes of her autobiography. The works are far more centered on her relationship with Sartre, and her use of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, and come across more as a proclamation of views and activities than an actual autobiography of her life. They were the official story and sometimes read as a place marker on her and Sartre’s role in public life. She put her support behind a variety of issues in her later years, including abortion rights, signing the Manifesto of the 343, women who claimed to have had an abortion when it was illegal. She edited the political journal ‘Les Temps Modernes’ along with Sartre.

She made sure her voice was heard.

Beauvoir / Sartre Grave (Montparnasse)If I had to recommend a book for the Beauvoir novice, I’d choose ‘Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter’ (the first volume of her autobiography) as a good place to start with her non-fiction works. And I’d also recommend ‘She Came to Stay,’ as a first choice for her fiction. Her selected bibliography can be found here. The Sunday Times has an excellent review of the new edition (2009) of The Second Sex.

If you’re in Paris, check out some of her favourite haunts: the Deux Magots and Café de Flore on the Boulevard St. Germain, the Dôme Café in Montparnasse, and her shared grave with Sartre in the cemetery at Montparnasse.

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 3: French Authors

This post has been a long time in coming.

My love affair with all things French began unexpectedly. I enrolled in Philosophy 315 at the University of Calgary. (I took a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and I liked to fill my electives with usually English, Philosophy, or other humanities classes.) That session caught my interest because the subtitle was “Philosophy in Literature.” I’d done poorly at some of the 200-level philosophy courses as I couldn’t seem to formulate a concise argument during assignments and I really couldn’t have cared less about the debate over the existence of God, but I thought I’d do rather well in this one. Reading books? I’m in!

We read several books during the class, starting with Plato’s discourse “The Symposium”, Andre Breton’s “Nadia” (Nadja), Edmond Jabès’s “The Book of Questions: Volume One”, and finally, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nobel prize-winning novel, “Nausea” (La Nausée). While the other books were intriguing and thought-provoking (even though I found the Plato a bit dull), it really was Sartre’s novel that caught my interest.

The book is considered one of the essential works of existentialism, which Sartre is widely credited with bringing to popular public attention (along with his friend Albert Camus). His fiction often portrayed philosophical ideals in literary form, likely making them more comprehensible to those who couldn’t manage to get through his massive tome “Being and Nothingness”. (I have yet to finish that book and have given up. I also find it difficult to read some of his other philosophical essays, and have only managed to read the shortest ones.)

What fascinated me more was Sartre’s companion (and philosopher in her own right, though it’s taken years for that to be recognized) Simone de Beauvoir. She had only the barest mention in my class, but I was determined to seek out some of her books and find out what she wrote. Fortunately, one of my favourite used bookstores happened to have her entire 4-volume autobiography in paperback, and a copy of her first novel “She Came to Stay” (L’Invitée). It’s a fictional account of her relationship with Sartre and Olga Kosakiewicz. She and Sartre had a partnership, but they never married, and each had affairs. Sometimes their affairs meant bringing a third person into their relationship, which is what they did with Olga (and then her sister, Wanda).

Once I’d read She Came to Stay and worked my way through the first two volumes of her autobiography, I picked up some of her other works and started reading works by her contemporaries (Camus, Gide, Breton, etc.). That’s what started me off, and it hasn’t stopped since.

I’ll have to do a future post about Beauvoir specifically, as there’s much more I could discuss.