An afternoon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés

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“Il n’y a plus d’après à Saint-Germain-des-Prés” (There is nothing after Saint-Germain-des-Prés) sang Juliette Gréco in Guy Béart’s wonderful song. It’s hard to visualise her today in front of this church below in Robert Doisneau’s famous photo, or Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir strolling around, despite renaming the square after them, and it’s even more difficult to imagine Maurice Ronet’s anguish accompanied by Satie’s music on the terrace of the Café de Flore. All that went long ago – what remains is a very chic district with a vulgar Louis Vuitton boutique where it shouldn’t be instead of existentialist inspiration, full of hipsters and tourists.

But before I’m too harsh, let me say that I’m still extremely fond of this area and spent the most wonderful afternoon there. First, a coffee at the Flore in an almost deserted room (I never sit outside) where I almost convinced myself the waiter was in Sartrean bad faith. The coffee is certainly overpriced and not very good but I go there for the history and atmosphere which are hard to beat. Then a browse at my favourite bookshop, L’Écume des Pages, where I set foot all those years ago on my first trip to Paris. It hasn’t changed at all and my eye was instantly drawn to a huge volume of correspondence between Albert Camus and Maria Casarès which I had no idea about. Part of me questioned the wisdom of buying a 1300 page book weighing over a kilo but hell, this is Paris and if I want independent bookshops like this to still be around in the future, Amazon really isn’t an option. My heart skipped a beat and I had to buy it.

I called in the beautiful old church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés which was even lovelier than I remembered, then made my way over to a restaurant called Aux Vieux Garçons where I was meeting a friend for a delicious lunch, strolling first down to see the fresh graffiti on Serge Gainsbourg’s house and wondering if it will ever become a museum. Afterwards, I walked over to the Musée Rodin where the heat of the day finally hit me and I took out my new book. There are fewer places lovelier to read though in the shade of the trees and close to those wonderful sculptures. The words written by Albert Camus and Maria Casarès were so fresh and poignant and I imagined their time together in this very area.

I had only the energy left for Le Bon Marché department store where I finally bought the shoes of my dreams like those worn by Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour and afterwards stopped at La Grande Épicerie for one of the best millefeuilles I have ever eaten, thinking always of the director Jean-Pierre Melville who declared that his films were like a millefeuille. Some would enjoy the cream while the more discerning would appreciate the pastry. What an afternoon!

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I also called in the fabulous Pâtisserie des Rêves to see their cakes and think about what to choose. I finally bought a Saint Honoré a couple of days later which was incredible.

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Films for Valentine’s Day

I’m aware that the very title of this post will make some people scream or reach for the sick bag. Valentine’s Day sucks, in my opinion – overpriced, dyed red roses, chocolates in naff heart shaped boxes, enormous fluffy bunnies for sale in the supermarket. But I’m prepared to accept a romantic film and realise that some of you may even be looking for suggestions. Here are some of my favourites and all can be enjoyed throughout the year, not just today.

An Affair to Remember

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Warning: this is definitely a four Kleenex film. I’ve only seen it once but the uncontrollable sobbing at the final scene remains fresh in my mind. Yet for absolute and classic romance, this one’s hard to beat. Playboy Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) is sailing back to New York to marry an heiress when he meets Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), a nightclub singer who is also involved with someone else. They instantly fall in love but realise things are complicated so agree to meet on top of the Empire State Building in six months if they still feel the same. I won’t spoil the rest of the story but needless to say, they don’t meet then. Will fate keep them apart? It’s a beautiful and touching film which hasn’t dated at all and as a sign of its status as the ultimate romantic film, Nora Ephron referred to it constantly in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ many years later. Just don’t forget the tissues!

The Philadelphia Story

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Perhaps the most romantic and sophisticated of them all. This was the film that revived Katharine Hepburn’s flagging career after she’d been branded “box office poison” after a series of flops. She plays Tracy Lord, a wealthy divorcee about to marry again. But things become complicated when not only her ex-husband C.K. Dextor Haven (Cary Grant) but also a couple of newspaper reporters (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey) show up at her family home on the eve of her wedding. A few home truths are revealed and needless to say, nothing will ever quite be the same. It’s a gorgeous, sparkling film, full of witty dialogue and I just love the chemistry between the three leads. James Stewart walked away with an Oscar with his performance which he undoubtedly deserved but it always makes me rather sad that Cary Grant was snubbed by the Academy for what is one of his finest roles.

Brief Encounter

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It’s easy to sneer at Brief Encounter today. If married people are in love, they can just get a divorce, nobody is trapped in dull suburban life anymore. And those clipped accents! Yet I defy you to watch it and not be moved by Celia Johnson’s flawless performance which has lost nothing of its power. What makes this film still compelling after all these years is that she and Trevor Howard are simply perfect together and the agony of knowing they can never be together is deeply moving.

Midnight

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A beautiful woman, Eve Peabody, (Claudette Colbert) arrives in Paris on a rainy night without a sou to her name and only the clothes she is wearing (luckily they are designer). A kind-hearted cab driver, Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) agrees to drive her around in search of a nightclub job for which she doesn’t seem to have much talent. When that doesn’t work out, he invites her up to his room but she flees while his back is turned and crashes a high society soirée. Forced to impersonate an aristocrat, she names herself Baroness Czerny and soon finds herself involved in a complicated web of relations between Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore), his wife Hélène (Mary Astor) and her lover Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) who becomes smitten himself with the Baroness. Can she pull off a society marriage? Meanwhile, Tibor has a search party out looking all over Paris for Eve. This is Old Hollywood comedy at its very best with flawless performances from the whole cast, especially Colbert who excelled at screwball comedy. Not all of Charles Brackett’s and Billy Wilder’s scripts were great (‘Ball of Fire’, ‘Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife’) but in the hands of Mitchell Leisen, it’s terrific and great fun from beginning to end.

Lost in Translation

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For those who prefer something a bit more modern and fresher, this is a great choice. I remember how amazing I found it when I first watched it at the cinema all those years ago. Most of you probably know it anyway, but there isn’t exactly much of a plot. Instead, it’s about two lonely people played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson staying at the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo who find a connection. They may seem an unlikely couple but their performances are so wonderful that nothing ever feels forced or fake, you just drift through their long conversations and different encounters in the city. I think many of us can relate to being in a strange place or not knowing what direction to take in life. This film really shows what it’s like to be in those situations and I keep thinking about it long after I’ve watched it again. The fantastic soundtrack and photography help to create something haunting and unique which is why I find myself coming back to this film time and again.

In the mood for love

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Wong Kar-Wai’s gorgeous film has the same premise as Brief Encounter – two married people (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) who fall in love but are kept apart but gossip and social conventions in 1960s Hong Kong. I think it’s a shame that some people see the film as superficial and glossy because of the emphasis on style, beautiful costumes and photography. It’s so sensitively played that Christopher Doyle’s stunning cinematography, haunting score and exquisite clothing manage to express desire in a way few films can. A lingering glance, the heat of the evening, the corridors we follow the two characters down. The most touching scene for me is when they try to prepare for the inevitable separation by practising their farewells. It’s almost unbearably sad.

Jules et Jim

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An unconventional but still romantic film. I am loathe to pick favourites but this is probably my favourite Truffaut (but then if you ask me to choose between La Peau Douce, Les 400 Coups and Vivement Dimanche, I’d be hard pushed). Adapted from Henri Pierre Roché’s  novel, it tells the story of two friends, Jules et Jim (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre), and their changing relationship over 20 years with the unpredictable but beautiful Catherine (Jeanne Moreau at her most iconic). There’s the warmth and fun of the Belle Époque years, followed by the darker period of the First World War and the rise of National Socialism. You really feel what it was like to be alive during those times, how the characters are bound up in these events and how their relationships to one another changes, like the whirlwind in the enchanting song Catherine sings. I must also mention the extraordinary and groundbreaking cinematography by Raoul Coutard and Georges Delerue’s beautiful score. It’s the most complete portrayal of friendship, love and loss that I have ever seen and undoubtedly a masterpiece.

On reading

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Few things have marked my life quite as much as French literature. It all began back in December 1999 when I travelled to Paris for the first time, taking the Eurostar with my parents. We rented an apartment for a few days on Boulevard Haussmann, very close to Galeries Lafayette and Printemps with their aquarium like windows filled with magical Christmas displays, and very importantly, close to where Marcel Proust once lived (but more about him later).  It’s a total cliché but I fell in love with the city of light, walking down the Champs-Elysées and admiring the trees wrapped in white and taking a trip to the Eiffel Tower late one night and seeing the twinkling avenues spread out beneath my feet. Unfortunately, my poor mother did not enjoy the experience as much as me and started coming down with the flu.

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The Café de Flore by Jeanloup Sieff

Confined to her bed for our last full day, I insisted on dragging my father off to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the area made famous by Jean-Paul Sartre and my idol, Simone de Beauvoir. Needless to say, the first destination on our pilgrimage was the Café de Flore where in my then non-existent French, I ordered “deux cafés” and was astonished when the waiter bought two tiny cups of coffee, accompanied by two glasses of still water, realising too late that it was café au lait I had wanted. While leaving the Flore, I spotted a wonderful looking bookshop next to it which had a large window display devoted to Marcel Proust. Not only did I go in but, despite speaking no French at all, I gathered up all seven volumes of ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ and also Stendhal’s ‘Le rouge et le noir’, for the simple reason that I liked the title and the cover. Grumbling that it was ridiculous to buy so many books in a foreign language you didn’t speak, my father nevertheless was kind enough to pay for them and put the experience down to one of my many eccentricities. Years later, when watching the film ‘Frances Ha’, I burst out laughing at the scene where she talks about learning French just to read Proust because that’s exactly what I did.

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The famous portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche

Through a mixture of dogged determination and Francophilia, I taught myself French, first through basic language courses, then by reading grammar books, then by tackling the classic novels. There was ‘Madame Bovary’ and Balzac’s ‘Le Lys dans la Vallée’ (very challenging for a beginner), Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’ and ‘La Peste’ and tons of Marguerite Duras until I overdosed. Sometimes I agonised for hours over the meaning of a sentence or the use of a particular tense, but I never gave up. I finally devoted myself to Proust in the university library, arriving as soon as it opened in the morning to get one of the single desks by the window which looked out onto the park. I began ‘Du côté de chez Swann’ and lost myself in the neverending sentences with their quirky syntax and labyrinthine constructions.  No other book has captured my heart and imagination like La Recherche and I spent the next ten years not only ploughing through the other six volumes, but also reading everything about it and its idiosyncratic creator.

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Henri Beyle, otherwise known as Stendhal

And Stendhal? The summer of 2004 before I moved to Annecy, I finally opened ‘Le Rouge et le Noir’ and fell in love with the book and its author, buying everything by and about him and even giving an awful presentation in French about his famous crystallization theory from ‘De l’Amour’ to other students at the language school (funnily, my friend from Frankfurt remembers little else about her time there, except my talk) and making a pilgrimage to his hated birthplace, Grenoble.

Today these rather battered books by Proust and Stendhal occupy pride of place on my bookshelf and although it has been years since I’ve read them, opening a volume still fills me with excitement and takes me back to that cold but sunny afternoon in Paris all those years ago.

A few of my favourite things

So as today’s my birthday, I hope you will excuse this rather self-indulgent post (and the title reference to The Sound of Music) with some of my favourite people/things.

Proust – I can’t imagine a time without his words. Reading La Recherche in French took me almost a decade, and yet I’m always keen to start over again because there is so much I’ve missed and still need to understand.

Venice – my obsession since I visited it in 2009. I constantly dream of returning there and will get my chance in October. Photo by Dmitri Kessel, 1952.

Gloria Grahame – one of my favourite actresses who was born to play film noir. She enriched even the smallest role and made it interesting and I love her voice. It still breaks my heart how she never felt she beautiful enough and turned to plastic surgery which left her upper lip paralysed. Still very underrated today.

Le feu follet – this film actually brings together quite a few of my favourite things – Louis Malle, Maurice Ronet, Satie, Paris and the Café de Flore.

Evelyn Waugh – author of some of my favourite books which can be in turn hilarious and then bitingly cruel. Brideshead Revisited is one of the greatest novels ever written.

Film noir – easily my favourite film genre and even a mediocre noir is still worth watching. Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Jacques Tourneur’s ‘Out of the past’, one of the finest films ever made.

Henry James in the famous portrait by John Singer Sergeant. I know that many people are put off by his reputation for being difficult to read but as a master of the English language, I think he is unparalleled. ‘The portrait of a lady’ and ‘The Aspern papers’ are more accessible works than the later ones but equally brilliant.

Red lipstick – this one needs no explanation

Scott Fitzgerald – a genius with a prose style as glittering as his characters who also wrote the best book ever about Hollywood, The last tycoon.

Night time photos – as a noir lover, it won’t surprise you to learn that I love these kinds of photos, particularly of New York in the 1950s, like this one taken by Everett.

1920s fashion and make-up, as seen on the fabulous Clara Bow. If I could travel back in time to any period, this would be it, particularly Paris in this decade, if only to pick up some of those Picassos cheap.

Anna Karina simply because she’s Anna. Photos of her gorgeous face make me want to put on eyeliner and smoke a cigarette.

François Truffaut – genius of the Nouvelle Vague.

Some of my favourite neo-noirs

Regular readers of this blog and those who follow me on Instagram will know I’m something of a noir glutton – femmes fatales, crisp black and white photography, jazzy scores and a scheme or heist that you know can only end badly – I just can’t get enough. But I also have a thing for neo-noir, the genre that takes elements from film noir but transports them to later periods and have more modern aspects. So here are some of my favourites, in no particular order:

  1. L.A. Confidential (Curtis, Hanson, 1997)

2. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

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3. The Grifters (1990, Stephen Frears)

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4. Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn) A bit too gory for me in places but a terrific film, nonetheless

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5. Chinatown (1973, Roman Polanski)

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6. The Last Seduction (1994, John Dahl)

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7. Basic Instinct (1992, Paul Verhoeven) Again too much blood, but a gripping story

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8. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)

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9. Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch)

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10. Brick (2005, Rian Johnson)

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11.Body Heat (1981, Laurence Kasdan)

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12. The Consequences of Love (2004, Paolo Sorrentino)

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13. The Usual Suspects (1995, Bryan Singer)

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14. Point Blank (1967, John Boorman)

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15. Fargo (1996, the Coen brothers)

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16. Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan)

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17. Le Samouraï (1967, Jean-Pierre Melville)

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18. Klute (1971, Alan J. Pakula)

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19. Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)

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20. La Cérémonie (1995, Claude Chabrol)

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French New Wave month, part 1

Hello dear readers,

I’m sorry it’s been a while. I’ve been busy with work and also watching a lot of films which won’t surprise you. If you follow me on Instagram (chimesatmidnight), you’ll have seen that I’ve been reviewing a different film from the French New Wave each day. For future reference, I’m doing a post of my first 15 choices, with reviews to be included soon to go with the photos. Happy viewing!

  1. A bout de souffle/ Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard)

2. The 400 blows/ Les 400 Coups – François Truffaut

3. Le beau Serge – Claude Chabrol

4. My night with Maud/ Ma nuit chez Maud – Rohmer

5. Lola – Jacques Demy

6. Paris belongs to us/ Paris nous appartient – Jacques Rivette

7. La pointe courte – Agnès Varda

8. Lift to the scaffold/ L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud – Malle

9. Bob le flambeur – Jean-Pierre Melville

10. Last year at Marienbad/ L’année dernière à Marienbad

12. A summer’s tale/ Conte d’été – Eric Rohmer

13. Adieu Philippine – Jacques Rozier

14. Muriel – Alain Resnais

15. Silken skin/ La peau douce – Truffaut

Summer film 10: Summer hours (2008)

I had intended to choose thirty summer films but somehow I like the idea of ten much more and so this is the final film in my selection. Like quite a few in my list, Olivier Assayas’ film is actually quite simple in terms of the story. The film opens with Hélène’s (played by Edith Scob) 75th birthday which she is celebrating at her house in the country with her three children and their families. They have not seen each other for some time and only one of them, Frédéric (Charles Berling) lives in France. During the afternoon, Hélène takes him aside to discuss what to do with the house and its contents after her death. The house belonged to her uncle, an artist, and is filled with paintings, furniture and other items of artistic value. She tells him what to keep and what to sell or bequeath. Frédéric is adamant that the collection will remain intact and that the house will not be sold and that she will be with them for a long time yet but Hélène is unconvinced.

In the next scene, we learn that Hélène has died and decisions over the estate are being made. To Frédéric’s surprise, his brother Jérémie (Jérémie Rennier) and sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) want to sell everything and divide it. They no longer live in France and need the money. And so we see how the works of art are dispersed and how the house is emptied. It’s a theme familiar from Louis Malle’s Milou en mai about the loss of the matriarch and how monetary concerns come before personal attachments. This has the added interest of asking about the nature of art, about why we collect and what the role of a collector should be. Is it right to keep works of art just for private contemplation or should they be displayed in museums instead? What was the relationship between Hélène and her uncle? Hélène kept the house just as it was in his lifetime, almost as kind of shrine but at the end we see Frédéric’s daughter using the empty house as a party spot and saying farewell to a place where she will never return. One of the most touching aspects concerns Hélène’s long-term housekeeper Eloise. What will happen to her after the house is sold? Should she receive something for her loyalty? It’s very understated and poignant.

There’s no false sentimentality here. We see the happy times at the beginning and also the pain of losing everything we have known. People simply discuss and accept that decisions have to be made. We cannot hold onto the past, it slips through our fingers just like those summer hours. All we can hope for is to create some kind of meaning in the present and hope that others will find something to remember us by.