Winter in London

 

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I must admit that leaving the house just after 7am in the dark and the freezing rain made me almost call the whole thing off. By the time I boarded the train for London, my hands and feet were so cold that I spent the entire train journey bundled up in my coat, scarf and gloves, trying to warm my fingers with lots of tea. But then the sight of the magnificent St. Pancras station never fails to lift my spirits and I hurried down the platform to meet Amanda and Sharly by the statue of the great Sir John Betjamin. The first time I met Amanda it was in the same spot but during one of the hottest weeks ever. This time, the contrast in the weather couldn’t have been greater but we still had a wonderful day in spite of the rain. The Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A was sold out but we went to the new Ocean Liners: Speed and Style instead which was just fabulous. I’ve always had a soft spot for vintage photos and posters from the golden age of travel and there were plenty here, along with gems such as The Duke of Windsor’s Goyard trunks which straight away made me think of my friend Jan, Marlene Dietrich’s suit, socialite Emilie Grigsby’s Paul Poiret satin trousers and dresses, a Louis Vuitton vanity set, plus beautiful furniture, panelling and music by Fred Astaire and clips from classic films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to enjoy.

After lunch, we headed for Harrod’s, then Fortnum’s, then Hatchard’s where my energy flagged and I collapsed on a sofa in the art section with my bags full of exhibition merchandise, makeup and tea around me. We said our goodbyes in Burberry where Amanda was trying on a beautiful coat. It’s a shame we don’t live closer but I’m already looking forward to our next meeting in Berlin, Paris, London, New York or somewhere different.

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Written in stone

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The last time I visited Paris, it was winter and a light dusting of snow covered the ground. I couldn’t  wait to take the metro up to Montmartre cemetery, one of the few I haven’t visited, with my Paris guidebook featuring a guided walk there by the great photographer Jean-Loup Sieff, plus flowers for François Truffaut, Hector Berlioz and Dalida who are all buried there. My enthusiasm died a sudden death though when I found the gates firmly locked with a notice that this cemetery, and in fact, all cemeteries and large parts of parks were closed for health and safety reasons. For such a romantic nation, the French have no sense of the poetic at times – what could be more beautiful than funerary monuments in the snow? To paraphrase Henri IV, “Paris vaut bien une jambe cassée.”

Anyway, I’m happy to report that this time there was no snow. In fact, it was the perfect winter’s day and the only decent one of my trip. Returning to Père Lachaise after 16 years, everything felt both familiar and new. It really is a remarkable place and like many great French things, we owe it to Napoleon, or more specifically Nicholas Frochot, after the walls of the notoriously overcrowded Cimetière des Innocents collapsed and he ordered him to create new cemeteries outside the centre including this one, named after Louis XIV’s confessor, Père de la Chaise. Its immediate attraction for me all those years ago was the number of famous people I admire who sleep there – Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrision, Frédéric Chopin, Isadora Duncan, Marcel Proust, Marie Trintignant, Balzac, Edith Piaf and too many others to mention. But one of the great pleasures is just to wander from section to section along its avenues lined with magnificent old trees, stopping to admire any monuments or graves that catch your eye and even imagining the story behind the names.

If you want to go there, I encourage you to get off at Gambetta and walk down the hill which is much less arduous and crowded. You will need a plan which you can find at the entrance at the top or from the conservation office at the bottom. I also recommend a guide like Permanent Parisians or Stories in Stone, both of which are excellent. But also be realistic – there are 108 acres to cover and it’s almost impossible to visit all the graves you want to in one day. And always be prepared for surprises – a cemetery cat greeted me after I unexpectedly found the great Claude Chabrol’s grave on my way to Chopin’s. Pausing, I saw a man with wild curly hair and glasses, carrying a folder coming towards me. When I told him I was now looking for Jim Morrison’s grave, he exclaimed, “Jim is dead?!,” before leading me on a shortcut to find it and telling me all the fascinating stories about Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau, Chopin and so many others. He works as a guide and loves his job because he has no boss calling him on the phone and covers a huge amount of space walking each day. His secret was revealed when he opened a cigarette box to reveal large amounts of chocolate. He left me to make his way to the crematorium to see the barbecue as he described it but I encountered him again, chatting and laughing with other visitors. A true delight.

As the sun started to set, my feet began to ache and I resigned myself to not seeing all the graves on my list and felt sad at the thought of leaving this place that means so much to me. But the memories of that special day are still so vivid and I’m already thinking about my next trip to Paris when I might finally get to Montmartre.

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Héloïse and Abélard

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Robinson’s phantasmagoric tomb

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Félix Faure, President of the French Republic who may have died after erotic excess with his mistress.

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Vivant Denon

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Memorials to those who died in concentration camps.

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The Communards’ Wall

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Oscar Wilde

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Honoré Daumier’s grave was in a sad state when I first visited but it’s now been restored thanks to donations by those who love his work.
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Jim Morrison

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René Lalique

Winter in London

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Even the most weary traveller would find it hard to resist London at this time of year. Other cities like Berlin are just cold and grey but London has a special atmosphere that brings out the best in it. The Christmas trees sparkle, exquisite decorations light up elegant streets, you pause in front of Fortnum’s famous windows to admire their fantastic displays before going into to stock up essentials like tea, biscuits and marmalade. Even Cartier’s is all wrapped up in a big red bow. And there is always something remarkable to discover. Pausing to admire a beautiful tiara in the window of Bentley and Skinner on Piccadilly, I was invited in to see a small exhibition of exquisite Fabergé jewels and trinkets in the basement before making my way to the Duchamp/Dali exhibition at the Royal Academy. No visit to Piccadilly would be complete either without a visit to Hatchards which is surely the bibliophile’s ultimate dream. After breakfasting on almond croissant, Greek yoghurt with berries and strong coffee, I took the train to Blackfriar’s the next morning for the Red Star Over Russia exhibition at Tate Modern where I spent the rest of the day drifting between the galleries and joining in the fun in the Turbine Hall which is rather like a giant playground. The day ended with a trip to the BFI to watch one of my favourite films of all time, Double Indemnity. In the warmth and comfort of those plush red seats next to fellow cinephiles, the film came alive like never before and not a sound was uttered until after the final credits had rolled. On my final day, I just see the remarkable exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and return to the permanent collection of the National Gallery to admire some of my favourite paintings before catching the bus over to the BFI again to watch Vincente Minnelli’s wonderful The Bad and the Beautiful. The weather had turned very cold and there was a chill in the air as I walked over Waterloo Bridge in the red lights of rush hour to get the bus back to St. Pancras, taking in the lights and beautiful buildings one last time. I can’t wait for Christmas.

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Gift guide for men, 2017

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For this year’s gift guide, I’ve not only included a few suggestions of my own but also asked some stylish men for advice. Thanks to them for giving me ideas and for making this a fun post to put together. Presents range from the very affordable to objects of dreams but I hope you’ll find something desirable and inspiring, even if it’s just window shopping. And don’t forget to visit the beautiful blogs by my friends Jan and Kenneth for more style ideas and inspiring writing.

George Jensen elephant bottle opener, £35. I personally could never give this to a man unless I lived with him because it’s definitely something I want for myself.

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Le Creuset The Waiter’s Corkscrew, £25.60.

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Laguiole Olivewood Three Piece Cheese Set, £289 – the ultimate set to bring out with the cheeseboard.

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A classic leather hip flask in deep brown croc, £45, Aspinal of London (currently 15% off as well). Can also be engraved. The perfect accessory for long winter walks.

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Bucks Fizz Orange Marmalade from Fortnum’s to add a touch of elegance on Christmas morning, £7.95

Two of my favourite fragrances for men which I also love to wear:

Chanel pour Monsieur Eau de Toilette, from £52

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Sycomore by Les Exclusifs de Chanel, from £140

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The finest handmade combs by Kent, starting at £3.85

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An Abbeyhorn shoehorn which really is beautifully made and designed to last. Prices start from £13.88.

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A cashmere tie to keep warm and look elegant in the winter months, Emma Willis, £140

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Hermès passport holder, £155, sadly no longer available in red but vert Titien is still gorgeous.

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A beautiful dark red wool twill scarf from Loro Piana, £360

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And another in blue cashmere and silk, £635

A double-breasted topcoat in camel hair, £1246, J.Crew.

Double-breasted topcoat in camel hair

Bugatti Sports Coat in black watch tartan, currently in the sale for £155 from Peter Hahn

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A vintage Daytona Paul Newman watch from antique stores and Ebay among others. From £325,000 – good luck with that!

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Or perhaps you’d rather have the Todd Snyder Military Watch in black, $138

The Military Watch in Black

Steve McQueen by William Claxton, £8.99 because he was just the epitome of style and cool

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James Dean by Dennis Stock, £24.95. Handsome coffee table book of one of the ultimate screen icons.

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And finally some Dorothy Thorope style 1960s roly poly Mad Men whisky glasses because what man doesn’t want to be Don Draper? £125 on Etsy (set of six)

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Favourite books of 2017

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Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles is just one of my favourite books I read this year. Some are new, some were published a few years ago but all are wonderful. I hope you find something to interest and inspire you on my list.

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One of the greatest living photographers, Fred Lyon, pays homage to his beautiful city of San Francisco and its noir heritage. Stunning and atmospheric photos.

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Two books about the darker side of Hollywood. Piu Eatwell makes a convincing case for finally solving one of the most notorious crimes of all time, that of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed The Black Dahlia. Gripping and well told with great compassion for the victim. While in High Noon, Glenn Frankel turns his attention to the blacklist and the making and influence of one the great westerns, High Noon. A revealing portrait of America which still resonates today.

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In Les Parisiennes, historian Anne Sebba looks at the testimonies of both ordinary and well known French women who lived through the German Occupation. So compassionate, fascinating and well researched that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary fiction but I loved All The Light We Cannot See which is also set in Occupied France. A heartbreaking and beautiful book which I still can’t stop thinking about.

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Nicholas Ray’s adaptations of In A Lonely Place is one of my favourite noirs but I had never read the book which is actually quite different. One of the greatest books about Los Angeles too along with Slow Days, Fast Company. Eve Babitz was one of my discoveries this year. Her writing is deceptively simple but so good and I laughed out loud many times. Eve’s Hollywood by her is also highly recommended.

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I’ve posted quite a few photos by William Claxton on Instagram and then someone recommended me this book which features his journey across the States and experience of jazz. Brilliant photography as you would expect and such a magnificent and huge volume.

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The Essential Marilyn Monroe by Milton Greene features all the photos from their 50 sessions together, many beautifully restored and quite a few published for the first time. All are remarkable and revealing photos of a woman at her most beautiful by a friend and photographer who knew how to get the best from her.

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Gleb Derujinsky was one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time and this book is both a revelation and a joy. My friend Jan wrote a superb review of it here which I recommend reading.

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Robert Doisneau is one of my very favourite photographers but I had no idea about his work for Vogue in the post-war years. This stunning book is available in English and French and you can see more beautiful photos from it and read Jan’s excellent review on his blog here.

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And finally thanks to Jan’s blog, I discovered two wonderful books on Coco Chanel, including this one which you can read about in more detail here.

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A superb book about remarkable interiors inside the homes of the twentieth century’s most remarkable women with amazing photos and illustrations too.

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A deliciously gossipy book about film, fashion and Rome. Unputdownable and fun.

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The story of the Palazzo Venier and the three women who lived and transformed what is now the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Beautifully written and endlessly fascinating.

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One of my favourite Instagrammers recommended this book. I can see the influence of John Piper in these remarkable illustrations and drawings which bring Britain’s lost buildings to life. Accompanied by a superb text.

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Extracts from Raymond Chandler’s works accompanied by atmospheric photos of Los Angeles taken in the 1980s which create the perfect mood. A must!

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I never thought I’d get the chance to buy a book of newly published Fitzgerald stories! Not all are masterpieces but some are exceptional and it’s an essential for any fan of his work.

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The story of the Riviera and those who graced it when elegance and sophistication still ruled makes for a fabulous read. At the Existentialist Cafe brings back memories of my own pilgrimage to these famous places and studying philosophy. The author explains the ideas clearly and makes you want to learn more.

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2017 was the year I officially became addicted to Joan Didion and her razor sharp prose. I bought this on a rainy day in Berlin and it was such a tonic to read someone use the English language so well and have a real understanding of the people and issues she encountered.

The last nights of Berlin

Bild 134.jpgBerlin really comes alive with the night much more than cities like Paris or London. The trains run late and all night at the weekend, transporting party goers, tourists, groups of friends, cinephiles and many others. Where else could you go and see a midnight screening of Casablanca every Saturday at the tiny Lichtblick Kino, enjoy an all-night Hitchcock marathon and be woken up with Bloody Mary or finish the Long Night of the Museums in the aquarium, watching the sharks swim while a jazz band plays in the early hours? It was at night when I officially moved there in 2007, arriving at Hauptbahnhof from God knows where after travelling all day. It had not been love at first sight when I had visited a year earlier – I found the city so huge and fragmented. How could I ever hope to get an overview of such a place? Yet even after a couple of days wandering through its stunning parks and empty streets, I realised that this city was something special, that it was many things and not just one, allowing you to do what you wanted to follow your own path. Glimpsing the famous dome of the Reichstag, the buildings of the Regierungsviertel and the roof of the Sony Center, I knew that I was home, that this was the best place in the world to live and that I belonged there.

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I moved with my then boyfriend into a top floor flat in Pankow with a view over the roofs of Berlin and quickly fell in with a young Expat crowd who were also training to be teachers. We spent our days and evenings studying hard together, releasing the tensions of the week on Friday nights in a mediocre bar across the Spree. Even after the course had finished, rents were so cheap that we all stayed on, doing the round of language schools with our CVs in the day and hanging out together in the evening. Best were the nights out – watching English language films at the Sony Center or at Hackesche Hoefe, drunken evenings at karaoke bars and nightclubs in Friedrichshain, including the now legendary Berghain. The partying began at midnight, we danced until 5 or 6, fuelled by Red Bull and Coke, returning home bleary eyed under the harsh lights of the S-Bahn to crash on someone’s floor or sofa until late afternoon when we would get up for coffee and brunch. We rarely saw much light of day. Once I even returned home just as my bemused boyfriend was leaving for work.

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Of course, with jobs, we had to curb our partying to weekends only. Some members of our group eventually moved away, others returned home until I was the only one left. There were many other great nights out with friends who were just passing through but also others who stayed. But never did I live the night so intensely as in those first few months. Berlin is no longer my home and part of me wonders whether I was right to leave, hoping deep down I can live there again one day. Maybe I will get the chance.  In the meantime, I settle for visiting friends every year and still feel that tremendous sense of freedom and exhilaration each time night falls there.

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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.