2014 was a year of great personal sadness for me. Herewith a short list of things that pierced the veil.
1. The Olivetti Showroom in Venice at the Piazza San Marco.
During the Venice Biennale, I stole away to see some things that were not part of that madcap pot pourri. At the top of the list: the Olivetti Showroom that Carlo Scarpa designed for Olivetti in 1957 and was refurbished in 2011. This is a jewel of a space, and for those of you who are crazy about mid-century Italian design as I am, you will find much to please you here: an elegant stairway, custom coverings for heat/light, marvelous tile floors. Like all great architects and designers, Scarpa left nothing to chance.
2. Greer Lankton at Participant Inc
I was late to seeing this scary, stunning, splendid exhibition as I am not in NY full time. Now, alas, it's down. The gallery owner told me it will be traveling in some form, she's just not sure yet about where. Greer Langton was born Greg and had gender reassignment surgery in the 80s. She grew up making dolls in Flint, Michigan, where it must have been brutal to be her. But it is not just her dolls which are so piercing and dynamic. Like Nan Goldin or even Warhol, she often was the subject of her own art. It may seem weird to make a comparison, but Lankton curated her environment as much as Carlo Scarpa did his. She was a junkie, and anorexic. There was probably little hope that she would live to a ripe old age. But her star flamed brightly in the East Village of the 70s-80s and going down to Participant Inc Gallery felt like a throwback to the time when the East Village was not the locus of every trendy restaurant in New York. This link will help you to know more about Lankton.
3. Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time
I was fully prepared to be disappointed by this National Theater play now on Broadway. Urged on by some friends whose taste I very much trust I took myself to a matinee just before leaving New York. I am so happy I did. The Wednesday and Sunday matinees have cast a different actor in the role --Taylor Trensch instead of Alex Sharp. I don't think it could have been any better with Sharp. As an autistic child confronted with a secret past he seizes hold of his family and neighborhood and in the process is forced out into the world as much as the world is forced into him. The production is marvelous and reminds us why the Brits seem to have a lock on a certain kind of intellectual but innovative and crowd pleasing theater that is very much home grown and nurtured by a strong state and private system of development.
4 The Neopolitan Triology by Elena Ferrante
Another bandwagon I am jumping on. My friend, novelist Marisa Silver, was an early adaptor of Elena Ferrante's triology of Neopolitan female friendship and recommended it wholeheartedly. I read all three in Paris, not Italy, but I was close enough to the setting to feel a connection since I was writing about a similar time period in France. In a year when friends were scarce and dying, this made me cry and laugh, and hit me right in my heart. It is a magnificent saga, like a female Godfather and more. If you have ever had a long friendship that has been loving, competitive, bumpy, deep, intimate, revealing, you will want to read this book that tells of the torments of two women who do love each other but can't manage to sustain an even keel. It is intertwined with post-war Italian history that makes the seventies and eighties in western Europe vivid. Ferrante is publicity-shy and so far has not come forward to claim her fame. How refreshing and also clever. A perfect thing to dig into over the holiday break.
5. Marlene Dumas at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
This show is not traveling to the U.S. Dumas was apparently very disappointed in the critical reaction to her work last time in NY (not me). I love her work. She has many imitators, but none achieve the bold and clear-eyed view of the world she has been dissecting for most of her adult life. The work is both beautiful and frightening. Marianne Faithful sang at the opening, and if ever there were two audacious blondes it is these two, a perfect pairing of art and music. If you have the chance to go to Europe in the fall you can catch it at the Tate Modern London beginning February, and then in Paris. If you click on the link you will see an interview with Dumas and other background materials.
6. Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenco's Antigone.
This is another fearless effort by Barrio and her husband Martin Santangelo to bring flamenco into the 21st century. Rather than resting on Barrio and Cos supreme laurels as flamenco dancers, they have taken flamenco both backwards and forwards as there are hints of flamenco as Agnes de Mille agit ballet, and post modernism too. It is a work in progress and it continues to grow. Full disclosure: Soledad is one of my beloved teachers though I stand in the back row, a great privilege. Her soul, her dedication, her talent rivals the historic ballerinas and Soledad takes ballet and yoga lessons, she draws from many disciplines. She is at the Joyce and Joe's Pub every year and often gives performances elsewhere.
7. William Forsythe at the Festival d'Automne in Paris.
Many of choreographer William Forsythe's works have not been performed in the U.S. Though he was born here, his fame comes from the work he has done abroad. The Festival D'Automne mounted a number of works at Chatelet and at the Paris Opera Ballet (now under the direction of Benjamin Millepied). Along with Alexei Ratmansky, I think he's the finest ballet choreographer working today albeit in a more stylized avant garde vein. His choices are risky, his dancers technically brilliant(he works with a number of European troupes) yet they bring emotion to every step. Let's hope for more Forsythe here in the U.S. (As an aside, the Grand Defile of the Paris Opera Ballet that opens every season with every single dancer from young students to the great primeurs parade onto the lushly re-kitted out Palais Garnier. All in white. It's a dream that only can be compared to Swan Lake. )
8. Netflix, Showtime Anytime and HBO Go.
Thanks to the Gods of Internet for saving my life this year. Many sleepless nights the demons were banished by the obvious (Homeland,Newsroom, ) and not-so-obvious (French films I've never heard of, Scandinavian series that have been ripped off here, British television). More, more, more though my reading pile sits sorely neglected.
9. Festival Albertine, Cultural Services of the French Embassy
A conversation at the French Cultural Services between Matthew Weiner and Alexandra Clert, the creators and showrunners of Mad Men and Engrenage (Spiral, on Netflix, natch). Expecting a love fest between this man and this woman who have had two hugely successful shows in their respective countries, the tightly packed second floor crowd in the newly redone French Cultural Services building across from the Met at 972 Fifth, instead witnessed a diatribe by Weiner against formulaic women and stereotyping. Weiner turns out to be a total feminist, though you could see that by the interesting women he wrote in the midst of all those suits. His parents are academics and he quoted Simone de Beauvoir and others -- I was both surprised and delighted. Can't wait to see what he does next. The Festival was in honor of the new French bookstore in this building, where they also found the hidden Michelangelo. I worked there many years ago, walked by it hundreds of times and thought of it as a typical knock-off statuary. Hmm....
A few years ago at the Bard Graduate Center in NY there was a hat show that made me, a hat wearer, want to go back in time. Why can't we wear hats even if they don't keep us warm or keep us from sun damage? Every once in a while I find modern hats that make me feel chic and special. In London a few years ago I got two hats at Gabriela Ligenza in tiny Ellis Street off Sloan Street that are hippie and ladies-who-lunch. I didn't buy one at Marie Mercie on the rue St. Sulpice in Paris this year as I wasn't feeling chipper but tell me what you think of this one that said Audrey to me.
May the next year bring more joy, peace and happiness to us...
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A woman's voice -- urgent, husky and siren-like all at once -- is heard over a black screen. Suddenly cheerful music reveals a gay turn-of-the-century world. The wild mood swings of the first minute of Jules and Jim, Francois Truffaut's beloved New Wave creation hint at the complex tale about to unfold. The film, which has its 50th anniversary today, is as much a celebration of the unconventional love story as it is of film itself: the romantic pull of its triangle was matched with pure filmmaking panache, a valentine to love and friendship in all their complicated messiness.
I first saw Jules and Jim at the Cinematheque in Paris where vintage films were shown strictly uncut and undubbed as their directors, or auteurs, originally envisioned them. I was in flight from my previous alt-selves -- sorority girl, political activist, rock and roller -- on a semester abroad. For two francs -- then around 20 cents -- I studied the New Wave cinema heroines, none more intriguing than Truffaut's Catherine, the earthy, pouty-lipped enigma who knew how to keep two men dangling simultaneously, hoping for clues to my own version original. Why, in Paris, even your knee had possibilities. (Eric Rohmer's Claire's Knee).
Truffaut called his film Jules and Jim after a novel he had fallen in love with which followed the volatile friendship of the men over the course of two decades, but I entered it through the portal of Catherine, who was its dangerous spark. It was Catherine who most drew your attention -- not just because of her sensual beauty but for the simple fact that you never knew what she was going to do next. Catherine was a modern woman who double-dared her lovers to meet her in a "no-woman's" land where she set the rules. How did Jeanne Moreau, the actress Truffaut said helped inspire him to make the film, infuse so much mystery and charm into the smallest look and gesture?
Catherine and Patricia (from Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless) film-ended my stay in Paris -- one the essential Frenchwoman, the other the essential American girl (Truffaut had actually come up with the story for Breathless and given it to Godard). Truffaut and Godard believed that women could be powerful, independent and the object of grand desire, for whom men were willing to check their own needs at the door. But both heroines suffered from a malaise that also stalked me at the time: the fear of being shut inside a relationship and thus deprived of the possibilities of the rest of life.
Catherine was a new kind of femme fatale, not a blatant sex kitten like La Bardot, but one who could get away with wearing men's clothes and painting a mustache on her face and still be intensely feminine and sexually provocative. Like the character she admires in a play, she invents her life at every moment.
Perhaps, I fantasized along with thousands of other young women, by cutting bangs, wearing a rakish newsboy cap or a wide headband and an oversized boyfriend sweater I would somehow be infused with the essence of Catherine and could learn how to be in charge of my own destiny.
We learn the story of Jules, Jim and Catherine in the grisaille of grainy black and white still unmatched for its allure. The two men, writers, meet over the search for a costume. They bond over poetry and art, indifference to money, and especially over their love for women. Wrapped up in conversation with each other, they reclaim the possibilities of male friendship, as deep and engaging as that of any female BFFs. Catherine enters their life as a friend of a cousin of Jules (Oscar Werner), the German. It all begins playfully enough as the trio retreat to the sea and share other adventures. Jules adores her, and she marries him, but soon, Catherine's need for both men's undivided attention bubbles up. If they play cards, or talk late into the night, or in any way ignore her, she creates a disturbance -- jumping into the water, dressing up like a man, or playing tag. The thing is: she is never "it" but always the object of the chase. Jim (Henri Soule) wins her for a time, but it cannot last. Over the course of two decades until the eve of World War II, Catherine moves in and out of their affections -- and ours -- without regard for consequences. How did she get away with it, I asked myself? Truffaut didn't want the public to judge his characters but to show that sometimes, nobody is right. Still, at times Catherine seems horribly callous, playing with their affection for her.
"Man never owns anything for a very long time," Moreau later said in a remarkably candid Film Comment interview. "You lose everything, good and bad. If you have something that makes you happy, you'll lose it. If something happens to you that's painful, it won't last either."
A cache of letters released by the French Cinematheque from the book's author Henri Pierre Roche to Truffaut as well as annotated text including scripts, outlines, treatments, production images and video segments makes plain that just about everything in the long gestation of Jules and Jim was meticulously planned. The visually exciting archive shows Jeanne Moreau to be every inch the seductive actress and documents how much she, the novelist Roche, the screenwriter Jean Gruault, and the cinematographer Raoul Coutard were emotionally invested in the project and Truffaut's vision.
Truffaut, barely 30 when the film was released, describes a coup de foudre he had upon discovering the novel in a second hand shop, a thinly veiled story of Roche's relationship with a German couple, Helen and Franz Hessel, who had left a profound mark on the life of this renaissance-man/collector/artist/writer. He seems to also have fallen for Moreau, tracking her career and staying in regular touch with her for this and other projects.
Moreau -- who once told an interviewer sleeping with people was one of the best ways to get to know them -- was already recognized for her work in the theater and had played perfidious wives in Elevator to the Gallows and Les Amants (both films directed by Louis Malle with whom she was involved). After meeting Truffaut with Malle at Cannes, actor Jean Claude Brialy brought Moreau to the set of The 400 Hundred Blows as a surprise since he knew Truffaut admired her. Truffaut gave her a spontaneous walk-on in the film and gave her the Jules and Jim novel soon after for her reaction. She merely answered, "When do you wish to begin," becoming the project's muse.
"She gave me courage each time I was overwhelmed by doubt," said Truffaut. "Her qualities as an actress and a woman made Catherine real in our eyes, plausible, crazy, abusive, passionate, but above all loveable, in other words, worthy of adoration."
When she's not busy being a goddess, Catherine can be like like a willful child who uses sex and love instead of tantrums to test limits. Early on, Jules claims a woman's fidelity is the most important thing in any relationship. She reassures him after they marry that since she is very experienced with men and Jules less so with women, they will "cancel each other out." Yet later he gives her the freedom to do whatever she wishes as long as she stays in range; he can't bear the thought of her going away forever.
Jules: She is a force of nature, she expresses herself in cataclysms. Wherever she is, she lives surrounded by her own brightness and harmony, guided by the conviction of her own innocence.
Jim: You talk of her as if she were a queen.
Jules: But she is a queen. Catherine is neither particularly beautiful nor intelligent nor sincere but she is a real woman and she is woman we love and whom all men desire...
Catherine has one child with Jules but wants another with Jim, something to anchor anew her restless spirit. Despite all this, Truffaut makes it believable: that two smart men would give over to this "force of nature" and tiptoe around her and try to accommodate her every wish because of their love and reverence for her as a wellspring of creativity -- and because they are petrified that something disastrous will happen.
Which it inevitably does.
Finally her testing the limits goes to its extreme and she invites Jim into her car and drives them off the bridge (supposedly the inspiration for Thelma and Louise's iconic ending).
Truffaut and the other directors of the New Wave were determined to move the needle away from the conventions of the 50s and gave their female characters the torch of independence, experimentation -- and a certain selfishness too -- to carry. He understood: these women were "easy to get, but hard to keep." I was not yet a wife or mother when I saw the film and so its message was particularly seductive.
Moreau told Film Comment, "Through me, Francois learned about women and through him I learned about cinema." Truffaut's instinct for great female characters was unerring, but he later ran from the rigid categorizations of the early feminists, "the way things are now would more likely make me want to chuck it all."
I sought out Jeanne Moreau, whose 84th birthday is also today, for a recent comment about the film, but she demurred.
She wrote me, "I am very sorry but I am working on three projects and my mind is not going back to the past."
In the Film Comment interview, however, when she was trying to separate out her career from the famous auteur for whom she had been a muse and make her own way as a director -- she was less reticent.
"When I made Jules and Jim, said Moreau: "I was at that age where one lives very egocentrically; I saw it as the chance of a lifetime a chance to escape the 'star' style... all of a sudden we were filming in the street with very little makeup, costumes you found yourself. No one was telling me anymore, "You have circles under your eyes, your face is lopsided" -- suddenly it was life. And I felt that if I was going to thrive and have fun working in front of the camera, it would be like this."
Moreau said that the communication between herself and Truffaut "was very intimate, but we didn't use words."
"Real directors don't try to influence you," she claimed, "but allow you to flourish."
Raymond Cauchetier, now 92, the talented on-set photographer of many of the most important New Wave films whose name is regrettably less known, captured this intimacy in these previously unpublished photographs. An exhibition of his iconic images will appear in Los Angeles in March at the Motion Picture Academy.
Catherine and Patricia and the other New Wave heroines lingered in my imagination. One of my very first assignments at The New York Film Festival was to pick Truffaut up at the airport with my mentor -- and best friend -- from the office. We wore pleated mini skirts, remembering that in La Peau Douce, one of Truffaut's earliest films, Nicole (Francoise Dorelac, Catherine Deneuve's younger sister who died tragically young in a car accident) changes into a skirt when her lover Pierre tells her he prefers them. We primped and giggled all the way out to JFK in the back of the limo, but the prospect of Truffaut's discerning eye on me made me both nervous and hopeful: would he be able to tell if one day I could be a force of nature too?
At one point when the men who love her are thrust together again, Catherine sings a song -- "Le Tourbillion de la Vie" -- to the assembled hopefuls, each of whom hangs on her every word.
I sing this song to myself when I want to remember too, the no-holds-barred spirit of Jules and Jim and Catherine that once propelled me forward into life.
The marvelous double disk set from Criterion is a worthy investment for those who wish to discover or rediscover the film. The extraordinary Zoom on the film on the website of the Cinematheque Francaise, is a gift for those who can read French; this site is the most elegant and informative website of ANY I have consulted; the book by Henri Pierre Roche is available on Amazon; Two in the Wave, a touching documentary about Truffaut and Godard is now streaming on Netflix. Raymond Cauchetier's more recent work is discussed in this article (also in French). My own story about Breathless and Godard appears here on the Huffington Post.
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