Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Madame de Stael, Hitler, Marie-Antoinette, and a certain Australian

My second week of work has come and gone in a flash, and I've fallen into a comfortable routine. It's a whole new Paris lifestyle, involving morning and evening commutes, lunch dates, evening drinks, and, oh yes, work. The regularity of it seems to be wiping away all the lazy flânerie and cinephilia (and blogging) that came before it. In a way, it already feels like I've been at this forever. For that and other reasons, this past week and a half has felt enormously long and I can only measure its length by certain punctuating events and people, the first of whom is Madame de Stael.

Madame de Stael was a celebrated and controversial French novelist who lived during the Revolutionary period and famously butted heads with Napoleon. In between periods of exile, she was also the proud owner of a really nice house on rue Royale, just off of what was then Place Louis XIV (but, since the Revolution, is Place de la Concorde). Unlike much of the rest of Paris, her house didn't become a museum. Instead, it became an antiques gallery, which is pretty much the same thing except the guests are allowed to touch all of the really old stuff and then you get pressured with the hard sell on your way out the door.

The gallery is owned by a man named Marcel Gruspan and his family has been in the business of buying and selling masterwork furniture and art in Paris for four generations. I happened to meet his son Pierre, who now manages the gallery, at a dinner party a little over a month ago and he invited me to come around and have a look. Not many people come around anymore, he said; it'd be a pleasure to show me around. As I'm playing at being a journalist nowadays, I gave him a call. It might make for a good story, I thought.

I'll tell you, I don't think there's a story there, but goodness was that a trippy experience. As I walked in, I was met by a man with a lazy eye who explained that Pierre was running late and then led me up a grand staircase past marble statues, suits of armor, and grandfather clocks. At the top of the stairs, two women who were dangerously teetering on the point between "middle-aged" and "elderly" were chatting at a horribly out of place endtable, as if they were sitting at a sidewalk café and not on the landing of a meticulously maintained historical mansion. They did not acknowledge my presence, nor was I introduced.

I walked past them on the way out about an hour later and they hadn't moved.

We entered the grand salon. Only a few blocks from the Louvre, it was easy for me to get disoriented and think that that was actually where I was. The only things missing were the crowds and the velvet ropes. It was just me, the man with the lazy eye, and this chair that was built for Marie-Antoinette (I'll get to her in a minute), and the man with the lazy eye was urging me to sit down. Because I'm slightly afraid of people who bear such glaring physical irregularities, I did as he said. I also held the drawer that he pulled (rather roughly, if you ask me) out of the desk made for Louis XIV, rocked the crib made for baby Louis XVI, and hung my jacket on the coatrack that was made for nobody important.

Out of fear, I did all of this, but eventually Pierre showed up and the lazy-eyed man went away. Unafraid of Pierre, I decided to stop. These things weren't meant to be touched; they were to be looked upon and admired. But I couldn't stop, and so I kept at it - running my fingers along the mantles, testing seat cushions, caressing the ornate carvings on the wooden tables - until it was time to go. In a short time I had become addicted to this decadence and to my intimacy with it, and it hurt a little when I had to go, but the glare of the early evening sunlight shocked me out of it once I'd hit the street and I went on my way.

Having had this experience, I should have been a bit more sympathetic to Marie Antoinette (see how I seamlessly weaved that in there? You like that?), but I just wasn't. In the beginning of the movie, after undergoing just a small portion of the pomp, circumstance, and ritual that is to become part of her everyday routine, Kirsten Dunst's Marie Antoinette declares it all ridiculous, to which Judy Davis responds "This, madame, is Versailles." Listening to them both, I had trouble seeing why they weren't in agreement; they seemed to be saying the same thing.

Of course, that may just be the point. Both a very smart friend of mine and A.O. Scott point out the film's potential to serve as an allegory for the indulgent, yet often short-lived fantasy land existence of many of Hollywood's darlings. Personally, that didn't occur to me, but having listened to and read that argument, I think it makes a lot of sense. Still, like Manohla Dargis, I just think it's all way too overdone and that Sophia Coppola is, like Marie-Antoinette, a little too immersed in this decadent lifestyle to offer any sort of critical perspective.

As always, however, I did enjoy her cinematography and her choice of soundtrack.

There are other people who defined this past week, including Hitler - that sad vegetarian, of whose final days I saw an artful and sensitive depiction in 2004's The Downfall - and also the certain Australian who came to visit and, in addition to watching both of these movies with me, brought a good deal of fairly welcome drama into my life.

Sadly, my day is about to begin and I need to go, so I won't be able to finish. I'll only say that, like the one that (for me) preceded it, this latest German World War II movie was remarkable in its human portrayal of upper echelons of the Nazis. Until he started foaming at the mouth about the global Jewish conspiracy, Bruno Ganz's Hitler actually reminded me a lot of Josiah Bartlett from The West Wing.


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