Of fly girls & shy girls: From “Bovary” through the Head-scarf (with cameos by Bernhardt & Bausch) — When the body feminine becomes a moral battle ground

Adrien Henri Tanoux Odalisques 1905From the Arts Voyager Archives and Artcurial’s Spring 2016  sale of Orientalist and Arab and Iranian Modern art:  Adrien Henri Tanoux (1865-1923), “Odalisques,” Oil on canvas, 23.62 x 31.5 inches. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Arts Voyager on  May 20, 2016. Tiego Rodrigues’s latest effort to subvert a literary giant’s masterpiece, in this case Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” is currently playing at the Theatre de la Bastille in Paris, this time out abetted by the company Stan. 

PARIS — What I love about Tiago Rodrigues, the director of the Portuguese National Theater who is “occupying” the Theatre de la Bastille for two months with three works, one involving the participation of 90 amateurs in its creation, is that he defies the conventional wisdom that attracting contemporary audiences requires jettisoning the classical canon. Rodrigues understands that if an oeuvre like Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” (whose original title was “Madame Bovary, or Provincial Morals”) has endured for 160 years, it’s because despite changing mores, its portrayal of societal turmoil (above all the conflict between individual comportment and predominant national values) is still pertinent. Even if today it’s not the loose morals of a married woman that are accused of threatening religious norms, as was the case with the story of Emma Bovary, but the custom of a small group of Muslim women to cover all or part of their bodies that is perceived by some as threatening the norms of lay values, the battle terrain is the same: the woman’s body. (And not just in literature: Eight female politicians, some in powerful positions including in the French legislature, recently accused a leader of the Green party of sexual harassment, charges which the official has denied.)

First, some background is in order on the current social context in which Rodrigues’s “Bovary” — which frames Flaubert’s novel with the legal process the government instituted to ban it (he isn’t the first to use this tactic; filmmaker William Dieterle did it in 1949) — hits the Bastille, where it plays through May 28. When a group of female students at Paris’s prestigious Sciences-Po university (which forms many of the country’s political leaders) recently decided to hold a “Hijab Day” to dispel myths about the foulard, or head-scarf, the philosopher-pundit Bernard Henri-Levy tweeted, “What’s next? Lapidation Day? Sharia Day?” And the Left-leaning feminist Elisabeth Badinter called last month for a boycott of fashion houses introducing special lines catering to Muslim women. (French feminists, particularly, tend to assume that if a woman is wearing a veil, it must be because a man is forcing her to do so.)

moma hijabs smallFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Display figures with hijab, in East Jerusalem market. Photo by Danny-w. Some rights reserved. Used through Creative Commons. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

Rodrigues’s “Bovary” also arrives in Paris at a moment in which a group of Left-wing activists calling themselves “Nuit Debout” (Night standing up) has been occupying the Place de Republique at night since mid-March. But while Nuit Debout promotes a very selective vision of Democracy which excludes anyone who doesn’t agree with them (the rest of us are the “Fachos”), Rodrigues, by quoting from the actual transcripts of the 1857 trial the government instigated after “Madame Bovary” first appeared in serial form (the author himself paid for the stenographer), lets both sides present their best case. As formulated by David Geselsen’s defense attorney (once he stops speeding through his lines, an annoying tendency by many young French actors, especially regrettable when delivering legal arguments which require some mastication), a government zeal which followed to its logical conclusion would require deleting suggestive words from the dictionary because of their proximity with upstanding words like “Christianity” has scary resonance at a time when conditions provoked by an attack on free speech (the Charlie Hebdo massacres) have lead to an environment in which one is not always sure what is considered acceptable speech.

For Rodrigues’s “Bovary,” the government case gets an adept advocate in the person of Ruth Vega-Fernandez, perhaps the most charismatic young actress working in France today. (Although she could do to tone down a tic she seems to have adopted for this role, of describing and punctuating her arguments with articulated arms, hands, and fingers; used once or twice, it’s compelling, but over-used it just ends up calling attention to the artifice.)

Between Vega-Fernandez, Geselsen, and the occasional choice interjections by Jacques Bonnaffe’s Flaubert, the “Bovary” trial as recreated on the stage of the Theatre de la Bastille — where I caught it May 13 — provides a valuable example of juicy, rich, and well-founded (on both sides) constructive discourse in a France in which reasoned and polite debate seems to have been supplanted by virulent polemics. It’s almost as if because the immediate question — whether Flaubert’s tale of Emma Bovary, who seeks to escape a suffocating marriage through liaisons with flighty lovers, promotes infidelity, or whether the author is simply reporting on a social condition — is (apparently) so removed in time, the audience is able to patiently assimilate and consider the merits of each argument without the dogmatic predispositions that make healthy debate nearly impossible today. And makes me think that what we need in the current climate of polarization is not more philosopher-pundits or ZAD (Zone a Defend)ists masquerading as Democrats (and attacking police, 350 of whom have been injured this year; they too marched May 18 protesting hatred of the police) but apt theater directors able to reveal the timeless lessons in ‘ancient’ tales. In a country in which, historically, vigorous debate has sometimes been replaced by, on the one side, anarchist violence including bombings and, on the other, stifling of dissent, theater directors and artists in general who have the ability to frame debate in a constructive, non-manipulative way (Vega-Fernandez’s attorney is not just a fall guy, her convincing arguments being delivered with conviction) have a critical role to play in illuminating the issues in a serene fashion.

alma palacio rodrigues bovaryAlma Palacios in “Bovary,” as captured by and copyright Pierre Grosbois and courtesy Theatre de la Bastille.

There’s just one tendency which *almost* gets in the way in “Bovary,” a misunderstanding of the Brechtian style which repeatedly calls attention to the fact that this is just a performance. Alma Palacios’s Emma regularly introduces different segments of the action — for much of the middle and through to the end of the play, the trial reconstruction gives way to a recreation of the actual drama — by stating, “On page 200,” such and such happens, etc. This is a dangerous device in the hands of a younger actress like Palacios, who already has a tendency to recite her lines in a downplayed, matter of fact and borderline ironic fashion, directly to the audience. But eventually, and as a colleague has pointed out, the power and authenticity of Flaubert’s tale and his portrayal of Emma is able to transcend even post-modern irony. Emma seduces Palacios, who seduces the procurer and Flaubert’s attorney (both break from their courtroom cool at one point and embrace Emma) and has the audience shivering when she takes the fateful arsenic. We’re finally at Rodrigues’s mercy when, in a coda, Gregoire Monsaingeon’s Charles declares (I paraphrase), that like his wife,”I eventually died too, as did the procurer, my attorney, and as will the actors on this stage, and as will all of you eventually die. But ‘Madame Bovary’ lives on.” By this time, no one in the audience is chuckling, unless it’s the nervous laughter of recognition.

Sarah Bernhardt would never have been accused of post-modern irony. But if actress Astrid Bas and director Miguel Loureiro spared her that in “Paris-Sarah-Lisboa,” which opened the annual Chantiers (building projects) d’Europe festival organized by the Theatre de la Ville May 11 with a performance supposedly tailored for the Divine One’s old dressing room at the theater, they didn’t offer much else. The 30-minute piece consisted of the actress — dressed not in Belle Epoch style but a zipper-back dull dark blue dress from the 1950s — galloping on her stilettos to different corners of the room (a Bernhardt-sized tiny bathtub, a makeup sink, both framed by mirrors) to retrieve sections of the script, off which she read excerpts from Bernhardt’s journal, with the drop in investment and nuance which reading from a script for a performance often induces. Even the potentially liveliest section, in which Bernhardt prepares for a performance with tongue-twisters (“She sells sea-shells,” etc.) was rote. So that in the end, even if the texts recited were supposedly rare, I didn’t feel I knew anything more about Bernhardt than I did before. It seemed a particularly uneventful way to open what normally promises to be a portentous festival.

Pina Bausch Agua Ulli WeissTanztheater Wuppertal’s Regina Advento and Jorge Puerta Armenta in Pina Bausch’s “Agua.” Ulli Weiss photo copyright Ulli Weiss and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Pina Bausch’s 2001 “Agua,” which I caught the same night at the same theater, as performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal, suffered from an opposite impediment: too much action. The argument for the work’s sonic, scenic, and kinetic splendor would be that insouciance doesn’t need an excuse, especially in an era where the insouciant have become the targets of terrorists, including in this city. And perhaps an audient less aware of how much more Pina Bausch can offer by way of meaning and catharsis would have been sated with “Agua”‘s tropical, life-affirming antidote to the nihilism with which the “Islamic State” is trying to afflict us. But as a dance and theater critic, my problem with much of the late choreographer’s work in the 2000s (she died in 2009) is that for the actual choreography, Bausch seems to rely more on the skills and body maps of the individual performers and the opulent film work of designer Peter Pabst than any grand scheme and for me, calisthenics and pyrotechnics are no longer enough, especially from a master story-teller so much of whose works had something to tell us about the times. (On my way home, I wistfully regarded a poster of Wuppertal performing Bausch’s “Rite of Spring,” which along with the equally somber “Cafe Muller” the festival of Nimes is getting. Can the programmers really think we’re less sophisticated than the provinces?)

From a promising beginning, in which the playful Wuppertal veteran Helene Pikon heartily munches on an apple, the juice dripping, as she recounts how a perturbed sleep which forced her out of bed created an opportunity to catch a breathtaking sunrise, “Agua” devolves into a beach party. Hilarious at times, even riveting — Pabst saturates every corner of the stage with an Imax-style film of a boat ride through what might be the Amazon, leaving the impression that we’re riding on the boat, as is the dancer who cascades across the deck; it was only when the boat became a raft and took to sea that I started getting nauseous — in the end “Agua” is not so much insouciant as feather-light. When a reporter asked Bausch, at a 2006 Paris press conference, why she had turned away from darker work, she answered that it was precisely because of the bad things happening in the world that she felt the need to offer some relief and reveal some light. Things have since gotten a lot worse, and (see above, under “Bovary”), considering the vast and illuminating repertoire available to them, I’m not sure that Wuppertal’s directors really serve an audience in need more than ever of cathartic revelation by giving us a frothy Carnaval.

Speaking of exotica, and getting back to woman’s body as a fertile terrain for cultural battles, a historical reminder of why some Muslim, or Arab women might want to hide their visages from disrobing Occidental eyes was provided by Wednesday’s sale of Orientalist and contemporary Arab and Iranian art by Artcurial, the leading French auction house: Just take a look at the come hither topless babes (one of whom is an alabaster white) in Adrian Henri Tanoux’s 1905 oil “Odalisques,” on sale at a pre-estimated price of 40,000 – 60,000 Euros (above). It certainly confirms my assessment that women’s bodies have been a terrain for political and moral battles for a mighty long time.

 

The Lutèce Diaries, 2: Ils sont tous les enfants de la Republique; The Jewish Book of the Dead; Paris Survival Secrets

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — A DJ I used to know, commenting on one of my elliptical returns to San Francisco from inside the booth of the busy Kennel Club on Divisadero on World Beat night, once explained, “It’s the spirit of the Indian god of Tamalpais. It makes sure you always return to the source.” Tamalpais has nothing on Sigmund Freud, the street named after whom serves as a kind of Rubicon between the prè St.-Gervais ‘burb where I’ve found impeccable digs (thank you, CD and EA) and the Eastern quartiers of Paris, and which somehow found a way Tuesday to steer me away from the multi-ethnic Belleville neighborhood I was aiming for — it reminds me of SF’s Mission District, with Muslims and Jews, Africans and Asians, BoBos and genuine Bohemians, and succulent pork brioches from Wei Zu province and black dates from the Algerian Bled harmoniously (and deliciously) existing side by side — to Lubavitcher central. I was relieved once I’d crossed the street from a block lined with Kosher grocery stores offering sacks of dubious-looking alleged “bagels” (if they’re not made with New York water, forgetaboutit, and if they’re large, watch out; I subsequently had nightmares about being trampled by wagon-wheels construed of these round baguettes with holes) to a corner presided over by the Haman Medical Center. (Not to say that I wasn’t tempted to enter the Jewish grocery store and ask if they had “Shiksa,” fortunately remembering in time that what I meant was “Kishka,” the most scrumptious and least healthy delicacy Jewish cuisine has to offer, and rien a voir with “Shiksa,” which will sterilize you, Jewish progenitor-wise ((after my annual New Year’s Eve re-viewing of “The Apartment,” now playing at the Cinematheque Française as part of its Billy Wilder retrospective, everything is now -wise with me, and not just because it’s my Kiev-born grandmother’s Ellis Island-truncated maiden name. And if you’re thinking about calling me a Wisenheimer, forgetaboutit it.))) (And if you’re wondering why I’m determined to avoid Jewish neighborhoods like Albert Camus‘s Plague, let’s just say that in France the Jewish question is too loaded and in the Wild West ambiance of the Internet it’s too loaded for me to tell you why. Yes, I don’t just adulate the fat of chickens — see above under “Kischka” — I am one.)

When the rue Petite finally spat me out at the Laumiere Metro station a couple blocks from the La Villette Basin (to borrow a phrase from Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma, who provided the blue-print for private dicks in French literature), I realized that I was heading away from Belleville. Discovering grace of a handy-dandy Metro station You are Here map that walking in the other direction would take me to the man-made Buttes Chaumont park and waterfalls, from which I knew the way to Belleville if not San Jose, I headed up-hill. Realizing that the trajectory would enable me to discover if the other, second-floor lodging I’d been considering, facing the park on the rue de Crimee (Kiev again), was really as “calm at the exterior” as its proprietor had claimed, I was comforted in my choice of the pré St. Gervais. While the absentee owner can’t have been expected to have known this, two houses down from the building municipal workers were drilling up the carrefour (corner crossing), as part of a city-wide initiative to renovate the gas network. Again. Secret to Surviving Living in Paris No. 1: Don’t. (Live in Paris.) Pick a ‘burb on a Metro line, which foyer you’ll bless every friggin’ time you come home to your refuge from the noise, pollution, and speed of Paris. (Taking my life into my own hands at several street crossings, I was reminded of what a denizen of car-crazy Fort Worth, Texas had once told me as we waited for the green light at a vast intersection to give us 10 seconds to get to the other side. Pointing at the cross-walk, he declared, “Death.”)

What I love about my choice, the prè St.-Gervais, is its charming desuetitude, or obsolescence. Even the recoop chair I’m writing you from, with its Jetson-style curved back and early ’60s olive-green carpeted hide, qualifies as endearingly obsolete, the perfect bons mots launching pad for a throwback like me, who persists in perpetrating an obsolete trade.

Speaking of time capsules, heading down the rue la Villette from the Buttes Chaumont towards the rue Belleville and running into the rue Fessart, I decided to look for No. 22, the former hide-out of the notorious Bonnot Band of anarchists where the adventure of the young heroes of Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished), the novel for which I’ve been trying to find an American publisher, begins, so that I could say a little prayer to whatever Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Anarchist, and most of all New York publishing world gods would listen. Fortifying myself with the famous pork brioche at a dim sum place just above the Boulevard Belleville (after a detour down the rue Cascades, accessed via the rue Levert stairway where Pascal met his “Red Balloon” in the Albert Lamorisse film I must have seen 100 times as a kid, to salute to the ancient water cisterns that used to hold the water flowing down to Paris from the abbeys and then back towards the parvis of the parc Belleville for the best view of the Eiffel tower in town, trying to ignore the restaurant marquee on the rue Piat which exclaimed, in English, “Thank God for Broccoli,” yet another sign that Belleville isn’t just being BoBoized, it’s being Anglo-Bobo-ized) — the decor and the prices of the bakery where I used to get my customary pork bun had unfortunately been BoBo-ized — I entered the gauntlet of my favorite marché in France, the place where the multi-cultural Babel of voices makes me feel the most ‘chez moi.’ (Actually I only entered it to make my purchases. If Secret of Surviving Living in Paris No. 2 is get your fruits and veggies at the ‘Arab’ markets, annex to Secret etc is once you’ve located your favorite stands, skirt the alleys of the market by advancing on the sidewalk behind them, only peneterating them for search and purchase missions.)

The very fact that all these people from all these cultures are able to advance along the narrow alleys, meandering over several city blocks, compressed between the two rows of stands of bananas, multi-colored cornet peppers, sizzling hot-pepper filled Maghrebian savory pastries being fried up by smiling scarf-wearing women, pavements slippery from being hosed down by fish-mongers, knick-knack hawkers (4 toothbrushes for 1 Euro, like everything) and spicy merguez sausage sellers, squeezed tighter than a can of (Moroccan imported) Harisa-drenched sardines without a single fight breaking out belies the image some abroad may have of a France, and a Europe, torn by sectarian strife. WE LIVE TOGETHER, AND WE THRIVE ON THIS ACCESS TO CUISINES AND GOODS FROM ALL OUR GLOBAL CULTURES. If you’re not convinced, just listen to the Chinese restaurant owner, Nigerian babushka, or English tourist (typically speaking only English) haggling with the Arab sweet-potato vendor. (I use the ethnic identifiers so you can visualize the scene, but to me they’re all French, or at least Parisian.)

Emerging from this gauntlet at Menilmontant, and after looking up the hill to salute the wall-scale painting of “nous, les gars de Menilmontant,” I returned to another other mecca, the French Arab epicerie where the same hot pepper, garlic, and citrus-infused olives and peppers that go for 24 Euros a kilo in the Southwest of France can be had for 4.60. (When I mentioned this to the owners squabbling at the cash register, the female half, clad in a black full-length gown and elegant black and white hood — the only reason I keep highlighting the local duds is to point out that it’s not like these women are being sequestered by their husbands and fathers in darkened rooms, they are fully integrated into French public life; it’s just that their scarves are more visible than, say, the wigs worn by their Hassidic counterparts which turns some French feminists beet red with indignation — replied, “All the more reason to stock up!”) The 1.20 can of Palestinian humus and 2.30 bottle of Dutch peanut-butter bringing my sack and pushing my sciatic-harboring back to breaking point, I passed through the Art Nouveau red lamps to descend into the Menilmontant Metro, only to find that the ticket machine didn’t take paper money. “You have to walk to the next Metro stop,” the dread-locked dude behind the information window informed me, which of course was Pere Lachaise, immediately torpedoing my resolution to avoid cemeteries this time around (Sarah Bernhardt, Heloise and Abelard, Jim Morrison, Marie Taglioni, Isadora Duncan, and Camille Pissarro are among the many bodies buried there) and try to find my muses (and counsels) among the living.

I perked up when I realized that this detour, perilous as it was for my dormant herniated disc, would also allow me to score my generous slice of Diplomate (like bread pudding, only moister) gateau at another of my regular Arab-European (bakery goods-wise) boulangeries. As usual, the (scarf-coiffed) matron behind the counter ignored my request not to close the paper around the Diplomate (they may have the best deserts in the world, but the French still haven’t figured out how to make a paper wrapping that doesn’t rip the top off), but given that the 1 Euro price hadn’t risen in four years, I decided to be a diplomat and not insist.

Tempted as I was to devour the Diplomate on the rim of Bernhardt’s tomb, after remembering what happened the last time I did this (“In France, we don’t dine on graves,” an uppity ersatz tourist guide had scolded me, tempting me to retort, “And unlike what you just told your clients, Sarah Bernhardt was not a star of silent cinema and had converted from being Jewish”), and considering that the now imploding sack might lead the cemetery’s entry guards to mistake me for a crazy terrorist (a terrorist crazy enough to have hatched a plan to kill already-dead icons), I instead settled for a bench facing an art deco elementary school with a tower-scale chimney, praying to all the gods I know, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Cultural, as I chawed my pudding after peeling the almond slivers off the paper, that the ideals represented by the school’s marquee won’t go up in smoke as thick as that spouting from the chimney tower:

Ecole Primaire Voltaire.

Ils sont tous les enfants de le République.

PS: If you don’t have the means and/or the celebrity to make it into Pere Lachaise (with the appetizing possibility that an obsolete necrofrancophiliac journalist might one day be dining on your grave and asking you for advice) — not to mention the massive carbon imprint your final flight would leave if you’re not lucky enough to die in France (clin d’oeil — and test to see if she’s really hanging, so to speak, on my every word — to CD), here’s an alternative that would please even my journalistic god Jessica Mitford. (And one that’s apparently even greener than Pere Lachaise, not-so-incidentally the largest patch of green in Northeast Paris.)