Journal d’un confiné (Diary of a confined man): Camus versus Bourvil; a nos jours de ping-pong en pleine air

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

A VILLAGE IN SOUTHWEST FRANCE — I always thought I’d be brave, like Tarrou in Camus‘s “La Peste,” “The Plague.” Diving right into the heart of the malady, seeing it as an opportunity to make his own meaning even during the darkest calamity; the gist of existentialism a la Camus. Or like the author himself, walking around Occupied Paris with the proofs of his clandestine newspaper Combat stuffed into his pocket, at the risk of his life. (On one occasion, spotting a Gestapo patrol a block ahead, he had just time enough to pass them to his mistress Maria Casarès, knowing that she’d be less likely to be searched.) (The birthday date accompanying the fake name on Camus’s fake passport is my own.) But now it’s clear that I would be more like Bourvil’s character in Claude Autant-Lara’s 1956 film “La Traversée de Paris,” neither a collaborator nor a Resistant, but just trying to survive and get along, in his case by trundling a black market side of beef across Occupied Paris after curfew with the help of painter Jean Gabin. (When I saw this film at the beginning of my Paris years with my friend Sabine at a Latin Quarter cinema, I didn’t understand why Gabin’s character got so riled up when the pair took refuge in a cafe where a Jewish girl was bussing tables. I thought it an admirable thing that they were hiding her out. “He is mad because they are taking advantage of the situation to have a worker for free,” Sabine explained.)

While this quarantine can’t be compared to that particular ‘Peste’ — if we are at war, as President Macron justly explained in announcing the confinement, it is a war where even friends and family might be bearing the threat, whence the reason for the strict measures — I can say that if this were 1940 (and I were still Jewish), I already have a pretty good idea of who here in my petite village would be hiding me out.

Several years ago, when I suggested to an association in the 13eme arrondissement of Paris, near where some of the action of the film had been situated, that I organize a screening of “La Traversée de Paris” (a resto on the lip of the jardin des Plantes has actually adopted the name, with a  cartoon Bourvil smiling out from its marquee) — they’d supposedly been interested in soliciting ideas from the general public, and had liked mine to show films shot in the arrondissement — the association’s presidents resisted. “Why don’t you show a film about Resistance? That would be more interesting.” It’s almost like their own resistance was to acknowledge that there had been people like the characters portrayed by Bourvil, people who just tried to get along. (De Beauvoir protégée Violette Leduc was another, bicycling Black Market goods to the suburbs to sell.) But the fact is that in times of crisis, there is a middle-ground between the Maquisard and the Collabo, and it’s the petite homme (or woman) who just wants to survive. Not everyone has the guts to be a hero. I’m pretty sure I don’t.

(In these days of the Corona virus, you don’t need me to tell you that the grand heroes — the real Tarrous — are the doctors, the nurses, and the other health-care workers, beginning with that Chinese doctor who first sounded the alarm and who was initially rewarded for his bravery with prison.)

In the meantime, I will be thankful for the ‘petite’ heroism of my neighbor-friend — you know who you are and you know how you’re helping. (I will say that it was only after leafing through my copy of Vintage / Knopf’s — very bad — English translation “La Peste,” which still bears the Strand Book store .48 cent stamp and re-reading Dr. Rieux’s advice to Cottard that he should “get out for some physical exercise” that I finally emerged from my own particular hermitage to take advantage of one of my friend’s kind offers.)

French language corner

On one of the quartier solidarity lists for the East of Paris on which I’m subscribed, the hostess forwarded this note / request for advice from “Arman”:

Ma demande peut paraître déplacée par ses temps d’épidémie et de confinement mais je suis à la recherche d’une ou deux balles de ping-pong.

Merci et prends bien soin de toi.

(He’s basically saying “I know this might seem inappropriate in these days of epidemic and confinement, but I’m looking for one or two ping-pong balls.” This is how I responded, English translation following pigeon-French original.)

Bonjour,

D’abord votre demande n’est pas déplacée du tout! En ces moments sombres, il faut tienne aux souvenirs des meilleures temps — du passé et d’un future souhaitable — qui sont indissociable avec LIBERTE et JOIE. Pour moi, déjà vous m’avais donne une: De pouvoir jouer autour des tables de ping-pong dans le jardin de L’observatoire un  jour de printemps, tout en faisant des nouvelles connaissances. Sacre de printemps que j’espère pouvoir reprise avant trop longtemps. (Pour la question pratique, quand il sera encore ouvert, “Go Sports”; il y un a je crois a la place d’Italie et un autre place de la République et ils ne sont pas chère.)

Bon courage,
Paul B-I,
Perigordin / Parisian.

In English:

In the first place, your request is not AT ALL inappropriate. In these somber moments, we need to cling to images of better times — of the past and of a desired future — which speak to FREEDOM and JOY. For me, already you’ve given me one: To be able to play again on the ping-pong tables of the jardin de l’observatoire on a Spring day, at the same time making new friends. Rite of Spring that I hope to be able to reprise before too long. (For the practical question, when it will be open again, try Go Sports; there’s one on the place d’Italie and another on the place de la Republique, and they’re not expensive.)

In writing this piece, I looked up a “Doer’s Profile” the Noe Valley Voice did on me in 1978, when I was still in high school, to confirm that not only had I listed “The Plague” as, with Huck Finn, my favorite book, but that I’d said what I referred to above regarding Tarrou and the book’s message, and my intention to follow that credo. But when the reporter Corey M. Anders asked what was the most important thing to me, I’d actually answered “Making friends.”

Par préférence, autour d’une table de ping-pong au milieu du jardin de l’observatoire. Preferably, over a ping-pong table in the jardin de l’observatoire.

100 ans, Danielle Darrieux, et on a toujours soif de vous*

darrieux coverDanielle Darrieux in Max Ophuls’s “Madame de…,” playing at the Cinematheque Toulouse Thursday. Image courtesy Cinematheque Toulouse.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

I’ve spent the past month or so in the company of the most charming, droll, drop-dead gorgeous, glamorous *and* down to earth, alluring, funniest, romantic, and timeless of French actresses — the one who formed the mold for all the others who followed. Since Danielle Darrieux died at the age of 100 on October 17, I’ve been catching up on some of her films, from Henry Koster’s 1938 American comedy “The Rage of Paris,” in which the 21-year-old Darrieux plays a New York chorus girl who poses as a Parisian femme du monde to bag a millionaire through the 1958 “Drole de Dimanche” and “La Vie a Deux,” the latter a series of sketches about troubled marriages. I haven’t yet had time to re-screen Jacques Demy’s 1967 “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort,” the musical in which Darrieux, portraying the mother of Françoise Dorléac and her real-life sister Catherine Deneuve (whose model she may have been, although Darrieux is smarter), was the only cast member whose voice wasn’t dubbed, the actress also being such an accomplished chanteuse that not only did she sing, but her singing often set off the plot. (And when I say she sang, I don’t mean that she was another one of those French actors who thinks s/he can sing, a la Gerard Depardieu in his new album covering Barbara. I mean that if she wasn’t an actress she could have been a full-time singer; the sheer warmth and beauty of her voice even went against the high-pitched ((Frehel)) or morose ((Piaf)) tonalities that were the mode when she came up. Grover Dale, our colleague who played opposite Darrieux in Demy’s film, told the DI and AV, “It was apparent that Danielle was a wise and melodious woman. What a privilege it was… just being in the vicinity of her music.”)

Unfortunately, the only film I’ve screened which seems to be part of the  Cinematheque Toulouse’s tribute, running through December 13, is Max Ophuls’s 1953 “Madame de…,” a 19th century melodrama in which she cheats on Charles Boyer’s dignified general with Vittorio de Sica’s caddish baron, which screens in the French Midi city Thursday. What that film has in common with all the others — besides Darrieux’s blood-warming singing — is that she inevitably succeeds in re-conquering a man she’s betrayed, rejected, or otherwise disappointed: James Mason as a traitor she’s double-crossed, who can’t help smiling at how he’s been out-foxed at the end of the 1952 “Five Fingers”; Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who falls for her anyway after spending most of “The Rage of Paris” trying to unmask her before his enchanted best friend, the millionaire (and in which film, like any good comedian, Darrieux’s not afraid to show herself at unflattering angles, as when she gets stuck in a collapsed window, leaving only her pajama-covered butt projecting into the room); Bourvil as the estranged husband who finally relents after spending most of a “Drole de Dimanche” plotting to kill her (there’s a droll scene in which a very young Jean-Paul Belmondo, pursuing the couple in a roadster with Bourvil’s landlord to try to derail his plot, pulls out a trumpet to mimic a police siren to get the car ahead of them to pull over); and most of all a heartbreaking Boyer, who finally challenges de Sica’s baron to a duel not for cuckolding him, but for abandoning Darrieux and sending her into a mortal spiral. At one point Boyer’s general (whose own cheating, it should be pointed out, is one chain in a series of seemingly chance events sealing his wife’s doom), agonized by her growing distance from him and apparent determination to let go of life, tells her, more with regret than rancor, “I’m not the figure you’ve made me out to be.” As an actor, part of Darrieux’s gift was to make all her partners better than they were. (If Boyer was always a deft comedian, I’ve never seen him so poignant; he almost steals the show, his character’s fate seeming just as tragic as hers — and it’s clear that being a helpless witness to Darrieux’s demise sets this off.)

Darrieux Madame de ballroomDanielle Darrieux and Vittorio de Sica in Max Ophuls’s “Madame de…,” playing at the Cinematheque Toulouse Thursday. Image courtesy Cinematheque Toulouse.

For her part, Darrieux was as brilliant a comedian as she was a heartbreaking tragedian. If her desperate, eyes-shut refrain “Je ne vous aime pas, je ne vous aime pas” while pounding her head against the door of her mansion as de Sica parts on the other side, meant to convey the opposite of “I don’t love you,” is devastating, her impeccable rhythm in a fracas with her lover in “La vie a deux” is also an example of verbal repartee and physical timing that should be required viewing in every acting class.

In the one film I haven’t yet had the courage to watch in its entirety, “Crime doesn’t pay,” yet another of the formulaic ‘sketch’ films that were popular in Europe in the early 1960s, Darrieux, still ravishing at 45 and having derouted yet another male who would have had her hide, ends the film with a semi-deliriius, flirtatious, luxuriant “J’ai soif” from her bed. 100 ans, Danielle Darrieux, et on a toujours soif de vous.*

PS: Darrieux isn’t the only grande dame of French cinema we’ve lost this past year. Jeanne Moreau, Michelle Morgan (at the age of 97), Emmanuelle Riva and, most recently, Anne Wiazemsky, one of Jean-Luc Godard’s muses, 70, have also disappeared. (To hear an audio broadcast, in French, of Wiazemsky’s autobiographical story “Mon Enfant de Berlin,”  click here.) All these deuils are enough to make one regret that the State no longer throws national funerals for departed giants of the theater, like the mass procession for Sarah Bernhardt. (Whose name pops up in “Madame de …” when Boyer, having confirmed Darrieux’s infidelity but refusing to discuss it, proclaims, “Tonight we shall speak only of Sarah Bernhardt.”)

*100 years, Danielle Darrieux, and we still haven’t got enough of you.