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.

 

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Sarah Bernhardt, Assassin

paul nadar sarah bernhardt dans pierrot assassin smallFrom the exhibition, The Nadars, a Photographic Legend, running through February 3 at the Bibliothèque nationale de France: Paul Nadar, “Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Pierrot Assassin,'” circa 1883. BnF, département des Estampes et de la photographie.

The Lutèce Diaries, One: Paris, quelques choses que je sais sur elle (Paris, a few things I know about her)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — The dirt-encrusted brown calves and bare feet slowly wriggling up out of the mound of aromatic detritus behind the green fences overlooking the debut of the Canal St.-Martin and the irritation in my throat suggested that if mayor Anne Hidalgo has good intentions, pollution and living conditions — at least for the poor and wretched in the latter case — may have deteriorated since my last sojourn here in 2016. N’empeche que there was still Sarah Bernhardt to welcome me at Austerlitz.

I first ‘met’ the Divine Sarah during the Met’s Belle Epoch exhibition in 1982, even if I didn’t know that the thin woman with the piercing eyes — enveloped in a fur scarf and a skin-tight velour dress, luxuriating on a velvet divan with a submissive but wary panther at her feet — who peered out with a come-hither look from the poster I’d procured was the greatest actress ever. Even if the image subsequently starred on all my walls, it wasn’t until I moved into a third-story walk-up on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village (next to Electric Lady, where Jimi Hendrix had reigned before Carly Simon recorded Anticipation and became my first crush with “You’re so Vain,” and around the corner from where Robert Joffrey bunked up with Gerard Arpino; Joffrey’s portrait was still visible in the window, and Arpino, already relocated with the ballet company to Chicago, had told me he would be “delighted, Darling” to discuss the possibility of my renting the pad) that I discovered the identify of my companion when I saw the same poster — from a painting by Bernhardt’s pal George Clarion — peering out from the cover of a paperback left in the tenants’ communal garbage area: A biography of Sarah Bernhardt by one of her theatrical descendants, the Broadway stalwart Cornelia Otis Skinner. Later I’d score a recording of Sarah from the soundtrack of a WW I propaganda film in which, after allowing, “Forgive them G-d, they know not what they do,” she viciously lashes out at the Germans, and still later happen upon an exhibition devoted to her relics at the Bibliotheque National’s musty quarters on the rue Richelieu, up the street from the Moliere fountain where a lion vainly spouts out undrinkable water. Finally, hurrying up the Boulevards La Chapelle, Rouchechouart, and Clichy towards the Montmartre Cemetery with an urgent need one Saturday morning in 2004, I’d spot a sign for a garage sale where I ultimately scored Bernhardt’s personal mirror, encadred by cherry wood with encrusted abalone shells no doubt fabricated in one of the ateliers along the rue St.-Honoré.

And there she was again Sunday night– the same exact image from the Clarion painting whose poster has accompanied me for 37 years (now so torn up I had to leave it at home for this last trip) — on a rotating pillar ad for the Paris Museums at the bottom of the ramp connecting the Austerlitz train station with the Metro. (The original is now at the Musée Petite Palais along the Seine.) As I was expecting a somewhat different reception (“I’m a New Yorker; fear’s my life” — Jonathan Larsen, “RENT”), it was a good omen.

But Paris is not only the heritage of Bernhardt and the redemptive elegance of a courtesan become deity, a life journey crowned by a funeral in which tens of thousands crushed together along the Grands Boulevards (streets memorialized by another French Jew, Camille Pissarro) to follow the 1923 procession from her theater on the Seine to an oblong tomb at Pere Lachaise (where a certain Ex-pat journalist would later be chastised by an ersatz tourist guide for nibbling his croissant on the rim while in deep conference with his most famous guardian angel — “In France, we don’t dine on graves”; never mind that the doyenne in question didn’t know Bernhardt from Bara, having just explained to her clients that the former had been a star of the silent screen). It is also the heritage of Zola, only instead of Gervaise — the tragic heroine of “L’Assommoir,” named after the homemade gin joint on the Boulevard La Chapelle that proves her downfall — curling up in the niche under a stairwell which is the only home she can still afford, making my walkabout du retour yesterday, from digs in le prè St.-Gervais to the Grands Boulevards, after turning onto the Canal St.-Martin off La Chapelle and turning my head towards a heap of reeking garbage sequestered behind a cluster of the still-omnipresent green construction fences I saw the garbage suddenly begin to move and wretch up the pair of squirming legs. A cursory examination indicated more living African bodies coming to life among the festering refuse. Sickened, I turned down the canal towards Le Valmy, the bar-resto that for years was my other shrine (this one of the living), where I was heartened to find Momo, my original bartender from 2001, still holding forth at the wine bistro next door. The last time I’d seen Momo was shortly after the November 13, 2015 terrorist massacre that took the lives of 130 people, many of them mowed down on the brasserie terraces where Momo reigned, a contemporary deity of Parisian life. Smoking a clope while looking out over the canal, he had been clearly distraught. “Des cons,” he pronounced, shaking his head before tossing the butt and returning to the bar. Missing him during my 2016 visit, I’d assumed he hadn’t had the courage to continue in the milieu, now wounded. So even if he has less hair and I have less teeth, I was delighted to find Momo back at his perch. When I asked him yesterday if things had calmed down since the attacks, he answered, finishing his spaghetti, “A bit,” only now there’s the troubles around the so-called yellow-vests and their clashes with already over-taxed police. (“Macron will never resign,” Momo told the barista he was dining with. “A president never resigns.”) If some of their claims are just, particularly those of the retired people like my neighbors in the Southwest of France who find it difficult to make ends meet on fixed incomes *not* indexed to inflation, I was reminded this morning, when the radio news reported that one of the movement’s more law-breaking inclined leaders is also the president of a car club vaunting ’80s models (French DJs are also inexorably hooked on the epoch’s top-10 music), that in the end for these self-proclaimed rebels whose cause has been fueled more by media hype than real popular numbers — their revolt has nothing to do with that espoused by Camus, even if the father of pro-active Existentialism did give personal names like “Desdemona” to his cars, as his recently-released letters to his lover the actress Maria Casarés reveal, and died in one — it’s all about retrograde resistance by worshippers at the shrine of the automobile to cleaning up the air before it’s too late. (The yellow vest in question is required wear for automobilists because it glows in the dark.) This is Anne Hidalgo’s fight and Emmanuel Macron’s fight — these are the luddites they’re up against — which is why I’m on their side. I just pray that the former succeeds in cleaning up the air of all of Paris — she’s noted that 45,000 die of pollution every year in France — and that Macron succeeds in fulfilling his promise that in France, no one, of any color, should be living on the streets. Or sleeping in garbage piles. Shortly after crossing the Peripherique from Pantin to Paris — my neck bundled up in three home-made scarves, my Paris hair-cut head covered in beret and sailor’s cap, and my gams retrieving their Saturday Night Fever stride (“You can tell by the way I move”), as I headed towards the cabinet of my dentist pledged to restore my teeth and smile before he heads off into the sunset (taking with him the poster of Belmondo courting Seberg on the Champs, a sign of the doctor’s Franco-American heritage), sequestered behind more green fences I came across a municipal employee sawing up Christmas trees so that they could be made into fertilizer, instead of just being discarded. Here’s hoping that the lost lives can be recycled too.