Saturday, June 25, 2011

An Idiot, A Broad: Paris, Part Two

Another source of sage counsel prior to our departure was Walter Satterthwait, fellow OSS: 117 fan and author of wonderful novels like Masquerade, set in Paris of 1923. Among the many tidbits that Walter passed along was the rigorous standards applied to the preparation of andouillettes, tripe sausages that tread the fine line between delicacy and dare.

Rosemarie had this information in mind on Day Four when we ventured into a restaurant serving andouillette as the lunch special and she ordered it. (“It’s in tribute to my ancestors,” said Mrs. Keenan, née LeFave.) The only person more surprised than me was our waiter, who tried to talk her out of it. “It’s made from the stomach,” he warned, complete with extravagant hand gestures. He would ultimately present the dish to her with the words, “Good luck.” As for how it tasted, Rosemarie reports that the accompanying potatoes were very good.

Strong stomachs were needed for the next stop, the Paris catacombs. This subterranean ossuary holds the remains of approximately six million people transported from various cemeteries throughout the city. To move through this space – the ceiling low and dripping, mortal remains carefully stacked to maximize space and occasionally in symbolic shapes – is a profound, almost overwhelming experience. We followed our sojourn through a realm of shadows and dust with a walk through sunny Montparnasse. This in turn was broken up by our first experience with a Paris staple: the raucous protest march. We never did figure out what the hubbub was all about. We next visited the Musée Bourdelle so Rosemarie could see the exhibit on the fashion designs of Madame Grès. A grievous error regarding caffeine intake forced your correspondent to shut down for several hours, but he rallied in time for dinner followed by drinks at Le Fumoir, a cocktail bar that Eddie Muller and his fabulous wife Kathleen tipped to us. The drinks menu was simple, offering a fine whiskey sour. That night the bar was filled with groups of people dressed entirely in white, like cricket teams, involved in some activity at the nearby Louvre. We never ascertained what it was. Paris, we were learning, is about mystery. The bar served no Amer Picon, nor did we find any that day.

Day Five was spent at the Louvre. Visiting the world’s most famous art museum was somewhat baffling. When did people start taking photographs of paintings? For a good length of our trip we were followed by a hangdog Italian man who stood grimly before each artwork as his wife snapped a picture, setting up the most dour slideshow in Christendom. Several people posed at the foot of El Greco’s The Crucifixion as if they were Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. “How do you feel about the death of Our Lord? Send us your Tweets.” The apex of ridiculousness was reached in the Mona Lisa room, with hundreds of tourists blindly snapping away and no one actually looking at La Jaconde, protected behind glass. I ended up mesmerized by the grounds of the museum and some astonishing work by Giovanni Paolo Panini.

It was back to the Cinémathèque Française for more Perles Noires that evening. The Breaking Point is the lesser known but more faithful version of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Eddie Muller has sung its praises for years, calling it the best adaptation of Papa’s work. But it’s been impossible to see. (Ironically, only days earlier the Warner Archive announced that they’d be making it available on DVD.) John Garfield, in easily his greatest performance, plays the fishing boat captain stretched to his limits by circumstance to learn that a man alone ain’t got no chance. Patricia Neal is the singular femme fatale who tempts him, Phyllis Thaxter the wife who keeps him grounded. The movie is devastating, ending on a note of existential dread rivaled only by Night and the City. It’s more than just the best screen Hemingway, it’s one of the great films of the 1950s.

Afterward, a party of noir fans and filmmakers adjourned to Le Fumoir again. Among them was Nicolas Saada, whose entertaining thriller Espion(s) would be my in-flight entertainment on the trip home. Sitting in a Paris cocktail bar, discussing Hitchcock and Preminger with a French director who actually used the term mise-en-scène in conversation, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.