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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
6: Paul au pays des morts-vivants
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak
With Taglioni & Truffaut in the land of the living dead
The five films of Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel cycle begin in 1959 with the troubled teenager of "The 400 Blows" and end two decades later with the 30-something Antoine (in all the films, Jean-Pierre Leaud) of "Love on the Run" finally finding his true love Sabine, his former amours come to the rescue to make sure the affair isn't derailed by the another of the faux pas that have dogged Antoine all his life, especially his complicated romantic life, complicated further by his complex relationship with his mother. Close watchers of the five films will note that the Montmartre Cemetery figures in three. In "The 400 Blows" -- which begins with a panoramic black-and-white tour of the roofs of Paris terminating in the pre-BoBo, pre-Amelie Poulenc cramped working-class Montmartre flat where Antoine lives with his ma and pa -- Antoine and a pal, hoisting a typewriter stolen from Antoine's dad's office, traverse the bridge over the cemetery leading from the lower Montmartre of the Moulin Rouge and Van Gogh to 'the Butte,' the top of the quartiere where lived Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Steinlin, and Suzanne Valadon with her son Maurice Utrillo and lover Felix Utter. (Amelie lived somewhere in middle-Montmartre, on the Street of the Three Brothers.) From the bridge you can see the graves of Sacha Guitry and family, France's Barrymores. In the third film, "Stolen Kisses," the cemetery pops up at the funeral for a colleague at the detective agency where Antoine has found work, one of a series of professions he runs through as he struggles to make his way. And in the fifth and final, the 1979 "Love on the Run," a former lover of his mother, first seen in the 1959 "The 400 Blows" (when Antoine learned she was cheating on his father by spotting the two on the street... as he was playing hooky) accidentally encounters Antoine in the cellar of a publishing house where he's proofreading De Gaulle's heretofore secret and previously unpublished account of eight lost days in 1968. (Indeed, it's not just the one cemetery but, more broadly, the subterranean which features largely in all five films; in the 1968 "Stolen Kisses," we follow a love letter sent to Antoine by one of his lovers as the canister containing it traverses Paris's underground mail route.) On discovering that Antoine has never visited his mother's grave because he doesn't know where she's buried (he was in the army pokey, as we witnessed in the opening of "Stolen Kisses," when she died), the man takes him to the cemetery, revealing that she is buried next to the real-life tomb of the real-life model for Camille.
It's natural, then, considering how heavily the milieu figured in the Antoine films, that Truffaut himself is buried in the Montmartre Cemetery under a simple dark marble gravestone bearing his name.... as well as notes left for Truffaut by visitors around the world, many of them asking his counsel, often in love. I came across the tomb my second day in Paris, when I'd rushed from Sabine's on the rue Lamartine up the rue des Martyrs (half-way up, you can see the dome of Sacre Coeur) and along the Boulevard Rochechouart - Clichy, past the Moulin Rouge to the cemetery. (I eventually left my own note, and was contacted by a documentarian, Emmanuelle Pretot, contemplating a film on the visitors to the tomb of Truffaut.) I was there to see the tomb of Vaslav Nijsinky; I discovered that of Marie Taglioni, the first dancer to use pointe artistically, in 1832. Never mind that Taglioni made Nijinsky possible; where his gravestone was spic and span and resplendent with flowers, hers, some steps behind his and off the path, was in disrepair, the only indication of the stature of its occupant a cracked plaque reading "MARIE TAGLIONI - A sa mere bien-aimee" (to his/her beloved mother) the assumption being that a child of Taglioni had put it there. The only indication of who she was was a pair of 'dead' pointe shoes (as a dancer would put it) nestled in the tacky wreath of ceramic flowers, infested by spiders and ants. At this point in my life I still believed in dance, and I immediately saw a rapport between the disrepair of the grave of the woman who was essentially dance's George Washington, and the poor current state of dance's respect in the world. If dancers wanted to improve the esteem in which the world held them and their art, they needed to improve the esteem with which they treated their own history; by contrast with Taglioni's, the tomb of La Goulue -- with Jane Avril one of the greatest can-can dancers of the Moulin Rouge -- at the same cemetery was treated with fresh flowers every day, left by the Moulin Rouge, still a living institution in part because it valued its own past. I decided that my magazine, the Dance Insider, would launch a campaign calling for dancers around the world to send pointe shoes to be placed on Taglioni's grave, the idea being that eventually the pile would rise so high that visitors to Nijinsky's grave would spot them and want to investigate. It was a quest into history and its contemporary relevance that would eventually involve me with living legendary dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet and terminate, so to speak, in the more famous Pere Lachaise cemetery (where Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, and others are buried), with stops along the way in the Marseille cemetery and the ballroom of Madame de Stael, Napoleon's erstwhile nemesis.
More on Taglioni -- and her real burial place -- later. My more immediate expeditions that first year in the land of the undead dead took me not just to Pere Lachaise, and the tiny tomb of Sarah Bernhardt and the colombarium of Isadora Duncan, but also to the cemetery Montparnasse, an easy walk from my second Paris habitation, a 1960s, Godard-era high-rise next-door to the Pasteur Institute where the AIDS virus was discovered, with a stunning up-close view of the Eiffel Tower. There at the Montparnesse Cemetery, standing before the tomb of the Dreyfus family (not far from the unmapped grave of Petin's prime minister Pierre Laval), I marveled, reading the names and dates of demise on the tombstone, that just seven years after Captain Alfred Dreyfus died in 1935, a niece perished after being deported by France during WWII. Before the tomb of Serge Gainsbourg (who had miraculously survived the Occupation, as a teenager living in Paris and Limoges), I marveled at the idiocy of visitors littering it with Metro tickets, as if they had no other more fitting tributes to leave. This was in 2001, when my French was spare, so while I knew by heart the sound of Gainsbourg's "Le poinconneur des Lilas," I had no idea that it was the first-person account of a subway ticket-puncher (the "poinconneur," in this case at the Metro station in the Paris suburb of les Lilas) who, driven mad by the monotony of his task -- "Le trou, le trou, le petite trou," he incants of the little hole he punches in the tickets all day long -- talks of getting a gun and blowing a 'trou' in himself, before burying himself in a 'trou' in the ground. The song was banned from French radio after its release in 1958. Some 50 years later, the city of Paris renamed the park outside the Metro station after Gainsbourg. It was not the first time official Paris would lionize an enfant terrible who had scandalized it, after the safe interval of death. In July 1766, the 19-year-old Jean-Francois de la Barre, who had refused to take off his hat before a passing parade of religious nobles and compounded the crime by singing impudent ditties, had his hands and tongue cut off before being burned at the stake. The French later erected a statue to the memory of the Chevalier de la Barre, which now stands in the shadow of Sacre Coeur -- that ultimate symbol of French religious imperiousness, itself built by the forced labor of members of the 1871 Paris Commune for daring to oppose official surrender to the Prussians -- an impudent grin on the chevalier's visage, in its little own park overlooking Montmartre and the city of Paris, including a grand view of the Eiffel Tower. It's an ideal promontory from which to watch the July 14 fireworks, and celebrate the bundle of contradictions that is France, a country forever reconciling itself with the catacombs of its past.
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