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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
17: Children of Paradise, Martyrs for Love
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak
The Fabulous Destiny of PBI
"It's early for me," Sylvie pointed out, clasping her hands behind her head and stretching her torso so that her green sweater pulled up to reveal a flat white dancer's belly. We were sitting at the Cafe deux Moulins, at the exact same table where Amelie's would-be suitor the recuperator of train station photo booth rejected shots had waited for Amelie, not knowing she was the waitress standing right behind him, in "The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain." The film's title was truncated to simply "Amelie" for its U.S. release, the distributors perhaps thinking "The Fabulous Destiny of" was too subtle for American audiences. But every American in Paris believes, at least in the beginning, that his destiny will be fabulous, and, still the Paris virgin in January 2002, I believed that mine was staring straight at me from Sylvie's big brown eyes. (A couple of years later Audrey Tatou, the actress who portrayed Amelie, would make the exact same gesture in my presence, surreptitiously checking out who was checking her out with his luminous green American eyes in a mundane brasserie at the foot of the Rue des Martyrs below Montmartre, my regular cafe across the street from Sabine's (and, earlier, Baudelaire's) home on the rue Lamartine, which I'd sublet on my arrival in Paris the previous summer.
The Cafe Deux Moulins is on the rue Lepic below Abbesses; Theo Van Gogh's place is on upper Lepic, which wends up to the Butte Montmartre. That brisk January morning Sylvie gave me the Amelie tour, including the Rue of Three Brothers where Amelie lived and the actual theater where Amelie goes to see a film, a boutique cinema on the rue Tholoze decorated with colorful tin lantern chandeliers designed by Jean Cocteau. Later I'd frequent it; the theater had a patio cafe where after the film, as another glowing twilight descended on Montmartre, you could sip a kir at a table plastered with movie star photos. So after hearing Arletty exclaim "Atmosphere?! Atmosphere?!" in "Hotel du Nord" or watching Montand get lost behind "Les portes de la nuit" in nearby Barbes, you could soak up even more atmosphere, let the ambiance of old Montmartre and its phantoms seep into you. The Paris problem, though, is that these ghosts always seem to be plotting to make you believe your own life must live up to their movies, and your real-life co-stars rarely live up to this dream, particularly if they are natives and too stressed out by the daily grind to drink in the Paris fantasia. To this atmosphere I brought a cinematic sensibility. (At Princeton once, a pompous pseudo-French professor -- "Andre Maman" (I think he was actually born in Brooklyn), analyzing Sartre's "Nausea" for a lecture-hall full of impressionable students, opined that the hero "saw his life as if he was in a movie. And of course no normal person would think like that." It was at this point that I realized I was not normal.)
The "Intellos" pooh-pooh'd 'Amelie' because, they claimed, it wasn't realistic, and there were historical inaccuracies; a newspaper headline blares the death of Princess Diana, which happened several years before 'Amelie' takes place. But Amelie's destiny becomes fabulous at the moment she abandons fairy-tale dreams and finds her prince in a lost soul whose daily heroism consists of scavenging passport photos rejected by their subjects. In a way it's about bucking destiny and making your own fortune.
Like Amelie, I was attempting to re-make myself, in my case from the shy refuse of a broken marriage whose parents made him switch houses every half-week, teaching him he didn't have the right to a normal life, and who had no memory of his parents together romantically, even though he was 12 when they split up. I was trying to re-invent myself as Gene Kelly, but the problem was my potential fellow romantic leads -- of whom Sylvie was the first of a procession of dozens -- did not know they were cast in the Leslie Caron role. So when the moment came for me to take her in my arms -- she'd just bent down to the record shelf in my flat on the rue de Paradis and exclaimed "Ella a Berlin! C'est formidable!" -- I tentatively tried to kiss her, and Sylvie pretended it didn't happen. Children of Paradis, walking through a Paris dream blindfolded.
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