By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
With Taglioni and Truffaut, Gainsbourg and Poe in the land of the living dead
The five films of Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle begin in 1959 with the troubled pre-teenager of “The 400 Blows” and end two decades later with the 30-something Antoine (in all the films, Jean-Pierre Leaud) finally finding his true love Sabine (Dorothée) in “Love on the Run” (“L’Amour en Fuite”), his former amours come to the rescue to make sure his ‘histoire’ with Sabine isn’t derailed by his tendancy to run away from true love, no doubt a result of his complex relationship with his mother. Close watchers of the cycle will note that the Montmartre Cemetery figures in three of the five films. In “The 400 Blows” — which begins with a panoramic black-and-white tour of the rooftops of Paris terminating in the pre-BoBo (Bourgeoisie Bohemian), pre-Amelie Poulenc cramped working-class Montmartre flat where Antoine lives with his ma and step-pa and spends his evenings before a home-made shrine to Balzac which almost burns the house down — Antoine and a pal, hoisting a typewriter stolen from Antoine’s step-dad’s office, traverse the bridge over the cemetery leading from the lower Montmartre of the Moulin Rouge and Theo Van Gogh’s flat on the rue Lepic (up the street from Amelie’s café) to ‘the Butte,’ the top of the quartier where lived and worked 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, Guitry’s reputation albeit tarnished by his just getting-along with the German occupiers. 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, a job which includes an assignment as an undercover shoe salesman that ends under covers with an elegant Delphine Seyrig. And in the fifth and final flick, “Love on the Run,” a former lover of his mother, first seen in “The 400 Blows” (in which Antoine discovers she is cheating on his step-father by spotting the pair embracing on the street… while he’s playing hooky) accidentally encounters Antoine in the cellar of a publishing house where he’s proofreading the heretofore secret and previously unpublished account of DeGaulle’s eight lost days during the 1968 student and worker rebellion. (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” – which completely ignores the 1968 rebellion, Antoine having more important pursuits — we follow a love letter sent to Antoine by one of his lovers, Seyrig I think, as the canister (or ‘pneumatic’) 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), his mother’s former lover 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 setting figured in the Antoine films, that Truffaut himself is buried in the Montmartre Cemetery under a simple dark flat 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 look for the tomb of Vaslav Nijinsky; 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 (constructed with the aide of Serge Lifar, another just-get-alonger) was spic and span and resplendent with flowers, hers, some steps behind his and off the path (behind every good man there’s an even gooder woman), was in disrepair, the only sign 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 state 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, I realized, they needed to improve the esteem with which they treated their own history; in 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 that would culminate three years later in a bicentennial conference and performance for Taglioni co-hosted by the Italian Institute of Paris in the one-time ballroom of Madame De Stahl, the legendary adversary of Napoleon, and the dramatic declaration by Taglioni expert Pierre Lacotte (who as a younger dancer had helped Nureyev escape from the KGB at Orly 40 years earlier), upon seeing our projection of the Montmartre grave, “That’s not Taglioni, it’s her mother. Taglioni is buried in Pere Lachaise,” the cemetery whose ‘residents’ include Jim Morrison, Pissarro, and Heloise and Abelard. The ‘mere bien aimee’ was thus Taglioni’s mom. The dancer, meanwhile, was buried in the tomb of Gilbert de Voisins, a member of Napoleon II’s inner circle who, according to a dispatch filed by one Edgar Allen Poe that I unearthed (sorry), Taglioni had divorced after he refused to admit her to the domicile conjugale because she refused to stop dancing. (Taglioni’s bones had been moved there by a grandson from Marseille 50 years after her death.)
My expeditions that first year in the land of the undead dead took me not just to the Cemetery Montmartre and 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. (As a reporter covering San Francisco for Reuters and others in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, I’d written many of the first international stories on the AIDS pandemic.) There at the Montparnesse Cemetery, standing before the tomb of the Dreyfus family (not far from the unmapped grave of Petain’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, his niece Julia perished after being deported from 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 complains 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 honoree was six feet under and unable to protest. In July 1766, the 19-year-old Jean-Francois de la Barre, who had refused to remove 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 imperiousness, itself built by the forced labor of members of the 1871 Paris Commune for daring to oppose the Versailles government’s surrender to the Prussians — an impudent grin on the chevalier’s visage, in its own narrow 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.