Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 13: Children of Paradise, lost without a map

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                           Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

The Fabulous Destiny of PBI

“It’s early for me,” Sylvie yawned, clasping her hands behind her head and stretching her torso so that her green wool sweater pulled up to reveal a flat alabaster 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 deep 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 eyes in a nondescript 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, where he accomodated his brother Vincent, is on upper Lepic (not far from the one-time home of the fabled singer Dalida), which winds up to Sacre Coeur and the Butte Montmartre. That brisk winter morning Sylvie gave me the Amelie tour, including the Rue of Three Brothers where Amelie ‘lived,’ the corner store used in the film,  and the actual theater where Amelie goes to the movies, an intimate art house cinema on the rue Tholoze decorated with colorful tin lantern chandeliers designed by Jean Cocteau and guarded by an over-sized bloated female Choron straight out of Marcel Carné’s “Les Portes de la Nuit,” in which Montand misses the last Metro at Barbes and tumbles into a Montmartre peopled with Carny personnages. (Later I’d frequent Studio 28; 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, reminding me of a similar Warner Brothers poster I had plastered on my desk as a pre-teen in San Francisco, when I would spend my Saturday afternoons at a rundown Tenderloin theater with the Marx Brothers, Bogart and Bacall, and Teresa Wright. This was at about the time my parents split up and started sending me and my two younger brothers switching between their homes every three days. Why was I always taking refuge in a fabricated past that wasn’t my own?) So after hearing Arletty exclaim “Atmosphere?! Atmosphere?!” in “Hotel du Nord” or watching her toy with Jean-Louis Barrault in “Children of “Paradise” you could soak up even more atmosphere, letting the ambiance of the Montmartre d’autrefois and its phantoms seep into and hypnotize you. The Paris problem, though, is that these ghosts always seem to be plotting to make you believe your own reality must match the caliber of their movie scenarios, 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 profit from the Paris fantasia. To this atmosphere already heady with romantic anticipation I brought a cinematic sensibility, which sometimes blinded me to the reality of these women, as if I believed all of them were supposed to be Anna Karina in Godard’s “Une femme est une femme,” ready for adventure.

Amelie, though – the character herself if not the fantastical fairy-tale elements of her universe – seemed to resonate with a sort of lost generation of debut of the millenium Parisian women in their late ‘20s and early ‘30s, even if the story was misunderstood by some intellectuals. They pointed out historical inaccuracies such as a newspaper headline blaring the death of Princess Diana, which had occurred several years before ‘Amelie’ takes place. But in fact Amelie’s destiny only becomes truly fabulous and fulfilled at the moment she abandons fairy-tale dreams (which could thus be said to have perished with Diana in that tunnel) and finds her prince in a fellow lost soul whose daily heroism consists of scavenging passport photos rejected by their subjects. In a way the film is about bucking the fatalism suggested by absurd providence (a powerful genetic pre-disposition for the French at least since the day that France’s greatest 20th-century thinker died in a car crash in January 1960) — when she’s still a child, Amelie’s mother is killed when a woman jumps off a Notre Dame tower and lands on her – and making your own fabulous destiny despite your fears.

Like Amelie, I was attempting to re-make myself despite the residue of my own psycho-familial history. I was trying to re-invent myself as Gene Kelly, blithe-hearted and nimble-footed, singing even in the rain while dancing with a young and ready French woman on the banks of the Seine, but the hitch was that my potential romantic leads did not know they were cast in the Leslie Caron role. (And neither my dancing nor my attitude was as carefree as Kelly’s.)

When the moment came for me to take Sylvie in my arms – it was a few weeks after our Deux Moulins rendez-vous and she’d just bent down to check out the record stash in my flat on the rue de Paradis, exclaiming, “’Ella a Berlin!’ C’est formidable!” — I tentatively tried to kiss her, and she pretended it didn’t happen, oh so subtly turning her cheek, not so much in a gesture of rejection but that felt more like effacement. No Leslie Caron with a violent rebuff which Gene Kelly can either accept or ignore, returning a la charge.  No Amelie temporarily retreating behind a black Zorro mask. Not even the intractable historical inevitability of Lambert Strether confronted with the impermeable wall between Old World fermeture and New World hubris in James’s “The Ambassadors.” Autrement dit, no literary templates or film scenarios to refer to for guidance.

In certain Paris Metro stations, there used to be an electrified wall map where you could push a button on a board indicating your destination, and the route would light up. There was no such grid for romantic traverses.


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