Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 9. We’ll Always Have Paris |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 9. We’ll Always Have Paris


The American cities should have been easy, if only because every American is in show business, so that there is no chance encounter that does not turn immediately into a scene: all you have to do is tone down the volume. But it was a European city that gave us the measure of what the Postcard format could do if it was approached in an orderly manner, instead of as an exercise in what Donovan himself had the grace to call ‘kick, bollock and scramble’. Once again it was Paris, but this time there was no question of concentrating on the catwalks. We were out to do the whole thing. There was a lot of planning before we went, and we were better protected against caprice when we got there, because we had both a producer, Beatrice Ballard, and a director, Laurence Rees. Each would go on to a glittering career, but the important thing to note here was that both of them were naturally thorough and quick-witted — two qualities that often get in each other’s road. They certainly needed the quick wits, because one of the first sequences on the roster starred Françoise Sagan, once a teenage novelist, now the first lady of the French literary world, and always and forever an enfant as terrible as they come.

The Renault company had given her a new car for her personal use, presumably on the understanding that they would benefit from the publicity even if she killed herself in it. When she was young she had insisted on driving her brand-new Aston Martin barefoot, thereby to demonstrate her carefree spirit. ‘I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Bouncing alternately on its nose and its tail, the car, when it finally came to a halt, was in even worse shape than she was, which was saying something, because very few of her bones were left intact. Luckily her clever head survived to dream up more novels. When we met her, she wasn’t so young any more but she still lived hard. Perhaps unwisely, our sequence with her had been planned to take place while she drove. The camera and the sound were in the back seat and I was in the front beside her, asking her questions while she kept on proving that the only way she knew how to drive was to go flat out. It must have been some kind of muscle disease, or perhaps the consequences of her first crash: her rigid leg jammed the accelerator against the firewall. My questions tended to fragment as we switched with yelping tyres from one boulevard to another, threading our way between cars driven by normal people and taking every red light as a sign to speed up. ‘So when you first met Sartre what AAAGH! did he say?’

Uncannily she responded with coherent answers, possibly because she knew that the imminent crash wasn’t going to happen even though it looked to me as if it had already commenced. It looked the same to the cameraman, who could see the road ahead through his eyepiece and got a lot of footage that trembled all the time even when she was driving on smooth asphalt. ‘He say to me, you are so yong. He say, when you leave a little longer then you will have the droit, the droit, what is it?’

‘You will have the AAAGH! the right.’

‘Yes, yes, of course. Stupid of me. Then you will have the right to your despair. You want me to go more fast?’

‘No, this is AAAGH! fine like this.’

The man we hit was carrying a briefcase. He was crossing the road, we heard a thump and suddenly there he was behind us, spinning like a weathervane in a storm. We must have hit the briefcase. ‘We heat someone?’ she asked me. The camera missed the spinning guy but it caught her face asking the question, and I knew that I would be able to put a narrative on it that would be funnier than seeing the bloke spinning on the spot. It was a wonderfully surreal sequence, all the mad speed made even funnier by the sudden stops every few blocks so that the great lady of French literature could scoot into a bar and powder her nose. Her powder of choice was an open secret. Everybody knew, including her friend François Mitterrand, then President of France. She knew all his secrets too. The Parisian elite were a tight crew, somehow made more so because they spoke their own language.

It was a language that I had been learning for years and am still learning now. My assistant Cecile Menon politely puts me though my pronunciation drills but I will never get to speak French well. I love to read it, though, and when we were filming Postcard from Paris I spent all my downtime trawling for books in the green boxes of the second-hand booksellers along the Seine. On a rest day for our crew I was bent over the treasure trove of a bouquiniste when a stocky figure in a well-cut dark blue suit showed up beside me. The discreet presence in the background of a couple of young men with earpieces tipped me off. It was Mitterrand. Instantly I remembered a river full of elephants, but I remembered also how I had not mentioned them, so that the crew would never know what they missed. We wouldn’t have been able to sneak a shot of Mitterrand anyway. The gendarmes (the real gendarmes, not the ordinary flics) would have moved in and thrown us all into a van. Besides, I liked being alone with the books. When waiting in the car with my driver, I would read to him from Simenon or Maupassant while he winced at every second word before making me read the sentence again. A glutton for punishment, that boy. He taught me the French translation of a short speech that I dictated to him in English. ‘The day when I am able to converse freely in French I will be very happy. Unfortunately, that day is still distant.’ When I at last managed to memorize the French version in roughly the right accent it was highly effective in convincing any English-speaking people present that I was quite good at French: as long, of course, as they themselves were not.

In the future I was to make a point of learning an equivalent construction in any other language we ran into. Your friends are impressed and the locals applaud you for your eagerness. That, however, is as generous in the matter as the French commonly get. In Paris especially, they don’t like to hear their beautiful language spoken in any way except to perfection. Beatrice, being a properly brought-up English girl, had French among her attainments. It came in handy when we were snatching a scene outside the cafe Deux Magots in the Boulevard Saint-Germain, because to turn the passing pedestrians into walk-on players took a bit of explaining. It took little persuasion: even more so than the Americans, the people of Paris want to be in the movie, because they think they might be helping the next François Truffaut, a national treasure, or Jean-Luc Godard, a national idiot but they love him.

But it wasn’t enough to talk them into participating. We had to say what we wanted done. I liked the way Laurence Rees attacked himself when he couldn’t make himself clear. He would dance on the spot, beat his breast, forget how to breathe. These were good signs, betokening an urge towards self-improvement. Beatrice was summoned from her hotel room full of paperwork, told what I was after, and set about roping in the punters. We were filming the passing parade for a sequence in which I would say that the women of Paris — not just the grandes dames but the office workers, the sales girls, everybody — gave a lot of time and thought to looking chic. Half an hour of filming had revealed that a general shot of the passing pedestrian traffic wouldn’t do the job, because somewhere in the frame among the scores of glowing visions there was always at least one woman who looked like the captain of a tugboat. The only solution was to get upstream and do a bit of casting. Beatrice came with me while I singled out half a dozen impeccably qualified knockouts. On my behalf, she explained to them that they should each walk towards the camera at a given signal. See the camera along there at the cafe? Don’t look at it while you walk. Just let it look at you. I would have sounded very foolish trying to explain all that and might well have been arrested by the car full of flics who were taking a close interest, even though Beatrice was armed with all the appropriate permissions. She was very good looking, so they wanted to check her papers.

While they did so, I went back to the cafe, sat down in the right spot, gave the signal and the first woman came swaying along as if she had been making movies all her life. All the others were equally good. In this way we secured a series of clean shots for which I could write a narrative at the rate of one line per shot. It was a lesson learned. If the scene has to make a particular point, assemble it out of particular shots: a general shot won’t do the job. What made this sequence a breakthrough for me, however, was that I had spotted the problem beforehand and not afterwards, and had managed to convince the people working with me. There was a hidden requirement in that: they had to be smart enough to see the point. These two were, so we were in business. There were no prizes for spotting that young Beatrice was a class act but with Laurence it took a bit of imagination, because he carried on as talented young men often do, reminding himself of what he had to do next by sticking Post-it notes on everything including people, referring to himself loudly in the third person, dashing his ginger head against the nearest brick wall when he made a mistake. He would have been unbearable if he were not so clearly demonstrating an eternal truth about the arts: talent rarely looks poised early on. The naturally cool customer is seldom going anywhere. As it happened, Laurence Rees was going on to become one of the most significant writer-producers of factual television series in recent times. But he would not have been so effective in that valuable role if he had not known a lot about how to direct, because it meant that directors couldn’t fool him. Television is a producer’s medium, but the best producers know everything about direction, and a lot of what Laurence Rees knows about it he learned on Postcard from Paris, so I feel quite proud.

Laurence’s speed on the uptake proved vital when we filmed an interview with Inès de la Fressange at the madly fashionable Café Costes. Inès, newly retired as a model for the couture salons but still the official face of Chanel, was so famous that her mere presence could reduce a whole city block to silence, as if she had just stepped out of a spaceship. (The French don’t mob their celebrities but they have a way of revering them from a distance that can stop the traffic anyway.) The Café Costes was the latest creation of the designer Philippe Starck, always in the feature pages for his ability to take some everyday object and reinterpret it, or deconstruct it, or generally futz about with it in ways possible only to genius. Now he had done this to a whole cafe. The conjunction of the celestial gloss of Inès de la Fressange and the cutting-edge modernity of the Café Costes was a sure-fire prospect. All we had to do was bring them together. When it transpired that the conjunction could not be brought about until after lunch, we spent the morning filming in the cafe’s downstairs toilet pour les hommes. What the toilet pour les dames was like I don’t care to imagine, but you can take it for granted that the men’s room had been reinterpreted to within an inch of its life. Locks on the cubicle doors either didn’t lock at all or locked you in forever, thus reinterpreting the function of a lock. Concealed in chromium fairings that echoed each other’s formal properties with a conscious play of irony, the reinterpreted soap dispenser dried your hands while the reinterpreted hand-dryer dispensed soap.

But above all, Starck had reinterpreted the relationship between the urinal and the hand basin. He had played with daring semi-otic irreverence upon their essential similarity. Those of us who believed in their essential difference were in for a shock, as we found ourselves washing our hands in the urinal after taking a piss in the sink. It was at this point that I decided Philippe Starck was un ouanqueur — a French word of my own invention which has somehow never caught on in France — but I was also grateful, as if all my Noëls had come at once. You couldn’t dream this stuff up. You had to get some fantasist like him to dream it up for you. Laurence was already exhausted after the two hours of hard work it had taken to light the place — it is always much harder to film anything when there are reflective surfaces around — so I had no trouble convincing him that we wouldn’t need to stage any action. All he had to do was get clean shots of all the naff gear and I could do the whole story with the commentary. Even with the hand basin and urinal combo, we wouldn’t need any shots of me pretending to use them. I could just look at them, visibly abandon any intention of using either and walk out looking puzzled. Laurence’s vital contribution was to make sure that I didn’t overdo the looking puzzled. That much you can learn from your cameramen and directors, if you aren’t afraid to ask. Most presenters overdo the facial expression because they haven’t been often enough told that the camera can see what you think, so you don’t have to act it out. When the adrenalin’s pumping, however, hamming it up is difficult to avoid.

You are never more likely to ham it up than when you are registering surprise. In real life, surprise merely makes your face look puzzled for as long as it takes your brain to process the unexpected information. On screen, if you adopt a ‘wow’ face to convey your shock, it looks hopelessly over the top: better to do nothing. All this, of course, presumes that you are coping with the task of conveying appropriate facial reactions to a surprise you know is coming. Sometimes you get a real surprise, whereupon the problem solves itself, and you will remain nicely dead-pan unless you get the fatal urge to do a ‘wow’ face after you scrape off the custard pie. When we relocated the camera and the lights upstairs to the bar for the interview with Inès, I didn’t immediately see the vaudeville possibilities inherent in Philippe Starck’s idea of what constituted suitable furniture for a place where fashionable people might like to meet in order to drink, snack and talk about structuralism. The tables, though tiny, nevertheless had flat surfaces on which such things as drinks, cups of coffee and plates of pastries might conceivably be placed without falling instantly to the floor. The chairs, however, all turned out, on closer inspection, to have three legs. This was Starck’s breakthrough concept. Chairs had had four legs each, one in each corner, since civilization had first emerged among the Ashurai people of Mesopotamia thousands of years before Christ, but now a genius was on the case. Still waiting for Inès to show up, I sat down on my allotted chair so that we could get my portion of the establishing sequence. Pretending to be reacting to Inès’s shattering glamour — I had a standard stunned-mullet expression to fit that — I lowered my behind carefully into the hard laminated plywood seat of the three-legged chair.

I wasn’t pretending at all when I fell sideways out of shot, the chair still magically attached to my behind as if it has been glued into position. On my way down, I was already aware that we would somehow have to capture my transition to the floor. This is where the experience of filming that I had already acquired came in handy. A wide shot that panned with me as I dived would have taken a lot of setting up and would have looked contrived anyway. All we needed was a tight shot of my face as I lay on the floor. In the editing room we could tack that shot on to the first one, in which I fell sideways out of frame. As long as I did a good enough job of looking stunned while I was lying down, it would all click. I remembered the way Oliver Hardy had always made a point of looking merely resigned after the house fell on him. Helping me to cut my performance back — as the stage actors say when they act for the screen — was my apprehension that the beautiful Inès might take a dive too. But when she came wafting in I could see straight away why she wouldn’t be falling out of any chairs. She didn’t weigh anything. She was six feet tall but she was made of light. This ethereal apparition was famous for never wearing the same kit twice, all the way down to her lucky underwear. For this appearance she had chosen a sort of sailor suit ensemble which would have been appropriate for Captain Nemo’s social secretary on the Nautilus. During the interview she told me that she always chose her outfit for the day on the basis that it must tell a little storee. Today her storee was of the sea.

She could have told me anything and I would still have nodded with agreement, although every nod set me tottering on my triangular base. Since we had asked the management to let other people use the bar so that we could have some authentic background, almost every answer from Inès was punctuated by the sound of a new arrival sitting down on a three-legged chair and hitting the floor with his face immediately afterwards. But I could easily narrate all that. I didn’t think that what either of us said made a lot of sense even at the time, but she was such a spellbinder that it didn’t matter. Correctly guessing, however, that the ambience would be at least as entertaining as the interview, I asked the crew for a lot of extra coverage as we arrived and left, so as to leave room for my comments on the advanced designer’s success in ironically dramatizing the previously unexamined connection between chair and occupant. Inès, as advanced a design as a human being could be, sailed serenely away after assuring me that my blue suit told a storee of — how could she put this? — of a man in a blue suit. ‘You are not chic, yes? And that is your storee.’

We filmed for two entire days down in les Égouts, the sewage tunnels under the city, and after painstaking work we got a lot of highly atmospheric footage which never made it past the first fortnight of editing, because, in the end, people trump spectacle. One of the people was completely unplanned for. The plan was to track with me as I visited the cemetery of Père Lachaise, did a tour of the gravestones and ended up at Proust’s black slab, but when we got to Edith Piaf there was already a fan watching over her who might have been cast by the wraith of Jean Renoir and sent down to me for just this moment. The fan was probably in his seventies but might have looked younger if he had not overdone the black hair dye, the mascara, the rouge and the lipstick. He had loved her, however, and knew how to say so. He said so in French, but one phrase at a time, so I could translate it aloud as he spoke. The antiphonal effect was elegiac beyond anything that could have been written and acted. In the trade you call it a ‘snatched’ moment and there can be no doubt that the snatched moments are often the best thing in the movie, but if you have to depend on them you are in trouble. They reward the diligent, as is proved by how they are always withheld from the careless.