Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The greatest living actress

In these giddy post-Oscar days, it's important to keep things in perspective. Seeing Claude Autant-Lara's rare 1949 film Occupe-toi d'Amélie (left) a few days ago in Paris, for instance, I was reminded once again that Danielle Darrieux—who's turning 92 in May and was just the object of a 100-film retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française—is the greatest living actress.

American readers/viewers familiar with her most likely know Darrieux from her star turns in Max Ophüls's The Earrings of Madame de…, La Ronde and Le Plaisir, all from the 1950s, as well as from her appearance in Jacques Demy's Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, where she played Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac's mother. But she's so much more: She embodies both the very history of French cinema and a certain idea of the country itself—witty, elegant, alternately suggesting wounded melancholy and irrepressible grace. Few actors share her versatility. (Meryl Streep perhaps? Let's check back in 30 years.)

Oh, and Darrieux could sing, too. She started her career in a string of musicals in the 1930s and stayed faithful to the genre with Demy in the 1960s and all the way through François Ozon's 8 Women in 2002. She even made it to Broadway in 1970, when she replaced Katharine Hepburn in Coco.

In this clip from Norman Taurog's 1951 movie Rich, Young and Pretty, Darrieux performs "There's Danger in Your Eyes." (In the film she plays Jane Powell's mother despite being only 34; a few years later, she'd be Richard Burton's mom, even though he was only seven years older than she was.) And here she sings a setting of Aragon's "Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux" in 8 Femmes.

A quick note about Occupe-toi d'Amélie: The film, extremely rare for decades because the Feydeau estate thought it took liberties with the play, is an absolute jewel. Autant-Lara constantly plays off the porous border between stage and life by setting things up as a play within the film—and a play in which the spectators periodically interrupt the action, Purple Rose of Cairo–style. The pace is downright dizzying as well: This is how farce needs to be done, with speed but also absolute precision.

Friday, February 20, 2009

French film follies

A couple more days in Paris. The overcast sky gives the perfect excuse go to the movies and hit the museums. Sticking to localfare, so far I've seen Nicolas Saada's debut, Espion(s), and Danièle Thompson's latest, Le code a changé. Two fine, if very different, examples of quality filmmaking, French-style.

The former is a brooding thriller that's been embraced by the critics here--unsurprisingly, perhaps, as Saada is one of their own (he used to write for Cahiers du Cinéma). The movie's been compared to some of Hitchcock's best and most romantic flicks, like Notorious, but it reminded me more of the British series MI5. And while I liked the slow pace (we're very, very far from spy shenanigans à la Bourne), if you're going to do the classic set piece in which somebody transfers information from a computer onto a USB key while trying not to be caught by a bad guyelse coming up the elevator (cue closeup of screen with "copy" status bar moving maddeningly slowly), you'd better come up with a new twist; alas, Saada doesn't. Still, a lovely performance by Géraldine Pailhas lifts things up.

As for Thompson's movie, it's yet another "choral" on, a style the writer-director particularly loves. I admit going mostly for the splendid cast, which includes two of my favorite comediennes, Marina Fois and Karin Viard--together at last. A scene in which gynecologist Fois gives lawyer Viard an exam was the icing on the religieuse.

Next stop: a reissue of Claude Autant-Lara's cult 1949 adaptation of the Feydeau farce Occuppe-toi d'Amélie, starring the scrumptious Danielle Darrieux, and François Ozon's new Ricky.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Low-cost travels

Going from Paris to Corsica to visit my family, I had my first experience with a Euro low-cost airline, Easy Jet. The flight was almost six hours late but everybody waited in relative calm, a new concept in France. This of course had everything to do with the fact that said flight was more than a third cheaper than the same one on Air France, which until recently had a de facto monopoly on flights from the continent to Corsica. The thing is, it is harder to feel angry when you bought a cheap ticket; the anger was also diffused by the fact that there was nobody from Easy Jet on site, only Charles de Gaulle airport employees assigned to Easy Jet, and they had barely more of a clue than we did. Rage with no specific target is just a waste of time, as we all discovered.

Never mind: I eventually made it to the island, where I discovered snow-capped mountains and a cold wave. All the more reason to stay inside and watch the world championship in slalom, where a Frenchman got silver. Needless to say, Alpine skiing doesn't really shake TV ratings back in the U.S., whereas here it's quite popular.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Where are you from?

The least you can say about snowbirds is that they love to chat, and the first thing they ask is, "Where are you from?" I guess when you're in Florida, or at least this part of Florida, so few people are local that this is a natural question. In two days we've met people from Ontario, Maine, Ohio, Ireland, New York, Michigan and Nebraska. I was seating next to the latter on a boat tour we took in Myakka State Park this afternoon. By the end, the wife was all friendly and invited me to drop by next time I was in Nebraska. "We're in the northeast part of the state, in an Indian reservation." She paused. "It's just horrible there. People don't work, kids drop out of school." Hmmm, okay then. This message not approved by the Nebraska Tourism Board.

Another thought prompted by vacationing in Florida: America really is segregated by age. The Sheila and I are 30 years younger than most people around us, a difference bigger than even at Saturday matinees on Broadway. We don't mind all that much but it can get odd. If you go to most French resorts, it's not rare to see three generations of a family vacationing together. (The past two winters, I went skiing with my mom and aunt, plus my sister and her husband, along with their young kids, and this isn't considered abnormal in the French Alps.) Such is not the case here. A vast generalization, I know, but it's just a little weird to see how this age-based division is implemented in Florida. In your early twenties you go to the party spots and get wasted, preferably before renting a jetski. In your thirties and early forties, you go out as a couple or as a young family. After that forget it: You are assumed to lose all sense of taste, and you're meant to only eat crap while pink becomes an acceptable color option for shorts. (Pink: it works for tween girls and senior citizens.) I wonder what's going to happen when the generation that's grown up on lattes and organic food nears retirement age. Granted, there is a class divide as well as one of age at work here. More on this later, as the lobby of our Venice Beach hotel isn't all that conducive to sociological musings.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Greetings from the Venetian causeway

When the Sheila and I travel, we do it in style. And so we decided to take a few days off in Venice. Not, not Venice, Italy. Not even Venice, California. We're actually in Venice, Florida, which is on something called "the Sun Coast" by the local tourism authority (ie the gulf coast roughly between Tampa and Fort Myers) and happens to be the subject of George Packer's devastating article called "The Ponzi State" in The New Yorker. It's a great if depressing read.

As readers of this blog know, I'm interested in public-transportation issues, especially when I travel. And this bit of Florida is a vivid, terrifying illustration of sprawl gone wild, where cars are necessary for just about everything. And everybody here seems to go for gas-guzzling SUVs, which doesn't help. It took us what felt like forever to drive down from Tampa to Venice on US 41, which looked more scenic than I-75 but turned out to be a traffic nightmare (on a Saturday afternoon) and an uninterrupted parade of strip malls and car dealerships with overflowing lots. This snake is biting its own tail, clearly. The only public transportation we could see consisted of the appealingly named SCAT (Sarasota County Area Transit) buses, which seem to carry only the darker-skinned people trimming hedges and working in drugstores. This all makes Los Angeles look really advanced. Packer quotes some local people who seem to realize the necessity of improving local transportation, including Tampa's mayor, but from here, the task looks positively herculean.

Venice itself is charming and actually quite walkable, so that's what we did today, saving the trip to the Smugglers' Cove Miniature Golf (which the Sheila is dreading, but nothing can keep me away from a putt-putt experience) for tomorrow.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Wave goodbye, say hello

A couple of new pieces in this week's Time Out New York: a review of Yoko Ogawa's middling novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and an interview with director James Gray, whose latest film, the rather wonderful Two Lovers, comes out next week. Gray was such a good talker that the web version includes outtakes from the interview. Make sure you catch him at BAM on February 10, when he'll introduce a sneak preview of Two Lovers.

As it turns out, these two articles are my last for Time Out. As some of you may know, I'm going off to the New York Post, where I'll replace Clive Barnes as chief drama critic. Big shoes to fill, I know, I know. My first review will be the revival of Guys and Dolls on March 2.

I'm taking some vacation before starting the new gig. I may do some road reports in the coming two weeks, but mostly I'm planning to catch up on my reading.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Throbbing Gristle hits NYC

A mere minutes after hearing about the gig, I was on ticketweb to buy my way into the Throbbing Gristle gig on April 16. The band is playing the Brooklyn Masonic Hall, its first NYC show since 1981. I just posted a lil announcement on the Time Out New York blog, with basic—very basic—background for those unfamiliar with TG.

While Genesis P-Orridge has had the highest profile of all four ex-TG members, I much prefer both Chris and Cosey and Coil—once the smoke surrounding P-Orridge's personal antics has cleared, the music itself just isn't very inspiring. The 1980s albums of Chris and Cosey, on the other hand, still sound great (The Essential Chris and Cosey Collection gives a good overview), while the apocalyptic visions of Coil's early output, especially 1984's Scatology and 1986's Horse Rotorvator, remain terrifying.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

It's a small world after all

Young Jean Lee's exploration of the white-black dialectic, The Shipment, is the show of the moment in New York, and I'm ready to bank on it returning later this year on a stage bigger than the Kitchen's. How hyped is it? Stephen Sondheim himself braved frigid temperatures to see it Friday night, and he stoically got crushed in the lobby, like everybody else, as we were waiting to be let in. Personally I feel The Shipment is merely pretty good—it's the first seriously overrated show of the season. Hedda Gabler, on the other hand, is getting a bum rap. It's far from being as disastrous as some would have it, and Mary-Louise Parker actually gives an interesting, far from obvious performance.

Neither over- nor underhyped, Room for Cream—a live soap presented weekly by the Dyke Division of the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf company—is your typical downtown cult hit: It's packing them in (not that La MaMa is that big) yet remains somewhat under the radar. I could see myself becoming somewhat addicted to the show's rough-hewn charms…