Taking All Things French With a Dose of Salt

As I was about to depart to a part of France I decided to get into the mood. No, it wasn’t to be, sadly and unlike Bernard Salt, the City of Love where I was headed to, nor was it to the Riviera, nor the Normandy Coast. No, not even Provence. But I was soon to be promenading around the streets of a French city, nonetheless.

As with BS, I’d also hopefully be people watching in that city as well – ideally from a sidewalk cafe as French speakers strutted by. But I differ from Mr Salt in that I am as far removed from being a follower of fashion as it is possible to get. But, with my gorgeous lady helping out, I intended to be at least spiffy for the occasion in an attempt to be worthy of being by her side as she accompanied me down the rues of said city. So, no, I wouldn’t be disporting in my crocs, as much as I might want to, for our day on French territory, with or without socks – it’s not unknown that I wear the footwear with the latter.

Now, in the weeks leading up to departure for my excursion to this foreign land, I went all francophone-ish, as was fitting. I partook of books and movies to, as I said, get in the groove. So let’s start with the former.

Elizabeth Baird’s memoir’ ‘A Lunch in Paris’, being as it is filled with enough recipes to make me salivate to the max, is a fine entree into the life of one of the world’s gastronomic capitals. Hopefully, I too would be dining on some decent French tucker soon enough, albeit on a fleeting visit.

Baird’s tome was also a love story – not so much about Parisian life (about which she is very candid) – but for a man, a soul mate. The American met him at an academic conference in London. Although her journey, as expressed in print, suffers a tad from the American thing of over-zealous self-examination, it remains a reasonably interesting read. Not engrossing, but there was enough to keep me turning the pages. And actually living in Paris, rather than merely visiting, isn’t all beer and skittles, as many another ex-pat has discovered. For, as Salt points out, there is much frustration to be had, whether it be from unsatisfactory plumbing, grumpy shop-keepers and the intolerance towards one’s inability with the language, matched by the pitfalls of attending soirees as your husband’s partner in the French capital. But there are joys too. There’s the freshness of the food from markets, a far cry from the tired vegies in her home supermarkets (and ours). There’s also the beauty of the place – not only around the touristy areas, but also in the lesser known arrondissements. And of-course, over-arching all the setbacks, there is the love for a fellow at the book’s core. ‘A Lunch in Paris’ does encourage one to visit, rather than perhaps permanently settle down there, whetting my appetite to do the former again.

And where would our view of the joie de vivre of the French way of life be if it wasn’t infused with affairs of the heart. Of course, there is their supposed penchant for the extra-marital kind and Tatiana de Rosnay presents numerous takes on these with the stories she gifts us in ‘A Paris Affair’. They are soufflé-light, fluffy vignettes, reminding me of those ‘Erotic Tales’ SBS used to show on Friday nights – naughty but invariably nice (if you’re inclined to go there, I notice they are available on SBS on Demand). Sometimes, in de Rosnay’s tales, those being cuckolded get their own back, sometimes they didn’t. It’s a book that only takes an hour or so to read and it was on special at one of my bookstores of choice so I picked it up. At full price it would be a road too far.

I love French movies – but the following three were from UK and US makers, partly or wholly set in that country.

‘Paris Can Wait’ featured a luminous Diane Lane, an actress who would seem grows even more stunning as she gracefully ages. Alec Baldwin, playing her character’s hubby, is present too, but sadly, for me, it’s little more than a cameo. He has to head off in his private jet, poor dear, to somewhere or other for a work meeting, leaving Anne (Lane), ailing from an ear infection. Her spouse places her in the care of his business partner Jacques (Arnard Viard). His task is to get her to Paris by road as she is unable to fly. Jacques hasn’t a great deal going for him in the looks department, but there’s enough Gallic charm there to unsettle Anne, who is feeling sidelined by her partner’s busy life as a mover and shaker. What should have been a fairly easy drive over a day or so takes forever. That’s because of Jacques’ love of dining at every exceptional restaurant en route, as well as introducing Anne to many other French delights, including the possibility of an affair. I was particularly intrigued by their visit to the Institut Lumière in Lyon, with its illuminating images of the very early days of film making. The journey sees the couple drawn to each other, but there is an uneasy feeling that Jacques isn’t quite whom he makes himself out to be. And if you hate inconclusive endings, then stay away from this title.

The movie was directed by Eleanor Coppola, wife of Francis Ford and mother of Sofia), who is eighty years young. Although it’s possibly ageist to say so, the film is a bit of a throwback to another age.

And perhaps the same could be said, regarding the ending, for ‘Madame’. I know many in the audience I was with uttered surprise when it suddenly concluded without anything tied up. It was enjoyable enough up until that point, a romp in French surrounds, but it didn’t set the world on fire for me. Harvey Keitel and Toni Collette play a not overly pleasant wealthy couple taken to throwing up-market dinner parties in their lavish Parisian apartment. When numbers are uneven for one such soirée, the Spanish maid (Rossy de Palma) is roped in to fill the void. Of course, it would be inevitable that one of the wealthy male guests would fall for her. But this is no Cinderella tale as it is all to much for Ms Collette’s character, another Anne, who conspires to torpedo the relationship. She herself is attracted to a younger man and disports herself naked in a pool in an unsuccessful attempt to win him over. Why this terrific actress would agree to a gratuitous nude scene is anyone’s guess, despite her disrobing being nonetheless pleasing to the eye. It was, though, completely unnecessary. The movie never gels, is cut off abruptly, but at least de Palma’s performance as the gawky, out of her depth object of desire, is one to savour.

Lastly we have ‘The Time of Their Lives’, a movie pointed straight as a die towards us – the members of the older set. It stars Pauline and Joan Collins, both making making no attempt to hide the ravages of time on their exterior selves, if not the interior. But this is a writ by numbers caper, a sort of ‘Thelma and Louise’ for the aged. Joan plays a faded star; Pauline a put upon housewife. They come together unrealistically through a set of coincidences; then, by devious and unlikely ways, take the ferry to France. There they encounter the mysterious Alberto (Franco Nero) who, it seems, loves being nude for the world to see, including us, full frontally. Whatever possessed Franco N, just as whatever possessed Toni C above? Anyway, he falls for the outwardly plainer Priscilla (Pauline) even if, again, there is much attempted thwarting from Helen (Joan). It is good to see all three of these venerable actors back on the screen, but there’s not much else to recommend this movie – at least it had an ending that came together though. And now, I was ready for the real thing.

But really, the Paris of the South Seas was a bit of a fizzer. The time I had there on shore excursion from the good ship ‘Carnival Spirit’ had to be curtailed, so I had only the merest of glimpses – and what I saw didn’t overly impress. But fellow passengers came back with glowing accounts of their day. A previous stop over in nearby Port Vila had been, much, much more to my liking, even if the French influence was significantly less. It was mainly one of driving helter-skelter on the wrong side of the road. Vanuatu was once administered by both France and the UK. I’d go back there at the drop of a hat.

Maybe one day I’ll relive the times I had in France last century – but as the years pass that seems more and more unlikely. Still, in the digital age, we can do so much now vicariously. I, wistfully, will have to be satisfied with that.

Bernard Salt’s article – http://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/columnists/bernard-salt/french-men-are-going-sockless-and-i-just-dont-get-it/news-story/b0dd707cad0198ef86a2afc13d6f4e7f

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