Paris License

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

For the English-speaking world, no star is more essential to the romantic identity of Paris than Audrey Hepburn. In two of her earliest leading roles (in Sabrina and Funny Face), Hepburn plays an ordinary American transfigured by her encounters with the City of Lights. These are Hollywood fantasies, of course. Hepburn was an untraditional beauty for the 1950s, when Jane Russell's curves were the idealized form (even Truman Capote preferred Marilyn Monroe for the lead in Breakfast at Tiffany's). But a spare figure hidden in a gunnysack dress couldn't cancel out Hepburn's knockout cheekbones and alchemical charm. Any cinematic signifiers of plainness were always a conceit, like a pagan god slumming in a beggar's disguise. In a Hepburn film, Paris provides the X-ray vision to reveal the star as she's meant to be. If a Hepburn character begins a film humbly, you are about to be pleasantly shocked—thanks to Paris's glamorous priorities. If the starring role begins in elegance and world-weariness, as it does in Charade, the journey through Paris will reveal the tenderness that underpins Hepburn’s fashionable armor.

Hepburn had a background equal parts privilege and privation. Her mother was a Dutch duchess; her English father alleged a hereditary link to Mary, Queen of Scots. When World War II began, her mother removed the children from London to Belgium, incorrectly thinking that the Netherlands would remain sheltered from German military offensives. The effects of wartime malnutrition limited Hepburn's physical abilities and redirected her career hopes from dancing to acting. From ballet, she retained an elegant bearing; from her family, a polyglot's unplaceable accent; and from wartime cruelties, perhaps, a lifelong empathy and grace.

She remains the ideal figure to follow through France's capital—her sharp silhouette travels well among the grand boulevards and elegant buildings. Amid the city's grays and beiges, Hepburn is a pop of color and enthusiasm. Funny Face makes this counterpoint most evident when her shop girl character poses in a bright ball gown, arms aloft, echoing the Venus de Milo, which is perched behind her at the Louvre. Hepburn is a classical beauty brought to life—both in the symmetry of her body and the idealized force of her feelings. In Paris, she is vulnerable, whimsical, unreservedly loving. She animates Paris's reserved good taste, and in turn, the city takes on her qualities.

In Charade, we meet Hepburn's Regina Lampert at an Alpine resort, drowning in misery. She is mid-course through a hearty meal and cloaked in a unitard and an ovoid fur cap. The clothes are by Givenchy, but the effect is more adorable alien than haute couture cosmopolitan. Regina has a mysterious husband, Charles, now and forever absent. She doesn’t love him, and what's more, she believes Charles is concealing something terrible (spoiler: she's right). Regina announces that when she gets back to Paris, she's getting a divorce.

Enter Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), stern, dimple-chinned stranger who returns errant child Jean Louis to Regina and her friend, Sylvie. "Do we know each other?" Peter asks Regina. "Why, do you think we're going to?" she retorts. In the dialog of Charade, characters return a question with a question, but somehow everyone gets the unspoken message. From the start, these two are engaged in a roundelay of courtship, a pas de deux of interest and unavailability. The script bubbles over with playful nonsense:

"You're blocking my view," Regina says, face obscured by cocoa mug and some heavily glamorous shades. The vibe is adversarial and nonchalant; that is to say, flirtatious.

"Which view do you prefer," Peter asks.

"The one you're blocking," Regina replies in a deadpan.

Peter excuses himself — he also is returning to Paris later that evening. Regina isn't quite ready to let him escape.

"Wasn't it Shakespeare who said, ‘When strangers do meet in far off lands they should ere long see each other again’?" she asks brightly.

"Shakespeare never said that."

"How do you know?"

"It's terrible. You made it up."

*

With Charade, director-producer Stanley Donen set out to create the best movie Hitchcock never made. But Hitchcock is all poisoned humor, icy sex, murderous men and women.Charade is a soufflé — its characters are light as air, its plot a spun confection. The story’s MacGuffin concerns the mysterious murder of Regina's husband, and the rivalry among a quartet of criminals who hunt for the money he carried when he died. The matter of this missing fortune accelerates the intimacy between the two attractive strangers, Regina and Peter. But the setting—Paris—reinforces the true subject: the delectable, mazy matter of romance.

In 1963, when Charade was released, Paris was still dominating artistic cultural conversation. And we find in the film an idealized portrait of that era's Gallic good taste—this is the Paris of Sempé drawings and Bemelmans' Madeline. Because the picture is shot in the saturated hues of Technicolor, there is a vibrancy to 1960s Paris that matches the vivid whirl of the love story. If anything, Charade is a screwball thriller—surely the best movie that Howard Hawks never made.

Donen was a director who engineered effervescence, a light touch who guaranteed a giddy feeling. He began his creative life as a dancer and went on to direct iconic musicals likeSingin’ In The Rain. He enabled Fred Astaire's dance on the ceiling in Royal Wedding by rigging a set that rotated while Astaire moved.

It makes sense that some of Charade’s best moments are variations on dance. When Peter takes Regina to a nightclub, the audience is the floorshow—they form two teams and are asked to pass an orange from person to person without the use of their hands. The fruit is wedged under the neck of a zaftig older woman, whom Peter approaches with some diffidence when he sidles up to her body to retrieve the fruit.

When he passes the orange to Reggie, the pair wiggle closer and we see the couple together as the movie wills them to be—she is fresh-faced and open; he is arrested by her beauty. They regard each other for a beat too long, twisting back and forth, provocatively, and then they separate, in accordance with the game rules. The mood is further ruptured when one of the villains accosts Reggie on the club floor and threatens her life for the missing money. This is the dancing rhythm of Charade—fun followed by danger followed by romance followed by murder. It's a difficult tone to achieve, this balance between gentle humor and actual threat, between overt sexuality and demure courtship. Grant was 60 at the time that the project was proposed, and resisted the film, saying he was too old to play Audrey Hepburn's love interest (she was 34). Peter Stone's script deftly acknowledges the age imbalance: "Stop treating me like a child!" she cries. "Stop acting like one," he tells her.

In fact, in the title, the filmmakers address the biggest problematic within this charming story, the charade at the center of Charade. Everyone wants the money Regina allegedly has—the three wartime buddies of Charles, the CIA bureaucrat played by Walter Matthau, and especially Peter, who manufactures quite a number of identities to explain how he knows the other criminals and why he wants to get his hands on Regina's bequest. Peter's deception posits a universal dilemma—it has to do with our identities in love. Who is Peter really and what are his motives? Can one know a person if he introduces himself through lies? Is a liar always a liar? Does someone's identity remain constant, or is it mercurial and partial? Is there a moment, at bottom, that all is revealed and it's possible to make a judgment?

*

A star is a performer whose craft is projecting the most appealing and delightful version of himself. That is not to say that stars aren't acting or that a star's performance is easily achieved—there are few people whose best selves are as charismatic as the worst days of a superstar. They also tend to be singular in physiognomy—a caricature of beauty and the ne plus ultra of their type. You can think, for example, of all the secondary stars who lived in the shadows of their more compelling counterparts: how Marilyn outstripped Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell, how Liz Taylor's decadence was never equaled by the starlets who followed her (as recently as the women of Twin Peaks). They are of their moment and eternal, only themselves but also transcendent.

Cary Grant had such a powerful singularity, and it was used by various filmmakers to achieve a positive or negative charge. Grant could play absent-minded or shrewd, callous or calculating, or aping for a crowd. With Grant (in contrast with Audrey Hepburn), there's always a remove. Possibly this is the result of the sheer technical skill of his performances, the Tommy gun speed line readings in His Girl Friday or the acrobatic tumbles in Holiday. Perhaps, this vagueness is inseparable from a self-invented matinee idol who began as a vaudevillian.

In Charade, Cary Grant works at the perfect intersection of MVP dream guy and menacing mystery. Is he pretending attraction to Hepburn's Regina to find the missing money? Is he her ally, or a murderer, or the worst kind of seducer, one who engages emotionally for selfish gain? We can see the dramatic irony—with Regina’s husband Charles, everything was secrecy and lies. Now, she is repeating the patterns of her marriage in this next relationship. Cary Grant is a handsome charmer, but when he lies about his identity for the third and fourth time—at what point should she suspect his character, no matter how much he enchants?

"Why do people tell lies," Regina asks Peter.

"Usually because they want something, and they think the truth won't get it," he tells her.

In Charade's final act, Regina must choose between two allies who have lied to her, and the wrong choice means her certain death. She stands amid the columns of the Palais Royal, carrying the missing money, positioned like prey at a shooting gallery between two gunmen. “Reggie -- trust me once more -- please,” says Grant’s character, urging her to take his side. “Why should I?” she cries. “I can’t think of a reason in the world why you should,” he tells her. The choreography of the scene is schematic—there is darkness and light, shelter and exposure, danger and safety—but Regina is not simply a pawn on a chessboard. Her faith in Peter might have arrived unprompted—the beloved may not have earned her adoration or confidence—but it’s up to her whether to sustain the feeling.

The ultimate emotional gamble is something that comes easily to Hepburn's characters—it's the ability to be vulnerable without defense. It’s not a matter of intellect but of intuition. With little proof of his integrity, Regina won't let Peter (who is revealed to be Alex, then Adam, then Bryan) out of her sights. Reflexively, we, the audience, also want them together, no matter the alarms his duplicity might set off. Hemingway, another Parisian expat, famously noted, "The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." In Billy Wilder’s Berlin or Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Regina’s faith in Peter might have a more bitter resolution. But in Charade’s Paris, her inclination to trust pays off in love (and because it’s the early 1960s, in a marriage license, too). Hepburn’s Funny Face character sang about the city, “It’s too good to be true / You change my point of view. / That’s for me. Bonjour, Paris!” Rosy-colored, optimistic, Charade and its Paris propose a romantic notion that also happens to be true: the greatest reward is earned when we lower our defenses to love


Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.


We'll Always Have Paris

Time-travel is easy. All you need are a couple of songs and a whiff or two of that street, that meal, that river.

Our pasts lurk closer than we think.

We know, based on recent studies, that people suffering from Alzheimer’s can remember their favorite songs from decades ago even when they’ve forgotten the faces of their family members. And of the five, our sense of smell is the most closely connected to memory. Catch a hint of home (mine: easy-assemble furniture, pizza dough, le mistral) and, no matter where you are in the world, you’ll feel like you’re walking back through your front door.

Before isn’t a series of events as much as it is a collection of sensory experiences: the smell of flowers, the pop of a champagne bottle, the cadence of jazz. And remembering isn’t a cognitive or chronological process over which you have complete control. It’s closing your eyes to see, smell, and taste fleeting memories — before time goes by and takes them away, before after redefines what you’ll remember.

*

When Ilsa walks into his gin joint, Rick’s understandably angry. You can’t just leave the man you love in Paris without explanation, then walk into his bar in Morocco years later and demand a song. It will shatter the moment, the vie-en-rose dreams he’s been nursing with Sam’s jazz standards since you left. You looked good in Paris — the pink champagne dusk, your blank past. In Casablanca, neon lights illuminate your truth. In Casablanca, you’ve got a husband.

Patriotism, duty, drama, intrigue, and adventure form the backbone of Michael Curtiz’s 1946 masterpiece Casablanca. It’s the story of two ex-lovers, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who, through extraordinary circumstances, find themselves across a bar table from one another after many years, their secrets exposed. It’s the story of a world at war and it’s the story of sacrifices men and women had to make to survive in that world.

But Casablanca hinges and cracks opens on a quiet montage of two lovers wooing one another in Paris before the story even began. Rick and Ilsa drive down the Champs-Elysees and through the Bois de Boulogne in a convertible. They ride a bateau-mouche and Ilsa arranges flowers and Rick opens a bottle of champagne. They dance, cheek to cheek, in a club.

“Who are you, really, and what were you before, and what did you do, and what did you think?” Rick asks Ilsa.

“We said no questions,” Ilsa says. She knows that you can’t drag the painful past into the Paris-present.

“Here’s looking at you, kid,” says Rick. In that moment, he believes that two people can only be truly happy if they ignore everything hard, everything ugly, everything unacceptable that has made them up until the present moment. But later, looking back, the parts of Ilsa’s life that bring her to him, here, in all the gin joints in all the world, keep him from seeing her as she was then.

*

Paris is the only city in the world that is exactly what you expect it to be.

It’s the collective chase of pleasure: each sound, sight, and flavor exists to promote a single mood of luxury, love, and light.

To remember my Paris, I conjure brilliant slivers of full experiences that have gone hazy with passing years: a walk, like a prayer, through the Louvre; a sip of too-bitter espresso before I’ve acquired the taste for coffee; century-old floors creaking at Versailles; tiles and stones; butter. I’ve lived in France but never Paris, which seems like a paradox to many people. To them, Paris symbolizes the mood and character of the whole country. And they’re not wrong: Paris is a collection of clips from various scenes that, for whatever reason, the director has chosen not to reveal in their entirety. My Paris is not my Paris at all. It is the Paris everyone knows.

*

In fiction and film, narrative vacillates between scene and summary. Scenes carry plot, build tension and character; summaries amass a collection of small details to convey momentum and show the passage of time. On camera, these details form montages.

Montages shuffle clips from various scenes, flashing forward and sometimes back, ultimately carrying us from one period in time to the next. Montages raise stakes both within and without the story: characters commit to their own case of do or die, and viewers invest more and more in their fates.

Cher gives Tai a makeover in Clueless. Forrest Gump runs across America. Kevin takes his house from suburban goldmine to field of landmines with an iron, a bucket of tar, and a tarantula. Rocky Balboa trains. Mrs. Doubtfire is born. Pacino oversees a baptism while the Corleone family takes out their enemies. Lester’s life flashes before his eyes in American Beauty. Baby learns how to dirty-dance. Harry and Sally go from acquaintances to friends who watch Casablanca together in bed, on the phone. Bogie and Bergman fall in love in Paris.

A montage builds emotion while simultaneously producing a peak of excitement. It is funny and poignant, triumphant and tragic. It allows the character — and the viewer — to experience, in condensed form, whatever mood the film wishes to build towards.

Ilsa asks Sam (Dooley Wilson) to “play it,” the song that threads through her and Rick’s shared loop of Paris memories.

“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”
“Oh, I can’t remember it, Miss Ilsa. I’m a little rusty on it.”
“I’ll hum it for you.”

Ilsa knows she’s weaving a powerful spell, one that can’t be taken back once it’s released. She hopes to catch Rick in this revolving record, this merry-go-round of recollections. Whether it’s to get him to fall in love with her again, or to procure the transit letters she and her husband require to escape to America, she wants him to see the parts of herself — the parts of their past — that will get him to say, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” She needs him to forget the scenes of heartache that bookended their montage in Paris.

But Rick says, “I thought I told you never to play that song again.”

*

Because Paris is lore, you don’t need to visit it to own it. You need only recite — as if conjugating a verb in passé composé — the city’s rosary.

We’ll always have Paris. And we’ll always have Casablanca. Like the city it begs us to remember, the film has become a cultural cornerstone, a collection of scenes, snippets of dialogue, and feelings that have integrated our collective consciousness. You don’t need to see it to own it. You nod, and an orchestra plays your national anthem. You put the woman you love on a plane. You say, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

What else is art for, really, than to give us memories we won’t have the time to make?

*

In the end, Rick isn’t the one who’s most affected by the memories of Paris. Ilsa is. She’s drawn in by her own spell. When Rick tells her that she can’t stay with him — that she must escape Casablanca with her husband — she pauses. In our minds, we hear strains of ‘As Time Goes By.’ On our tongues, we taste champagne.

You can’t move into the past, unpack what boxes you’ve since accumulated. No questions, remember? You’d regret it, Rick says, “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” The montage allures, but you cannot go back to who you were before you waltzed, cheek-to-cheek, through it.

You can visit it, though. It’s easy. All you need is a song, a taste, a perfume, a film.


Kara VanderBijl is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago, drinks tea, and falls asleep at parties. She is a former senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room, the previous managing editor of This Recording, and a former arts & culture contributor at Gapers Block.


Symphonies of Coincidence

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In the opening of her book Blue Nights, Joan Didion admires the characteristics of early summer twilights. “The actual light is blue,” she writes, “and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors.” Didion is describing the blue twilight visible in New York summers, but they can be experienced throughout the world and gently embrace many European latitudes. The French call it l'heure bleue: the blue hour. It has seductive and romantic qualities; faces become creased with mature shadows, buildings in the distance are reduced to silhouettes, and otherwise distinct objects are drawn into a sublime gradient.

In Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue, this twilight is the atmosphere of a car accident; the first shot of the film is a car wheel revolving through a soft and neutral blue. The movie’s focus shifts abruptly to a glossy blue lollipop wrapper held from the car’s window by the hand of a small child. Another shot: Oil drips from a valve beneath the car. A boy plays ball and cup by the side of the road, in a lighter, foggier blue. Out of frame, the car collides with a tree. Someone screams. Smoke blooms from the car’s interior. A small intact beach ball rolls away unhurried from the lightly vortexed metal. The boy runs toward the accident, and the sky appears considerably lowered onto each of the figures in the foreground. The intense blue blurs the landscape.

Blue is applied to these scenes by the film’s cinematographer, Sławomir Idziak, who describes himself as having “two constants: handheld camera and filters.” He worked on Kieślowski’s previous film, The Double Life of Veronique, pulling shots through a golden yellow filter which caused the scenery of Kraków to look as if developed from a dream of the city. Buildings in the background shimmer incompletely. The actors move slowly and deliberately, and often appear to be suspended in amber.

The filters in Blue are reverently blue, but their effect is less dreamlike and more a way to distribute meaning onto objects and spaces: a chandelier, a pool, the lollipop wrapper. We see the blue of the opening shot later in the film not as twilight, but as a color expressed by the cathode rays of a television screen, on which an old man bungee jumps toward a body of water. Idziak’s expressive use of filters causes unrelated scenes to relate atmospherically, forming connections between people and things that have the ambiguity and resonance of memory.

After the accident, Julie, played by Juliette Binoche with a deeply expressive restraint, wakes up in a hospital to find her husband and daughter have both died. When she returns from the hospital, she sells their home and moves into an apartment in Paris in an attempt to sever all connection to her past life. “I want no possessions,” she later informs her mother, “no memories, no friends, no lovers. They’re all traps.”

Blue is the first of three movies Kieślowski filmed between 1992 and 1994, each named for the colors of the French flag, their themes derived from the revolutionary motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Blue is intended to explore liberty, but at this point in his career Kieślowski, a Polish filmmaker, found himself uninterested in the political dimensions of the word and wanted instead to convey the strange and ambiguous shape of “freedom” in terrestrial life. Julie’s profound dissociation is an attempt to liberate herself: from pain, from grief, from responsibility.

But the past is never past. While still in the hospital, Julie is awoken by the sound of strings blooming violently from the quiet. The musical phrases originate from her husband’s symphony for the reunification of Europe, the incomplete composition of which haunts Julie. Most of the soundtrack is characterized by silence, so these sudden vortexes of sound are experienced by the audience as memories of their previous intrusions in the film. Blue light invades the room, overwhelming Julie’s face. (Idziak achieved this effect by overexposing “blue negative from the inside.” “It was very hard to control,” he says.)

Other blues: The beads of the chandelier that hangs in Julie’s daughter’s room, which later reflect across Julie’s face in a blurred constellation. The pulsing blue of the pool Julie swims in daily, which resembles International Klein Blue, a form of ultramarine the French artist Yves Klein developed; it’s so deep it appears almost radioactive. Klein, incidentally, considered the kind of monochrome painting that produced International Klein Blue as “an open window into freedom.”

Julie, in her struggle for freedom, relocates herself to Rue Mouffetard in Paris. Kieslowski describes the district as “a bit too touristy and postcardlike,” but these features are precisely what give it the anonymity and indifference Julie requires. In her freedom, she drinks coffee. One shot of a sugarcube absorbing coffee for eight seconds seems to embody the slowness and deliberation of her new life. She also swims. Occasionally she remembers. The horns and strings swarm back in, gathering in the soundtrack like invasive plants. She clutches her head underwater and curls up embryonically. In a later scene, as she emerges from the pool, someone asks if she’s crying. The strings return and the shot fades out entirely, only to fade back in on the same instant, like a blackout. It resembles the radical disconnection of trauma. “The idea is to convey an extremely subjective point of view,” Kieslowski said. “That is, that time really does pass, but for Julie, at a certain moment, it stands still.”

Binoche drew elements of her performance from actress Anny Duperey’s memoir Le voile noir, which describes Duperey’s parents dying from asphyxiation when she was eight. When discussing the role in her commentary on the film, Binoche quotes the book from memory: “Suffering inside is hard enough without having to show it on the ouside.” Her performance is one of gauzy intensity, her every movement cautious and removed but also full of invisible tension. When she lets the actual grieving Julie to the surface it’s rhythmically shattering, seeing someone so deliberately composed rapidly degenerate into a kind of nameless and shapeless pain, as when when she drags her fingers along a rock wall until they rupture and bleed, or when she bites and consumes a lollipop that resembles the one her daughter ate before her death.

Julie’s pursuit of freedom fails, of course, because she is unable to avoid connecting to others. She becomes inadvertent, almost unconscious friends with a stripper living in her building, who once had the same chandelier as Julie’s daughter. She discovers, through photographs broadcasted on a TV program memorializing her husband, that she had been cheated on, and deliberately searches for her husband’s mistress. (She gazes through the window of a courthouse at the mistress; she’s presiding over a divorce trial from which the events of Kieslowski’s next film develop.) These connections mass like the strings in the reunification symphony: into irreducible, aggressive harmonies. We’re defined by others; every relationship is a trap that seals you further into yourself.

Connection and communication are central as well to Kieślowski’s follow-ups, White and Red. All three films in the trilogy are interconnected, though the connections are often oblique and irrelevant to the narrative. As much as they’re deliberately written, they’re intended as coincidences. Kieślowski had previously conveyed his fascination with coincidence in The Double Life of Veronique, where Irène Jacob plays two characters in different countries who are regardless direct mirrors of each other, and who feel a connection toward each other that is both supernatural and incidental.

Coincidence works a fractured path through Blue. Julie hears the precise notes of her husband’s symphony played by a homeless flautist in the alley outside her apartment. “How do you know that music?” she asks him, bewildered. “I make up lots of stuff,” the musician says. “I like to play.” “This is an obsession of mine,” Kieślowski said while discussing the scene, “that people in different places and for different reasons think the same thing.” Eventually the narrative aligns with this fixation; Julie and her husband’s former collaborator Olivier attempt to complete the symphony. As they work the focus of the camera slowly blurs until they’re almost indistinguishable from each other, just drifting shadows.

While composing the poem “Skunk Hour,” Robert Lowell found himself haunted by a “blue china doorknob.” “I never used the doorknob,” he wrote, “or knew what it meant, yet somehow it started the current of images.” In the book Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski, Annette Insdorf describes Blue as “closer to poetry than prose.” The individual scenes connect to each other like stanzas, fragments implying a shape instead of completing one. The shots are not necessarily kinetic or even cinematic but instead have the compositional integrity and grace of still photography. There’s the opening scene, which is more collage than narrative, a woven nest of images: The car, the candy wrapper, oil draining from the car, the accident. The individual images in Blue attach to each other like memories, moving, consuming, and reiterating themselves in endless patterns, like the waves of Julie’s pool.


Brad Nelson is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic and the Village Voice.


Seeing Ghosts

all photos courtesy of the author

all photos courtesy of the author

I am a Parisian cliché incarnate: sitting at a table outside a sidewalk cafe, halfway through a carafe of rose, tapping my pen on my notebook, trying to figure out how to write about Paris and the movies. It’s a good thing I don’t own a beret.

The problem is that I have been in Paris for five weeks, and I am here for one week more, and so far I have seen these movies: Jurassic WorldLove and MercyInside Out (called Vice Versahere), and the strange but definitely un-Parisian Johnny Guitar, playing here because for whatever reason the French apparently adore Nicholas Ray. My husband Tom went to the movies one day without me; he saw Mad Max: Fury Road. The French-est movie experience we’ve had was watching Be Kind Rewind on the laptop in our flat. It indeed is directed by Michel Gondry, but it is also set in Passaic, New Jersey, the furthest point from Paris on the planet.

I arrived in Paris with high hopes and a half-baked plan to visit every cinema in the city. The ghosts of film past are everywhere in Paris, I imagine, and I want to hunt them down. I have a list in my files provided by all the critics on Twitter. I am staying in Montparnasse, so nearly all the cinemas are within walking distance, and also Jean Seberg’s grave. I love French movies. I write film criticism for money. I am ready.

What I realized on arrival, a thing so obvious I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before, is that Parisian moviegoers mostly speak French. So there are two versions of many films—V.O.,version originale, which is mostly for English-language films subtitled in French, and version francaise, the dubbed version. We don’t see many dubbed movies in the U.S., unless they’re animated. That’s because a lot of movies are shot in English.

But if a movie is shot in French, and a lot of them are, then why would they dub them? Why, for that matter, would they subtitle them? This is Paris, dammit—speak French. So as much as I wanted to catch up on everything from Cannes I won’t get to see in the States for a long time, I’ve got a problem: je ne parle pas francais (not beaucoup, anyhow). I can’t understand it when I hear it, either. I only read it a little.

A scene from Paris: I go to see Inside Out, or I guess Vice Versa, with my husband, in V.O. The cute animated emotions are speaking English. The movie is subtitled in French. I sit down in the theater with my bag of popcorn (they give you the choice of sel or sucre here, and we’ve gone for sucre this time, which is mildly reminiscent of candy corn). I have my 3-D glasses, which I saved after Jurassic World and brought back because otherwise they charge you a Euro for another pair. I look around in amazement at the packed theater. It’s all adults in here, save the two kids down on the front row hopped up on candy from the bins at concessions. I am amazed, instantly fetishizing in my mind the Parisian film audience, which recognizes Pixar quality when it sees it and won’t even bring the children because it is le cinema, haven for adults!

Two days later, I’m walking down the sidewalk discussing this phenomenon with another American who’d had a similar experience. We exclaim together about the brilliance of Parisian cinemagoers. But in the midst of our rhapsodies, I flush a delicate rose color, having just realized that even Parisian preschoolers, worldly-wise as they are, probably don’t speak English nor read French all that well.

I am functionally deaf and mute in Paris. This is not a great set of handicaps for a film critic.

Or is it? I spend a great deal of critical breath arguing for attention to both form and content. But judging from how quickly I give up on the idea of learning anything new about film in Paris, I haven’t quite absorbed my own medicine.

Thankfully, the city is patient. One day, after lunch in Bercy Village, Tom and I go to the Cinematheque Francaise, mecca for cinefreaks the world over, and buy tickets for the Antonioni exhibit. I am less familiar with Antonioni than I ought to be. I have seen Blow-Up, which I loved, and a long time ago I saw L’Avventura without appreciation, though I’ve thought about it many times since then. I am game.

The exhibit takes place in one long room you’re meant to traverse twice, once down on the right and then back on the left. It’s laid out chronologically, with screens ringing the room playing clips from films and a table-like platform in the center with letters and artifacts. The placards on the table, we’re happy to see, are in both English and French.

But the film clips are mostly in Italian, of course, especially near the beginning of the show. They’re subtitled—in French.

I can’t read and translate fast enough to keep up with more than a few words here and there. Once the frustration wears off, something curious happens. My eyes stop trying to read at all. Instead, I start reading shapes and gestures and angles. The Italian spills musically from the woman in the Cronaca di un amore clip, and then La signora senza camelie, and by the time I get to L’Avventura again I am watching, really watching, unaware that I’m not picking up dialogue.

I have slipped from “what is going on in this story?” to “this is cinema,” which is, of course, a great deal of what Antonioni was after. By the end I’m wholly unaware of what I am watching, but I have sunk deeply into the screen. A large screen hangs near the back of the room, with a rear-projected bit from the final minutes of Zabriskie Point, and I watch it loop a dozen times, entranced.

I leave feeling as if I’ve been plunged into a dozen worlds, and knowing I’ve noticed color, texture, movement, and sound far more than I normally do, processing narrative as fast as I can. I probably won’t be paying for a ticket to an unsubtitled V.F. before I leave the country, but I have been chastened. When we turn on a movie that evening, I am looking at the frame again, not just through it.

Near the end of our trip, Tom and I venture out to Pere Lachaise, the massive cemetery we know best from Wes Craven’s segment in Paris, je t’aime, in which Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell nearly break off their engagement at the grave of Oscar Wilde until the ghost himself intervenes.

Our very first stop is a little hard to find, nestled into the middle of its section facing away from the graveyard: George Melies. The stone is green with age and topped with a bust of its owner, and reads CREATEUR du SPECTACLE CINEMATOGRAPHIQUE 1861-1938. “That’s a pretty kickass epitaph,” I say to Tom, who nods.

Melies sent us to the moon all the way back in 1902, and when you watch A Trip to the Moonyou still feel awe and excitement, mostly because it is about your eyes and your imagination. Even children still find it captivating. And little English-speaking and French-speaking children could watch the same version together, and I could, too, if I wanted.

I blow Melies a kiss on my way out.

It’s hardly fun to be deaf or mute, but they say when one sense goes, the others get heightened. Not hearing, I am seeing now. The ghosts have intervened after all.


Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Pacific Standard, Movie Mezzanine, Books & Culture, and other venues. Her book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, co-written with Robert Joustra, is due out from Eerdmans next spring.


Since When? Since Always. In Your Dreams.

by Brianna Ashby

illustration by the author

illustration by the author

I grew up in a small town in Connecticut that was founded in 1659. These colonial roots are a source of great pride for a particularly zealous faction of the town’s residents who, several times a year, hold a variety of Revolutionary War reenactments, muster fairs, fife and drum parades, et al—all of which involve costumes and tours of diminutive school houses and someone’s collection of obsessively polished muskets. Once, I attempted to explain to someone that I couldn’t get a bagel because a parade of horse-drawn carriages had caused a massive traffic jam on Main Street during one of these gala festivals, describing the pomp and circumstance in such detail that I got sucked into my own story and ended up concocting an elaborate scheme to become a part of the celebrations. I told him that I was going to learn how to make soap and—donning my bonnet, a plethora of skirts, and an intricately embroidered eye patch—would vend my wares at a booth at the fair. When I was inevitably asked what harm had befallen my oculus, I would describe, with the appropriate amount of sadness and lingering horror, the lye that had splashed into my eye during a freak soap-making accident involving a goat and a small child churning butter. Shortly after that, I was casually diagnosed as having "an overactive imagination”.

Children are encouraged to embrace whatever bizarre fantasies their imaginations concoct, urged to act them out, to write stories, to draw pictures, to have imaginary tea parties with rabbits and ogres. And thank god they are, because kids should never be made to feel like their minds have any boundaries. As we age, though, we’re often encouraged to stifle these flights of fancy, to “grow up” or “act like adults”—which apparently means being miserable dullards.

I’ve never been particularly good at acting like an adult.

Naturally, as we learn more about our world and ourselves, we lose that sense of wonder that comes with absolutely everything being brand new, but it shouldn’t mean that the trade-off for this knowledge is boredom, or sadness, or defeat, because those sparks are still there. The very idea of "an overactive imagination" bothers me, because it implies that a grown person who indulges themselves in some chimerical brain time is borderline at best—unless, of course, they happen to be some sort of bonafide creative-type that has been given permission to let their mind wander the fantastic plain. The prevailing societal notion seems to be that if there’s no tangible, marketable, creative output at the other end of some particular flight of fancy, then it’s a flight that probably shouldn’t be taken.

Times are hard for dreamers. 

The expectations and responsibilities that weigh on us, clogging up our hearts and minds with timetables and deadlines and figures and bills, can make the very thought of being alive almost wholly unappealing, if only because we have enough awareness to know that spreadsheets and grocery shopping do not a life make. In between meetings and errands and web pages we start remembering all the small things that used to produce squeals of delight from our younger selves, growing dizzyingly jealous of these forgotten children—all the freedom, curiosity, and capacity for joy they possessed.

Sometimes it takes a film like Amélie to remind us.

I had not yet been to Paris when I first saw Amelie, but I quickly found myself enraptured by the irrepressible charms of both Audrey Tatou and The City of Lights itself, with its cavernous train stations and intricate architecture. I wanted to skip stones off of arbor covered bridges and drink coffee in warm croissant colored cafés. I ached to buy a baguette from the marché and sop up every last morsel of local color.

A few years later, I found myself skipping up a hilly street in Montmartre—Amélie’s neighborhood!—feeling like my feet were barely touching the ground. When the street plateaued, I made my way over to the carousel that captured my heart on screen, and carefully selected a candy-colored confection of a horse as my own noble steed. I was the lone adult bobbing up and down while the lights glinted off the wide eyes of the handful of children I rode along beside. And in that moment, my eyes were every bit as wide.

Amélie is so universally enchanting because it taps into our desire to exist in a place where the most mundane occurrences are wonders, a place where we are never too busy to celebrate the glory of this strange and wonderful world. A world where a children’s carousel becomes the secret location of a clandestine meeting and a gnome becomes a world traveler. Through the eyes of Ms. Poulain, we see the prosaic details of our personalities transform into hopelessly charming quirks, those eccentricities that make us individuals, and start believing—if only for a few hours—that there is a beauty in absolutely everything and that most anything can happen, if only you let it.

The worlds that we inhabit in our dreams, waking or otherwise, tend to be more exaggerated versions of the worlds that we habit in real time: colors are more saturated, buildings are a little bit stranger, and people seem like caricatures of themselves. The lush, gorgeously colored, slightly off-kilter tableaus in Amélie’s world are an homage to the quirky grandiosity of our heroine’s imagination, the place that she chooses to inhabit. After the death of her mother, young Amélie is left with her cold, repressed father and retreats ever inward, creating a life for herself that is colorful and just and funny and full of love. Reality and fantasy meld together, and within this winsome technicolor amalgamation, adult Amélie exists. Having rejected the dull, disappointing aspects of her life, she spends most of her time in the safety of her mind, trying to escape the loneliness that lingers just outside.

Amélie is certainly not the first person with a keen sense of self-preservation. Many who get hurt, or suffer a great loss, will recoil at the feeling of someone’s hand on their shoulder, terrified that this hand will be the next one to disappear. This emotional conservation has turned Amélie into a bit of a recluse and also a bit of a contradiction. She yearns to love and to be loved, but is too stunted and afraid to open herself up to the possibility. Instead, she loves things: perfectly smooth skipping stones, plunging her hands into sacks of grain, people’s faces in the dark of a matinée. Allowing another person into this world that she guards so passionately is just the kind of reality check she does not want. And so, to curb her own unhappiness, she begins instead to look outside of herself, living vicariously through others’ manufactured good fortune.

She pitted herself against the grinding windmills of all life’s miseries.

It all begins with a news broadcast. Lady Di has died in a car wreck. Taken aback, Amélie drops the stopper of an apothecary bottle, which rolls across her bathroom floor, knocking loose a tile on the other side. In the gap in the wall, she finds a tin box containing the treasures of a young boy that lived in her apartment in the 1950’s. Remembering her own powerful attachments to trinkets and tokens and personal totems, she becomes determined to find the box’s owner so that she can return what is rightfully his. And after seeing first hand, if indirectly, the owner’s powerful reaction to being reunited with something so dear—and how much it means to someone to receive such unexpected kindness—Amélie immediately embarks on a good-doing campaign. She lives vicariously through the unfortunate people she chooses to help, trying to find what’s been missing from her life by returning to others the precious things they have lost. She is petrified to get too close to anyone, and yet she can’t stop herself from becoming intimately involved in their lives. She meddles from a distance—and it seems only Raymond Dufayel (“The Glass Man”) knows what Amélie is really up to.

Dufayel is, at first blush, Amélie’s foil. Where she is young and beautiful and free, Raymond is elderly and fragile, trapped in his apartment with bones as shatterable as crystal. Betraying the advantages and gifts of her youth, Amélie is just as much a prisoner to her fears as Raymond is to his body. Dufayel watches as she avenges the innocent and rights the world’s injustices, but he also sees the woman hiding behind these endearing escapades. He realizes there is a certain amount of dishonesty in Amélie’s joy-spreading crusade, as it is impossible for her to admit to having a hand in any of it. She is clever and wily and uses her dishonesty for the purest gain: to make people happy. It’s a game—a complicated, but childish, game. It’s easier to lie than to admit that she’s a coward, hiding behind her clever stratagems and whimsical meddling.

Nino Quincampoix is another lonely dreamer drifting through life, stopping to collectt torn and discarded photos from the booths in Paris’ metro stations; images of people in in flux, going and doing in ways he can only imagine for himself. When he loses his assemblage of souls one day, it is Amélie who is there to find it. She soon falls in love with the idea of the man behind this bizarre collection, which speaks to her on a level that she’s terrified to understand. She sends Nino on a wild goose chase to retrieve his precious album, all the while carefully observing him to make sure he is the man she thinks he is. She charmingly keeps him at arms’ length with riddles and costumes and covertly passed notes, with meeting times and meeting places cleverly chosen to both maintain her anonymity and allow her to glimpse the man she loves.

The stratagems are the same, but the stakes are much higher. When Dufayel eventually gets wind of her games, he behooves her to leave her imaginary fortress—without a costume or a mask or a treasure map—and experience the sort of joy that she has bestowed on everyone but herself.

They’ve known each other since always, in their dreams.

In the end, Amélie’s fantasy life finally expands to include someone else—in her home, in her head, and in her heart. Someone to go out in the rain and fetch her some yeast for her famous plum cake. Someone whose very existence makes her life a dream. For the first time, her imaginings are grounded in reality. When at last she actually meets Nino, it is just as it should be. There are no need for words because there is already a depth of understanding between them, one that comes from allowing yourself to truly know someone, and from letting go enough for them to know you, too. No matter how high the walls, there is always someone who can climb higher.

We can overcome our lots in life, refuse to succumb to our circumstances, take risks and make the leaps to find the joy that we know exists. We haven’t really grown up until we can find it in ourselves to take responsibility for our own happiness, to appreciate all the things that make us unique and strange and awkward and wonderful, and to accept the fact that most anything can happen. Being an adult means making peace with the child that lives in all of us and, when the time comes, trusting ourselves to hold out our hands and let those children lead the way.


Brianna Ashby is the Art Director and Lead Illustrator for Bright Wall/Dark Room. She graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Illustration, and an unofficial minor in Costume Party Appreciation. She currently resides in Connecticut with her husband and daughter, where you can find her baking, eating baked goods, thinking about eating baked goods, and drawing things for money.


More Than Cooks Are We

by Fran Hoepfner

© Disney/Pixar

© Disney/Pixar

I didn’t go to college to scoop ice cream, but lo and behold, not three months after graduating magna cum laude, there I was behind a serving counter. For nearly two years, I supported myself by scooping ice cream. I was full-time, making some change above minimum wage, desperately staying afloat by surviving paycheck to paycheck. I had graduated with aspirations of becoming a playwright or a comedian. I was neither. A man pointed at me at a comedy show we both attended and shouted: “Ice cream girl!”

That was me.

My peers were doing better. They were consultants and educators and researchers. They were in law school. They were nuclear engineers. And when we’d gather for reunions, be it around the holidays or Thanksgiving or when they’d pass through my city, I’d keep my mouth shut. When they asked about work, I’d talk about the minimal freelance I was doing on the side.

“Don’t you, like, work at an ice cream place?” people would ask.

“Oh yeah,” I would answer, as if I had forgotten, and then I wouldn’t say any more. To myself, I’d repeat, your job does not define you, your job does not define you until I believed it.

Ratatouille (2007) is a film about opposites: a rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) who can cook and a cook named Linguini (Lou Romano) who cannot. In a series of mix-ups (hey, it’s a Pixar film), the two make an unlikely duo who team up to find a place in a fast-paced Parisian kitchen at a restaurant called Gusteau’s. Both are hiding: Remy, from his family and friends, whose legacy he fears, and Linguini, from his heritage and where he really belongs in the world. Together: they are a brilliant cook. Together: they could be anyone.

Remy’s curse in this film is not that he is a rat but that he is so swayed by his love of food. He has to cook. It’s what he’s meant to do. Everything about it brings him tremendous joy. Scooping ice cream did not bring me joy, necessarily, but it helped that I loved ice cream. I’ve nursed a significant sweet tooth since a young age. It could be worse, I’d remind myself, I could be in a food job with a food I hated. People used to ask me if I grew sick of ice cream.

“When I finally stop loving ice cream, there will be a much bigger problem,” I’d tell them.

*

This is what it’s like to work in the service industry: you’re on your feet, you’re standing, you’re sweating, you’re sticky, you’re always talking and you’re always dehydrated. When the shop is closed, you’re not done. You stay late and you clean for at least an hour. You wipe everything down and you do dishes and you mop. You lock up the shop. You go to bed. It starts all over again the next day. You have no weekends. Every day might as well be the same day.

“We are artists, pirates. More than cooks are we,” Collette (Janeane Garofalo), another chef in the kitchen, explains to Linguini, and it’s true. “Horst has done time,” she explains, pointing out other members of the kitchen staff. “Larousse ran guns for the Resistance.”

No one who works in food service is just a waitress, just a barista. It’s dismissive and silly to say they’re all failed English majors, because they’re not that either. They’re musicians and actors; they’re activists and volunteers; they’re mothers and fathers. For every college student trying to make an extra buck over the summer, there’s someone with a culinary degree asking you to sample their homemade strawberry peppermint ice cream.

It wasn’t that I became one of them; I was always one of them. But I acclimated to the culture. We’d get out at 1am and hop on bicycles to a local bar or coffee shop and talk about the night’s work. We had something to say about every flavor. We talked about customers. It became the language I was most fluent in.

At Thanksgiving, I would see my high school friends and we’d talk about our lives and our work. I kept quiet, for the most part, interjecting every now and then to talk about my comedy. One of our friends came a little later to the bar. “What’d I miss?” he asked, taking a seat across from me.

“Fran’s talking about comedy,” someone said. “She’s a famous comedian now.”

“Famous comedian?” this guy laughed. “Won’t that get in the way of her professional ice cream scooping?”

I left. I stood up and I grabbed my purse. “I have to go,” I said briskly.

*

In my first viewing of Ratatouille, all I could see was Paris. This was the city, I thought, where you go to become a writer or an artist or a cook. In Paris, everyone is creative and no one struggles. It’s all cobblestones and arches, cheese and bread. Film does not help this image of Paris. On screen, Paris is a fantasy world.

I saw Ratatouille in theaters the year it came out. I was 16. I am very much a child of the Pixar generation. I don’t think I’ve missed a single one in theaters and I understand each film they produce to be something of an experience, something so much more than just a movie. At the age of 16, I had not yet been out of the country. I hadn’t done anything. I just liked Pixar movies.

I wouldn’t go to Paris for another year, but I would watch Ratatouille in the theater as a high school student and I would get goosebumps up and down my arms. To me, this was Paris; lights and food and creativity. It was a sneering sense of humor and high culture. I was taking high school French and I was understanding bits and pieces of words in the film. I laughed at the in-jokes: the couple all in black, fighting and screaming, and in the next scene, kissing. I knew, or at least I thought I knew, what it was trying to say about the city of Paris: anything could happen there. You could be anyone. You could do anything.

*

When I say I supported myself on my ice cream paycheck for two years, I’m stretching the truth. I was self-sufficient with a full-time job for those final six months. I was a 9-5er just like everyone else. I was finally in my industry, writing and doing comedy, and still there I was every weekend, scooping ice cream.

I wasn’t actively keeping my ice cream job a secret from my new coworkers, but I also wasn’t forthcoming. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of having the job: I was ashamed of how much I liked it. It was startling that working my dream job didn’t do it for me, at least not right away. I still needed the standing and the sweating. I needed ice cream glued to the length of my forearm and having to ask if someone wanted hot fudge on that.

When I inevitably did quit my ice cream job—close to the two year mark, if only because for the first time since graduating, I desperately wanted a weekend to myself—it was a huge fanfare. I asked everyone I knew to come see me scoop on my last day. I wanted to be recognized and to be seen at that job.

“It’s like you’re graduating,” someone told me as I served them some passionfruit frozen yogurt, “magna cream laude.”

I’ve been out of the service industry for nearly three months now. The weekends are good. I get more sleep. I can feel my upper body strength waning without the constant churning motion, but it’ll be all right. I still go out for ice cream all the time. I love it. I never got sick of it. At the end of Ratatouille, food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) is ultimately won over by his love of food. We eat for a reason. For Ego, it’s a memory of his mother. It’s a comfort. I have an emotional connection—mostly positive—with every single flavor I ever scooped. I can still name them all.

I took some friends from out of town to brunch recently, and watched a waitress weave in and out of tables, carrying plates up her arm.

“I should get a waitressing job,” I mused aloud. “I’m sick of my weekends.”

“You must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from,” Chef Gusteau explains to Remy. A week after I left my job in food service, I got an ice cream tattoo. I define my own limits. It’s who I am


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.


Our Lives Might Have Been So Much Different

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Unrequited love—especially the kind that is somehow incomplete, or unsatisfied—is the most romantic kind of passion there is, probably by very virtue of its repression. Although they sit beside each other on a bench overlooking the Queensboro Bridge in the first hesitant flickering of dawn, Alvy Singer and Annie Hall part ways in Woody Allen’s classic conclusion; through a New York diner window, framed by ketchup dispensers, we watch them walk off in different directions, with a promise to remain friends. Ennis Delmar and Jack Twist are split apart by fear and sexual prejudice in the Western wilds of Brokeback Mountain; but somehow their story is all the more affecting because of the sheer impossibility of their love. We want these gentle cowboys to be together, almost as badly as they want it themselves—and yet it cannot be. Joel and Clementine erase each other from their respective memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then begin dating a second time without realizing it’s a repeat affair. Realizing they will most likely break up, as their relationship is rife with the same old problems, they still choose to fall in love all over again. It doesn’t matter that it won’t work out—it’s worth it, anyway. Best of all, they get to keep the memories, joyous and painful and everything in between. Casablanca, of course, wouldn’t be the same if Rick and Ilsa ran away together in the end. These two are brave for realizing there are greater forces at work than their own fancies—duty, loyalty, and logic, those persistent enemies of romance.

Most of these couples split not because they want to, or don’t love each other: they simply don’t work well together. It’s too bad, yet when a thing remains unfinished, there’s still hope; anything could happen. This freedom is the best part about being alive, despite the crippling responsibility it forces us to shoulder. Perhaps these films are better because the couples break up. It’s just as interesting to think about the future lives of these characters apart. Will they ever fall in love again? Will they bump into one another thirty years from now, when they’re married to other people? What will that accomplish?

It’s rare that silver screen characters get a second chance with each other after parting ways, but in Before Sunset—Richard Linklater’s dazzlingly clever and sentimental follow-up to Before Sunrise—lovers Jesse and Celine get another shot. It’s apparent how gravely the director’s mind has matured in the nine-year interlude between the two films. Naturally, his actors aged with their scripts; Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke aren’t quite as good-looking this time around. Both are skinnier and more angular, considerably less sensual and fresh-faced. But growing older has its perks: they’re both a lot more interesting to watch in the trilogy’s intermediate installment. “I used to be healthier, but I was wracked with insecurity,” Hawke’s character explains. “Now my problems are deeper, but I’m more equipped to handle them.”

Before Sunrise tails a pair of strangers who meet on a train and spend an unforgettable day and night together in Vienna. Though they haphazardly arrange to meet up for a second time six months later, circumstances intervene and it never happens. Before Sunset opens a full nine years later (art imitating life), when Jesse and Celine finally meet again in Paris, amidst the cozy confines of the city’s finest bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. It’s Jesse’s last stop on a whirlwind European book tour (for the book he wrote about their Viennese night together). The old friends stroll through the city for an hour or two before Jesse has to catch a flight back home.

Paris may be the city of light and love, but here it’s merely the city of unrequited affections. We aren’t privy to clichéd landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe; instead, we glimpse tucked-away snatches of Paris past the lovers’ heads or through the crook of their arms. Aside from a few establishing shots, the camera meanders the city streets with our heroes nailed reliably in the frame. When someone speaks French, there are no subtitles. Like Jesse, we are tourists, discovering Paris as we go. To condescending Celine’s chagrin, when Jesse makes her jump on a corny boat tour down the Seine, it becomes evident that spending time with a tourist can remind you how beautiful your city really is.

The last time we saw these characters, Jesse was a greasy-haired cynic who didn’t believe in magic or psychics, and Celine was the believer and Botticelli-haired romantic. Nine years later, Celine has become distrustful and bitter, suspecting the world is going to shit—while Jesse is newly idealistic, convinced the world is getting better. Finding nothing but emptiness along the way, Jesse has put all his eager hopes and dreams into this reencounter with Celine. This isn’t surprising, as men are the obvious romantics of our species, while women are mostly far more practical. It’s probably because we’ve had to be. Men have an easier time fooling around, breaking hearts and getting away with it; while across the ages, women are often rendered powerless, having to figure out how to survive with children to feed. This didn’t always involve following our hearts, but rather our business instincts.

Both Jesse and Celine are secretly regretful they weren’t able to extend their connection past a one-night stand. They represent for one another something we all can understand: the possibility of what might have been. Before Sunset reeks of that nagging potential for something better. Their connection can be classified as “unrequited,” not in the sense that it’s unreciprocated—though neither of them know how much the other cares—but in the sense that it’s unfinished.

The monster of Jaws is most frightening out of sight, below the water, before we ever see his empty eyes or gnashing teeth. Our imaginations conjure worse spectacle than any special effects or animatronics could muster. Similarly, the repressed tenderness between these two seems endlessly ideal, because their fantasies of one another are more rampant with possibility than any reality is kind enough to allow for. What the characters realize, in a self-reflective twist that saves Before Sunset from humdrum rom-com territory, is that the appeal they see in one another might be illusory. If their coupling were to become concrete, they fear, it could quickly lose its charm. Should they really get to know each other, spend more than a brief period of time walking around a foreign city, the mystery would likely be lost. They’d grow sick of one another’s habits and failings.

Before Sunrise spoke of hopeful 20’s philosophies, in which the characters were young and believed there would be many people they’d connect with in their lifetimes. Before Sunsetreveals the sobering knowledge of our 30’s: that special connections happen only a handful of times. And we can screw those up pretty badly. What makes the film’s conclusion bittersweet is Jesse’s son; Celine could easily dump her Parisian boyfriend and Jesse could ditch his wife—but he doesn’t want to leave his kid. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to abandon obligation to follow reckless urges. If Celine and Jesse were to finally give in to their niggling instincts and be together, the romance of Sunset would go up in smoke. Unrequited love is the most romantic—not the most fulfilling, mind you—but the most romantic. When love is satisfied, there’s scant room for any dreadful, exquisite yearning. Infinite options dwindle and fade, as one particular path stretches out before your paired-up feet. Celine and Jesse agree they never feel more alive than when they are desiring something more than basic survival needs, whether it be a new pair of shoes or intimacy with another person. Much of the fun of being in love is the anticipation, the never-quite-getting-enough. If we’re satiated… then what? Well, we get the quiet desperation of the trilogy’s brilliant and brutal final installment Before Midnight, in which the couple has chosen to be together, the magic is gone, and the inevitable flood of resentment and jealousy has leaked in through the cracks. They love each other, and they despise each other.

“Our lives might’ve been so much different,” Jesse tells Celine in Sunset, referring to what might have been if they’d met up six months later in Vienna as originally agreed upon. Celine is doubtful that their pairing would have lasted, but how often do you find someone who really listens to you, as Jesse does with Celine? Someone who excites you not only physically—but intellectually, psychologically, soulfully? It may only happen once.

There’s a reason most people have “the one who got away”—and why that memory is usually pleasant, rather than painful, though it’s perhaps best left undisturbed. Maybe we don’t wantto fulfill romantic fantasies, ultimately—we would rather settle for responsible companionship, with far less risk involved. Jesse and Celine aren’t quite willing to settle, though. In “Bird on a Wire,” Leonard Cohen sings: “I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch/ He said to me, ‘You must not ask for so much’/ And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door/ She cried to me, ‘Hey, why not ask for more?’” Who is right? Are we greedy, in wanting to scoop up as much happiness as our grubby little hands can carry? Or are we selling ourselves short, in our humble attempts to make the best of what little we have?


Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is an arts journalist and cultural critic. She has a B.A. in film history from Bard College and an M.A. in arts journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She has previously written for Bomb Magazine, IndieWire, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Post and Courier.


Undeniably Part Cat

by Brooke Sonenreich

In October of 1999, my sister picked up an abandoned black kitten crying beneath the fern planters in front of our house. Despite his angelic disposition, I think there was always a festering darkness in Spooky. I imagined what it must have been like to come into consciousness alone only days before Halloween, when it was common to greet masked neighbors with doorways full of cobwebs, disorienting strobe lights, and gutted pumpkins with human-like features. Eventually the doom and gloom caught up with him, and we even ended up changing his name from Spooky to Lucifer post-transformation from kitten to neighborhood rogue. He had a knack for loving us and leaving us for midnight mangrove adventures and treacherous balancing acts on the fences of swampy South Miami. Nothing less than a professional, by four he was conning neighbors into giving him blue crab and fish scraps, attacking those who refused and then strutting away to test the shock collars on their once passive pups. He became violent if we hesitated to let him out, demanding to use the outdoors as a way to project his curiosities and fears - if only just to wrestle with them on the roofs of Spanish style mansions or on the tops of old southern slash pine trees.

I have always coveted his perspective of Miami. When my mother sternly resisted our pleas to play in the flooded streets after long drawn out hurricanes, Lucifer enjoyed un-chaperoned, unchallenged potential. He scaled fallen, electrocuted branches and inspected stagnant pools that had become graveyards for defenseless rodents. It was a version of Miami I wished to venture alone into, too, a city throttled and threatened by yet another close call at finally being digested by the Atlantic.

There was something about watching Une vie de chat (2010) that reaffirmed this envy. The hand-drawn animated film, directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, is set above and below the zinc-covered rooftops of Paris and shown predominantly from the perspective of Dino, a rambunctious black cat. The way Dino tells his story makes me believe that every indoor-outdoor cat shares a similar attraction to Hitchcockian thrill and adventure and, most of all, a perspective on the world that is hard for any human explorer to even begin to grasp.

In juxtaposition to my own experiences in Paris—perusing through the Centre Pompidou alongside my eccentric flatmates, eating baguettes below the Eiffel Tower with my mother, discovering classical musicians performing in the corridors of the Metro—Dino covers far more ground. His adventures are substantially motivated by his friendship with Nico, a jewel thief who lives down the block from Zoé, Dino’s daytime companion. When Dino becomes bored of the comforts of domesticity—a bowl of milk and an early morning cuddle—he leaps out the window to accompany Nico through a nightlife filled with adrenaline-fueled thievery.

This duality is a vital aspect of how differently Dino experiences Paris from us civilians. Too fatigued from his nights of climbing up gutters and hopping from treetop to rooftop, Dino rests while tourists line up to take pictures near the Trocadéro and locals light their cigarettes amongst the art along the Canal Saint-Martin. Instead, Dino experiences Paris when the backpackers have all retreated to their hostels, when the streets are almost vacant. Rather than traveling by escalator through the Pompidou’s hamster tube of an entrance to see the Paris skyline from inside of the deconstructed style museum, Dino sees the sparkling city with his heart pumping rapidly from a rooftop near the flat he just helped rob. Through Dino’s gaze, Paris belongs to him, much like a child viewing a jungle gym assembled in their parents’ backyard.

Often times I’ve felt like Zoé in the beginning of the film. The way Lucifer was perceived in my neighborhood was identical to the way Dino is profiled by Zoé’s elderly neighbor: “a menace,” wreaking havoc. Much like Zoé, being recurrently confined to an apartment—a result of her widowed, workaholic mother on the police force—these restrictions permitted me to see an inkling of my cat’s duality. I was limited to looking at him behind bedroom, French door, and car windows, but continually guessing what he was getting up to after disappearing into the darkness of someone else’s backyard.

Near the end of the film, Zoé gathers up the courage to follow Dino—which leads to being kidnapped by her father’s killer, Victor Costa, and Claudine, her double-crossing au pair. Dino leads Nico to the gangster’s basement by following the scent of the stomach-churning perfume Claudine excessively sprays around her fellow mobsters. The reclaiming of Zoé leads to a mesmerizing chase through the Paris Zoo, up above the River Seine, and finally towards the Notre-Dame cathedral.

Eventually, I gained the courage Zoé attained when she finally decided to follow Dino on one of his late night adventures. Fueled partly by jealousy but mostly by admiration, I started channeling Lucifer, sneaking out of windows at fourteen years old to explore South Beach and Coconut Grove, anchoring boats in the middle of the marshes just to be closer to the downtown skyline, and constantly escaping to the overgrown fields of Coral Gable’s secret dog park. It was nothing compared to the life that Lucifer likely led, of course, but he inspired my adventures nonetheless.

I imagine there will always be a green cat balancing on my back whispering, “If you were Lucifer you would have really seen Miami,” or “If you were Dino you could have scaled more.” The intuitive, ostensibly fearless indoor-outdoor cat never lets a night go by without exploring the ins and outs of side streets, courtyards, and alleyways. I often lay awake in bed wondering what Lucifer saw on his midnight walks down Bella Vista, the street lined with red mangroves older than the village of houses surrounding them. Were there mangrove inhabitants cooped up in hammocks above the low tide who Lucifer recognized as acquaintances? Did my furry friend know more about the neighborhood goings-on from his post on top of the ever-blooming Bottle Brush tree?

The only truth Zoé’s devious au pair Claudine speaks during the film comes when she points to Zoé’s collection of hunted dead lizards from Dino and says, “It’s not what other girls play with, but so what? Maybe you’re part cat.” Perhaps all I need in order to truly and fearlessly explore is a bit of inspiration from my own rambunctious black cat, undeniably still a part of me.


Brooke Sonenreich is a graduate student in the Critical Studies in Film/Video/Digital Imaging program at Georgia State University. In her free time she runs Esoteric, a feminist zine she started with a few friends she used to sling ice cream with.


This Isn’t the Old Mr. Sunshine

by Taylor Hine

I. When We Think of Paris

When we think of Paris, we think of a place where our lives come together like a romance. Paris is a place of fresh baguettes, rain on cobblestone streets, Brigitte Bardot. Of good coffee and better wine. Some go to Paris for bragging rights; others venture there to find an excuse to fall in love, to discover themselves. Paris is presented to us as an emotional necessity–as a place where we can flourish.

I’ve both loved and hated the idea that where we’re from shapes who we are. It’s an attractive concept—the possibility of choosing a new city to be molded by. Different cities contain different sorts of people and emulate various sets of values; whatever city I chose would, of course, change me for the better. All I had to do was pick the right one.

After leaving my small-town childhood home of Slidell, Louisiana, and returning to my birthplace of Denver, I fantasized in idle moments that I would go back and live in New Orleans, a city I had visited only a handful of times but thought about unremittingly: having an apartment in the Garden District, traveling to work by trolley, eating at the Café du Monde on Sunday mornings, soaking in the heat and the stifling humidity. One of my high school classmates earned a scholarship to Tulane, and I seethed jealously at her fake Southern accent: “I’m goin’ to N’awleans.” The place became more of a pipe dream than ever. I sincerely believed, like many others, that moving to a revered and beautiful city like New Orleans would make me more interesting.

People often move to a new place simply to assume a fresh perspective; it’s an easy decision for these types of people to make, because their concern is in the leaving, not the destination. In The Razor’s Edge (1984), Larry Darrell (Bill Murray) postpones his wedding to Isabel Bradley (Catherine Hicks) after returning home disillusioned from the First World War, opting instead to go to Paris to re-evaluate his life. He chooses Paris for practical reasons: it’s both far away from and more interesting than the Midwest. Isabel’s wealthy uncle Elliott Templeton (Denholm Elliott) assures her that he’ll look after Larry and show him a fine time, but Larry has other plans: “I need to think,” he tells Isabel with a smile, “and I’m not exactly an expert in that field.”

When we return to a place we love and miss, we often expect it to remain unchanged. My father and I took a trip back to Louisiana the summer I was sixteen, about three years after Hurricane Katrina. We walked through the French Quarter and stopped at Pat O’Brien’s, where he offered me my first drink. Afterward, we walked several blocks to his old office. We passed graffiti-tagged buildings with boarded-up windows and headed toward Slidell, disheartened by how empty the city felt.

Each time we turned a corner in our old neighborhood, my breath caught. It began to rain while the sun was out—a gentle, steady trickle. Our red brick single-level house, nestled in a cul-de-sac, was barely recognizable: two white pickup trucks were parked on the front lawn, a fence had gone up around the backyard, and the vinyl blinds were bent and broken. We drove silently to my old elementary school: clusters of houses with white vinyl siding and varicolored shutters had replaced the surrounding forest of towering slash pines. Three peach-colored trailers sat outside the school, functioning as extra classrooms.

II. (Not) Anything Other Than Myself

When what you once thought of as your ideal place–whether in memory or in daydreams–changes, it’s like waking up from a perfect dream and wishing you were still asleep. Isabel is horrified when she travels to Paris to see Larry: he has taken a manual labor job and lives in a slummy apartment. Although he’s satisfied, she can’t fathom why he’s turned down a job as a stockbroker back in the States, even after he explains to her that he doesn’t want to be surrounded by friends “who want a big house and a new car every year.” Her idea of Paris simply isn’t his. When Larry offers to marry Isabel and take care of her, Isabel rejects the idea of living this decidedly un-Parisian, un-glamorous life. Elliott tells her that she belongs in a place like his Paris mansion, though he needn’t have.

Isabel promptly returns home and marries Gray Maturin (James Keach), a longtime friend of the group, securing for herself the lifestyle she’s entitled to. When she tosses her wedding bouquet to her friend Sophie (Theresa Russell), who got pregnant out of wedlock, she’s both reassuring herself that she made the right choice in marrying Gray and reminding Sophie that her life could use some serious improvement. Although Isabel is a despicable character who thrives when other people are suffering, she has agency. From the start, she knows what she wants–initially, it’s a privileged life with Larry, and when that’s no longer an option, she finds what she wants somewhere else. She goes back to the Midwest out of necessity, and she and Gray go back to Paris later out of necessity after they lose their assets in the stock market crash; they take action, even if it means leaving their home.

When I got into a long-distance relationship, I welcomed the possibility of moving across the country. It was a good excuse to move back down south: to the humidity, to the food, to a smaller city than Denver–one that had scanty public transportation and was surrounded by one of the oldest mountain chains in the world. My boyfriend Kendon lived in a small town just outside of Asheville, and I adored it more each time I flew out to see him. When we were out together, Kendon would occasionally ask me which direction we were going while he was driving, or which turn he was supposed to take and when. “I’m testing you,” he’d say. “For when you live here.” This started early on in my visits, and I was secretly thrilled.

I was almost done with college when we decided that I would be the one to relocate. He found a house for us, a red brick single-level, and we moved in in the middle of winter. We spent the following months making the house ours: we replaced the futon in the living room with a couch, bought an area rug, dishes, and flatware. We had the brick painted an espresso brown.

For months preceding the moving date—fittingly, the day after New Year’s—I had reservations about moving in with him, largely brought on by my family and friends.

He should be moving here,” said my mother. “He shouldn’t be taking you away from your family.” What I didn’t admit to her was that I’d decided, years ago really, to move to North Carolina when the time came. I was looking for a different sort of independence than the one I thought I’d have in moving to New Orleans: I was going to discover a new city on my own, one without glitz and glamor and with plenty to love. I was going to make a home where almost no one knew me, and where no one expected me to be anything other than myself.

Sophie took a similar approach when she moved to Paris, though in a far worse way: she had already become a self-deprecating alcoholic before leaving the States. She wanted to escape other people’s judgments–not least Isabel’s–so she would surround herself with people who’d accept her as she was. She went to Paris searching for a particular feeling and only succeeded in falling into a deep hole she couldn’t climb out of; she let herself be eaten away by the city.

(My own worst fear was–and is–losing control of myself to a place, to a person, to anything.)

III. Cold Worlds, Dark Worlds

While discussing books of philosophy with a fellow coal miner in Paris, Larry decides to visit India. After reading so much about various forms of enlightenment, why not experience one for himself in a foreign place? And that’s the point of his journey: Why not?

What separates Larry’s journey to Paris from his trip to India is that instead of escaping a geographical place, he’s discovering more about the emotional and intellectual place he’s in. Although it’s unclear what exactly he learned while reading books and burning them for warmth atop a snow-covered mountain, the journey’s purpose in the first place was to learn something new about himself. He tested his endurance and found that he was capable of a lot more than he’d ever thought.

When Larry sees Sophie again after a period of years—during which her husband and child were killed in a drunk driving accident, and Isabel and Gray have essentially cut off all ties with her—he sees immediately that she is in dire need of saving. He buys her time from her pimp, who skulks behind her like a shadow into the smoky, dingy basement club he’s taken Isabel and Gray to. Sophie moved to Paris with a burden, unlike Larry. “I was trying to convince myself that I was a bad person. That I did deserve it,” she tells him. Paris is a place where she wants to lose control.

New Orleans was never a place where I wanted to lose myself. It was in that city, ironically, that I imagined I would become independent. I would finally be able to discover the place I’d dreamed about so much once I made it back. But after seeing how much the city had changed, I knew I couldn’t return. What I’d wanted was not to go back to the city itself; I wanted to go back in time.

When Sophie’s with Larry, she briefly escapes her dark world. She loses herself in him: she sobers up and happily waits for him to come home everyday. They change the walls of his apartment from a dingy beige to a bright white; they buy a canoe, paint it red, and row together down the Seine, laughing and smoking cigarettes; she brings him lunch at work; he takes her to the restaurant he took Isabel to when she first came to visit him, and Sophie adores it. They fall in love and create their own space in Paris. Sophie’s Paris, in particular, ceases to be her own version of hell, a place where she escapes her broken self-perception. It becomes a city of light and love for her, experienced with a clear conscience, free of guilt and self-loathing.

Isabel’s Paris, unlike Sophie’s, has always been a place in which she maintains control: she is married to Gray and living well-off while still harboring feelings for Larry, a man who has stayed, up to now, blessedly single. After Isabel convinces Sophie that she’ll only drag Larry down when she inevitably goes back to her old ways, she purposefully leaves her alone in the parlor with a bottle of ambrosia. It is an act of fear, cowardice, and control. If Sophie is out of the picture, Isabel believes, not only will she have done Larry a favor, but she can also continue to live contentedly.

After Sophie is found dead in the Seine with her throat cut open by a razor, Larry knows immediately that Isabel “got her to take the first drink.”

IV. A Pleasant Surprise

Even though Sophie lost herself in someone good like Larry, she never regained control of her life. She only succeeded in being lured back into her old ways. “I thought Sophie was my reward for trying to live a good life,” Larry tells Isabel. “Uh-uh. There is no payoff. Not now.”

Paris was a place Sophie thought could carry her through the darkest parts of herself. She thought she could rely on Larry, too, for awhile. What she and Larry didn’t realize is that neither places nor people can rescue us; we can only rescue ourselves, though most of us need help. The Paris Sophie inhabited reflected her state of mind: it was dark, dirty, and lonely.

“This is my home,” she tells Larry petulantly, drunk, while lying in her pimp’s lap. “I like it here.” Larry loses Sophie not only to herself, but also to her own private Paris.

Is Larry guilty of thinking he’s capable enough to save anyone other than himself? Maybe. But we can’t blame Larry for trying to help people who wanted it. We also can’t blame him for deciding to return home to America after Sophie’s death. Larry was able to conquer Paris in a way that Sophie could not: he made it his own and left without thinking twice about it. It was no longer home.

There are few sensations as gratifying as a pleasant surprise. Our life in this town is slow-paced, like driving the speed limit when everyone else is in a rush to get where they’re going. I was afraid that my mother would be right in her worries about me: that I would be bored here, that I belonged in a place that was big and glittering with opportunities. But what I’ve found here is better than that: it’s a place that I’ve discovered I’m suited to, a place that compels me everyday to adapt in some new way, to become better, without the fear of losing myself along the way.

I decided to belong here, and so I do.


Taylor Hine is a writer living in Asheville. She is a regular contributor to This Recording.


American Accent, Pixie Haircut: Instructions for a Translation of New York to Paris, via The Herald Tribune

by Arielle Greenberg

When out of the city, shoot at the country sun out the window of a Ford.

Return to the city, having killed a man.

More cigarette smoke in the face. Or less. Equal number of harbors at night. More carburetors.

Check your thumbed-mouth gesture in every mirror.

Have recreational sex. Sleep around. Talk openly about sleeping around.

Study Bogart.

Repeatedly ask for the definitions of the French slang and idioms. Note how all the figures of speech center around violence.

Tell her you hate the city; tell her you’re sick of the city.

When a stranger dies on the black & white street, nudge him with your shoe.

Mostly, lie around the tiny apartment decorated with cheap posters of Picasso and don’t go out.

Glide down the Champs all mirror-lit, the globe streetlamps aglow mysterious and at once.

Find a famous puffy novelist and shout press conference questions at him about the soul.

When shot at by the cops, jazz clarinet the melodrama down the street as far as you can go. Be followed by a girl in white pumps.

Go see a Western.

You want to be an action mystery thriller, but don’t stop talking about fear and Faulkner and fucking. Don’t answer any of your lover’s direct questions.

Look in the mirror again instead.


Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including Gurlesque. She lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.