Many people, like me, have a special relationship with France. Constructed from books, films, pictures. Especially from the latter. In the light of the recent incidents on the streets of Paris, Nanterre, Marseille and elsewhere, the question arises: how do we reconcile the images of places, works of art, crumbs of memories kept under our eyelids with the images with which we have recently been bombarded by the media?
- France is no longer what it used to be, the French say. This is clear. You don't step into the same river twice. The Paris of 40 years ago is different from the same city of the 1990s and 2000s. However, as an average Francophile, who has been attracted, tamed and shaped by French culture and history, I have to ask myself: does sweet France, as the French themselves wrote about it, exist? And if it does, why are some of its citizens performing a theatre of violence and fire on its streets? When we visit Paris, pop into a Shakespeare and Company bookshop, stroll through Montmartre, are we not accidentally entering an open-air museum, a reserve maintained with our money so that we can visit it? After all, Paris is a movable feast, that is, one that appears in our lives when we are here, as Ernest Hemingway stated.
First came the paintings: impressionists, fauvists, cubists. Then, fictionalized biographies of artists closely embedded in 19th and early 20th century Paris. Descriptions of existential misery and complete saturation with their own and their friends' art. Reading the fictionalised biographies of artists by the journalist and writer Jean-Paul Crespelle provided entry to the finest salons in Europe: the museums. It also gently instilled a love of Paris. For where did Degas, Monet and Manet supposedly create, where did Pablo Picasso decide to live at all costs, where Juan Gris starved, Chagall skimped and Amadeo Modigliani did not count a penny (at least when it came to cocaine)....
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Then literature and film. As a child, Alexandre Dumas, Balzac, Hugo, Verne, then 20th century writers, poets, noveau roman... Hundreds of films: comedies, dramas, new-wave black and white film impressions. From everywhere came artistic images of France and Paris. For someone who watched "Breathless" in their youth, for them the Champs Élysées will never be an ordinary big-city avenue. For someone who has read the Proust cycle or even the first volume of 'Towards the Swan', the area around the Opéra Garnier, the church of St Magdalene, has a special context: history and decadence.