Monday, June 8, 2015

Frumping in France with Friends

Previous: A Poor Connoisseur in Cannes

It was bad enough being poor, but it was horrible also feeling frumpy in Cannes. 

My friends kept telling me it was fine to walk the red carpet in my wrinkled 1960s orange flowered dress that had a tear in the back seam. They thought my other dress would also be all right, even though it was a severe grey and looked like it could have been a costume contender for Mädchen in Uniform. Well, maybe that white dress that I bought for €12 in Paris would’ve been okay, except the skirt was a bit see-through and I only happened to have dark underwear.

Six days after the festival began, my luggage still hadn’t arrived from London. It had been sent by a friend through Voovit, a luggage forwarding company that made no guarantees but said that delivery was usually within two days. I chose Voovit because it was £50 versus £70 for another company that would’ve overnighted the suitcase. This is the problem with being poor. You try to save £20 so you can eat for another day and end up frumping around in the French Riviera for an extra five days.

I’m not a very girly girl. I get bored if I have to spend more than fifteen minutes on my hair and I am not interested in lingerie or jewelry or perfume or beauty products. I’m never in fashion. I refuse to spend more than $150 on a dress. But I do have a gift for glamming it up. It actually took me a long time to realize this; I took it for granted until relatively recently. But seriously, if you have champagne tastes and a beer budget, it’s rather imperative to have a bit of panache.

My style icon has always been Audrey Hepburn. At a bookstore not too long ago, I chanced upon Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, 5AM: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Birth of the Modern Woman where he made the following observation, “People who encountered Audrey’s Holly Golightly in 1961 experienced, for the very first time, a glamorous fantasy life of wild, kooky independence and sophisticated sexual freedom; best of all, it was a fantasy they could make real. Until Breakfast at Tiffany’s. glamorous women of the movies occupied strata available only to the mind-blowingly chic, satin-wrapped, ermine-lined ladies of the boulevard, whom no one but a true movie star could ever become. But Holly was different… Because she’s used style to overcome the restrictions of the class she was born into, Audrey’s Holly showed that glamour was available to anyone, no matter what their age, sex life, or social standing.”

I imbibed that lesson without really being conscious of it the first time I saw an Audrey Hepburn movie when I was about 13. While other girls my age were emulating Madonna, I was copying Audrey’s clipped accent, her correct posture, and quirky mannerisms. Which just made me seem weird and probably rather pretentious since no one understood why I was behaving that way. She was the embodiment of elegance and originality, the exact opposite of the obtuse conventionalism of my family. If you’ve ever wondered why sometimes it seems I have an unplaceable European accent that’s quasi-British, you’ve caught me reverting to my Audrey talk. Which I’ve lately learned to cover up by amping up my New Yawk accent. Much less embarrassing to explain. But I’m still always secretly channeling Audrey in a Givenchy gown, blithely munching on a donut while staring through the window of Tiffany’s at a world completely beyond her means.

At Cannes, I stared through the window at events beyond my means to participate in without formal clothing. Everyone else was dolled up for the premieres, the guys in black tie and women in gowns. At Cannes it’s impossible to be overdressed. But it was also a sea of conventional mass-produced finery. There were few people who were daring or imaginative or even inspirational in their dress. I only saw one guy wearing a waistcoat from the 1920s or 1930s, the kind with the lapels and low opening. And I didn’t see any woman wearing a killer dress that I totally coveted.

But who was I to be the fashion police? Here I was, Ms. Grumpy Frump who was holed up with a boring Turk in a hovel that smelled like cat piss.

After nearly a week sitting out of the glitz, I was feeling rather petulant. I wanted my fabulous gold sequined dress that a boyfriend had bought me for Christmas from one of my favorite stores.  I wanted my couture gown from the 1940s with the plunging slit down the front and bell sleeves decorated with rhinestones. 

My luggage had been sent to my previous couchsurfing host at the edge of Vieux Nice. I had only been there for three nights. So when I left, I taped a note on the door for the delivery to be made to the swank hotel next door, where I had made friends with Norberto, the Brazilian bellman. Of course, I was worried that the note might have fallen off the door or maybe the delivery would occur when Norberto wasn’t there, so every other day I was running back to Nice.

On Monday, I checked the door and hung around the hotel from 4:00 to 5:00. But the luggage didn’t arrive. Nor did it arrive on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I had been granted an invitation for the premiere of Jia Zhang-ke’s MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART and I was way excited to attend. I was blown away by Jia's previous film, A TOUCH OF SIN, which I thought was a shockingly honest account of the anger and emptiness that I had felt from the Chinese the only time I was there. My luggage was sure to arrive, I thought. It would have been exactly a week from the time when it was sent.  So I picked up the invitation in the morning and went back to Nice to intercept the delivery guy. I arrived at noon and spent the entire day camped out at the hotel to no avail.

I should’ve given away my ticket but I was too depressed. I got back to Cannes at around 8pm and didn’t want to go back to the hovel so I holed up at the Steak ‘n Shake and researched some random topics until nearly midnight. Walking back to the hovel, I passed a group of capoeira dancers in front of one of the seafood restaurants, the one where they serve a trough-sized cornucopia of oysters and clams and crawfish. Several people were gathered around with cameras. A man and a woman were standing on either side of the sidewalk, holding what looked to me like a limbo pole, chest high. As I tried to pass, a guy shouted something in French, grabbed my arm and roughly sat me down just as a skinny black guy went volleying past me and leapt over the pole. There was a collective shout and flashes from several cameras. The two people quickly dropped the pole and darted away. “Excuse me,” the man said as he brushed past me. It was John Turturro.

The next day, I did go see the Jia film at the reprise screening but I was done with Cannes. Everyone was leaving anyway and I only had two friends left, both of whom seemed really busy. One of them was my yachtie pal who didn’t respond when I offered him the Jia Zhang-ke ticket. He also didn’t respond when a grant I’d been waiting for finally arrived and I texted him to tell him I could pay him back the €40 I had borrowed. So I was surprised when a jumbled slew of texts arrived from him on Friday evening.  It turned out he had been texting me for two days.  There were six messages in random order, little notes of concern ending with, “Where are you…???” I texted him back that I had just received all of his messages at once. He responded, “I am on the boat 6-9, then screening, then party. Would be nice to see you before I leave tomorrow!”

I was feeling rather dejected after all those days waiting for luggage and laying low at the Steak ‘n Shake so I wouldn’t have to keep bumming drinks from my friends. But at least now that the grant had arrived, I was able to get away from the hovel into a decent hostel in Nice. And I had my first good meal of the entire trip, a homemade gnocchi at a place called Chez Charlotte that was completely unlike the bricks they call gnocchi in New York. It came with dessert and the two courses were an amazing deal at €15. I probably would have been in a better mood if I could’ve had a meal like that every day. I figured the least I could do was give my friend the money I owed him, so I bought him a small cake and headed to Cannes.

I got to the yacht just as before the sun was setting to find him holding court with his French boat-mate and a chic Asian woman from New York. It was a gorgeous day but I was still feeling rather low. I thought I would just give my friend his money and say goodbye, but he stuck a glass of rosé in my hand and sat me down at a table laden with fromage and foie gras and cornichons. Thank heavens for friends. I hadn’t even really seen him in over ten years, but he still knows me well enough to ply me with French cheese and not let me off the boat when I’m feeling like the frumpy runt of a litter that no one wants.

An entourage of people arrived. A dapper actor whom my friend regularly worked with. A French photographer who was employed by four companies to take celebrity pictures. An actress who brought artichokes and maracas. A flamboyant Italian producer who bust out a hyperbolic rendition of My Way, which seemed to be his personal anthem. A young Polish guy who works in social media. “I love Cannes,” the Pole sighed gazing at the hill with the clock tower, “At home no one understands if you don’t work steady job, 9-5, every day. Here, everyone understands.”

At 10:45, I was about to split to make it to the last train to Nice but my friend asked around and found a place for me to stay in Cannes. So I went with everyone to a beach party hosted by the Ukrainian Pavilion, where vodka bottles protruded like spikes from a giant iced punch bowl. I had a conversation with a Swedish actor who looked like Fatty Arbuckle and when I next turned around, everyone was dancing. By the end of the night, when we all got back to the boat for a last rosé, I had recovered my sense of humor enough to dub the yacht Disco Bateau. 

I spent my last days in Cannes hopping from one sofa to another. First with two denizens of Disco Bateau, then with a film programmer friend who was dashing around seeing five films a day.

I joined him for Youth by Paolo Sorrentino, which is about two aging pals at a spa resort in Switzerland, one a reserved British composer who insists on his retirement (Michael Caine) and the other a blustery American auteur trying to finish a screenplay (Harvey Keitel). Our opinions on the film were as divided as the critics; I liked Sorrentino’s stylized tongue-in-cheek absurdity but he thought the film was vacuous and heavy-handed. 

I also went to see Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs, a film about a family coming to terms with the death of the mother, a renowned war photographer played by Isabel Huppert. It was good but a bit too pat, like a made-for-TV drama. As I came out of Louder Than Bombs, I asked the guy sitting next to me what he thought. We were swapping opinions when we noticed that everyone was gathered around monitors watching the award ceremony that was happening elsewhere in the building.

It was an interesting moment of solidarity. Filmmakers, reviewers, cinephiles, security guards, baristas, everyone was watching the screen intently, imbued with a common feeling that something historic was happening. I had forgotten until that moment that Cannes is arguably the most important film festival in the world. The celebrity gawking that I found so eyeball-rolling is really just the surface layer of the festival’s cultural significance. When it was announced that Deepak won the Palme d’Or, there was a collective shout of surprise. Carol had been the frontrunner for the past week.

After the awards, I met my programmer friend downstairs of the Palais and he took me to Pizza Cresci for our last dinner in Cannes. The maitre d' sat us at a table next to a hunched older man with a small mustache and a silk cravat. I wondered who he was and whether he felt okay alone, drinking his beer, the quiet center of a room full of food and laughter. There I was, right next to him, not twenty inches away, and it felt like he was sort of like a mirror. I might channel Audrey Hepburn and look to everyone else like a small Asian woman, but really, I’m a 75-year-old gay New Yawk Jewish guy in disguise.

Which makes me think of Quentin Crisp. Not that he was a New Yawk Jew. But like Audrey, he's another style icon who navigated his way through the world with little more than his impeccable taste and incredible wit. I knew Quentin in his last years and like other people, I worried about how he survived . I always made it a point to invite him to anything I knew about where there was food. It was a win-win: everyone loved having a downtown celebrity among them dishing up bon mots and Quentin could have a huge meal. He himself called it "singing for his supper." 

Lately, I worry that I'll end up like Quentin, always a little hungry, living in a hovel without any beautiful things, and relying upon invitations to come eat. I wish I had his same easygoing aplomb. But then he played Queen Elizabeth in a fantastic film by Sally Potter, so maybe it's not always so bad relying upon the kindness of strangers. Somehow I've managed to exist a whole month in France doing the Blanche Dubois.  Frumpy as I've been.

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