La vie d’Adèle

Recipient of the Palme d’Or this year (decided by a jury chaired by Stephen Spielberg, no less) La Vie d’Adele Chapitres 1 et 2 is an intense love story, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.  If you get the chance to see it, you should.  It will be released in English speaking countries as Blue is the Warmest Colour.

The storyline is simple enough… high school girl (Adèle Exarchopoulos) meets art school girl (Léa Seydoux), they fall in love and go on to live an intense and ultimately turbulent relationship. In its simplest version, this scenario could have been summarised in a 20 minutes.  But Kechiche’s directorial gift is in depicting the texture of the interactions between people – the details conversations, the physicality of relationships.  In three hours of storytelling, there are very few slack moments.

There’s not a lot that I could say about the La Vie d’Adèle that hasn’t already been said in mainstream reviews. First of all, it’s not a lesbian film, it is indeed a love story. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has seen the film has praised its “realism”… and the depictions of various social milieux of modern France is particularly well-observed. Whether filming a spaghetti bolognaise dinner in the suburbs, a garden party of the Parisian intello-artistic in-crowd, or the petty politics of student life in a lycée, Kechiche and his actors deliver a deep, absorbing experience that feels “true” in the smallest details.

Ultimately, the magnificent performances by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are the reason that this film works so well. Adèle Exarchopoulos provides a compelling central character, whose naïvity and passionate love for Emma (Seydoux) drives this film forward. This is an impressive piece of cinema a headlong plunge into love and obsession that you won’t forget anytime soon.

The Walls of the Rive Gauche

My walk down to the shops on rue de Buci is particularly rich in street art and graffiti.  The latest images of Serge Gainsbourg on his house on rue de Verneuil are particularly striking. The nostalgie for the smoke-ridden image of M. Gainsbourg hangs thick over this part of the Left Bank, as if Paris still mourns the passing of the last true Frenchman, who rubbed out his last cigarette more than 20 years ago.

The Rive Gauche is not only home the ghosts of Gainsbourg, Sartre and Boris Vian. It also hosts both houses of France’s legislature and many government ministries, and is in many ways the inevitable centre of all French politics.  The Parti Socialiste has its offices nearby on rue Solférino, comfortably distant from the quartiers populaires.

Yet this part of town generally seems to display a shrugging indifference to current affairs: preferring fantasy over realpolitik, and heroic elegance over hard economics.

The Economist this week was critical of the current presidential campaign in France, describing the candidates as being in a “state of denial” about the economic situation and the size of the government debt. Perhaps that’s because most candidates look elsewhere for inspiration – rather like this girl?

In recent weeks, images of the Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon have been appearing on walls all over town – his drab green coat and his leftwards gaze recall images of Mao Tse-Tung… just as the current high poll ratings of Mélenchon seem to reflect a long-held nostalgie for the glory days of French communist and trotskyist politics.

Despite Mélenchon’s current wave of popularity, it’s difficult to tell whether his candidacy will ultimately make any difference in the race between Sarkozy and Hollande. And it’s highly doubtful that his policy ideas are implementable, let alone realistic in the current climate.  In the face of such uncertainty, the graffiti artists of the Left Bank, at least, prefer to watch the heavens…

Caterpillars and Carbon Monoxide

Against a background of the terrible and sad news from Toulouse, the March sunshine has brought with it a choking smog that has covered Paris for more than a week.   Some rain or wind would be welcome to blow away the air pollution that has passed the European safety level 28 times since the beginning of the year.

To try and escape to some fresh air, last weekend we caught the train to Fontainebleau, for a walk in the forest.  No sooner had we started into the forest, we were confronted by a swarm of one of the most dangerous animals in France, advancing down the path towards us…

The Pine Processionary Caterpillar is a remarkable animal. Springtime is the period during which these gregarious caterpillars descend from the nests they build in pine trees, and march across the forest floor in single file, looking for a hole in the ground in which to pupate.  These “processions” are spectacular – the one we saw in Fontainebleau was 3 metres long, and we estimated it contained more than 100 individual caterpillars.

Apparently, caution must be taken when approaching these caterpillars, because their spines can detach, and if inhaled or in contact with skin, can cause violent allergic reactions in humans and domestic pets.  We got close enough to take some photos, but not close enough to be poisoned.

Luckily, no other dangerous beasts crossed our path.  The forest was still wearing its brown winter coat, but signs of spring were everywhere – finches were nibbling on buds on trees, and magnolias were just beginning to burst into flower. We’re still waiting for a storm to blow away the pollution over Paris, but this walk in woods was a welcome respite.

 

A Weekend in Venice

This year’s winter escape was to Venice… where the cold was even more intense than Paris, but the sun shone all weekend, drowning the city in strong, diffuse light.

It was my first visit to city. One of the most striking qualities of the city is indeed its light… where the sky and lagoon meld into one, as if the city is riding on clouds, rather than sitting on the ocean.  In the view across the lagoon from the boatyard at Giudecca, the poles marking the shipping lanes slip quietly into the invisible horizon.

After the sun sank beneath the lagoon, we walked back across Venice, which had assumed the guise of some Expressionist horror film.  Emptied of tourists, small hidden squares awaited macabre intrigue involving Shylock or Donald Sutherland, and the dock of La Fenice theatre stood ready to receive phantom guests from the other side.

Somebody once wrote that Venice was the most beautiful city built by man.  Everybody should visit once, if they have the chance… by travelling in January, we missed the oppressive crowds of Carnavale and Summer, but there were still plenty of visitors, willing to part with their euros for a trip through the morning mist of the Grand Canal.

Wishing to save our money for food (and Venice provided some of the best seafood we’ve ever tasted), we contented ourselves with a short crossing by traghetto... the bare-bones gondolas that ferry passengers across the Grand Canal, charging just 50 cents a trip.

I cannot imagine that I will not be back.  For this first reconnaissance mission, we stuck to exploring the city, and travelling by vaporetto between the city’s islands. This was feast enough for us.  Next time, we might start digging into the art museums, or the churches, or the markets.

In Venice the light reached everywhere. It stabbed the heart of Palladio’s church of San Giorgio Maggiore, and glowed deep and green at night on the basin opposite St Mark’s Square.  When Thomas Mann’s composer Gustave von Aschenbach went searching for ideal beauty, it is no wonder that he found it in Venice.

Yes, we will be back.

Kicking Around

It’s been a long time between posts… work and travel have kept me a long way from the blog.  There’s not much point in trying to catch up, but here’s a very brief summary of what’s been happening since September:

We spent a late summer weekend in Dijon, looking at art and architecture, and buying mustard…

We accidentally bumped into the Fête des Vignes in Montmartre in October

I spend a few days with family and friends back in New Zealand, while on a rapid business trip.

Holly leapt out of the lily pond and watered my uncle’s lawn.

In the process, I circled the planet on Air New Zealand (CDG-LHR-LAX-AKL-HKG-LHR-CDG)

And since then, I’ve been back in Paris, in a blur of métro, boulot, dodo…

There’s another trip to New Zealand coming up soon, and I hope to get back to some more regular blogging !

 

Grazing in Switzerland

Summer holidays this year were spent in the Swiss Jura, just across the border from France.

We drove from Paris to Switzerland through some hidden corners of eastern France – like Bar-sur-Aube,

We camped by the Lac de Joux, at 1000 metres above sea level,

Where Camping Cat ruled the roost, and visited us around the campfire,

and visited the once Top Secret Fort de Pré-Giroud, built to defend Switzerland from Nazi invasion in WW2,

before climbing to the high meadows for view of Lake Geneva and the Alps…

Happy Summer, everyone!

Aron and Adb al Malik

It seems everyone ends up in Paris, eventually.  Aron Ottignon was raised in Auckland, New Zealand and I knew him when he was still a prodigious jazz pianist, playing professional gigs around town at an unusually young age.

Since then Aron’s played his way through the scenes in Sydney and London, released a solo album under the name Aronas, and now he’s ended up in Paris, playing with rapper Abd Al Malik.

As well as touring with Abd al Malik, Aron has appeared with the band on French TV shows such as Le Grand Journal, and earlier this year played at the Victoires de la Musique in Lille:

Aron was sneaky enough to film this very performance from his own perspective, on his iPhone…

And, if you’re quick, you can even see his iPhone in the live footage from France 4! :

Glimpses of Budapest

A weekend before a week of trade show madness… a chance to scrape the surface of a another European city… I quite liked what I saw. These are all the obvious tourist shots, I’ll have to go back sometime when I have more time.

The Danube, viewed from Gellérthégy hill

The Royal Palace in Buda

The Chain Bridge and the Országház

Országház

The New Camera

Shooting at Fontainebleau, earlier today…

A recent investment in a Canon 60D and a tripod will give me a chance to expose my rather rudimentary photography skills to public scrutiny. My trusty Canon Ixus 55 has provided sterling service for 5 years, and for a little 5 megapixel point-and-shoot, it did very well, travelling all around Europe, and beyond.

Entering back into the world of SLRs will be interesting – my last SLR (a Minolta 404si) was a film camera (remember film?). The Minolta accompanied me on my first adventures through northern Europe, and documented the early days of one million dollars. But picking up the 60D feels like I’m learning how to take photos, all over again.

Sigurdór gave me some good advice last year – “go manual from the start” – and so I’ve turned off most of the automatic functions on the 60D. This means having to think about aperture, speed and ISO all the time. It’s a tough discipline to learn, after several years just pointing a lens at a target and pressing the shutter button.  It’ll take a while to get used to it… but here are some of the first images:

The Grand Palais, Saturday night last week

Fire painting at the Palais de Tokyo

Forest flower, Fontainebleau

Château de Fontainebleau