The French Have Paris, So Why Buy Hollywood?

Paris, Place St. Michel, two weeks ago. This exchange between a middle-aged American couple:

“Look, Jane, there’s Notre Dame!”

“Well, for heaven’s sake!”

Which is, when you think about it, exactly the point.

In Gallimard’s bookstore on the Boulevard Raspail, I picked up Marchands d’Art , a staccato, less-than-forthcoming memoir by Daniel Wildenstein of his family’s great art-dealing firm and his own life. In an early chapter, he cites the advice he was given as a boy by his grandfather Nathan, words to live by: Aimer la France. Visitez le Louvre. Good advice for visitors to Paris in l’an deux mille.

The second part’s a no-brainer, even at this time of year, when there are said to be as many as 150,000 Americans in Paris, and it is possible to spend an hour or so in the city-center arrondissements and hear as much English spoken as French.

The first is a bit more of a stretch. France may not have invented attitude, but it has certainly turned it into a fine art. Still, one should be prepared to forgive the French anything for having invented Paris. And for those fabulously sculpted vowels. To hear a Parisian of a certain sort pronounce ” scrupuleusement ” is worth enduring an economy-class transatlantic flight. How do they do that thing with their mouths? And in a fortnight, I never had a poorly dressed salad. Sounds trivial, I know, and I shudder to think what my many Hamptons well-wishers may make of it, but the singular marvel of French culture is its conviction that the sauce– la présentation –is the key to the dish.

In Paris, triumphalism’s in the air. You can smell the money. France is flying high right now: winners of the Euro 2000 cup in soccer; the economy doing well; President Chirac telling the rest of the world what to do.

Then there’s Vivendi.

Vivendi, Vivendi, Vivendi–another one of those deals I’m having trouble understanding. I hear the buzzwords, I dig the conceptual thinking, and yet, like everyone else, I tend to extrapolate from my own experience of the Internet, the way I deal with portals and so on, and I just can’t see it. I look at Vivendi chief executive Jean-Marie Messier’s smug face–the cover of Business Week was particularly to the point–and I can’t help thinking that the fates are sharpening their scissors for this one. Or does Mr. Messier know something? As a Grandes Écoles product and a former investment banker, the likelihood is that he knows nothing and is merely riding this by-now-wearying but still impressively sized bull of a market.

Why isn’t this just another example of that mysterious urge of moguls to own their own movie studios? Why should the French succeed in Cloud Cuckooland where the Japanese and the Italians have failed? If the French understand the movie business–globally, that is–why isn’t there a domestic French film industry worth a damn, one asks? Maybe it has something to do with son et lumière . And now, with Mike Ovitz having been added to the Seagram-Vivendi mix through his new alliance with Canal Plus, which everyone thinks is the most attractive part of the French side, the Hollywood relationships within the new enterprise (Universal having been run by Mr. Ovitz’s ex-CAA sidekick, Ron Meyer) become positively Byzantine, worthy of those at Versailles under Louis XIV as chronicled by Saint-Simon.

Globalization and the French temper make uneasy bedmates. They want, and yet they don’t want. EuroDisney is a big success, not least because it’s a day trip. But José Bove, the farmer who trashed McDonald’s, is also a hero. If you ask me, what the French ought to worry about on the globalization score isn’t Mickey or Big Mac, but new-fashioned American-style political correctness, which comes along for the ride the way other viruses ferment and circulate in the closed atmosphere of a jetliner.

Two examples come to mind, both from the Louvre, which is undoubtedly the greatest art machine in the world. In the new galleries there is an exhibition that had most of the French people I encountered agog, and for good aesthetic reason, at least. A perfectly chosen, wonderfully shown, laconically labeled display of pieces from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, work dating from the 7th century B.C. to the 19th century A.D. The exhibition is entitled Les Arts Premiers –literally, “The First Arts”–although this is the sort of work that in a pre-politically correct era would have been called “primitive”–as in Les Arts Primitifs . But ” primitif ” implies something that ” premier ” doesn’t, P.C.-wise, while ” premier ” implies something that literally isn’t true of this kind of art: There’s nothing “first” about it. Take the date of each piece and look elsewhere in the world, and you’ll find more sophisticated, finished, evolved artistic production. It’s like visiting the ethnographic museum in Mexico City: You marvel at the size of the stones the Aztecs were able to hump into place, and the accuracy of the jointure, and then you realize that at the same time, the spires of Gothic cathedrals were scratching the gray skies of northern Europe, and such sun as there was in those latitudes was streaming through wonders of stained glass.

On a placard near the entrance to Les Arts Premiers one reads, “Further, [this exhibition] is a witness to the fact that hierarchy no longer exists among the arts any more than it does among peoples.” Which, I suppose, is all one needs to know.

Then there’s Posséder et Détruire (“To Possess and to Destroy,”) an exhibition of great drawings and graphic media by the likes of Signorelli, Rembrandt, the Fontainbleau school, Michelangelo, Poussin, Delacroix and Gericault, etc., subsumed under a series of rubrics so idiotic they might have been written by Andrea Dworkin. “The Art of the West can speak of sex in only one mode,” declares the opening placard, with all the subtlety of a hurled gauntlet: “Violence.”

And it gets worse from there. I personally felt affronted to see works of art so fresh, vital, ingenious and sublime literally suffocating (assuming one read the labels the least bit seriously) under this load of arrant bullshit. And I wasn’t alone. One Frenchman with whom we dined, an editor and art historian of distinction, snorted and spat out a mouthful of quite decent Rully at the mere mention of Posséder et Détruire. As an American, who’s used to this thing, all one can do is cry, ” Prenez Garde !”

But you can’t let that sort of thing gnaw into the Paris experience. Which this time included one of the most challengingly delicious meals I’ve ever eaten, at Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant in the Rue Balzac, and one of the plus français concerts I’ve ever attended, by Michel Plasson and his Toulouse Orchestra: Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s La Mer , Ravel’s Boléro and his Piano Concerto in G, played with seductively frayed aggressiveness by Hélène Grimaud, the beautiful Wolf Girl. I made a start, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, on a marvelous novel by Michel Houellebecq, which is published in English under the title Atomised . I put a few hundred kilometers on the Eccos. Best of all, for an hour or so every day, I revisited old friends on the walls of the Louvre, seeing them with that intensity that comes with age and the awareness that the odds you may not meet again are shortening with every minute.

And I even had a moment of Proustian transport: In the course of a two-franc call of nature in the public loos near the Hôtel de Ville, there came upon me a recovered memory of the abrasive sheets one used the first time I saw Paris, in April of ’51.

Our last day, we lunched with young people, the son and daughter-in-law of a dear, dear friend in California. It was their first trip to Paris, and with sparkling eyes they spoke of staying up all night in a Left Bank jazz club and walking back through the tatters of night to their hotel, and we remembered how it had been exactly that way for us once upon a time (if you’re a certain age, there’s no way that at some point your ” Paris, je t’aime ” recollections won’t demand to be expressed in pidgin Hemingway or faux Chevalier or Piaf), and how Paris will always be that way for the young, long after all this post-structuralist crap is ashes under the Seine.

At which point, my heart was seized with the kind of warm glow that now-abstemious memory recalled used to be produced by a good wine. Plus ça change … , as they say, and thank God for that.