By Kelly Jean Cogswell
I meant to stalk Catherine Deneuve. I really did. She apparently lives at Place Saint Sulpice which is only a fifteen minute walk away. And it has plenty of benches for the lazy stalker, though you'd be advised to bring an umbrella, not so much for the rain but for the lurking pigeons.
Unfortunately, I've run out of time. I'd remember, then forget. Or have something else to do. Laundry doesn't wash itself. Groceries have to be bought. Paris streets demand to be walked, columns to be written. And in any event, just as I'm about to leave the country, she has begun to stalk me.
A couple of months ago she turned up in a dream. I've read stories of how she'd sued insulting journalists, and there was that time she sued the lesbian magazine Deneuve until they were forced to change their name to Curve. But in my dream she was quite nice.
She complimented me on my purple Wellies cast just for me in textured rubber, while I waxed eloquent about her pants made of cowhide that still had the hairs attached yet were nevertheless as supple and buttery as the finest Italian leather. They made an interesting contrast to her silky blouse that itself was composed of two or three green Indian prints.
Last night, Catherine appeared again, thinner than I remembered and perhaps angry I'd surfed past her Mississippi Mermaid, also starring that other great actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, who rose to fame in the New Wave of French cinema and then sank into playing less exalted versions of the same gangsters, cops and conmen.
I can't remember much of the dream except that I put my hand on the ribs between her breasts and felt her heart beating madly as a bird. It wasn't sexy so much as a direct means of communication erasing the usual celluloid between us.
The first time I remember seeing her was in a video of the Jacques Demy musical, Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It became my first favorite film. She was so strangely, untouchably beautiful. She sang and danced in the rain, not cheerfully, but while suffering in a way not at all American. That was around 1995. A few years later I saw the film 8 Women and was surprised at all the years she'd aged in between, until I remembered I saw the Umbrellas of Cherbourg long after it was made.
I still find her sexy. Maybe more than when she was young and terrifying. She still has that presence. She can still act. Seriously. I saw a character of hers once sink into a confusion of fear, self-pity, disgust, and somehow emerge with a wimpy determination. A tour de force that took a couple of seconds. She also has those transcendent moments where she puts forth the purely and nakedly beating heart that I felt between my fingers just last night.
Which is what really attracts me. How her communication is almost perfect, at least on the screen. I wish I could pull off the same in my metier. Especially when it comes to France. I had this idea when I came here that I'd sometimes write about what it was like to be an immigrant. The problem is that my immigrant-lite experience has created a growing sense of distance between worlds and words that has made it near impossible to describe.
You say tomato, I say tomate. You say potato, I say pomme de terre. And beyond the artifice of language, there's our personal lexicons. Paris, what does it mean to you? Champagne every day for breakfast? Cigarettes and Sartre for lunch? Bigots preventing those nice Muslim women from wearing their scarves? Communist medicine? And don't even start with that double-edged word, "American." Words conjure more words, images from god knows where. So much depends on shared context.
I should have known better. Already, when I moved from Kentucky to New York, there were regular letters and annual visits at first, then nothing. Not just because I came out as a lesbian (mother's translation: sinner ready to burn in hell), but because my life diverged further and further both from the worlds my family knew and even from the images they'd seen on the movie screen.
Every joke had to be explained, every little story became an epic because there were no reference points in common with their rural-rooted, suburban, church-going lives or with anybody's Mean Streets. I didn't know where to start. And ended with silence -- the flip side of all the shouting that dominates American politics now.
What's left but novels, films, and Catherine Deneuve? Self-contained, they build up context frame by frame, word by word until you feel the human heart beating underneath.