Paris, je t'aime
Clifford Irving, a novelist, has had a life that would be hard tobelieve in a novel--even one about a con man. Born in 1930, hebegan a relatively successful writing career in 1956. In 1971 hisnew book was declined by his publisher, and, desperate for awinner, he decided to invent an "authorized autobiography" ofHoward Hughes. He forged corroborative letters from Hughes so wellthat they
convinced his publisher, and Irving was given a contract. Aided byan associate named Susskind, he then continued to fake interviewswith Hughes, even with recordings. (Irving could imitate the Hughesvoice passably.) Hughes himself was not approached by the publisherbecause Irving said that the tycoon wanted the book to remainsecret while it was being prepared. The autobiography grew, a majormagazine made a bid for serial rights, and the book was scheduledfor publication in March 1972.
But some of the people involved in the project were suspicious. Ameeting was arranged via telephone in which Hughes would testifyabout the book. Someone who knew Hughes was present to verify thevoice. In that interview Hughes said that he had nothing to do withthe book, had never met Irving, and had never even heard of himuntil this present meeting was broached. Irving had to return asmuch of the publisher's money as he could. He was convicted offraud and served fourteen months in prison. (Susskind served fivemonths.) Subsequently Irving has lived in Colorado and haspublished an account of the above, The Hoax, which is also thetitle of the film made from it. He has gone on to publish morenovels.
Entertaining though The Hoax is, the film that I imagined before Isaw it was better. I saw Irving as a latter-day avatar of anowingrained American type, the confidence man, a type who evenantedates Melville's novel by that name. Melville and others haveused him in fiction, less as a comic invention than as a traditionof the American ethical landscape, the easy confusion of new-worldopportunity with new-world opportunism. I had thought that, of allpeople, a professional novelist like Irving would be aware of hisforebears and would quite consciously enjoy stepping into oneavenue of American culture, almost proud of his historical weight.And the end of the story would be a sacrifice delivered nobly aspart of his historical role.
But none of this is in the film. Worse, the screenplay by WilliamWheeler does not provide any character pattern at all. Irving,played by Richard Gere, dejected by his publisher's refusal of hisnovel, is simply struck with the Hughes idea. Not a moment is givento the crisis in a published writer who is reaching a decision tofake a book. Throughout that phony book he is simply a busyworkman, faking recorded interviews and forging letters, cooking uphis intimacy with Hughes. Never is there a tinge of consciousnessin him about his ethical situation: he just wants to slick up hisfraud successfully.
This portion of the film, its largest part, plus the concludingHughes telephone quashing of the project, has a special interestfor me. Twenty years before the Irving episode, when I was aneditor in book publishing, my firm commissioned a biography ofHughes. The author--call him Johnson--had spent three weeks livingwith Hughes in the latter's palatial Las Vegas hotel suite, hadinterviewed him extensively, had been given a free hand by Hughes,and had subsequently published a series of vivid articles aboutHughes in a national magazine. I met with Johnson and learned thathe had Hughes material that he did not use in his magazine series,and I got his agreement to work all the material, from the seriesand his files, into a book for us. He signed a contract to deliverthe manuscript in sections on agreed-upon dates, with a portion ofthe advance paid on each delivery of a section. The first partarrived on time and was paid for. The due date for the second partwas missed. I located Johnson, and he said that he didn't want totalk on the phone. When we met, he told me that Hughes had heardabout this project and didn't want it to proceed. No reason given,no appeal possible. There was no point in my firm's appealing:Johnson simply would not go ahead. He returned his advance and leftme feeling--once again--that I dwelled in a world ruled byinvisible forces.
Twenty years later, Irving went ahead with his own biographicalproject for months without interference from Hughes. (PresumablyIrving must have consulted, among other sources, Johnson's magazinearticles.) It seems incredible that a man with Hughes's power andconnections could not have known that the spurious book was inprogress. Why did he let it proceed as far as it did? Maybe it wascat-and-mouse. Maybe it amused him to let them all play their littlegame until he chose to smash it. (Vaguely the phantom of the WhiteHouse flits by near the end: years earlier, Hughes had lent somemoney to Nixon's brother Donald, and possibly the new book wouldhave trumpeted this fact.) I still don't really understand why theman who stopped Johnson allowed Irving to proceed.
As Clifford Irving, Gere continues to search out energies andcrannies in himself that will keep him from petrifying into anaging star. He gives the role some dash, but no more depth than thescript allows. Alfred Molina, a gifted actor, is miscast asSusskind, a nervous man who is worried more about his marriage thanabout the fraud he is abetting. Of course it is good for actors to"stretch," to try roles outside their past. But the result oughtnot to look like stretching. (See Albert Finney in Rich in Love.)
The director, Lasse Hallstrom, is a Swede who first came to wideattention with the lyrical My Life as a Dog (1985). He was broughtto Hollywood and became a different, though sometimes effective,director (The Cider House Rules). In The Hoax, however, aided byhis editor, Andrew Mondshein, he seems to be striving for absoluteAmerican-film citizenship. Gone is the earlier Hallstrom subtlety:this story is snipped back and forth in time modishly, andindividual scenes are rarely left unfussy. Still, the pictureholds.
Irving, who continues to write novels, has said in a Village Voiceinterview that he enjoyed a lot of the picture, but "telling mystory as it really happened would be a little more complex than alot of directors and Hollywood would want to deal with." Bingo!There's the classic stylish crook of history, a man who wants hisstory told properly.
Thank the cinema gods for Paris. No matter what happens to all theother cities that have spawned innumerable films--New York, London,and Rome high among them--let them all cinematically wither and theParis tradition will still fructify. My idea of punishment for anasty criminal would be to sentence him to count all the films, byFrenchmen and others, made in and savoring of Paris.
Another one now? What a soft surprise. One small difference inParis, je t'aime is certainly not its title but its shape. It is athrowback to such 1960s films as Six in Paris. This new one, too,is an anthology, carried even further in numbers than itspredecessor. It has eighteen episodes in its two hours, done bytwenty directors (an international group) and by squads of writersand cinematographers. The result is pretty much what would beexpected, what in fact we basically want--some of the episodes arebetter than others. The real pleasure is in having a film that islike a box of assorted chocolates: you have the power to approve ornot as you move through the variety, even though the bits arepicked for you.
Each episode is set in a different part of Paris and intends tobring out the neighborhood's character. This doesn't always happen;many of the pieces could be set in other quarters. But at least theplan allows us to see a lot of known and lesser-known Paris. Someof the pieces are brief one-act plays; some are like breaths ofmood or irony. The piece by Isabel Coixet, a Catalan, which is setin the Bastille district for no intrinsic reason, has a twist thatkeeps a husband from leaving his wife. Loin du 16eme, written anddirected by the Brazilian Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas,consists simply of a juxtaposition in which two different districtsplay a part.
One reward of this anthology is that it gave me the chance to admiretwo Americans whose long works have generally left me numb. LeMarais, written and directed by Gus Van Sant, is a delicate draftof the beginning of a gay relationship. Tuileries, set in the Metrostop of that name, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, ismore enjoyable than anything of theirs except Fargo.
Not to forget, there are some French directors, too. One of them,Sylvain Choumet, provides in Tour Eiffel an episode with mimes,complete with clown makeup and costumes. If this picture reallywere a box of chocolates, we would need to take only one nibble ofthis one. Well, anyway, it's brief.
Those cinema gods are never off-duty. Here comes another film set inParis, suffering a jot from being so close to the above, because attimes it seems like an extension of one of those episodes. PoisonFriends, written and directed by Emmanuel Bourdieu, is his secondfilm and has a slight whiff of revenge. It centers on three youngmen who are students. One of them, as is often the case in suchgroups, is the intellectual leader. In his insidious, bright,mocking style, he is endeavoring to turn his pals into intellectualnihilists. His favorite tag is the Karl Kraus line, quoted looselyhere: "Who are the writers? Only those who are too weak not towrite."
The student chatter, including some with women friends of course, isin that vein that pretends to be offhand though it is not. It iskept listenable--and watchable--because Bourdieu uses his knowledgeof these people with winning ease. The story's conclusion verges onthe grim, and it underscores Bourdieu's presumable theme: studentlife and talk are the last real vacations in many lives. But to thepoint of revenge, Bourdieu gets considerable help from ThibaultVincon, whose substantiated arrogance holds the film together andcreates that leading character. If that character really is or was aman whom Bourdieu adored/resented, he has met his come-downance.