Smiling, her eyes alive, French actress Catherine Deneuve stepped down graciously from a dark car on the Champs-Elysées. Already of a certain age, as the French elegantly describe it, her heart seemed to leap with the riotous white of a bouquet of roses offered by a suitor in the crowd. This was the official film of the 2012 Paris Olympic Games bid, and when Paris eventually lost to London, the film was blamed for being Old Hat.
Yet for an Anglo-Saxon, it mirrored both the romance of Arthurian poetry (la femme on a pedestal), and the Romantic period itself (love more heart than head), with a touch of 16th century French poétesse, Louise Labé, thrown in: “Kiss me; kiss; kiss me again” — the first line and title of her most famous sonnet.
Catherine Deneuve, the mysterious — the transgressive — whose controversial letter signed with 99 French women this week, criticised the #MeToo movement for “puritanism”. Well, she long ago entered my catalogue of extraordinary Gallic women, joining Simone de Beauvoir, of the “The Second Sex” — the title politically incorrect today — Françoise Giroud, co-founder of French newsweekly, L’Express, and Elisabeth Badinter, alongside Julia Kristeva, Simone Veil and later, Juliette Binoche.
Badinter’s book “XY: On Masculine Identity”, explored the possibility of non Rambo-type role models for men, which seemed to me far more relevant than the so-called Men’s Movement around US poet Robert Bly, urging that males paint themselves and run through the scrub, or sit nude and screaming on the couch, to reconnect with their animal side.
De Beauvoir’s opus felt like a line from John Irving, “If life is a forest, women are the trees”, because it put the words of a highly articulate humanist woman, on subjects like women and “The Mother”; women “In Love”; women and “Sexual Initiation”; “The Married Woman” and “Prostitutes and hetaeras”, in a way that educated men, too. And Françoise Giroud? Well, she trounced the achetypal tousled French intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy, in a best-selling series of dialogues called simply, “Men and Women”. In an interview to promote the book with the Paris correspondent of The Times, clearly in thrall to her, she cautioned against harbouring illusions. “Women can be as cold as ice,” she told him, “with barbed wire in their hearts”.
The French adjective for this all would be romanesque — novel-like or novelistic — but the common thread is the way women and men interact, a very French subject and pastime.
Anyone who has lived in Paris for any period, can vouch for la différence; or at least, this difference, in everyday life. It’s evident in the sense of public display and preening in the streets, a long promenade through which ranks as one of the peak experiences of modern urban life, as the Australian art critic Robert Hughes described it.
Also, the French are generally just more relaxed about the human body than Anglo-Americans — about its discrete veiling, or unveiling, depending on how you look at it. This is why the windows of Paris chemist shops can, well, set the ordinary male pulse to racing.
How to keep a lid on the rage one feels at the physical abuse of women? Which after all was the first preoccupation of the #MeToo movement. As the father of a girl still blissfully free of adult problems but showing the first signs of adolescence, one thinks of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring where the father, in a blind fury, shatters the bones of his daughter’s assailants like chickens against cave rocks. Better to say: those who commit rape or sexual assault should face judicial proceedings, as the former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar did this week and movie producer Harvey Weinstein surely must.
But it remains true that women in France are à priori less suspicious of men, French men more broadly interested in women. In the Anglo cultures, and especially in the litigious US, mutual resentment has reached such levels that a solitary man, we’re told, can be scared to share a lift with a woman and vice-versa — her because of sexual harassment, he because of a possible sexual harassment case. This is an awful situation for any society to be in, non?
Ms Deneuve ultimately symbolises the view that something of our better selves continues to reside in contact with the opposite sex. For seeing her letter in these terms, I’m sure I would have her respect. I hope that I would also have that of her opponents.