Authors: Gilbert Adair
for Michael, Eva and Louis –
any other actors would have been impostors
The CinÃ©mathÃ¨que FranÃ§aise is located in the sixteenth arrondissement of Paris between the TrocadÃ©ro esplanade and the avenue Albert-de-Mun. The
monumentality of the Palais de Chaillot in which it's housed so impresses the cinephile visiting it for the first time that he rejoices in living in a country ready to accord such prestige to what tends elsewhere to be the least respected of the arts. Hence his disappointment when he discovers, on closer inspection, that the CinÃ©mathÃ¨que itself occupies no more than one small wing of the whole edifice, arrived at, almost furtively, by a basement entrance tucked away out of sight.
This entrance can be approached either from the esplanade, an enchanted plateau of lovers, guitarists, roller skaters, black souvenir vendors and tartan-frocked little girls chaperoned by their English or Portuguese nannies; or else along a curving garden path which,
parallel to the avenue Albert-de-Mun, affords one a glimpse, through illuminated shrubs, of the
Mount Fuji of the Eiffel Tower. Whatever the approach, one ends by descending a flight of steps to the CinÃ©mathÃ¨que's foyer, whose intimidating austerity is relieved by a permanent display of kinetoscopes,
, shadowboxes, magic lanterns and other naÃ¯ve and charming relics of the cinema's prehistory.
It used to happen that the garden would be invaded by cinephiles three times an evening, at six-thirty, eight-thirty and ten-thirty.
The true fanatics, however, the so-called
, who would arrive for the six-thirty
and seldom leave before midnight, preferred not to fraternise with those less obsessive visitors to whom Chaillot meant no more than an inexpensive night out. For cinephilia, as it was practised here, in the very front row of the stalls, was a secret society, a cabal, a
. That front row remained the exclusive province of the
, whose names ought to have been inscribed on their seats just as the names of Hollywood directors used to be stencilled on the backs of their collapsible canvas chairs, the
slightly obscured by the designee's shoulder and upper arm as he turned his smiling, suntanned gaze towards the photographer.
What else were these
, these fanatics, these denizens of the night, but vampire bats wrapping
in the cloak of their own shadows?
If they chose to sit so close to the screen, it was because they couldn't tolerate not receiving a film's images
, before they had had to clear the hurdles of each succeeding row, before they had been relayed back from row to row, from spectator to spectator, from eye to eye, until, defiled, second-hand, reduced to the
of a postage-stamp and ignored by the
love-makers in the last row of all, they returned with relief to their source, the projectionist's cabin.
Besides which, the screen really was a screen. It screened them from the world.
âHave you seen the King?'
Spring, with its tufts of crocuses and violets bursting forth from nowhere like a conjuror's bouquet of
flowers, had come that evening to the gardens of the CinÃ©mathÃ¨que.
It was twenty past six. Three adolescents emerged from the metro exit on to the place du TrocadÃ©ro and turned towards the path which ran parallel to the avenue Albert-de-Mun. The question had been posed by
the tallest of the three. He was muscular and lean but held himself with a lopsided stoop that seemed
with his physique. Under his jumble-sale clothes one imagined delicately chiselled anklebones and
, shark's-fin shoulder-blades. And these clothes of his â the patched corduroy jacket, the jeans whose creases tapered off into baggy nothingness below the knees, the leather sandals â he wore with the genius that Stendhal somewhere attributes to a lady alighting from her
. His name was ThÃ©o. He was seventeen.
His sister Isabelle was an hour and a half his junior. She wore a cloche hat and a soft white fox boa which, every five minutes or so, she would sling over her shoulder as negligently as a prizefighter's towel.
But she was as far from the sort of mutton-headed misses for whom such accessories represented a fashion statement as would be two athletes running side by side, shoulder to shoulder, one of whom has lapped the other. Not since her childhood had she worn anything new. More precisely, she had never grown out of a
infatuation with dolling herself up in her
's gowns. She had grown into these gowns and made them her own.
The mutton-headed misses stared at her, wondering
how she did it. The secret was:
she didn't do it with
. Isabelle would say haughtily, âIt's vulgar to look at yourself in a mirror. A mirror is for looking at others in.'
It wasn't to his sister but to the young man walking beside her that ThÃ©o's question had been addressed. Though at eighteen Matthew was the oldest of the three in age, he was the youngest in appearance. He was of a featherweight frailness of build and had never shaved in his life. In his crisp blue jeans, tight âskinny' pullover and white sneakers, he appeared to walk on the tips of his toes without actually tiptoeing. His fingernails were bitten to the quick and he had a compulsive habit of flicking the end of his nose with his squat index finger.
There was once a faun that came to a mountain pool but was incapable of drinking any water because it would turn aside, again and again, to reassure itself that no hostile presence lurked nearby. It finally died of thirst. Matthew might have been that faun. Even in repose, his eyes would glance sideways, warily.
Matthew was an American, of Italian immigrant
, from San Diego. He had never left home before. In Paris, where he was studying French, he felt as gauche as an alien from another planet. His friendship with ThÃ©o and Isabelle, a friendship which had matured in
the white shadow of the CinÃ©mathÃ¨que screen, he judged as a privilege of which he was undeserving and he lived in fear that his friends would eventually arrive at the same conclusion.
He was also terrified that he hadn't properly read the small print of their relationship. He forgot that true friendship is a contract in which there can be no small print.
A lonely man thinks of nothing but friendship, just as a repressed man thinks of nothing but flesh. If Matthew had been granted a wish by a guardian angel, he would have requested a machine, one yet to be invented,
its owner to ascertain where each of his friends was at any given moment, what he was doing and with whom. He belonged to the race which loiters underneath a loved one's window late at night and endeavours to decipher shadows flitting across the Venetian blind.
Back in San Diego, before he arrived in Paris, his best friend had been a football player, a good-looking youth whose symmetrical features were marred by a broken nose. This best friend invited him to spend the night at his parents' home. His room was in a state of undress. The bed was littered with dirty teeshirts and
. A Bob Dylan poster and a college pennant were
pinned to the walls. A stack of board games was piled up in a corner. From the bottom drawer of a chest-
he took out a large buff envelope whose
he spread over the carpet â creamy-textured photographs clipped from fashion and sports
and depicting young men, most of them in profile, all of them in various stages of
, believed that his friend was making a confession and that the same confession was now expected of him. So he admitted what he had not realised about himself until that very instant: that he too was aroused by male beauty, by naked boys with nipples like stars.
The best friend was revolted by this unsolicited
. His parents had offered him a plastic surgery operation as an eighteenth-birthday present. What Matthew had taken for erotica was an anthology of sample noses. His heart beating madly, he sneaked back to his own home in the middle of the night.
He determined never again to be caught in such a trap. Fortunately, the door of the closet out of which he had momentarily stepped proved to be a revolving one. Loath to reveal his own secret, the friend didn't breathe a word of the indiscretion.
Matthew began to masturbate â once, sometimes
twice, a day. To prompt the climax he would conjure up images of leggy youths. Then, just as the dam was about to burst, he forced himself to think of girls instead. This abrupt volte-face grew into a habit. Like a child to whom a fairy-tale is read, his solitary orgasms no longer sanctioned the slightest deviation from the prearranged scenario and would ignominiously fizzle out if by
he omitted the climactic twist.
There is fire and fire: the fire that burns and the fire that gives warmth, the fire that sets a forest ablaze and the fire that puts a cat to sleep. So is it with self-love. The member that once seemed one of the wonders of the world soon becomes as homely as an old slipper. Matthew and himself gradually ceased to excite each other.
To revive his desire, he constructed a system out of the very gaffe that had caused his heart to beat. Like a good little Catholic, he would confess every week in the English church on the avenue Hoche.
Confession was his vice. It inflamed him more to plead guilty to his petty squalours than it ever did to practise them. The dankness of the confessional nearly always gave him an erection. As for the necessary
, it would be generated by the delicious
he felt at having to catalogue the number of times he had âtouched himself'.
For it's easier to confess to murder than to
. A murderer is guaranteed a respectful hearing. He makes the priest's day.