Sunday, April 29, 2007

Let them eat cake! And other lessons from a French film set...

Marie Antoinette may have said “Let them eat cake!” but Sophie Marceau is all about eating cake with them. And me.
Okay, so I didn’t exactly share a forkful of cheesecake with the famous French actress, but I spent the day in her shadow on the set of “Women of the Shadows” (“Les Femmes de l’Ombre” en français), a WWII drama about female Resistance fighters directed by Jean-Paul Salomé and starring Marceau, Marie Gillain, Julie Depardieu, Deborah François and Julien Bosselier. The set was on an airfield in East Bumblefuck, France (yes, that’s just south of WherethehellamI, west of Imisselectricity and just a quick train ride away from Farfromcivilization. Call the tourist board for more info.) I was just a little over one hour away from Paris, but I felt like I’d traveled back in time. Perhaps it was the men dressed as French soldiers, the 20th century cars driving by, or the map of occupied France that threw me off, but I could sense that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Every few minutes, I heard “Action!” (pronounced “ack-see-oon”!) then “C’est coupé, Merci!” (“Cut, Thank you!”). Isn’t that so very kind of French directors to say “Thank You” after they yell cut? It’s so much more civilized isn’t it? And so rude of American directors with their simple “Cut!” without bothering to thank the hundreds of other technicians, actors and extras for their amicable participation in the project. None of them said “You’re Welcome” of course, but I could sense that the positive reinforcement was good for business. Note to Spielberg, Tarantino and co.: Say “Thank you!”
Then, there’s the lunch break…
Brett Ratner called me recently (sorry, I just liked the way that sounded, actually I think I’ll say it again.) So my friend Brett rang me on the tele and – (no, too British). So, the Rat dialed me up and – (no, too cheesy) So, B.Rat scored my digits and – (no, too ghetto. But I am from New Jersey, so please excuse me) Anyway, so when I asked Monsieur Ratner about working with the French while he was in Paris filming “Rush Hour 3,” he told me that he found it wonderful working with the Frogs, but he seemed to be flabbergasted by the differences in the lunch scene. “In Hollywood, you have a buffet, everyone lines up, eats and it takes around 45 minutes and you’re done,” he said, “In France, they have table service which is nice, but it takes forever. You sit down, they bring you an appetizer, then they bring your main course, then a dessert and there’s a glass of wine open on the table the whole time. It’s nice, but we lost so much time doing that.”

Yet, while the lunch may be longer and more refined, everyone eats at the same table (or, in the case of the “Femmes de l’Ombre” shoot, under the same tent). From Sophie Marceau, famous French actress, to Fophie Karmeau, random extra from West Bumblefuck, France (the town next to E. Bumblefuck obviously – great real estate, call your broker), everyone breaks bread together. No fancy schmancy trailers. No “I’d like a diet coke with lemon shipped from Africa” or “I’d like a black truffle foie gras-flavored caviar lobster with champagne sauce delivered to my trailer by Alain Ducasse and Justin Timberlake s’il vous plait.” Just the lead actresses, the 17th unit cameraman, the assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the director, and Sophie Marceau’s dog’s sister’s dog trainer’s mother, sitting at a table, sippin’ some Chablis, cutting through some steak and talking about Segolene Royale’s chances for the second round of elections. I mean, it’s only natural. Our forefathers differed in the same way. For the French, it’s always been “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), but for Americans Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. So basically, if I’ve gathered correctly, liberty seems to be a popular national sentiment, but the French believe in liberty, brotherhood and equal opportunity for all, and the Americans just liberty, staying alive and being happy even if happiness means eating lobster in your 8000-ft trailer while your technical team eats McDonald’s on a dirt floor.
Then there are the mandatory cigarette breaks. “C’est coupe, merci!” is actually just French director-speak for “Jesus, I haven’t had a cigarette in over 10 minutes, Jean-Pierre fetch me my Galouises!”
Speaking of smoky fumes, I filmed my TV segment next to a WWII fighter jet (yes, that’s right, I don’t think Katie Couric or the women of “The View” are exposed to these conditions. Or maybe they are and that’s why Rosie left?) So, there I am, airplanes flying by, soldiers walking by with large guns, a production crew all with cameras pointed directly at ME, a microphone in my hand, four producers yelling directions at me in French, the sun beating down on my face through 13 layers of thick makeup and…3…2..1…”Action!” No pressure, right? It’s a wonder I even formed a complete sentence. (Or maybe I didn’t, it hasn’t aired yet, who knows what rare form of Franco-English vocabulary left my lips, it’s all a blur.)

After a nice ride through the French countryside (as it turns out, the Bumblefuck region’s scenery is simply magnificent), I arrived back in Paris … and back to the 21st century (although my phone, television and computer seem to still be functioning in 20th-century mode). I’m sure Sophie Marceau is sitting down right now to write on her blog, “My day on set with Rebecca Leffler…”

French Word of the Day: “Pétaouchnok”: “In the middle of nowhere” (aka “East Bumblefuck)

French Dessert of the Day:

Today’s French dessert of the day is actually not French, well it’s New Yorker but with a French twist (sort of like me, only this is perishable.) The cheesecake at Market (Jean-Georges’ Paris restaurant on the Avenue Matignon) is quite simply delectably deliciously divine. It puts my mother’s cheesecake in the corner (and, “Nobody puts my mother’s cheesecake in the corner!”) – really, it’s that good. Light, yet tasty, served as a small round piece with a scoop of fruity sorbet on top, a fruity red coulis, and some fresh strawberries and raspberries sprinkled with sugar. The perfect balance of lightly whipped cheesecake, its perfectly crisp crust and the refreshing sorbet – all I can say is “Msdksdiusifsuifsuisuijimmm” (sorry my mouth was full.) The irony is that, though I always swore that it must be some special French crème fraiche made by Jean-Georges’ little French grandmother that gives the Market cheesecake its amazing flavor, I have recently been informed by a mole (disguised as a French waiter named Emmanuel) that the secret is in fact, Philadelphia Cream Cheese! Sacré bleu! I feel betrayed – here I go out of my way to move to France, suffer through French bureaucracy to be able to stay and then I find out that my favorite dessert is made from Philadelphia cream cheese? Apparently I’m not the only US import bringing flavor to this city… ;)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bringing Home the Bread: My Greatest Life Triumph

I may only be 24 years old (soon to break the quarter century mark, but let’s not get into that now, it makes me cry) but I’ve already achieved the impossible. After over two and a half years of living in Paris, France, I can proudly say that I have accomplished feats even I never thought myself capable of. I have gone where no human – or at least, no American I’m quite sure – has gone before. I have, in just a few short years, finally won over the mean, mean lady in my neighborhood bakery. Not only did I make her crack a smile (already worth thousands of points in the game of life), but also laugh, joke around and – gasp! – put aside the breads and pastries I like in the morning so that, not only are they waiting for me when I arrive, but they are piping hot having been kept warming in the oven! This may just seem like something nice that one does for a client who visits every day (okay okay, usually twice-three times, hey there are three meals in a day! Or four when you stay out until 6 am, but I’ll save that for when you’re old enough), but let me tell you a story about a Baker named, well, let’s call her Marie-Pierre to protect the innocent. I first moved to this neighborhood (read: the BEST neighborhood, Paris’ St Germain-des-près district aka the 6th arrondissement aka Sofia Coppola and Karl Lagerfeld’s hood among others) almost two years ago. Every day, I headed to the Eric Kayser boulangerie for delicious breads (Alain Ducasse uses Kayser bread for his restaurants if that tells you anything), morning croissants, freshly made sandwiches or late-afternoon tarts. I smiled, sometimes even cracked a joke or two, occasionally asked about the contents of a new kind of pastry, and, without fail, Marie-Pierre, known among the community as the Pastry Nazi (well, I actually didn’t poll the community, but I certainly called her that) would glare back at me, refuse to laugh at my wisecracks (well ok, that didn’t bother me that much, I’m used to it after 24 years) and throw my change on the counter. “May I have a plastic bag for the bread? It’s raining.” “Non!” “Can I have a more well-done croissant?” “Non!” “Can I just buy half of the white chocolate brioche? It’s enough for 8 people and it’s just me…” “Non!” So, while some strive for job promotions, others work hard to rescue innocent children from poverty and abuse and still others fight for political justice, I made it my mission to make Marie-Pierre smile. My smile broadened, the wisecracks got wiser and I always arrived with exactly the right amount of change. It was a hard fight, but Mission: Make Marie-Pierre Smile was accomplished. And then some… Now, when I arrive early in the morning, tired and hungry, Marie-Pierre (or MP for short, we’re BFF now) greets me with a smile, comments on the weather, and sometimes even cracks a joke or two before heading downstairs to grab my special stash from the kitchen. I can have all the plastic bags I want even when there’s not a cloud in the sky, my walnut-raisin breads are always waiting for me hot from the oven in the morning, my croissants are well-done and – well, I still have to buy the whole white chocolate brioche, but there are worse things in life, right?
Other incredible life triumphs since crossing the French border:
1) Getting my carte de séjour. Yes, after almost three years of waiting on line for hours at the Prefecture, then leaving in tears emptyhanded, my carte de séjour has been approved. I am completely, officially, 100% LEGAL to live and work in Paris, France. (well at least until January, 2008 at which point I’ll need to equip myself with a French husband … any takers? I’m not very picky, I’m just looking for French, tall (preferably at the NBA all-star level), intelligent (preferably at the Albert Einstein level), funny (preferably the Woody Allen-Will Ferrell level) and, well, extra points for Jewish, wealthy (preferably at the Bill Gates level) and English-speaking. Please send all applications to
2) Being invited to press screenings, conferences and movie premieres and after-parties. Now, of course I’ve been GOING to such events since I arrived, but now I actually go equipped with an invitation (addressed to MOI) and don’t have to pretend my name is Fifi LaFoo from French Vogue, jump through windows or spray tear gas in the bouncers’ eyes to get in. Only sometimes =)
3) Being able to successfully polish off an entire bottle of white wine by myself (well not by myself like by myself sitting in a room alone – jamais! – but by myself like I drank the whole bottle just me while everyone else had red at dinner) and still function.
4) Being the proud owner of a Café de Flore pin – given to me by one of the waiters in honor of my unwavering fidelity (“Café Deux Magots you say? Never!”) to the historical establishment. Sure, Sartre and De Beauvoir went, but did THEY get pins I wonder?
5) Being able to finish the steak and enormous plate of frites at 20 de Bellechasse … AND still have room for dessert and a bottle of wine (see triumph #3).
6) Guillaume Canet not only recognizing me, but also saying hello upon seeing me. (Stay tuned for triumph #6: Marrying Guillaume Canet ;)

Crazy French expression of the day: “J’ai envie de fraises.”
Literal translation: I want strawberries.
What people will understand you to mean: I’m pregnant.

French Dessert of the Day: Well, I’m not sure if it can really be qualified as a dessert – it’s a brioche, so it’s supposed to be eaten for breakfast and is delicious with some jelly and tea in the morning, but I’ve had it for dessert, warmed up (with ice cream or yogurt on top) and it’s also quite good. Whatever time of day you choose to eat it, Kayser’s white chocolate brioche is truly wonderful. It’s just what it sounds like: a fluffy brioche filled with white chocolate chips. I really don’t know what else to say – I think the history of the white chocolate brioche went a little something like this. Eric Kayser: “I think I’ll put white chocolate in my brioche and sell it.” And then it was born. Fascinating, huh?