Five Strange Paris Histories

While researching my new novel, Let Us Be True, I became fascinated by the history of Paris. Wherever I looked, there were incredible stories to be found, of pioneering gardeners, hidden wine cellars, put-upon architects and bloody clashes in the streets. A few of these stories I couldn’t let go, and they made it into the novel: here are my five favourites.

1 – The Tour d’Argent

Overhead, the clouds bruised and cracked. There was a brief flash of lightning, the thunder inaudible behind the glass. He was in the world’s oldest restaurant, eating duck with a stranger who had just punched him in the head.

This Michelin-starred restaurant lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in the world, purportedly founded in 1582. Their speciality is the pressed duck, which was traditionally eight weeks old, fattened for fifteen days and then strangled, to retain the blood. The wine list is also 400 pages long. It has a great literary heritage, having been referenced not only by Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway, but also the 2007 Pixar animated adventure Ratatouille.

2 – Nanterre

Ralf followed the road, hoping to ask someone for directions. Next to the cleared land of the building site was an improvised town, laid out in rows to give the impression of planning, of order – a place where great pride and care presided over mud and scrap metal.

Nanterre is a fascinating place, though a little off the tourist beat. Once an improvised slum (a bidonville or ‘jerrycan town’) housing poor Algerian immigrants, who sometimes found it difficult to rent in the city either because of the cost or because of the prejudices of landlords, the University of Paris bought a site there and built a huge brutalist campus, a little like the Barbican, but uglier and easier to navigate. The Nanterre campus would be one of the epicentres of the May 1968 student protests, which spread and developed over the course of the spring into full blown riots and a general strike, bringing the whole country to a halt.

3 – The Tuileries

‘You know what they do to silk moths?’ said Elsa. ‘They boil them alive and unravel the whole cocoon using tiny looms.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘No. All sorts of things have happened here. I think it’s untoward for a garden to have so much history.’

The Tuileries in the centre of the city might look like an oasis of calm, but they are probably the most eventful gardens in the world. Named after the roof tilers that used to work there before Catherine de Medici bought the land, the garden was the site of the one of the first hot air balloon flights. At one point, they were vast royal gardens, and the head gardener decided to grow mulberry trees to foster a domestic silk industry there. Robespierre had a weird secular festival there, burning mannequins that represented an idiosyncratic group of sins (one of them was ‘False Simplicity’). It was a Russian garrison after the fall of Napoleon, and was also, at one point, used to store artwork looted by the Nazis – a Monet was seriously damaged in a shootout during the liberation.

4 – Pont Saint-Michel

A police van pulled up at the far end of the bridge, and another on their side, at the entrance to Saint-Michel Métro.

An innocuous bridge metres from some of Paris’s tourist hotspots, the Pont Saint-Michel was the site of a terrible (and shockingly recent) massacre of peaceful protesters by the police. On 17 October 1961, men, women and children were peacefully protesting against a curfew that had been set for all Muslim citizens. The Algerian War had been going on for years, with atrocious violence on both sides, and trust between communities was at a nadir. Unfortunately, a sub-section of the police were right-wing nationalists – in fact, the head of police at the time was Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war to deport Jews. The police violently suppressed the protest, beating people with long white batons and throwing them off the bridge into the Seine. There is no official death toll, but estimates are in the dozens.

5 – Tour Eiffel

He looked out at the city. The sun backlit the dark clouds in chiaroscuro and for a moment broke through, catching each drop of rain so that the sunlight fell not just on surfaces but everywhere at once, manifested endlessly through the air.

The Eiffel Tower had to turn up at some point, didn’t it? You can’t visit the city without the tower peeking through the gaps between buildings, especially now that it’s equipped with that bizarre light which seems to have been inspired by the Eye of Sauron. Paris is unimaginable without it, but when it was built, poor Gustave Eiffel was the most hated architect in France. In 1887, a group of writers and artists clubbed together to petition against it, competing to see who could hurl the best insult (my personal favourites are ‘tragic street lamp’ and ‘barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture’). How times change.

 

First published on neverimitate.

Miyazaki’s final vision

The animator-auteur Hayao Miyazaki has announced his retirement many times before, most famously after the success of Princess Mononoke (1997). Unlike most retired people, he has continued to make films, winning an Oscar for Spirited Away (2001) and receiving a nomination for Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). He has claimed that his latest, The Wind Rises (out in the UK on 9th May), really will be his last. “This time I am quite serious,” Miyazaki told theAssociated Press last year. By some counts, this is his seventh retirement.

Since that interview, his friend and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, has hinted that Miyazaki may find another project. He will be forgiven if he does decide to break his promise again—Miyazaki is no self-promoting cynic. His films are about people who are trying to do the right thing: to prevent disaster or to save a loved one. His female characters, young and old, are more human than almost anything Hollywood serves up. Even his villains are not as bad as they seem—they often end up getting on pretty well with the other characters.

This sounds worthy, and a recipe for commercial disaster. Yet Miyazaki’s animations are not only hugely popular, they are regarded as some of the greatest films ever made. Part of the appeal is the observational detail that he brings to every scene. The critic Roger Ebert once noted the “gratuitous motion” in his films, which Miyazaki likens to the Japanese concept of ma or emptiness—those little reflective pauses in which we notice an animal shaking itself free of water, or a colleague straightening his waistcoat. These moments create a kind of visual poetry, a celebration of the beauty in the everyday, like the graphic novellas of John McNaught. Miyazaki is a master of these moments. His films would rather make each moment beautiful than cut to the chase, and Miyazaki has no one to curtail his vision: he writes the scripts, designs the storyboards and draws thousands of key frames himself.

The Wind Rises is ostensibly the biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a pioneering aeronautical engineer who was responsible for designing the Mitsubishi A6M Zero Fighter used by the Japanese Navy throughout the Second World War. Although a real historical figure, Miyazaki presents Jiro as a Harry Potterish everyman and tweaks his life story to accommodate his own preoccupations.

When Miyazaki was a child in the 1940s, his father and uncle owned an aviation company that made parts for the Zeros, ensuring that no one in the family was conscripted to fight. Planes appear everywhere in Miyazaki’s work: the ominous shadows passing over the city in Howl’s Moving Castle before an air raid; the possessed paper planes inSpirited Away; the young neighbour’s toy plane in My Neighbour Totoro. And then there’s Porco Rosso, which is about a pig who is a bounty hunter and pilot. There are almost as many planes in that film as there are people.

The Wind Rises begins with a plane. We first meet Jiro as a sleeping child. In his dream, he climbs up onto the roof of his house and gets into a plane with feather-tipped wings, rising up vertically with perfect dream logic. But up there, in the sky, are monsters, loitering on bombs like the shadowy pilots in Howl’s Moving Castle. Jiro falls and lands… in reality.

He has woken up. The mosquito netting around him is blurred. He puts on his glasses and the room comes into focus. Here we are introduced to one of the most surprising elements of Miyazaki’s final film: it is set in the real world. His final challenge to himself has been to create a film without strange creatures or transformative curses. This world is governed by normal physics, so much so that the (animated, fictitious) camera has a depth of field and is susceptible to lens flare. Many of Jiro’s conversations concern the precise aerodynamics of the plane he’s designing. We see drawing board diagrams and designs in other Miyazaki films such as Porco Rosso and Totoro, yet in The Wind Risesthere is a new attention to physical reality. We watch over Jiro’s shoulder, like a supervisor, as he notes down the calculations on his slide-rule.

Jiro is an underdog, determined to make a plane to rival the industrial powerhouses to the West, despite Japan’s poor resources. Through his nightly dreams, and days of hard work at his desk, he renders a whole new reality. It couldn’t be a more literal analogy for Miyazaki’s work. Later, the engineer marries a painter—another fitting metaphor. The film is full of painterly skies and sunlit fields, sea and mountains. We see a cherry tree blossoming, moths gathering around lamps, the smoke from a cigarette or a cold breath curling into the air. We watch dappled light move over Jiro’s body on a woodland walk, and even see the shadows of objects offscreen, the silhouette of an unseen tree running across the floor and up the side of a building.

There are no serious antagonists in The Wind Rises. The most important relationship in the film is the love affair between Jiro and Naoko. When she was a child, Jiro saved her and her nanny from the chaos of an earthquake, carrying them from a railroad as burning detritus blew overhead from the city. Now she is a beautiful woman, Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol come to life, and she has found him—but, like the mother in My Neighbour Totoro, she has tuberculosis. Jiro and Naoko love each other devotedly, and decide to marry despite her being almost bed-bound, and his being wanted by the interior ministry. It would be hard not to smile at their courtship, watching them throw paper planes onto each other’s balcony, or make youthful declarations to one another.

The central conflict in the film comes from the plane itself. It is the perfect meeting point of the opposing forces that shape Miyazaki’s attitude towards technology: freedom and destruction, one sometimes necessitating the other. In Princess Mononoke, which echoes the earlier film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Ashitaka fights against a human society obsessed with building ever more efficient guns. Miyazaki is always careful to show how technology consumes. The candle that powers the steam boat in Ponyo runs outand there is a constant stream of coal in Kamaji’s boiler room in Spirited Away. Technology can also, sometimes, provide us with a seemingly limitless freedom, captured so well by his vehicles: the magic Cheshire Cat bus in My Neighbour Totoro, which bounds across landscapes in an instant, or the famous moving castle whose doors open onto different cities. In The Wind Rises, the plane embodies all of these qualities at once, belching exhaust fumes, describing perfect ellipses in the sky. It can kill even as it fulfils one of humanity’s great dreams, to fly among the clouds.

Some critics, both in Japan and in America, have criticised the film for supposedly glorifying Horikoshi’s contribution to the war. In fact, Jiro suggests during a design briefing that they remove the guns and, at one point, even finds himself strolling through the wreckages of crashed Zero fighters. If the film had come on any stronger with its anti-war message, it would have been patronising. Perhaps the criticism stems from the claim by Jiro’s role model, Caproni, that “aeroplanes are beautiful dreams.” The criticism is presumably that we mustn’t gloss over the brutal devastation of war; that every film set during a war should strive to imitate Schindler’s List. But in Miyazaki’s work, no one sets out to do evil, even if the result creates conflict. In Princess Mononoke, the humans are not making guns because they are malicious, but to protect the vulnerable and their livelihood. Every character is simply trying to further their own cause, or to perfect what they already do well. If only Jiro would play the villain, we could all condemn him, refuse to understand why he lived the way he did, and learn nothing.

Jiro is certainly not perfect, and his dogged quest to produce something beautiful puts a strain on his relationships with those around him. Caproni understands this impulse perfectly. He has been a kind of spirit guide through the film for Jiro, and ends by reassuring him that his work is over, and that “artists are only creative for ten years.” All that remains is to be grateful for the time that he had.

Miyazaki has been making films for far longer, of course, and his most recent have been among his best. It seems hard to believe that he will retire now. He is getting older, of course, and his artistic process is immensely demanding. But the real clue as to why Miyazaki has declared The Wind Rises his last film may lie in his childhood.

In 1945, when Miyazaki was four, the city where he lived with his father the aeroplane engineer, was bombed. The family was evacuated to a railway bridge. The sky was pink with flame. They got hold of a truck and, as they escaped the city, a woman and a child asked for a lift. But Miyazaki’s family drove on without stopping. It was an apparent failure of kindness, and he wondered later if it could have happened differently. Soon after the war ended, his mother contracted spinal tuberculosis, and underwent treatment for the next eight years.

Watching The Wind Rises, it feels as though this is the story Miyazaki has been coming round to all these years—the final, realist vision to resolve all those recurring images of planes, burning skies, the woman and child in need, the debilitating tuberculosis of a loved one. Over three decades, this raw material has provided fuel for his gorgeous fantasy. Now, at last, it has been transformed back into reality.