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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

ESSAY
Catherine Deneuve is how to say timeless beauty in French. Right now, she's all over American movie screens, and age has only added to her allure. 

BOOKS
Rosamunde Pilcher knows her territory--Scotland--and makes it a memorable character in her latest bestseller, Winter Solstice.  It's a good read in any season 
 

AND CONSIDER THIS
Mary Gordon views Joan of Arc in a fresh light; the true story of doomed lovers in wartime Berlin is movingly told in Aimée & Jaguar 
 

ESSAY

Ripeness Is All 

      When a legendary beauty of the screen stops making movies while still at the height of her glory, she is eternally fixed in our memory. Years race by, we grow older, but she does not. Think of Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak. And then there are the other stars--and you know who they are--anxiously attempting to stave off the inevitable changes of age by turning themselves into grotesques or parodies of their glamorous younger selves. All too few women allow the camera to reveal a face and body touched by time. Ingrid Bergman was one who did, and let us now say a heartfelt merci for another: Catherine Deneuve. This fall she will be 57--yes, 57--and though the years have left their indelible mark, adding flesh, wrinkles and creases, they have enhanced her beauty and enriched her as an actress. 
     Vive Deneuve! The French are notable for admiring the beauty of older women, and it may be that Americans are catching on. At the present moment, she is the French cinema, and we are happily in the midst of something like a Deneuve festival. Within the past several months, five of her films--East-West, Time Regained, Place Vendôme, Pola X and Dancer in the Dark--have all appeared in U.S. movie theaters. At the same time, classics from Belle de Jour to Le Metro and Indochine are on video and occasionally show up on cable television. 
     Deneuve is a brave actress, avoiding the easy, I'm-the-diva-here choice to play only sympathetic and noble characters. To take an example:  Marianne in the noir thriller, Place Vendôme, is first seen as an alcoholic surviving in a boozy haze, in and out of a sanatorium, unaware of the troubles swirling around her husband and his respected Paris jewelry firm. After his death, Marianne discovers the ill-gotten diamonds that represent his sole contribution to her future and engages in a desperate cat-and-rat game pitting her against Europe's elite jewelry merchants and a thoroughly unsavory lot from the criminal underworld. Greed draws everyone to the gems. While attempting to outwit them and make a profit by selling the coldly glittering stones, Marianne battles her dual demons of drink and a fatalistic trust in the wrong men.  Deneuve as the wine-sodden Marianne drops the façade of perfection: the lovely mouth has an in-the-cups droop, the eyes are dull, and she fixes her interest on one thing: the drink at hand. Her performance is subtle and riveting. 
     At this stage of her career, Deneuve works with directors she admires, taking on a challenging role without regard to its size. Dancer in the Dark, directed by Lars von Trier, won the Palm d'Or at Cannes this year, and in it, Deneuve plays a factory worker in Washington State some time in the 1950s.  She sings, she dances and she wears dresses and a scarf that are downright dowdy. Equally brilliant and maddening, the movie stars the Icelandic singer Björk, who is transcendently good as Selma, a young working-class mother going blind. Deneuve is Cathy, co-worker and best friend, protecting the young woman as best she can. Faced with death, Selma falters and momentarily loses courage, but Cathy restores the younger woman's conviction that her selfless choice is the right one. The generosity of the character Deneuve plays is no less than the generosity of the actress who brings her to life.
    How does one account for the continuing fascination she has for men and women? The exquisite bone structure of the face? Sure, and too the perfect curve of her lips, the deeply set thoughtful eyes and the sweet sweep of her brow. The blessings of nature are still abundant, and now there's a lush, autumnal ripeness in the thickness of the waist and hips and the softening fullness in the face. But there's always been much more to Deneuve than surface sheen and physical perfection. Her cool reserve, which has unfairly earned the title of 'Ice Queen', is a large part of the allure. She does not give herself to the adoring camera so much as graciously give it permission to spy on her. There's a mystery about Deneuve, and we, watching, are intrigued. We want to know, must know what it is. Even when the face is devoid of emotional expression, her transparent gaze hints at a complex interior life of dreams and desires, and this inner presence is richer as the years pass. 

BOOKS

"'Tis a Season To Be Reading"

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher
(St. Martin's; 454 pages; $27.95)

     A collection of lonely people brought by chance to a charming old house in a remote village populated by kindly folk and an understanding vicar. Spectacular natural scenery. A violent storm. A need to come to grips with the past and let old wounds heal. The appearance of love when least expected. Redemption. All sorts of lovely things to eat and drink. 
    In no particular order, these are some of the elements in Rosamunde Pilcher's latest novel and if they sound familiar, that's because they are. They--or reasonable facsimiles thereof--are among the ingredients in an evergreen tradition of fiction imported from the British Isles and, depending on the author, they can either be jumbled together with loose ends dangling hopelessly or assembled into a single smooth and rewarding tale. Her many readers on both sides of the pond know that Pilcher long ago mastered this particular genre, and with Winter Solstice she proves she is still in top form. 
    After introducing the principal characters-- Lucy, a teen-age child of divorce; Carrie and Sam, a young man and woman heart-wounded by failed relationships: and, praise be! Elfrida and Oscar, an older and thus wiser pair of lovers--Pilcher gets straightaway down to business and brings them all together in northern Scotland at Christmastime. The locale is the book's sixth character, and Pilcher, who lives in Scotland, bestows ample affection on its wild natural beauty. Describing a sunrise, she writes, '' And over the shallow hills of the distant headland inched the first sliver of an orange sun. The curved rim of dazzling light touched the shifting sea, smudged shadows on the undulations of the sand, and drained darkness from the sky, so that gradually it was no longer sapphire-blue but faded to aquamarine.'' The place provides Lucy with a haven from her self-centered mother and father, and holds out the promise of a changed life to Sam and Carrie. For Oscar, nearly destroyed by the death of his wife and child in an auto accident, this part of the world is a last refuge. 
    The plot trots along with appropriate Scottish briskness toward Christmas Eve, the events viewed through the eyes of different characters. The steady center is Elfrida, a sixty-something former actress; impulsive, generous and kind to everyone, she is the book's anchor. Her personal sense of fashion is endearing-- ''looking bizarre was one of Elfrida's best ways of boosting her confidence.'' Every month she "tweaks'' the color of her hair with something called strawberry blonde and so what if it turns out more orange than strawberry?  Elfrida journeys to Scotland to aid the distressed Oscar, and she extends a welcoming embrace to the other injured souls making the pilgrimage in the darkest days, creating a warming domesticity to relieve the cold that has crept into the corners of their lives. At the solstice, with the miracle of the renewal of the sun's light on the earth, they all see brightness returning to their future. When it was published earlier this summer, Winter Solstice immediately jumped high onto bestseller lists, and rightfully so. But it is a book not meant for a single season. It may be that this deeply satisfying novel is most enjoyed now, as the days are growing shorter and the nights longer. 

And Consider This

BOOKS

Joan of Arc by Mary Gordon
(Penguin Lives; 176 pages; $19.95)

   The excellent Penguin Lives Series unites the well known with the famous and gives some of today's leading authors the opportunity to re-interpret illustrious figures from Leonardo da Vinci and Mozart to Elvis and Rosa Parks. The series publishes six books each year, and one of the finest offerings of 2000 is the masterful life of Joan of Arc by the novelist and essayist Mary Gordon. It's a unique union of biographer and subject. Gordon finds the human side of Joan, reminding us that she was a stout peasant, not always wise or saintly, but true to her beliefs and herself when powerful opponents sought to bring her down. Only 17 when she led the army of France, she was a soldier for less than a year and at 19, wept when she was led to the stake because she loved life and did not want to die. The brief trajectory of her life has an enduring influence, representing far more than the sum of her earthly achievements, and ever since, writers and theologians have re-evaluated her from the perspective of their own time. This new and fresh vision of Joan presents us with a Maid of Orleans for our day, a sturdy figure whom we need, in Gordon's eloquent phrase, "as the heroine of our better selves.'' 

FILMS

Aimée & Jaquar
Written and directed by Max Färberböck

Aimée & Jaquar is a haunting account of doomed love in Berlin during 1943 and '44, and a true story of hidden identities. All through the fighting, Felice has led a highly visible public life: the intelligent and trusted assistant to an important publisher and a sophisticated habitue of a nightspot frequented by Nazi officers and officials. To survive, she conceals two things, either one of which could destroy her: she is a Jew and a lesbian. With the war drawing to a close and the city being bombed, Felice relaxes her guard, and her daring puts her in mortal danger. She is attracted to Lilly, the blonde wife of a German soldier and mother of two children, and awakens Lilly to the possibilities within herself she had never acknowledged. They begin an affair, grasping moments of respite and happiness while the world goes mad. The title is the nicknames they have for one another. Lilly is Aimée and the darkly beautiful Felice is Jaquar. Maria Schrader as Felice and Julianne  Köhler as Lilly have won awards for their beautifully shaded, honest portrayals, and they deserve them. In German, with English subtitles, this meticulously crafted, atmospheric film beautifully evokes the period in the '40s, when everything was up for grabs, and nothing, least of all love, was certain.

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