Summer, 1968

Film Diary

Monday , August 12

Today will be the first day of work on the actual production of La Belle Au Bois Mourant. We make for a colorful bunch. The scenarist is Michel Martens, plump, red-headed, and with strongly Jewish features. The director is Jean-Pierre Bastid, nick-named "Boeuf" owing to his obesity, black curly hair, a man of wide gestures and engaging manner. Both showed up on the set wearing flaming ponchos.

They're good friends and work closely together. Yet in many ways they are worlds apart. For example, Michel disowns all things French. His good English is acquired from several years of living and working in New York City. As he puts it, France has all of the bad things that America has but none of the good.

Jean-Pierre hails from the Auvergne and is rooted in France, which he knows intimately. One of these days he hopes someday to direct a film to be done in two versions, standard French and the Auvergnat patois. For Michel Martens no documentary of French life would be worth the work of producing it; he showed no interest in the research I was doing on the history of Ainay. Jean-Pierre on the other hand welcomed my offer to give him a guided tour about the old fortifications. He now intends to shoot some of scenes with the towers as backdrop.

Jean-Pierre was the victim of an unprovoked attack by the French riot police (CRS) in October 11,2005, because of his activities in providing refuge for 6 families from the Ivory Coast who'd been evicted from their apartments in Montreuil, a Parisian suburb. Here is his report: Jean-Pierre Bastide

Today's scenes are being filmed in the garden in back of the mansion. Henry Lange, PDG (CEO) of Maya Films wanders about the set trying to figure out where he fits in. He's in his early 40's, affable, intelligent, very nervous. He's completely bi-lingual in French and American English, so much so that I was convinced at first that he was American, and Maya Films an American company with the French company as one of its subsidiaries.

It turned out that I was wrong on both counts. He is French, Maya Films is a French company. During World War II his family took refuge in New York City. He enjoys the ambiguity of his background: his mother is American, his father, an administrator at the Sorbonne, is French. There always seems to be an air of puzzlement about him. His complexion is shadowy-grey, his prematurely grey hair laced with silver streaks. He speaks rapidly, with a casual air. Sometimes he forgets which language he should be speaking. He fidgets constantly, in an unsettling manner. The other night at the dinner table his aggravated scratching tore the paper tablecloth into little pieces.

He combined this with a display of magic tricks most likely acquired at the age of 12. Using 2 matches and the tinfoil from the top of a cigarette pack he constructed a prototype guided missile. Two match-heads were placed together and the tinfoil wrapped about them. Heated by another match the two matchheads caught fire, setting off a small explosion that sent the compound flying across the table - directly into the wine glass of Sabine Sun - the obligatory peroxide blond for any film of this genre - seated directly opposite him. Soon everyone was making his own guided missile! This encouraged Henri to demonstrate more tricks. Between tearing up the table cloth and playing with matches he managed to finish dinner as well. Dinner with the cast of "Belle Au Bois Mourant" is never a disappointment! Ainay boasts 3 restaurants one Yugoslav, the others French. Each meal is a feast, although the quality differs considerably from one to the other.

Last night's banquet was celebrated at the hotel "L'Escargot d'Or" (The Gold Snail): noodle soup, fish with rice, followed by salad; then charcuterie (cold-cuts ), cheese, fruit, ice-cream. Its The owner happens to be a slob, but that's another story. Take a glance at the menu of a typical supper at Golub's , the hotel- restaurant run by Yugoslavs situated just below the clock-tower. Oeuf dur mayonnaise for starters : tomato and egg salad. Then iced cantalope. Roast beef, potatoes and string beans. Afterwards salad and cheese, to be followed by a surprise dessert: a Norwegian omelette!

The other French restaurant or the Charles VII ( rumor has it that the Dauphin stopped by here on his way to be crowned at Reims.), also informally known as "Roger's" Here the plate sags almost to the floor.

For the past few nights I've been flanked by two women from the staff of Maya Films. To my left sits Blanche Pigaud, the make-up artist. To my right is Françoise de la Vassière. She keeps the accounts. My impression is that her conversation is limited to 3 subjects: Catholicism, her family, and sex. The preoccupation with Catholicism is in inverse proportion to the preoccupation with sex: she switches rapidly from articulated fantasies of being a nun, to delectable flirtation with all the men on the set. She remembers her marriage when it's convenient to do so, and also forgets it for the same reason. Her savory breasts and bronzed arms, always displayed to good effect, make for universal topics of conversation.

She will interrupt a flirtation with inappropriate homilies on the Catholic church, or being a good Christian, God, etc. On the night of our arrival she brought up the burning issue of a recent Papal condemnation of "La Pilule" - the pill . Next to cheese and wine this is a staple in France. She hasn't the least intention of giving up the pill - "good for five days" - yet affects to be worried about disobeying the Pope. She did announce that she considered it an outrage that the Pope should proscribe the pill in places where people lived "lower than animals": India, Biafra, etc.Her remarks unleashed a storm of anti-clerical invective; very French of course. The attack continued, with mounting venom, against the Pope, the Vatican, puritanism in general.Where there is the greatest noise, the least is being said. Françoise's husband came on Saturday. After a day of extroverted grabbing, kissing and hugging and, so it would appear, a night of fierce tussling he left again for Paris in very bad spirits.

For the first few days there were only 5 of us. We had to wait for Jean-Pierre Bastid, who was laid up in the hospital after an auto accident. Our group consisted of myself, Madame Blanche, Francoise, a crew members Max and Henri.

Max isn't very interesting. He rarely speaks and has to impose himself to gain attention. However it must be admitted that he's one of the few people in the group with some notion of responsibility.

The Belgian Henri Scholtus turned out to be far too interesting. A few days after our arrival he passed along this anecdote.He's Walloon: Flemish is a foreign language for him. Sunken jowls and distended belly, yet physically he's very strong; this distinguishes him from other fatsos on the scene, such as Bastid, Jean-Jacques the camera-man, and Michel Martens who are flabby tubs of lard). The lines of his face evoke a ghastly vantage of depravity.

Jean-Pierre Bastid had arrived and we were sitting around at lunch in Roger's. Our group consisted of Bastid, Henri, Françoise, Blanche, myself, Jean-Jacques and Chauffard, an elderly actor who is typecast for the role of genteel elderly retired professional. Henri was describing his work on films in the Belgian Congo:

"Let me tell you how one makes a film in the Congo. I was the cameraman for a certain director, let's call him "Dupont". "Turn ,turn!" Dupont says. On this day the production goes to the prison. Everything is set up, lights, sound, travelling, all up and ready to go. "Wait!" says Dupont. He wants to talk with the warden. The prison is about 15 meters away from us. We see lots of little barred doors opening inwards to a compound. The warden gives Dupont the keys. HE goes to the first door.

Inside we can see a little black man squatting in the darkness. Dupont opens the door: "Go! You're free." The little black man looks at him He's afraid! "Hurry up." says Dupont: "You can make a run for it."

Little black man stands up; he runs out of that prison as fast as his skinny little legs can take him. Dupont shouts :"Turn! Turn!"

On top of the fence half asleep sits a black policeman. He sees the prisoner running, takes up his rifle, squints into the eye-piece. "Pfing!" Little black man turns over and drops dead.

Dupont shouts to me: "No good! We need another." Two, three, four : All the same way!" Chuckling, Henri observed our reactions to his story: " Eh? How do you like the way we make films in the Congo? Pfing! I didn't like that one, give me another. Pfing! Keep turning! Pfing! Ha, ha, ha!"

We were stunned. No one was able to make a reply. Then Jean-Jacques stammered something about colonialism. Françoise asked Henri how it was possible for him to participate in such a crime. He snarled: " Well, it's my craft, and I know my craft very well. " He sat down at our table, his volatile features working with animation as he punctuated each phrase with a butter knife:

"Maybe you feel sorry for those buggers; maybe you don't know what they did the day before! Look: they were all condemned to death. We're really just talking about the means of execution. Those buggers had tortured and murdered a whole settlement of European missionaries. They cut open their bellies, tore out the livers, raped the women.

"I'd been to see this village. So had Dupont. They were his people,these missionaries, he'd grown up with them. After seeing that I defy anyone to have any sympathy for those cannibals. It's against human nature! , You'd feel the same way if you'd seen what I did . Possibly after a month at home you'd become civilized again. Not down there, not in the Congo. There you become just like the savages."

In some agitation Françoise began speaking, Henri's story had deeply disturbed her . During the Algerian War, ( which had ended less than 5 years ago), she'd had a similar discussion with her brother. She'd been raised in Morocco. Her father was an army officer, her brother a landowner. One day her brother returned to his house to find his daughter raped and murdered. He rushed out of the house. In an act of uncontrollable violence he killed a 2-year old Arab baby by throwing her from the cradle. Later her brother sought to justify his deed on the same grounds that Dupont and Henri had used to justify what they'd done in the Congo.

Mme Pigaud and I wisely maintained a discrete silence, while Henri continued to produce arguments in his own defence. As such people do, he imagined himself to have the rest of us at a disadvantage through being the only person present with direct experience of the war in the Congo.

Europe's biggest mistake, he said, was to grant independence to its African colonies. Brandishing his butter knife and tossing out facts in a high voice to stuff back the arguments of his adversaries, he cited the ignorance, superstition and retrogression to cannibalism that had returned to these countries after the departure of the Europeans.He had nothing but contempt for what he called hypocrisy of the college-educated native middle class. He heaped scorn on French and Belgian -trained medical doctors who sat on their rears while the witch doctors undermined their weak efforts at combatting disease.

The arguments used against him were on vague moral grounds, that is to say, whenever the speakers were able to get past the deluge of facts and figures. Provided he stuck to specifics one couldn't argue with him. Only Françoise was able to cite the numerous injustices of the colonial administration and the unbelievable corruption within the French army that had caused even her father to hand in his resignation. I simply assumed that Henri was a monster, and let it go at that.

He has turned out to be an exceptionally generous and considerate person, making it difficult to set him in proper perspective. In all his dealings with us we've witnessed gentleness and real good will. Yet the dark side is always present, etched into the lines of his face and the thoughts that shape his features when he's sitting alone. I've concluded that he's not a vicious man but a very weak one. One cannot deny the lascivious streak in him. He can describe a disembowelling in a way that makes one's hair stand on end, bringing unfeigned relish to each and every detail, such as the opening of the stomach, filling the wounds with salt, putting animals in the opening, etc. Yet his numerous acts of kindness seem to spring from him with the same impulsiveness as his thirst for revenge against the "black savages" who murdered his people.

It is an easier task to describe the principal cameraman, Jean-Jacques, by virtue of his rich collection of repulsive traits: drunkard, buffoon, glutton and slob, erotomaniac of homosexual tendencies. If he likes you he will literally pull down his trousers and exhibit his backside! Jean-Jacques will do anything to get attention: such as smoking cigarettes stuck up his nose, sticking slabs of salami on his eyes and watercress in his hair, bending his knife and fork in half, simulating the grunts and gestures of the act of eating a penis, howling, banging his fists on the table; you name it .

He's also fond of crude practical jokes - like pulling chairs out from people as they're in the act of sitting down into them, or dropping a cigarette into somebody's glass of wine. Someone coming out of a men's or lady's room will invariably be asked if they've had a good shit. He likes to shout "Ca-Ca!" or "Pee-Pee!" at unexpected moments.

In fact, Jean-Jacques never stops. He always has to be doing something scandalous to gain public attention. In the mansion where we are staying there is a broken-down upright piano in the large billiards salon to the left of the entrance. On those afternoons when he is free one is likely to find him there, at the piano, banging on the keys and squealing at the top of his lungs. Sometimes he's crushed a hat on the crown of his head, and a satin cord around his neck. He can take up the whole afternoon with this exhibition, a mixture of lustful crowing, squealing and braying accompanied by hideous random sounds churned out of the bowels of the instrument. Better this than a drunken rage; perhaps - one can't avoid the impression of being present at some exotic ritual of sacrificial slaughter, with Jean-Jacques as chief high butcher and music the victim. He certainly isn't making music, although one might interpret his vaudeville act as a cantata to humanity in the voices of horses, cows, roosters, complete with stamping feet and banging fists. It's very frightening in fact. It may make him happy, but it certainly makes the rest of us miserable.

Most of the film personnel have known Jean-Jacques for a long time and make allowances for him. Evidently he is one of the best cameramen in Europe, especially when drunk!

Ainay, Film Diary, Continued

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