Authors: Rjurik Davidson
THE LIBRARY OF FORGOTTEN BOOKS
The Cinema of Coming Attractions
During the summer the crowds came to the town—starlets and champion surfers, playboys and fortune seekers, retired generals and declining pin-up girls—and bustled around the squares or lazed on the rocky beach beneath the white cliffs topped by even whiter buildings. Here they acted out their desperate affairs and petty dramas. The more adventurous sailed out to the rock pools on the picturesque islands or along the coast to the famous Sparkling Grotto with its fractured and kaleidoscopic light. But chief among the enticements was the Cinema of Coming Attractions. Each day, as my gang scammed tourists on the Place de la Revolution, I watched the famous and the wealthy stagger from the matinee sessions at the Palais Cinema. Sometimes they would be arm-in-arm and laughing. Others came out drawn and white. And, of course, I’d heard the stories of breakdown and suicide.
As the sun baked the square one afternoon, Petit Pierre squatted on the ground, a bowl full of money and three cups face down before him. He picked one up to reveal nothing beneath it. With rapid movements like a small animal, Pierre picked up one of the other two cups to reveal a ball.
,” he said, his fifteen-year-old face mimicking sadness as he pocketed the money in the wooden bowl. I saw in him my younger self, still driven by the need to prove to the world—the world that had abandoned him, me—his worth in the terms of that world’s choosing: boats and cars and suits and women.
“Hey, my money!” yelled the fat American film producer, his white shirt staining yellow beneath his armpits. Next to him his terrifyingly skeletal wife shifted from one foot to the other like a flamingo, a short rose-coloured dress revealing bony knees.
Guy and Matthieu stood on either side of the American and together they formed a ring around the game. Guy wore a cowboy hat and boots that he’d taken from another American. Only moments before he had pretended to win against Petit Pierre, laughing loudly as he’d pocketed the money and tipped his hat. But now he stared off into the distance. For some reason, he was getting lax in his work.
“Give me back my money,” said the Producer, and he reached for Pierre.
Matthieu, silent as usual, with that immovable calm like some Buddhist teacher, stepped forward to take the Producer’s arm.
, it was a fair game,” said Guy.
“Get your hands off me!” yelled the Producer.
I looked around, worried that one of the
—perhaps the serious Arnaud, or cruel Philippe ‘Le Flic’—would arrive.
“This is a scam. Give me my damned money!” yelled the American, trying to shake Matthieu, who glanced up at me and raised his eyebrows.
I made a sharp sideways gesture with my hand, to say, “End it”. The American caught the movement from the corner of his eye. He turned, shook off Matthieu and took two steps towards me. “You’re in charge aren’t you? I can tell! You in your cheap ratty suit, your damned hat. I want my money back.”
In the background, Petit Pierre had already packed up his things and was walking away with Guy and Matthieu.
I stared the Producer in the eye. “
, you would do well to take your concerns elsewhere. We would hate for you to lose more than your money.” I pulled from my pocket the sharp thin stiletto.
The wife let out a little bleat of a laugh, and the Producer looked down, his eyes flitting across the ground as if he’d lost something.
I took a step forward and his face gave way, as if some internal structure had suddenly broken. “Please don’t hurt me,
.” Though I wanted to cut him—he with his money and his boat cruises and his aged and ugly trophy wife, and his inflated opinion of himself—I stepped back again, to indicate he could go. His face relaxed and he took several steps backwards, turned to his wife and said, “What are you looking at?”
Trust the Americans to make a scene.
“How much did you take from them?” a voice said in my ear. Startled, I turned to find a lithe woman with massive sunglasses and heavy glittering jewelled rings. Her skin was tanned just a little too much, her dark hair swept away from her forehead. Her red dress clung to her as if it was wet. She reeked of Paris and coffee shops and artists and intellectuals on the left bank. She was the image of everything I desired and feared, everything that seemed out of reach for a boy who had come up to the town from the rocky foothills to the south.
“Come to Marcel’s and I’ll explain it to you,” I said.
She looked at me coldly, just as I had looked at the American, and my eyes gave a little twitch. She smiled a half-smile at that. “Go on then.”
Marcel’s café had dark wooden furnishings, plush couches at the rear and a smoky scent. Marcel stood behind the bar polishing glasses nonchalantly, hair slicked back and pencil moustache trimmed precisely, looking at me as if everything was as it should be. He had an unflappability that I envied.
The woman sat opposite me in one of the booths that ran along the side of the bar. She raised a long cigarette holder to her mouth, and Marcel appeared next to her as if in a jump-cut in some avant-garde film from Paris.
...” Marcel’s lighter flickered in the cool darkness, the open doorways and wide windows to the outside just sheets of brilliance.
She was perhaps in her late twenties, or early thirties. There were tiny lines barely visible on the skin around her eyes, which repelled and aroused me in equal measure. With her sunglasses off, her face looked like that of a small animal, with a button nose and delicate cheekbones. Around her was a strange air of lethargy, as if she were a cat in the sun. Had I seen her on the front of a magazine?
“Old friends?” Marcel asked.
“She picked me up in the street.” I smirked and adjusted my hat so that it was cocked a little more to the side. “She was impressed by me and my gang.”
“You think I was impressed with that?” She didn’t even bother to laugh. “That’s not the reason I approached you.”
Marcel shrugged. “Perhaps you two were meant to meet.” With that, he walked back to his glass polishing.
We sat there in silence, and she seemed unperturbed by it. Eventually she said, “Elena.”
“Emanuel.” Both of us looked away from each other.
“How are we supposed to keep going,” she said, “with all this heat and sun?”
“It’s summer; it’s supposed to be hot.”
“Ah yes, summer,” she said. “When I was a child in Paris, my brother and I used to play with hoops in the alleyways. He’s dead now; no one could have predicted it then. He was full of life. He had brown hair. He used to sing Piaf songs to keep us amused.”
“I’ve always liked Piaf,” I said. “
ne regrette rien.”
“I hate her,” she said. “Still, he was a good brother.”
I kept my tone emotionless, as if I didn’t care for the conversation. “People die. Things run down. You have to take things while you can.”
We sat there in silence for a while, then she turned to me. “Stop your brooding.”
“This whole macho performance,” she said. “Stop it.”
I curled my lip, ready to spit obscenities, but something held me back. This was no peasant girl from the rocky foothills where I had been born. If she had been, she would have asked me if I was all right, she would have leaned in, mesmerised. Something different had to be done here. The more at a loss I was, the more I wanted to reach Elena somehow. She was something distant, a destination you could not make out on the horizon. But it was all going wrong.
It was a surprise when she said, “Would you like to go to the Cinema of Coming Attractions?”
The roof of the Cinema’s foyer had great reliefs on the ceiling: carvings of mermaids and goddesses holding scales in one hand. In uniforms of blue dresses with white berets, usherettes took coats from suited men with cravats, or from high-heeled women in rounded shoes and diamond earrings. The place smelled of cigarettes and espresso shots and perfume and it was magnificent. I felt out of place in my battered suit.
The converted theatre itself was grand, with a large balcony above us and private boxes perched high on the wall. We sat in the plush red chairs in the art-deco interior as the seats filled, everyone hoping to get a glimpse of the glorious future, where people were wonderful and strange.
The lights dimmed and the screen flickered. Like clips of some newsreel from the nineteen thirties, silent, and accompanied by a piano, we saw people in odd fashions walk the streets and babies bathing in old tubs. The image cut to a jaunty, mechanical, collective dance where people moved in syncopated fashion. What cities we viewed, what times we foresaw, who knew? Not I, not her, not the projectionist up there changing the reels. It was clear that the images jumped in time and place, and the Cinema was notorious for focusing on the historical lines—the futures, the descendents—of its viewers.
We saw images of what looked like nearby Marseille, with boats that floated in the sky between great towers, sails catching the wind, tacking to and fro, some with great spinnakers billowing. People dived from their decks and plunged through the air opening big parachutes and floating to the ground, landing between elaborate trams that lurched along the streets. The images cut to an earlier time. The towers were smaller and there were no floating boats, and in a small jazz club or bordello, semi-naked waitresses served suited men, others retiring to private rooms holding the men’s hands and fluttering long fake lashes.
A woman let out a cry in the theatre, “It’s Giselle!” I looked to see her staggering along an aisle. “
Oh mon dieu, non, c’ést pas possible
.” She cried as she left.
Afterwards Elena and I drank shots of espresso in the opulent Cinema café before she called her hotel and asked for a car. We stood on the Cinema steps until a man in a mauve uniform drove up in a ’58 Renault, black and smooth, its curves gleaming.
.” He stepped from the car and she climbed into the driver’s seat. “Coming?” she said.
“I’m driving,” I said, trying to wrest control of the situation.
She looked at me unmoved and said, “Get in.”
I walked away across the square. A few seconds later the car coasted beside me.
“Are you coming or not?”
I hopped in, against my better judgement—one does not give in to a woman’s demands—and in minutes we were out of the town and winding along the coastal road. To my right was a short distance of dusty ground and a void beyond. Far below was the sea. With each turn Elena increased our speed, and I lurched from side to side. The tyres screeched, the cliffs to my right perilously close.
Normally, I dominated conversations. I organised groups. I scared people. As a child in the rocky village I was the one all the other boys followed, the one the adults talked to, and the one who was most likely to get in trouble. I stole, I fought, I was whipped by my father. I was whipped by Tosca who lived on the farm nearby after which my father simply said, “You shouldn’t have been on his property.”
My stomach was a bubbling stew. I desired her as I had desired no other. She had to be my property, to be defended just as Tosca defended his. Yet how to make her mine, when she was so unmoved?
“Are you a model?” I asked.
“That’s where I’ve seen you!” It came to me: she was a starlet. I’d seen her smouldering on one of the Parisian magazines that Marcel kept at his café. I hadn’t read the story, preferring to glance at the pictures of Anna Levin and Brigitte Bardot (then at the height of her fame).
“Who have you worked with?” I asked. “Truffaut? Gotard?”
“Godard,” she corrected.
“One day, I can only hope.”
“One day you will. I can tell.”
She smiled sadly, and for the first time I saw her face as something other than a mask. She seemed younger and more vibrant. “And what is it you want?” she asked.
“A white house overlooking the sea, near the Grand Hotel du Lac, with pool and waiters and a brand new Porsche–” I hesitated.
She laughed and it was like a sprinkling rain in the air.
“You’re so like a child,” she said.
That struck the grin from my face. “I have plans. What do you think the future has in store for you? A film with Godard?”
She didn’t respond.
“Where are we going?” I said, looking out over the blue water.
“That’s the question we have to answer every day. For some each day the answer is different. For others—”
I snorted. Intellectuals annoyed me. The world was full of those who did and those who thought about doing. I settled back and we spoke no more.
We returned to the town as twilight was falling. She stopped at the Place de la Revolution. I would have kissed her but she was closed off, staring straight ahead. I would have held her hand but she had crossed her arms against the cold.
“Meet me at the Cinema tomorrow for the matinee session,” she said. Later, as I lay in bed during that long night, my thoughts crashed over each other like the tide on the rocks. Why did she approach me, and how would I win her?
I fell asleep late, and woke late. I rushed to meet the crew at Place du Conards, where we worked a group of English tourists who wandered around the markets. “Oow look, Jenny, look at dis fing...I fink it’s a bracelet. And dis necklace, Jenny. It’s so cheap!” Pierre, as usual, slipped through the crowds, his light hands collecting wallets like berries from a bush. Guy accosted the tourists with his booming and cheerful voice, hugging them, patting them, slapping them on the back, and coming away with their valuables. While Matthieu simply stood still, the jewellery and goods seeming to gravitate to him. We were the perfect team.
In the afternoon I waited on the steps of the Cinema, dressed again in my battered suit. Elena met me there and we entered the theatre, taking the same seats. I would kiss her today.
The newsreels came on. The war in Algeria was going well.
described the gains we were making.
was influencing the world for the better. Then the screen flickered with the sight of coming attractions, while the piano player started up in the corner, taking glances up at the screen to synchronise.