Remembering Annie—Part Three
Recently, I’ve come to view a person’s path in life as being guided by something akin to a GPS navigation system. I’ve even taken to calling the chick who lives inside that system, placidly and emotionlessly issuing directions, as Felicity Common-Sense. The mistakes we make, major or minor, silly or fatal, are those turns in the road Ms. Common-Sense told us to make that we ignored. Never mind: she usually resets and finds an alternate route to get us where we are meant to be.
As a modern Don Quixote, I have often switched Ms. Common-Sense off completely, no doubt annoyed by her monotonous robotic drone pointing at obvious directions that haven’t excited me, preferring instead to go off on my own tortuous, seemingly nonsensical path.
One of the more glaring mistakes I made early on might have been dropping out of Wesleyan University after my freshman year. With perfect-vision hindsight, had I been truly serious about becoming a film director, I would have suffered through the four years in Bumfuck, Connecticut and been the better for it professionally.
In fairness to me, I couldn’t have known at the age of eighteen, pining as I was for a Europe far from Reagan’s America, that the head of Wesleyan’s film department, Jeanine Basinger, was hatching a nefarious plot to place her minions at the top of the Hollywood crap-making machine. Aside from being the former head of the American Film Institute, and the current go-to pundit for The New York Times on matters relating to the film business, Jeanine is the only Wesleyan professor who must be flown everywhere first class, which leads me to believe she also had a hand in negotiating Hollywood’s union contracts as well.
That fateful freshman year, when I was at last legally able to take charge of my own GPS life-navigation system, Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure, Cool Runnings) lived a few doors down from me in my dorm. My dog, Henry, who lived with me illegally in that same dorm, went on to star in one of Michael Bay’s student films. And it was Oscar-winner Akiva Goldsman who finally made up my mind to drop out, after I listened to him explain phenomenology one night when I was stoned in the kitchen of a mutual friend’s house off campus. Not knowing that phenomenology is incomprehensible for most people, I felt I was too stupid for this Wesleyan shit and needed an infusion of superficiality and glamour back in my life. In other words, I needed Paris.
I had reconnected with Annie Girardot and her daughter, Giulia, when they came to New York over the summer of ’82 for the American premiere of a film they made together playing mother and daughter, La Vie Continue. When I expressed a desire to move to Paris, Giulia offered to rent me her duplex in Annie’s group of apartments on the Place des Vosges; she was going to be living with her hyperactive new Italian boyfriend in Rome and wouldn’t be needing it.
It was an unusual time in foreign exchange rates. The French franc was at ten to the dollar; normally, it was five or six. This meant Paris was a cheap as it was during the 1920s, when other American creatives flocked there, which made it a somewhat more attractive to my father. Still, I was going to have a hard time making the rent by myself, so I decided to sublet the second bedroom to a girl in Giulia’s class at St. Stephens, Natalia, without consulting Giulia. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me—or maybe beknownst to me but I was willfully ignoring it—Giulia disliked Natalia. So we were off on the wrong foot.
Having been raised in Europe, with three years of Manhattan under my belt, plus looking way older than my years so that I was treated by everyone as someone in his mid-twenties, I was a preternaturally precocious nineteen-year-old. My favorite thing was to tell people how old I really was, and then have to dispel their incredulity by producing my passport. And it worked every time.
The first thing I did when I moved into Annie’s place on the Place des Vosges was make friends with a South African fashion photographer, Barry Dunne, and his designer friends, who were renting out the apartment beneath Annie’s, which belonged to the architect Sir Richard Rogers, the man who created the Pompidou Center down the street.
I’d already been living there for a couple of months by the time Natalie joined me. In no time, she and Barry from downstairs were an item, and for a while it was as if the entire building at 25 Place des Vosges was one big house.
Annie had her own crazy love affair still going on, with a guy I’d met when she came to New York for the film premiere, a rather sleazy character whose name I don’t remember, who somehow managed to include his wife and kids into the Girardot ménage. Seeing as Annie’s bedroom shared a corridor with the entrance to Giulia’s apartment, it was hard not to hear each other and have run-ins every now and then.
Giulia’s relationship with Annie was deep and enviable, a sisterly bond, which meant that Giulia’s anger at having Natalia living there became Annie’s peeve as well. Natalia’s only problem was that she was very beautiful and justifiably aristocratic, and Giulia was very much her mother’s daughter: no bullshit, no haughtiness, completely salt-of-the-earth; in other words, the opposite of Natalia.
The beginning of the end of my six-month tenancy at Place des Vosges occurred one morning when I was in bed with a French lover I’d recently hooked up with. We’d hardly left Giulia’s enormous, ornately carved mahogany bed since we’d met, and we were in the throes of passion—his legs akimbo, me pounding away between them—when Annie barged into the room, yelling.
Mais, t’es complètement fou? she asked. “Are you completely crazy? How can you put your dirty laundry under the water heater in the bathroom? What if it caught fire and burned us all down?”
The housekeeper had ratted me out. Bitch.
I leapt out of bed and immediately began my own indignant diatribe: Tu ne vois pas que je suis en train de baiser, là? “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of fucking?”
And so we went at it hammer and tongs, like I would with my own mother, a teenager railing against authority. She was right, my laundry was a fire hazard; there was a small open pilot flame in the water heater above my pile of laundry. But I was right, too: she could have at least knocked.
Once she’d stormed out of the bedroom again, I looked back at my lover, who was cowering under the covers. I’m sure I’d told him who my landlady was, but I guess he didn’t believe me because if situation were reversed and he had been an American who had met some drunk Frenchman in a bar in New York who said, “Why don’t you come home with me? Just one thing: I live with Meryl Streep,” he might have taken it with a grain of salt, too.
C’etait Annie Girardot, ça, he muttered, trembling, as if he’s just participated as an extra in some histrionic scene from one of her movies. “That was Annie Girardot.”
He broke up with me two weeks later.
It was only a matter of time before Giulia called me and told me that she needed her place back. By then, I didn’t care: I was assistant to rising fashion photographer Pamela Hanson, and very much a young man about town. I immediately rented another duplex from a voluptuous South African model on the rue des Deux Ponts on the Île Saint-Louis, the oldest neighborhood in Paris, around the corner from Pamela. It wasn’t Place des Vosges, but it was still pretty swell for a nineteen-year-old.
This place I got on my own. Natalia and Barry were firmly in love, so she just moved downstairs with him to Richard Rogers’ apartment. Eventually, they married.
I’d been at the Île Saint-Louis place for a few weeks when I arrived home from a shoot to find the grocer downstairs with a bemused smile on his face and a message: Annie Girardot te cherche. “Annie Girardot is looking for you.” There was also a terse note from her stuck under the front door to the building, asking me to go to her place.
It turns out Annie had done everything but ring the bells of Notre Dame to inform the entire historic district of Paris she was looking for me. I went from being puzzled as to what she could want to being absolutely livid as I made my way along the very route she had taken from the Place des Vosges to the Île Saint-Louis looking for me; every shop I used, every café and bar I’d ever frequented barked out the same message as I passed by: Annie te cherche!
—Oui, je sais! I yelled back, as I practically broke into a run in panic. This was before the Marais became the bustling, trendy area it is today and was still a cozy neighborhood where everyone knew each other.
When I got to 25 Place des Vosges, I burst through the front door and bolted up the stairs. As I passed the first floor, one of Barry’s South African roommates poked her head out of the door and said, “Annie is looking—“
“I KNOW!” I bellowed.
By the time I got to Annie’s front door, I was ready to kill. She opened the door with that pleasant, insouciant smile under those awning eyelids as if nothing had happened. If her sweet, doddering old mother hadn’t been behind her, things could have been worse.
—QUOI? I bellowed with all of the force of my arrogant entitled teenaged surrogate-son attitude. “WHAT?” I will never forget that quoi; it was so disrespectful.
—C’est bon. Je les ai trouvé, she said cheerfully. “It’s okay. I’ve found them.” It turns out she couldn’t find the keys to Giulia’s apartment and thought I still had them. When she realized she didn’t know where I had moved, just somewhere vaguely around the Île Saint-Louis, she used her considerable influence as the voisine vedette, the diva neighbor, to turn the entire quartier upside down looking for me over a misplaced set of keys.
Annie placated me with chitchat about how she had lived on the same street I was on now when she first moved to Paris. But I was done with the mercurial tantrums, even if in retrospect they weren’t that bad at all. I already had a mother of my own with whom I had a contentious relationship. It’s a frightening trait of mine: no matter how close I am to a person, even if I’ve declared him or her the love of my life at a certain point, when I am done I walk off and never look back.
That evening of the misplaced keys was the last time I saw Annie in person. But it wasn’t the last time we interacted.
Ironically, and perhaps inspiringly, Annie made two of the best and coolest films of her career (aside from Rocco and His Brothers) when she was in her seventies, both directed by Michael Haneke, first The Piano Teacher with Isabelle Huppert in 2001, and then Caché (Hidden) with Daniel Auteuil in 2005.
Teacher made me both smile and cringe a bit when I saw it because she has such a quarrelsome relationship with her on-screen daughter, played by Huppert, which was vaguely familiar to my own relationship with Annie. However, when the sociopathic blond young man, a staple of Haneke films, smacked her around, oddly enough I didn’t identify.
It was Caché that really got to me, dug deep into my memories and punched a few raw spots. I consider it to be the last time Annie interacted with me, albeit in a Purple Rose of Cairo sort of way where an on-screen character talks to a member of the audience. Whereas my friends I went to see it with came away from the film either baffled, or impressed, or frustrated at the oblique ending, I felt like Annie had smacked me around and had the last word in retaliation for my monstrous quoi.
In the film, Annie plays Auteuil’s ailing, bedridden mother. Distraught over the mysterious person stalking his family, Auteuil goes to see her. They have a brief exchange which, may God bless Lord Google and keep it forever prosperous and omniscient, I was able to locate. Annie looks directly at the camera, or rather at me in the audience, and with that same studied insouciance even in the face of death that I had so admired as a teen, offers her son little solace for what he is experiencing.
“I often dream of my childhood,” he says to her. Yes, Annie, it’s true: I still dream of Oliver, of meeting him and losing him again and again, and of you, and Giulia, and the whole gang in Rome. And more often than not I dream that I’m in my house on the Via Delle Tre Madonne, too, which grows and adds room after room, each one more splendidly decorated than the next. As the house expands, I move through the maze, the rooms no longer familiar, until I don’t know where I am any more, and the place is both comforting and terrifying in its splendor, perhaps because I know it is no longer where I live.
“It comes with age,” she replies with a shrug. Really, James. You are too sensitive. Always were.
“Sure, but I’m not that old,” he says. I’m really not that old. I look great for my age, despite the booze and the drugs and the cigarettes. Don’t I?
“It comes faster than you think,” she snaps back. Ouf, alors, James! You still have one eye on your youth, but you are now almost the age I was when we met, when my career was winding down. I had already made eighty-one films. And you? What have you done with your life? A few amusing adventures here and there, yes, but mainly you have slept in. Hurry up, you’re late.
Annie died from Alzheimer’s disease on February 28, 2011. Apparently it had progressed so badly that she had to be put in a home, which Giulia would only have done had Annie’s disease not been dire. I have read various accounts online that said she didn’t even know her own name when she passed.
For an actor, losing all memory must be like a painter or a filmmaker losing his eyesight. If Annie had thought of me at all in those years after we drifted apart, as she lay dying in that old person’s home—and I picture her there the same as Haneke had shown her in Caché—she certainly had no recollection of me, of that time she was driving us to the lesbian club and Giulia had rolled a perfect spliff, which Annie lit and exclaimed with pride, ma fille a fait ça? “My daughter made this?”
Or maybe now and then a random snippet of memory flew into her mind, as it can do with Alzheimer’s patients, and she got flashes of the compassion she had for me in the corridor of Luisa Stewart’s apartment when she invited me to Paris. Or as they wheeled her into the garden she suddenly chuckled thinking of the sight of my bare ass as I sodomized a boy whose name even I don’t recollect (Patrice? Fabrice?), and then chuckled harder at how embarrassed and enraged she made me over the silly key issue.
More likely this post is the only memory of our time together; just these words, which mourn not only her but the inevitable passing of my youth, as it comes faster than I think; just this post and every time I speak French: there is a slight Parisian argot inflection in my accent that is entirely hers, as is my shrug, as is the way I say ouf, alors!
And every time I cook a rosemary and garlic roast chicken, which is often, I picture her and me in that little kitchen on the rue du Foin where she taught me to make it, because for me that dish always has been and forever will be my very own poulet à l’Annie.