On Paris Stages, Gay Artists Look Back | Modern Society of USA

On Paris Stages, Gay Artists Look Back

On Paris Stages, Gay Artists Look Back

PARIS — Two related scenes are currently playing out in theaters here. In “Les Idoles” (“The Idols”), at the Odéon — Théâtre de l’Europe, the actress Marina Foïs recounts in detail the death of the philosopher Michel Foucault, in 1984, of an AIDS-related illness. At the Espace Cardin, Foucault’s homosexuality is seen through the eyes of his first biographer, the sociologist Didier Eribon, in “Retour à Reims” (“Returning to Reims”).

In both productions, prominent French gay artists reclaim their pasts with striking honesty. “Retour à Reims,” staged by the German director Thomas Ostermeier, is based on Mr. Eribon’s 2009 memoir-cum-essay about his working-class roots, while the writer and director Christophe Honoré looks back at the artistic heroes — those “idols” — he lost to AIDS in his youth.

Mr. Honoré may be better known for films including “Love Songs,” but his theater work is in some ways more ambitious and original. His recent plays have brought real individuals back to life and imagined, with the benefit of hindsight, how they might have interacted: “Nouveau Roman,” in 2012, focused on the 20th-century French literary movement of the same name; “Les Idoles” brings together six writers and filmmakers who died between 1989 and 1994.

Extensive research clearly went into the play, but Mr. Honoré doesn’t strive for truthfulness. He isn’t preoccupied with physical likeness, for starters, and regularly casts women in male roles onstage. In “Les Idoles,” Ms. Foïs plays Hervé Guibert, whose autobiographical novel “To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life” evoked Foucault’s last days, while the part of the filmmaker Jacques Demy is taken with gusto by Marlène Saldana, in a fur coat and heels.

Some of the characters in “Les Idoles” enjoy more public recognition than others. Mr. Demy is one of them, and the playwrights Jean-Luc Lagarce and Bernard-Marie Koltès are both revered names on the French stage. A creation about them might easily have turned into a series of reverential obituaries, but Mr. Honoré gives “Les Idoles” a welcome lightness of touch.

The men are portrayed as witty, imperfect individuals rather than austere icons to be worshiped. They are as likely to launch into a dance number as they are to debate the attributes of the ideal lover: Ms. Saldana’s rendition of “Chanson d’un jour d’été,” from Mr. Demy’s musical film “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” is an unlikely highlight.

The play still brings up unsettling questions about the ways in which the AIDS crisis affected the arts community, in France and beyond. If some of those who died had survived, would their legacy be perceived differently today? Did artists who were sick have a duty to speak up, or was staying in the closet — as Mr. Demy did — an acceptable choice? Throughout, Mr. Honoré contrasts the crusade by Elizabeth Taylor (also played by Ms. Saldana) to raise awareness of the disease and funds for research in the United States with the relative public discretion of artists in France.

The cast contributes expertly tragicomic performances in a production that acts as a lucid, intimate “adieu” to a formative era for Mr. Honoré. When the filmmaker Cyril Collard is left alone at the end, calling out the names of his dead peers only to be met with silence, the void they left behind is palpable.

Mr. Eribon’s “Retour à Reims” is even more personal, but it doesn’t translate as easily to the stage. Mr. Ostermeier, who leads Berlin’s Schaubühne theater, has acknowledged there is “nothing theatrical” about the book, which intertwines autobiography and social theory. Regardless, the director has tackled it in three languages: He first adapted it in 2017 with the actress Nina Hoss, who performed it in English and in German, and has now brought a French version to Paris.

It’s a spare, unhurried experience. Irène Jacob, replacing Ms. Hoss, plays a voice-over artist working on a documentary inspired by Mr. Eribon’s experiences. For 45 minutes or so, she merely reads from the book as the fictional documentary — which includes footage of Mr. Eribon and his aging mother — unfolds on a screen above her head. Slowly, however, disagreements about the project arise with the filmmaker who hired her, played by Cédric Eeckhout.

Mr. Ostermeier originally designed the production to allow Ms. Hoss to touch on her own father’s political career in Germany, and the French version feels like a compromise of sorts. In the lead role, Ms. Jacob objects to some of Mr. Eeckhout’s cuts in the text and to the use of footage from the recent “yellow vest” protests in France to illustrate a point about the far right, but her character otherwise lacks a strong identity.

The film is only intermittently revelatory, too, giving this “Retour à Reims” a disjointed feel. Although the production marks the first appearance of the yellow vests in French theater, they are discussed only in passing. A third character, played by Blade M. C. Alimbaye, is present throughout and performs a couple of songs, yet a key story — of his African grandfather, who fought for France in World War II — isn’t introduced until the last 10 minutes.

The new year in Paris has also featured two female directors at odds with each other. While Phia Ménard, a Frenchwoman, channeled the feminist anger that crystallized in #MeToo in “Saison Sèche” (“Dry Season”), the polarizing Spanish director Angelica Liddell rails against the same movement in “The Scarlet Letter,” loosely inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel.

The visceral force of Ms. Liddell’s confessional monologues has salvaged many of her productions. Not so here. In attempting to react to the social mood, the director and performer, who describes herself as a “recluse,” bites off more than she can chew. “I don’t like this world where women have stopped loving men,” she says early on. “No woman loves enough anymore.” This sets the scene for rants so misogynistic that they would probably land a male performer in artistic exile.

In any event, “The Scarlet Letter” proves so over the top that Ms. Liddell’s ode to the superiority of men mostly prompted awkward laughs at one recent performance at the Théâtre de la Colline. The contrast with “Saison Sèche” couldn’t be starker. In Ms. Ménard’s latest work, seven women were trapped under a white ceiling that moved up and down. Their way out was to slowly take on the appearance of men, in the style of drag kings, until the walls around them began to visibly erode and crumble.

With no text, this metaphor for the glass ceiling relied entirely on Ms. Ménard’s taut staging and precise physical direction. Her vision comes across with increasing clarity these days, just as #MeToo has brought her staunchly feminist stance closer to the mainstream. This might just be a banner year for her.

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