Stationary tourist

Like many Americans, I studied French in high school and daydreamed about an eventual trip to Paris, where I would sit at sidewalk cafes drinking wine and conversing wittily with the city’s inhabitants en Français. I would ride a bicycle with baguettes in the basket and become an expert on art history. I would look out over the city from the top of the Eiffel Tower and call it mine.

When I finally visited Paris at age 18, I was so unnerved by the height of the Eiffel Tower that I could barely step outside the elevator to glance at the view. I couldn’t decipher the French signs accompanying the works at the Louvre, and Parisians barely let me stumble through a salutation before switching into English to accommodate me. I left France feeling unsophisticated and humbly resigned to a lifetime of sheltered, monolingual traveling experiences.

I’ve never been back. The closest I’ve gotten is the Sacramento French Film Festival. Each year, I attempt to see as many films there as possible, sitting for six to 10 hours at a time. There’s something meditative about taking in so much cinema at once. With no time to process the preceding film before the next starts, I have to abandon analysis and simply absorb the flickering images.

It’s also an endurance test, ignoring the backside ache that sets in after a few hours. I forgo meals, subsisting on popcorn and water. I adjust to the odd rhythm of days lived by the light of the projector, broken into two-hour segments, narrated in an unfamiliar language. But mostly I revel in an intimate experience of France that requires no airfare or language skills to navigate.

Tipsy on Kronenbourg 1664 on opening night, I clutched my goodie bag (which included a gift certificate to La Provence Restaurant & Terrace, a commemorative wine glass, a pack of Mentos and hand cream among its varied treats) and watched Les Brigades du Tigre, a crime drama about France’s first national police unit.

Saturday, I returned for the midnight showing of Gaspar Noé’s Seul Contre Tous, about a nihilist butcher on a homicidal rampage. Much of the buzz at the opening reception was about Noé’s penchant for extreme violence. Many of my friends had seen his Irréversible, which screens this Saturday at midnight and features a nine-minute rape scene, but Seul Contre Tous was unfamiliar to all.

I arrived for the film with some trepidation—amplified when festival director Cécile Mouette Downs revoked her introductory “Enjoy the film!” with the disclaimer that it wasn’t really enjoyable. I sat wide-eyed through 93 minutes of death threats, pregnant-woman bashing, incest and murder, frequently covering my eyes so the subtitles were visible but the image was blocked out. I felt positively bludgeoned by the experience and only somewhat comforted by the muffins and coffee accompanying a 2:30 a.m. discussion on the controversial value of Noé’s work.

I slept in on Sunday but managed to be in my seat by 1 p.m. for the haunting La Moustache, in which a man shaves his moustache and is surprised when no one notices. When he confronts his wife and co-workers about it, they insist he never had one, and his grasp on reality begins to erode. The following program, Claude Berri’s 1967 Le Vieil Homme et L’enfant and his charming short film Le Poulet, provided the perfect antidote to the traumatic midnight movie. The simple, touching feature about the friendship between a young Jewish boy and a curmudgeonly Catholic man during World War II restored my faith in humanity—and in French cinema.

As a tourist, I was too shy or inept to penetrate the lives of the French and get to know them. From my theater seat, with the help of English subtitles, I can wander cobblestone streets, country meadows and historic boulevards, peering into the lives of all sorts of characters. I can look out over cinematic images of the country and call it mine.