New York City’s fashion elite are in Paris for the fashion shows, as Fashion Week has moved from NYC to London and now to the City of Light. Instagram feeds have exploded with insider images shot from the front row and backstage at some of the chicest designer shows in the world. Kendall Jenner hosted an “Americans in Paris” reception for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund’s annual initiative to promote US designers by showing their collections to buyers in a Paris showroom, and Vogue’s editor, Anna Wintour, was spotted wearing a Hillary Clinton T-shirt designed by Marc Jacobs. The schedule is packed until Wednesday, the 9th, when Moon Yung Hee presents the final show at 4:30 on that day. The after parties are taking place in every arrondissement in that city, but for those visitors to Paris for the shows who are looking for some local culture to combat the fashion fabulous overload, a stylish musical is in its final weeks at the théâtre du Lucernaire (Paris 6e).
Kiki de Montparnasse, with a score from the French composer, Reinhardt Wagner, with songs by Frank Thomas, is being held over at the Lucernaire during its second run until March 27th. Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, the French film director whose work is considered to be the best example of what is known as Cinéma du look, a French film movement of the 1980s, it is the story of the woman who came to be known as the “Queen of Montparnasse”, the area located on the Left Bank which came to be known during the 1920s and 1930s as the heart of artistic and intellectual life in Paris. Born in 1901, Alice Prin was an illegitimate child who was raised in poverty by her grandmother in Châtillon-sur-Seine, a commune of the Côte-d’Or in eastern France. She arrived in Paris at age 12, when she was sent to live with her mother and expected to find work, which she did, in various shops and bakeries. At 14, she began to pose nude as an artist’s model, which brought about a falling out with her mother. After taking the single name, “Kiki”, she became a fixture of the Montparnasse social scene and the subject of some of the most famous works of art from that era. She was the lover of Man Ray, the American artist who spent most of his life in Paris and became one of the leading figures of the Dada and Surrealist movements. His Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924, is one of the artist’s most well-known images, featuring the f-holes of a stringed instrument superimposed onto Kiki’s back.
At the age of 28, Kiki composed her memoirs, Les Souvenirs de Kiki, which were seized by American customs when Bennett Cerf, a co-founder of Random House, attempted to import 150 translated copies. The introduction was written by Ernest Hemingway and Tsugouharu Foujita, the Japanese-French painter for whom Kiki was a frequent model. Kiki died at 53, collapsing outside her apartment in Montparnasse of apparent complications of alcohol and drug dependence, but during her reign as the main diva of the 14th arrondissement, she modeled for, and was friends with, some of the greatest artists, filmmakers and writers of her era. Now, as the subject of Beineix’s musical, her passion, audacity and creativity are brought to life by the actress, Héloïse Wagner, the daughter of the musical’s composer.
Passionate, intense and mercurial women are a hallmark of Beinex’s work, with the eponymous character of his 1987 Oscar-nominated masterpiece, Betty Blue, played by the French actress Béatrice Dalle, perhaps standing out in his oeuvre as the most tragic. The film has become a classic, beloved by fans for the poignant love affair at its center, as well as for the stylistic aesthetics of its cinematography. Beineix first came to prominence with American audiences with his 1981 break out film, Diva, a stylish neo-noir detective story of sorts, based on one of the works of the cult writer Daniel Robert Odier, who, under the pen name Delacorta, wrote a series of novels featuring the enigmatic fictional character, Serge Gorodish. Beineix’s canon includes 1983’s Moon in the Gutter, which starred Gerard Depardieu and Nastassia Kinski and 2001’s Mortel Transfert, and he has published the first volume of his autobiography, so far only available in French. Beineix spoke from Paris about what drew him to Kiki of Montparnasse as his newest muse.
“Kiki’s figure immediately seduced me. Kiki is a true rock star quite ahead of her times.
Sex, drugs and rock and roll if we admit that foxtrot, charleston and tango are as wild as rock is, but she was singing in cabaret, hostessing wild nights in both Montparnasse and Montmartre and in a few years she became the unchallenged queen of this kingdom. It was a post first worldwar time. People were eager to feel alive, celebrate this recovered freedom. It was a very permissive era. Kiki arrived at the age of 13 from her native Burgundy, a famous French vine region. Penniless, she had to work and make her living with various little jobs. She went from bakery, to factory as a worker on warplane wings, working then in a printing atelier sewing the Kamasutra Edition. All was required to add the finishing touches to a young girl’s education.”
“She started as a model for some painters when her mother discovered her activity and banned her. Montparnasse at that time was the artistic center of the world. A community of exiled artists had found asylum from all over the world in Montparnasse to create and discuss in this quaint part of Paris. Poets, painters, sculptors, writers, coming from America, Spain, Russia, Italy, Holland, Romania, Japan; holding endless discussions, parties and orgies, but also helping each other, trading ideas, exchanging glances upon their various and blossoming creations. Kiki became the favorite model for some of them; Mendjisky, Fujita, Utrillo, Soutine, Per Krohg, Modigliani, Kisling; she met also Hemingway, Picasso, and Man Ray, who became her lover and portrayed her in so many masterpieces. Kiki went through anonymity to celebrity, and finally ended in oblivion.”
“She knew love, passion, alcohol, cocaine, then became fat and had to undergo detox. One day a queen, the next a goddess who had burned her wings. She is an inevitable personality of this period and certainly, thanks to a singular beauty, a sense of speech, a charismatic behavior, remains one of the most intriguing figures to understand this period. One can easily understand the attraction she holds for both theater or Cinema.” “As far as my own interest, I would genuinely be interested, after this musical play, to adapt it to a musical, and certainly Kiki would be a great character for a movie.”
Broadway theater audiences may one day have the opportunity to see Kiki de Montparnasse for themselves, as Beineix has plans to bring the production to New York, as well as beginning production on the film version of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Demon, a property to which he holds the film rights. He will direct another play in the short term before those undertakings, as well as continue work on a book about the making of Betty Blue. Visitors from New York who are in Paris for fashion week still have time to take in his current project, and travel back to a time when a single woman held sway over the artistic hearts and minds of that city’s cultural elite, as Kiki de Montparnasse does not close until March 27th.
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