Film review: “Marguerite” by Xavier Gianolli and Marcia Romano

This French spoken film premiered in various national cinemas this week. Based on a true story, it is at times hilarious, moving, upsetting – like many a great opera. Like many of us, Marguerite has a dream: she wants to become a great opera diva.

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Film review: “Le Tête Haute” or “Standing Tall”

It opened the 2015 Film Festival in Cannes earlier this year. A film has to be special to do so. Does this French drama live up to expectations? Is this film really exceptional and a must-see?

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French food on a budget: Tarte au Maroilles

While in Antwerp for a museum visit (see: an Antwerp family reunion), I visited several of my favourite shops. One stocks an immense choice of national and international papers and magazines. I stumbled upon two back issues of the French magazine Cuisine.

Recipes don’t date easily. The two old issues focussed on easy and cheap dishes. So I invested in the back issues, which were sold at half price.

Here’s an easy and cheap main dish. It’s vegetarian as well! It’s called “Tarte au Maroilles”. “Tarte au Maroilles” is a traditional French recipe from Northern France. Think Italian pizza stripped of everything but the crust and cheese. Maroilles refers to the cheese. It is made in the northern regions of France and occasionally referred to as “stinky” – by non-fans.

There are several French deli’s in my village, but what they stock is not sold at budget prices. So I browsed the internet for a cheap alternative to Maroilles. Two were mentioned: Brie and Camembert. They’re not the real thing, but even non-fans do not refer to these as “stinky”.

Moreover, both don’t cost the earth and have edible crusts with a semi-soft centre. This is important. You need a French cheese which melts and has an edible crust. So if you prefer to use a local alternative, ensure it has an edible crust. I settled for Camembert.

The recipe is simple enough and practically 100% fool-proof. For things went wrong the first time I tried it. Yet, despite mistakes with the amount of dry yeast needed, the amount of flour necessary, the magazine’s recipe not mentioning how much water is needed and me forgetting to add salt … as well as using Camembert instead of Maroilles …

The end result was still so highly edible, it was polished off in one go. I had expected half of the Tarte would be left for next day’s lunch. In case you have a left-over, you can heat it up the next day in your oven, or in a non-stick frying pan over low heat. But make sure you eat your left-over within 48 hours.

Tarte au Maroilles – à la (add your name here, for you’re going to make your own version)

Vegetarian main dish which will serve 4 to 6 people and is usually served with a salad.
Takes about 30 minutes to prepare.
Needs 1 hour for the dough to rest and increase in size.
Needs between 20 to 30 minutes in an oven, preheated at 180/200C or set at gas 6.
Is ready when cheese and loaf have turned golden brown.

For the bread crust:

300 gr ordinary white wheat flour;
1 teaspoon of dry yeast – or check your dry yeast package to find out how much you need per 100 gr of flour;
1 teaspoon of salt (as I proved: can be left out);
According to the French recipe 18 cl of luke-warm water to dissolve the yeast in.
However: I found out I needed slightly more to make a decent bread dough. So have 50 cl ready of which you use about 18 cl to dissolve the dry yeast in. The rest can be slowly added to your dough mix.

For the topping:

350 gr Maroilles, or a good and affordable alternative cheese like Camembert or Brie;
According to the French recipe 4 spoons of créme fraïche – sorry: no alternative here. I bought the smallest carton the local supermarket stocks and used about half of it. The amount you need, will depend upon the size of your rolled out dough.
You may want to add pepper, or perhaps even cajun or another mix of spices and herbs.

Preparation:

Dissolve the dry yeast in about 18 cl of luke-warm water. Put the flour and salt in a bowl and add the water-yeast mix. If you’re using a kitchen machine, pour in the water-yeast mix first, before adding the flour. Start mixing and kneading, while adding luke-warm water as needed.
You need to end up with a bread dough which works into a homogenous, smooth ball. Cover the dough with a strip of plastic and a clean cloth and let it rest in a warm spot.
After about an hour, it should have doubled in size.

Preheat your oven at 180C for fan, or 200C. Take a pizza form or round baking tray. Cover it with baking paper which you have slightly dusted with flour. Take your dough, place it either directly on the form or roll it into the right round size on a flour dusted flat surface before moving it on to your baking paper lined tray.

The dough should be about 1 cm thick. If like me, you’re afraid the cheese may melt over the dough and mess up your oven, make sure you have a slightly higher rim all around to contain it. After putting the dough on the baking tray, brush the top with créme fraîche. Don’t be stingy.

Then cut the 350 g of cheese, without removing its crust. Cover your tarte completely with slices of cheese, leaving a small rim free to contain melted cheese. If you use Brie or a cheese without a strong taste, sprinkle your selection of pepper, spices, herbs over it now.

Slide the baking tray into the middle of your oven. Bake till the cheese has melted and turned a golden brown. As oven temperatures differ, check regularly towards the end and either remove earlier, or add a couple of minutes. Never let the cheese burn and make sure the dough in the centre has turned into a firm loaf bottom.

Need more help? There are plenty YouTube versions available, showing you various ways to make this dish.

Serve your Tarte au Maroilles warm, with a salad and red or white wine at lunch or dinner.

Book review: De quoi sont-ils vraiment morts – what really caused their deaths?

It’s a book for fans of tv series like “Crime Scene Investigation” with an interest in real, historic cases and able to read French at at least average level. For unfortunately enough, dr Jacques Deblauwe’s “De quoi sont-ils vraiment morts?” is unavailable in English.

I came across this pocket in one of my favourite Brussels’ bookshops: Tropismes. If you stroll through the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in Brussels, don’t forget to visit this shop – even if only to admire its ceiling. It mainly stocks French and Belgian books, but there is a small English section as well.

The nasty looking individual staring at me with fish-eyes from the book-cover, turned out to be the reconstructed head of Robespierrre. His death is discussed in chapter twenty-six of twenty-eight. For this highly interesting book goes into twenty-eight cases taken from French history. Using modern technologies and recent scientific developments, events leading to each person’s death are discussed. En route, legends are dispelled and truths revealed.

The first case dates from 1193. The Danish princess Ingeborg, just 18 years old and unable to speak any French, marries widowed King Philip II. Historic documents report that witnesses noticed something was very wrong the day after the wedding. Sure enough, the king accuses his wife of witchcraft. Ingeborg will spend over twenty years locked away in convents – through no fault of hers.

The last case deals with the birth and death of Napoleon’s son. The Duke of Reichstadt is raised in Vienna and suffers from “a weak chest”. His case is one of many which make one shudder at the kind of “treatments” doctors came up with. After reading this book, you realise how much medical science has improved, since relics and prayers were the only option when one fell ill.

Some cases are sad, like Queen Joan of France‘s story. Others are upsetting, like the case of Agnes Sorel, “La Damoyselle de Beaulté”. She became the first officially recognized French royal mistress. At her death, rumours started she was poisoned, either by her royal lover who was already falling in love with her cousin, or by his son the crown prince who hated Agnes.

It turns out Agnes Sorel died of a mercury overdose. It may have been an accident, for like many medieval people, Agnes suffered from worms and mercury was used as a remedy. Or mercury was used to ease a difficult birth. On the other hand, the rumours which started to circulate directly after her death may have been true and she was murdered. A portrait of Agnes can be admired in Antwerp.

Another painting, at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, shows murdered Jean-Paul Marat in his bath tub. It’s known who knifed him, so in this case the questions are: how could he bleed to death so quickly and why was he in his tub? For even by contemporary standards, he was a notoriously filthy and extremely dirty person.

As the conclusion of this chapter states: “… la reception de Charlotte Corday dans la bagnoire, et l’angle ideal pour le poignard, cascade de complications inatttendues d’un manque d’hygiéne!” Next time one of the kids refuses to shower or bath, try telling this story.

Cases include kings and queens, mistresses, politicians. There is the suspicious death of Henrietta, sister of Charles the II. There is the disastrous year towards the end of Louis XIV reign, when four crown princes died one after the other. Did Josephine de Beauharnais really die of a cold? What about the last Templars’ curse? In the latter case, it turns out  history was rewritten to create this legend.

This book is not only a fascinating read for those interested in pathology. It deals with history, while each chapter reads like a short detective story. Each case is brought to life by quotes and descriptions from official documents, eye-witness accounts, diaries, letters. Most chapters are short and can be read independently. This enables you to dip in and out of the book. Technicalities and horrid details don’t take up most pages of each story. Moreover, if you’re highly squeamish, these are easy to skip. The style is crisp and to the point, so: a thoroughly fascinating French book!

“De quoi sont-ils vraiment morts?”, Dr Jacques Deblauwe, 420 pp, 1st edition published by Pygmalion in 2013. This edition published in 2015 by Tallandier, Paris.

Additional information:
Tropismes website to order books and check their events
French interview with dr Deblauwe about this book

 

Meet the author: “Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes”

As with the previous “meet the author” (see Steiners Geschichte): I have not read the book. As with the previous “meet the author”: I attended an interview with novelist Marie Darrieussecq. Unlike “Steiners Geschichte”, Marie Darrieussecq’s “Il Faut beaucoup aimer les homes” has been on the market since 2013. It was awarded the Prix Médicis in November 2013.Unlike with author Constantin Göttfert’s novels, I’ve read earlier novels by Marie Darrieussecq. Or rather: tried to, for her novels are occasionally very putdownable and sometimes no easy read.

Marie Darrieussecq was being interviewed about her latest novel, because a translation had become available. Personally, if at all possible – and certainly where Dutch translations are concerned – I prefer to read any book in its original language. At several occasions, I accidentally found out Dutch translations of great (modern) novels leave out pages, if not chapters of the original. So I now steer clear of Dutch translations. For who wants to watch half a Mona Lisa, a third of a Picasso, a quarter of a Damian Hirst, three-quarters of a Banksy, or of any great or interesting work of art? Perhaps I’m naïve in presuming English and other translators stick closer to a text. The good news is, that most of Marie Darrieussecq’s novels are available in English, though not yet this one.

As Marie Darrieussecq mentioned in this highly entertaining interview: the title of this novel is a citation. Marie Duras somewhere wrote « Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup, beaucoup. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela ce n’est pas possible, on ne peut pas les supporter. » (One needs to love men greatly … otherwise they are insufferable.) This certainly had the majority of the audience in stitches. And one of the themes of this novel is indeed how much a woman loves a man – far more than he loves her – and how love influences her.

The heroine of this book is Solange, who’s also the heroine of “Clèves” (English title: “All the way”). As ms Darrieussecq mentioned: Solange is something of an alter-ego. Ms Darrieussecq invented this alter-ego by thinking: what would have happened to me, if I had not had the chance to receive the education I have received.

Solange is now older and an actress in Hollywood. For this novel, Ms Darrieussecq posed herself the question: “What if a white woman falls in love with a black man?” Are such relationships – she dislikes the term “mixed” as any relationship is mixed – still a problem today?

She presumed racism would be less of a problem these days, but told here audience that the same week she won the Médicis prize for this novel, France’s Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira had had to cope with shocking racism. It was one of the few serious moments during this lively, entertaining interview.

Unfortunately enough, Marie Darrieussecq only read once from her French novel. It would have been interesting to have heard her read paragraphs not only taking place in George Clooney’s Hollywood, but also in France and Africa, to illustrate how love affects Solange. For Solange follows her man to Africa, as he wants to film Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” there.

Of course one of the questions posed was: as the centre of the novel is Solange, why not keep out till the very last chapter, that her great love is black? But ms Darrieussecq told the interviewer and audience, that she did start out with this idea, but was unable to write the novel. So she had to rewrite. It are answers such as this one, which make a “meet the author” event so very interesting.

Will this novel be a good read? Based on this interview, it will be and will even be at times very hilarious. However, as ms Darrieusecq warned her audience: her readers seem either to love her books, or hate them.

Yet: if I compare what Marie Darrieusecq told her audience about her novel to what earlier the same week, Constantin Göttfert told his audience about “Steiners Geschichte”, I’m quite sure the latter is the better and more impressive book – for both male and female readers.

On faut beaucoup aimer les hommes“, Marie Darrieusecq, POL., 2013
Clèves” or “All the way”, Marie Darrieusecq, English version 2013

Youtube: author interviewed about “On faut beaucoup aimer les homes”, 2013
Youtube: author interviewed at the University of Arizona, 2012

Libertine

Just back from France, I was physically living in my usual niche of the EU. The rest of me, however, was still south. I was functioning in lowest gear and slowly picking up speed. Stress, hurry, quick, fast, urgent? Such notions had been deleted from my dictionary and diary.

This resulted in me missing my public transport connection. No problem during the rush hour, but I managed it during the early evening, when public transport materialises about once every 30 minutes. If you’re lucky.

Walking home via the supermarket would be faster than waiting. So I sauntered past closed shops, open bars, busy restaurants, while humming a French song about “amour”. I crossed the square with its church and row of various small restaurants, one of which is Knossos.

Outside Knossos sat two women on a low brick wall; drink in one hand, cigarette in the other. As I neared, I heard they were chatting in a foreign language.
It was not Greek. It was not English either.
Drawing closer, I was able to distinguish more.
Suddenly, I recognised sounds, rhythm, words: they were chatting in French.

As I passed, my ears caught a few phrases:
“… comme il dort avec toi, – avec moi, – avec nous, – il dort avec tous … “
“Mais oui, …”

I was shocked! It took an effort to pretend I’d not heard a thing.
With difficulty I continued unfalteringly on my way to buy vin, pain, Boursin – though my head must have turned tomato red.
Meanwhile, my brain was digesting the French:

“… like he sleeps with you, with me, with us … he sleeps with everybody …”
“Yeah, …”

No need to read three novels on shades of grey! No need to watch Nymphomaniac! No! All you need is missing a public transport connection and you land in a scene with limitless possibilities of interpretation.

Which he? Who was he? Did I know him?
What did they do? Did both ladies … alone, together? What else?
Who else? How many? What, where, when?
My brain was in overdrive. How very French and what a shame …

What are you thinking?
The nerve!
No! What a shame I don’t smoke, of course!

Otherwise, I could have stopped to cadge a cigarette and could have struck up a conversation. Then all my questions would have been answered – after offering an Ouzo or two, maybe three.
And then you and I would have known, who is living a libertine life here!