Je suis Charlie

Charb doodled on my drinks list at Silencio last night.

Charb a griffonné sur ma carte chez Silencio hier soir.

RIP.

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Paris: the end-of-year best- & worst-of list

382565_10151509597246762_114160831_n Here are some things I’ve got up to in France since I arrived last year, in no particular order. Bonne année, happy new year etc.

I broke the mirror in my new apartment the day I arrived in Paris.

I’ve bought designer children’s socks – for me – at a chic left-bank boutique.

I’ve sunbathed topless on a deck-chair in the garden of the Musée Bourdelle while waiting for my clothes to dry at the laundromat.

I’ve had my hair cut standing upright in the street at Porte-de-Clignancourt in the company of two goats.

I’ve stomped grapes accompanied by ritual flute music in a medieval winery in Bourgogne.

I’ve been asked by a perfect stranger to star in a play, to be premiered at a theatre in Abbesses, called Nietzsche’s Pizzas (the sequel to Aristotle’s Bottles).

I provided the skull used in Shakespeare & Co’s shortened version of Hamlet performed for the Bard’s 400th birthday, but didn’t watch the performance because I knew it would be shit.

I’ve crawled through corridors lined with human femurs in the illegal catacombs.

I’ve been the only astronaut at a Great Gatsby-themed party.

I’ve been the only astronaut at a belly-button themed party.

I’ve fallen down a waterfall while kayaking because I was distracted by three Belgians who were singing in the boat behind me and who subsequently retrieved my capsized canoe. 1234984_10151646845586762_158617309_n

I lost my favourite opera binoculars at the Théâtre de Trianon.

I once had to say to someone, ‘N’oublie pas ton fouet.’

I received the sexiest SMS of my life: ‘Tu crois au Père Noël?:)’

I’ve had my heart casually broken via SMS at the airport.

I had my second-worst bike accident outside a lesbian bar where 20 women rushed out to help me, one of whom, Carole, worked for the Red Cross, paid for my taxi home and checked the next day that I wasn’t concussed.

I’ve been lost after sundown in the Ardèche with no map, telephone or torch, and had to knock on an elderly farmer’s door to be returned to my lodgings.

I promised the above savior a postcard from my next adventure and still haven’t sent it.

I wrote a love postcard to my extremely talented stride jazz-playing pianist neighbour and slipped it under his door after listening for many hours without having ever seen him, or knowing ‘he’ was a ‘him’.

I have received my first book of tickets resto after longing for them for months, and spent most of them at Marks & Spencer on Boulevard St-Michel and the one bakery I know that gives change back.

I’ve had my fortune told by a French clairvoyant and secretly recorded her findings.

I had a really interesting conversation with the girl who did my bikini wax at Yves Rocher.

I’ve stopped telling French people that white bread is bad for them.

I’ve been through a chestnut phase.

I’ve lied about my age to get into several exhibitions for free.

I’ve passed from the period where people guessed I was five years younger than I actually was, to the period where they usually correctly guess my age.

I’ve sung ‘Douce Nuit’ at the Madeleine on Christmas eve.

I’ve sung ‘Purple Rain’ with Connan Mockasin at 3am.

I’ve climbed my favourite tree in Paris.

1001132_10151509179291762_1137625320_n I’ve dumpster-dived for the last cherries of the season.

I’ve accepted a non-sleazy shoulder massage from a pirate who goes by the name Rouge.

I’ve been bitten by a French poodle that drew blood, and I now have to start my morning runs a half-hour later to avoid the same dog.

I’ve said ‘tel chien, tel maître’ about 600 times.

I ruined my recorded time in the 16km Paris-Versailles race by stopping to take photos of the accordion bands along the track.

I’ve babysat for a divorcée who works at Hermès and whose 10-year-old daughter told me regularly that my clothes were ugly.

I’ve run with the firemen up the stairs of Montmartre and high-fived them during laps of the Jardin du Luxembourg.

I was seated by chance next to an Australian metal band called I Killed the Prom Queen at a vegan restaurant in Paris, where the heavily-tattooed members ordered only desserts.

I’ve told a flic trying to issue me a fine that I didn’t want to go anywhere with him because I’d just read about a Canadian tourist being gang-raped by Paris police officers.

In a separate incident, I’ve been fingerprinted and had a panic attack at Gare du Nord.

I auditioned for the Musiciens du Métro.

I told someone to go fuck their trombone (for personal, not musical, reasons).

I compared tats with Johnny Marr.

I’ve been on John Zorn’s personal guest list.

I’ve translated for sad clowns on Rue Quincompoix.

I lost my glasses at the tomb of Serge Gainsbourg and amazingly they were still there and intact when I went to retrieve them after an overnight storm.

992827_10151535968446762_1831523456_n I downed my first glass of rikiki, and then downed some more.

I tried celery-flavoured sorbet.

I’ve shown up at the Palais de Tokyo for an evening of experimental electro with Jean-Michel Jarre, and crashed instead, for three hours without realising, the Crédit Agricole Christmas party held concurrently in the same venue.

I’ve rang my bicycle bell for pigeons on the cycleway at Barbès.

I’ve intentionally almost mowed down lovers kissing on the bike path at Boulevard Magenta.

I’ve blown a kiss at the guy on a unicycle ahead of me.

I’ve rode past my ex’s house at 2am and had a way more handsome drunken French guy give me a rose without asking for anything in return.

I’ve cried because I made my bath too hot and had to hover over it waiting to enter, shivering, with water dripping down my ankles.

I cried after witnessing a scooter accident at Concorde.

I’ve cried in front of the Odilon Redon paintings at the Musée d’Orsay.

I won a round of darts at a bar in Batignolles by hitting the ‘1’ on first attempt.

I’ve woken up every day feeling lucky to be in Paris. 10700358_10152370577686762_777395378295289221_o

How’s it hanging Sade? Orgies and S&M at the Musée d’Orsay

Even the most blasé Parisian would have to leave this major exhibition incensed by the Marquis de Sade’s savage sexual politics, which penetrated the arts from Goya to Picasso.

 

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This article was written for and appears in Atlas Obscura.

Encouraged by the turnout at last year’s blockbuster collection of male nudes, Masculine, the Musée d’Orsay has whipped up a guaranteed succès de scandale with its bicentenary tribute to the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). The scandal set in before anyone had a chance to see what’s hanging on the walls, thanks to a racy publicity video on YouTube that many have decried as unbefitting Paris’ most revered masterpiece-repository after the Louvre. In the clip, dozens of naked bodies writhe together to spell out the name Sade, the frequently imprisoned writer, divine debaucher and one of the dodgiest Frenchman who ever lived, who gave us The 120 Days of Sodom and the term ‘sadism’.

This provocative exhibition traces the impact of Sade’s banned writings on more than two centuries of art and literature. Although rarely so openly acknowledged for sparking a revolution in 19th-century thought, he liberated perceptions and portrayals of our bodies, sexuality, desire, violence and base human instinct.

Powerful stuff, even if most people will just come to the Orsay to point at the naughty bits. I went along with a young French couple and their three-month-old son. Papa didn’t want baby’s first exhibition to be a corrupting force, so he pushed the pram back to the safety of the Impressionists’ wing. I’d advise squeamish and prudish visitors to follow suit.

The Marquis himself is just a starting point in this wide-ranging exhibition curated by Sade specialist Annie le Brun. The potency of his words jumps out as us from the walls where some of the juiciest quotations have been scrawled, along with snippets by other French 19th-century authors who seized on the same ideas. There are rare illustrations from banned editions, by André Masson among others, and an astonishing surrealist caricature of Sade by Man Ray. That Paris-dwelling American artist is beloved for his brand of iconic eroticism in black-and-white prints, but certainly less familiar is his explicit fetish photography. This side of Man Ray is exposed in stark portraits – a naked female model bound in leather straps and dog collar, prostrate on the ground under the inescapable gaze of the lens (Nu attaché, 1930) – and in a series of six vignettes posing two wooden articulated artist’s mannequins in flagrante (innocently titled Mr and Mrs Woodman, 1927). This last somewhat less flexible than what you’ll find in the Kamasutra exhibition running concurrently at the Pinacothèque. More on that one soon, obviously.

All a bit tame so far, really. What, no viscera? Our good Marquis mused long and languorously over pain, cruelty and ferocity as by-products or even complementary states of carnal passion, exhorting us to strip away corporeal limitations as a snake sheds its skin. To inflict pain as much as to endure it, however, one must first understand the body. To that end, a room of the exhibition is given over to 18th-century specimens of the hyper-detailed wax anatomical figures that fascinated Sade, including some particularly unsettling examples by Honoré Fragonard. Jacques-Fabien Gautier-D’Agoty’s 1754 model dominates the space: a pregnant woman, cut open and splayed out, entrails and foetus ready for inspection. Must have missed that one at Madame Tussaud’s. Rather tongue-in-cheek on the wall (not literally, I should point out), as Balzac quipped in 1829: “A man shouldn’t get married without having dissected at least one woman and studied her anatomy.” Meanwhile, a well-chosen Baudelaire observation likens the act of lovemaking to torture or surgery.

Sade’s ‘no pain, no gain’ policy finds expression in images and objects that demand our unflinching voyeurism, and even compliance. One photograph circa 1900 depicts a young woman, legs bound to a chair, receiving from her matronly captor a brutal nipple-twist with metal pincers. Goya’s most sickening portrayals of so-called inhumane torture, rape and cannibalism get a look-in, as do the usual suspects when it comes to tales of sexual violence: the rape of the Sabine women (Picasso), Salome (Gustave Moreau, Aubrey Beardsley), Judith slaying Holofernes.

Everywhere there are reminders of man’s bestial nature, from Picasso’s rarely seen doodles of a reclining nude pleasured by a cunnilingus-trained fish; Alfred Kubin’s dark, psychosexual images of naked women devoured by giant monkeys, tigers and boas or undoubtedly the most loveable exhibit: Jean Benoît’s 1965 bondage sculpture of the sexually depraved, bloodthirsty bulldog from Isidore Ducasse Lautréamont’s 1869 prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror: decked out in leather, covered in broken-glass spikes and equipped with a life-size human penis for a surprising take on ‘doggy style’.

Bouledogue

Jean Benoît, Le Bouledogue de Maldoror, 1965, Collection Pinault.

Tackling religion is a must, since Sade’s stance on the Church undoubtedly a major factor in why he was always evading imprisonment, revelling in acts of sexual violence as he decried the very belief system that would condemn him for it: “The idea of God is the sole wrong for which I cannot forgive mankind.” Within these walls we find scenes of papal rape, cavorting nuns and a photograph of a female S&M offering strapped to a crucifix… The wrong way round. But for me, the theme is most elegantly summarised in Man Ray’s 1930 photograph Prayer.

prayer-1930The exhibition is a little light on Sapphic content: the penis reigns supreme, especially towards the final rooms, by which time it’s all degenerating into something carnivalesque. Engravings of allegorical penises from the 1760s, titillating female acrobats astride the erect members of her two urinating spotters (Carl Schleich’s Pièce acrobatique, 1820). Finely wrought pewter phalluses, complete with piston mechanism, marked ‘providence of widows and nuns’, circa 1800. And my personal favourite: penis phenakistiscopes – coloured, patterned discs that spin to form an image, for which no imagination required. Reproductions would have sold like hotcakes at the gift shop.

Maybe not a great first-date exhibition, depending on what signals you want to send; but definitely a conversation starter.

PhekanoscopePhénakistiscope avec disques à décors érotiques, vers 1835 Paris, collection Mony Vibescu

Sade: Attaquer le soleil runs until 25 January, 2015, but will almost certainly be extended due to popular demand.

David Foenkinos: What’s In A Name?

He lives in the 13th arrondissement; he’s just released his 13th book. But no one could think that the Paris-born novelist, screenwriter and director who convinced Audrey Tautou to play his everyday heroine is unlucky.

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Straight off the bat, I accuse David Foenkinos of pedalling insipid Parisian cliché. In the 2011 film La Délicatesse (Delicacy), based on his novel of the same name and co-directed with his brother, one scene riled me. A glamorously windswept Audrey Tautou in chicest left-bank fashions is paraded in front of the Eiffel Tower at the moment its 20,000 bulbs are set to stun, lighting up the ideal woman for her male companion. It may as well have been one of her Chanel ads. I saw this on a flight to the French capital in 2012, I tell the man responsible — and felt nauseous, but not due to airsickness.

tumblr_makejx07v01r97cbbo6_1280Foenkinos, a native Parisian, acquits himself admirably. “I perhaps didn’t completely succeed,” he says apologetically, “But you’re right that it’s a cliché. Audrey Tautou, the most famous French actress today, in a Sonia Rykiel dress with the Eiffel Tower glittering in the background: the ultimate Parisian cliché. But she’s with this Swedish guy, badly dressed, a bit fugly, who’s been planted or dropped in this scene and doesn’t belong there. The cliché would be that they kiss. But I wrote that scene to amuse myself with the cliché; it’s a parody, so he turns and flees the scene. It’s a bit of a gag.

“Apart from that moment, we didn’t film the most clichéd parts of the city,” he adds. “It’s not Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. There are parts in the 13th arrondissement, which can be a bit of a dump.” He’s talking about his own neighbourhood. And it’s here in a very unromantic spot in 13th that Foenkinos suggested we meet, at the hulking MK2 cinema complex across from the boxy towers of the Bibliothèque Nationale. It’s a location that conveniently marries Foenkinos’ dual successes as best-selling novelist (one of the top five in France) and screenwriter/sometime director.

He certainly has the bookish look down pat; with his sharp features, rectangular frames, well-trimmed goatee and springy dark curls, he looks rather like a professor awaiting his tardy student. (I’m three minutes late.) Rather than telling me off, he greets me warmly and we walk along a rather drab promenade to settle in at one of the soulless chain coffee houses lining the strip.

“What I love about this area is that it’s Paris, but without being Paris,” Foenkinos explains of our non-cliché rendezvous. “I love the Bibliothèque François Mitterand; I always dreamed of living next door, and now I live just in front, I see it every day.” It’s only a kilometre from the Butte-aux-Cailles, but seems a world away from that charming nook where the first scene of La Délicatesse unfolds in a café, Audrey Tautou ordering the fateful jus d’abricot that first attracts her future husband.

Meanwhile, Foenkinos is disappointed when our drinks arrive in plastic takeout cups instead of handsome ceramic mugs — such are the daily tribulations of a writer who has made a name for himself being attuned to the little details. I can’t fail to notice little details either, like his curious, birdlike habit of leaning forward to touch the lid of my tea, a gesture that punctuates animated yet thoughtful conversation in French.

I bait him a little — it doesn’t take him long to fall into the trap of talking about Paris in ghastly cliché. Writers, even good writers, are often the worst offenders… “Paris is like a complicated woman,” he waxes, not noticing me roll my eyes. “Exhausting, but whom we love deeply. We can’t leave her despite her faults. It’s not always easy,” he sighs. “There are lots of French who want to leave and live somewhere else; I couldn’t do it. I love Paris. I walk for hours at a time around the city.”

It’s no surprise to hear that Foenkinos is able to live in his favourite spot in Paris, following a string of successes that have brought him renown in France and abroad. Whilethe offbeat romcom La Délicatesse has become his calling card internationally and an entry point into a written oeuvre translated into some 40 languages, Foenkinos is far from resting on his laurels. He started the year with the publication by Gallimard of his thirteenth book, La Tête de l’Emploi; filming has just wrapped for the forthcoming adaptation of his Les Souvenirs, for which he provided the screenplay; and yet another book, about a man whose debilitating back pain forces him to shake up his life, has piqued the interest of filmmaker Luc Besson.

All this before the age of forty. So with the date looming, can we expect to find one of his next characters in the throes of a midlife crisis as a form of authorial exorcism? I search for a way to broach the subject with, well, delicacy, but Foenkinos is the first to bring up his age, while my tea is still too hot to sip.

“I was born here. That’ll be 40 years that I’ve been here, then. I’m rather content to be in Paris at 40. I travel all the time — I was just in China and Japan on a book tour — I meet lots of interesting people.” The crise de la quarantaine, he insists, is for “people who live quite a boxed-in life and need to shake things up. As a writer I have a life where I’m completely free, I’m lucky to be able to do what I like. I have a lot of free time.”

With a wife who casts a discerning eye over all his work and an 11-year-old soccer-obsessed son, he has an “anchor, a raison d’être, stability. I always want to come back home when I’m on the road. When we want to create, we are completely free, we travel, but it’s good to have a strong fixed point.”

He admits to “hiding” himself in his books — “You can have the feeling of getting to know me, to see my personality,” — but is adamant that he deals in fiction “without needing to feed into reality.” The novels often centre around age and experience: the young widow of La Délicatesse who throws herself into her work, or the 23-year-old dreamer Romain in Les Souvenirs, who searches for his grandmother, escaped from a retirement home.

“I’ve done everything the other way round,” declares Foenkinos. “I’m starting to feel younger now that I’m older; I had the mentality of an older person when I was young.” In fact, he trained as a jazz guitarist, playing professionally and teaching during his early twenties (an education that would come in handy when overseeing chanteuse Émilie Simon’s quirky soundtrack and songs composed for La Délicatesse). “At the same time, I started to write. Sometimes I sensed that music wasn’t my destiny. I tried to start a band and couldn’t find a bassist — that’s why I became a novelist! Life always has this complexity.”

How does he account for his early success? He shrugs, sips deeply from his plastic coffee cup, smiles serenely. “If I had an explanation, I would have done it sooner. There’s no recipe.”

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Undoubtedly, he has a knack for names. His third novel, Le Potentiel Érotique de ma Femme (The Erotic Potential of My Wife), garnered a major prize from the Fondation Hachette in 2003. “Everyone told me it was a terrific title!” he gushes, as if he thought of it yesterday. Monikers are equally important, with many francophones finding the names of these characters somewhat antiquated. The author himself claims that once he has come up with a name, eighty per cent of the character is drawn — in the very first paragraph of La Délicatesse he states that his heroine’s lack of sentimentality is surprising since “Nathalies tend towards nostalgic feeling.” He “hates” his own first name, but readily embraces the enigmatic Greek touch of Foenkinos befitting a writer.

It was with Nathalie and La Délicatesse, his eighth book, that Foenkinos became essentially a household name in France. Nominated for the country’s five major literary prizes, it went on to sell more than one million copies. And if you’re a successful novelist, it can’t hurt to have a brother who works in the movies. A second Foenkinos in the mix doesn’t have the same ring to it as the Coen Bros (“And we don’t have their talent!” David laughs) but Stéphane had worked in casting from Woody Allen to the Harry Potter films, and felt it was time to turn his hand to directing jointly with his brother. “Working as a writer is a lonely profession,” concedes the latter, “I wanted to collaborate with people.

“I’d had other books that were going to be made into films and I didn’t want to get involved in turning them into scripts,” he adds. “With La Délicatesse, for the first time, when I finished the book I felt that I wanted to stay with my characters. What was strange was that I knew that I wanted to write a script, to continue with this story, to live with these characters. Reinvent them. Because to adapt a book into a script isn’t a copy-paste job; you have to really reinvent the story to make it cinematic. I started to get a taste for it with La Délicatesse.” In keeping with the theme of reinvention, David asked all the actors not to read the book.

The film might have had a modest indie success, but Audrey Tautou’s decision to take the lead role brought with it star visibility — and funding. “We dreamed of an actress like Audrey Tautou,” David muses. “I thought of her because she has a side exactly like the character; small and fragile but at the same time an incredible strength and power. She receives mountains of scripts; we thought she would never accept.”

The next ten minutes of our interview are given over to a stream of adjectives like “magnifique, exceptionnelle, intelligente, drôle and magique” to describe Tautou and the process of working with this “grande actrice”, not to mention the frisson of red carpet appearances with her during the world tour that followed.“She put a lot of trust in us,” Foenkinos concludes. “She to work on someone’s first film, and for her it was perhaps the first time she really played the role of a real woman, in real life. It’s as if we took the imagery of Amélie Poulain, but she’s all grown up in the real world.”

Hearing him speak so directly about one success after the next, it’s hard not to return to my initial cynicism. I find romcoms revolting; chick-lit makes me chunder. Is there anything truly compelling behind the sparkling Eiffel Tower, the sparkling saucer eyes of Tautou and the fleeing Suede?

I go back to the book, in French. It’s witty and insightful, straightforward with an understated elegance that I come to appreciate even more in text than on screen. The characters mull over a text message with the same gravity I would. On their first date; rising awkwardly from the restaurant table, the central couple is compared to figures in a Magritte painting. There’s even a short chapter laid out like a screenplay — cheeky bastard was already practising. There are whimsical asides and philosophical musings, from the recipe for a risotto consumed by the protagonists on their first date, to a list of possible last words casually whispered to Nathalie by her husband just before his death — she will never know what he really said, and nor will we. As Foenkinos points out, “La Délicatesse was the first of my books that was a meeting point between drama and comedy. It’s the story of grief but at the same time it’s treated with humour.”

As for the next film, Les Souvenirs, Foenkinos has passed the reins and the script to another director, Jean-Paul Rouve. He’s not precious about it. “It’s my book, it’s my script, but it’s his film. When you give over your work to another director, you have to have confidence in his work. Some writers are afraid that an adaptation will be a betrayal of their work. If the film is good, that’s great; if it’s not good, it’s not a big deal — the book is still the book. It’s when I make the film myself that I worry!”

Les Souvenirs (Memories) will be released in French cinemas around the same time Foenkinos’ next book hits shelves in September — something completely different, on the German artist Charlotte Salomon who died aged 26 in the Auschwitz death camp. After all, he is a serious writer. There’s a lot more to David Foenkinos than I thought.

Wes Anderson follows Nose to Paris

 

budapest-600-1393444093Grand Budapest Hotel is an intricate, romping caper with as many layers to the plot as there are notes in an intoxicating eau de cologne. Which is perhaps why Wes Anderson chose to bring the fantasy world of his latest, most lavish film to life through the signature scent worn by his protagonist, M. Gustave H.

140220_EYE_1.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeThe stylish director seems to have developed a taste for luxury brand collaboration since he had Louis Vuitton create to his specifications the absurdly elegant luggage set hauled around The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson again looked to a French house, Nose, to realise L’Air de Panache: the concoction that Ralph Fiennes’ impeccable above-and-beyond concierge drenches himself in to keep smelling at his best even after a daring Siberian prison break.

So what’s in the stuff? The nez or perfumier Mark Buxton gave the woody, citrus-based scent head notes of basil and bergamot for the classic English touch, with heart notes of sambac jasmine and rose and a base of cedar, musk and patchouli. There’s also a hint of green apple somewhere in there, in reference to the priceless Renaissance painting Boy With Apple, bequeathed to Gustave by one of his most bejewelled and wizened guests/lovers.

The Grand Budapest Hotel itself is perched on an alpine peak in the fictional Central European Republic of Zubrowka. But instead of going up the rickety funicular for a hit of old world charm, I opted for the nouveau chic of the Philippe Starck-designed hotel Le Royal Monceau in the fashionable eighth arrondissement for an exclusive screening of the film in their state-of-the-art private cinema.

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I am greeted by helpful staff dressed as crisply as the courageous lobby boy in the movie I’m about to see. I’m not sure if there’s an M. Gustave H equivalent here, but they do apparently boast their own ‘art concierge’. Before I know it there’s a champagne flute in my hand where my coat had been just seconds before. Bling abounds; every mirrored surface catches the light of chandeliers. Hors d’oeuvres dance alluringly before me, glimpsed through the amber glass pyramid of L’Air de Panache flasks. I squeeze one of the atomizers delicately, covering myself in a fine mist of marketing gimmick.

Cinema-41The invited guests are a mix of the impossibly elegant and suspiciously dressed-down hipsters, so I go hide in one of the toilet stalls — cast entirely in marble and almost as big as my Montparnasse apartment — until we are ushered into a 99-seat theatre, which manages to remain intimate despite the impressive girth of the leather seats. I inhale my Pierre Hermé caramel popcorn à la maison, then sneak discreet handfuls of my neighbour’s lightly peppered variety.

There are French touches everywhere in the film, notably the flawless Alexandre Desplat score and the frilly apron-clad maid Clotilde (an unsmiling Léa Seydoux). And doesn’t the central archway of the bright pink facade look like a Paris métro entrance? As with all Wes Anderson films, every shot in The Grand Budapest is visually opulent yet clean, crystal-clear and carefully composed… Just like the Royal Monceau, really.

Le Royal Monceau’s Katara Cinema hosts a Sunday Night Film Club at 40€ a head (or 90€ with dinner), offering a romantic, champagne-sweetened alternative to the humdrum dinner-and-a-movie.

L’Air de Panache is not currently available to the general public but can be sniffed at Nose’s Parisian boutique, 20 rue Bachaumont, 75002.

And a fun time was had by all: Le Festival du Merveilleux, at the Musée des Arts Forains

Rue de Noël IlluminéeIt’s not too often you enter a museum and re-emerge feeling like you’ve had the time of your life at a carnival. But that’s more or less the raison d’être of the Musée des Arts Forains (Fairground Arts), a vast space formerly one of Paris’ oldest, largest wine warehouses. It still has a bacchanalian feel about it, a sense of glee and discovery hanging in the air along with strings of fairy lights in the long, cobblestoned courtyard (le Théâtre de Verdure) intersected by a disused tram track.

This eight-hectare, leafy pavilion in Bercy is little known even to Parisians: a private museum founded by eccentric actor and collector Jean-Paul Favand. It can usually only be visited for functions and guided tours reserved in advance. But over Christmas and New Years’ the doors (and even the old rides) are open to some 70,000 members of the public, so that this magical menagerie from the Belle Époque comes alive during the museum’s Festival du Merveilleux.

La montgolfière à l'éléphant du théâtre du MerveilleuxIt lives up to its name all right, somewhere between a tour of Willy Wonka’s factory (there is actually a preserved shop-front from an old candy store) and trip to a Coney Island funhouse. This is the place to take a fellow traveller complaining that they don’t like museums. As you walk around the exterior towards the entrance, dozens of plaster caricature busts grin down at you — mostly legendary old actors who give new meaning to the concept of ‘celebrity heads’. Once inside, you won’t know quite where to look first. I took in the original Mortier organ piping away in one corner, the piano-playing unicorn in the other and the elephant ready for liftoff in the ornate hot air balloon of the Théâtre de Merveilleux. ‘Am I in a David Lynch movie?’ I pinched myself, passing a row of distorted mirrors — like I needed to appear shorter than I already am.

Surely this is the only museum in the world where the sound of shrieking children on the loose couldn’t bother me — where it even adds to the magic of the place. (There were collective squeals of delight as a magician showed off his tricks.) Woody Allen discovered his inner child here in a scene from Midnight in Paris, during which his wide-eyed American protagonist had travelled back in time. And sure enough, it feels like we’ve turned back the clock to this era between 1850 and 1930, when carnivals thrived and from which date most of these theatre props and costumes, cabaret curios and Music Hall intrigue.

collection de Sculpture de têtes en plâtreNot least because every inch of the place is covered in old-timey frescoes or draped in brocade. You can actually feed the open-mouthed clowns and take a spin on the ancient, creaking rides, all painstakingly restored. (One ‘attraction’ is included in the price of admission.) Try the Manège vélocipédique, a bike-powered carousel created in 1897 back when bicycles were still a novelty. Or opt for the smoother gondola ride in the opulent Salons Vénitiens. Perhaps the most titillating diversion is La Course de Garçons de Café, where you get to race wine-toting Parisian waiters — something I’ve always wanted to try out with live waiters in Paris.

Parisian Waiters 6

I wandered outside and noted approvingly that a group of street performers had disguised themselves as a giant Gollem that lurched around the courtyard trying to eat children, with acrobats and accordionists joining the fray. I had my photo taken in the old painted head-through-the-hole booths, cherishing the one of me on the toilet. There was no magician on hand to wave a wand at the typically French system of purchasing meal coupons to exchange for some barbe à papa and vin chaud and turn three queues into one.