Film/DVD: review

Paris Was A Woman

Paris Was a Woman
Directed by Greta Schiller
 
1995, US — 75 minutes, color and black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Documentary

An illuminating, deeply-moving documentary which brings to life the historic 1920s/30s Left Bank lesbian artistic circle, including Gertrude Stein, Colette, Djuna Barnes, and many others (not to mention Picasso, Joyce, and Hemingway); the excellent DVD offers a wealth of supplemental materials (detailed below), including rare home movies of Stein & Toklas, Colette, Picasso, and much more.

Review

ImageGreta Schiller's award-winning documentary Paris Was A Woman (1995) explores the extraordinary women, many of whom were lesbian or bisexual, in the Left Bank's thriving cultural scene between the wars. Through Schiller's exceptional filmmaking (she directed, co-produced and flawlessly edited), and Andrea Weiss's brilliant research and screenwriting, we come to know the living, complex women who so often stand only as cultural icons: Gertrude Stein, Colette, and Romaine Brooks. We also meet many of their less well-known but no less fascinating contemporaries. In a mere 75 minutes, with a spellbinding use of archival photos and film footage, Schiller manages to recreate the mood and flavor of this unique community of women who came to The City of Lights (and Love) from the U.S., England, and every corner of the world. This inspired, and moving, film brings to life their passion both for the arts and for a freedom in their personal lives which still resonates today.

Schiller has made such other exceptional documentaries as the landmark Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community (1984), but here she brings to life women of an even earlier time, including novelists Gertrude Stein (Three Lives [free online], The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; Stein coined such familiar phrases as "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," "When this you see, remember me," "There's no there there" – referring to Oakland, California, where she grew up, and "the lost generation" – referring to the enclave of American expatriates living in '20s Paris), Djuna Barnes (The Ladies Almanack, Nightwood), Colette (the Claudine series, Gigi), Natalie Clifford Barney (One Who is Legion), painters Marie Laurençin and Romaine Brooks, photographer Gisele Freund, publishers/booksellers Sylvia Beach (Shakespeare & Company) and Adrienne Monnier (whose bookshop was directly across the rue de l'Odeon from Beach's), New Yorker journalist Janet Flanner, singer Josephine Baker, and many others. Schiller and Weiss use a witty, and helpful, animated map to show us how very close to each other were the homes of Stein/Toklas, Beach/Monnier, Barnes, and Barney, as they structure the first half of the film around each of those strikingly diverse personalities.

Schiller also looks at their connection to the male artists of the time, including Picasso (whom Stein discovered and promoted), Joyce (who drove Beach to bankruptcy when she published his then-illegally obscene masterpiece, Ulysses), Hemingway (who began as Stein and Toklas's errand boy; we see – and hear – his stylistic debt to Stein), and Gide.

One of the film's many strengths is that it shows perhaps the most famous cultural center of the twentieth century – some historians even compare the importance of interwar Paris to Periclean Athens and Elizabethan London – from the (unfortunately) atypical, but vitally important, women's perspective. Macho accounts of American expatriates carousing in 1920s Paris are plentiful (some famous like Hemingway's and Cowley's, others obscure), but here we experience the different reality of the women who arrived long before that pivotal decade began and stayed long after it ended. Schiller and Weiss reveal not only the hidden history of women in this period – which might never have existed without Gertrude Stein and her fabulous salons which drew Europe's artistic and intellectual leaders – but the doubly hidden history of the many lesbian and bisexual women.

As we see, virtually all of the women in the Left Bank community felt a primary emotional, if not always sexual, connection with other women. Yet there were many different ways of defining (or not defining) those romantic attachments. Gertrude Stein wrote about her "wife" Alice B. Toklas, Janet Flanner talked of her "emotional friendships," and Sylvia Beach was silent on the subject. We also trace the life histories of these women, who found happiness (or not) in so many different ways. Perhaps the most open of all, author (and heiress) Natalie Barney reveled in her sexuality – turning it into an ethos – as she tried to recreate a lesbian utopia with the legendary Sappho as inspiration. One of the film's many highlights is a walkthrough, using period footage, of Barney's (in)famous, and gorgeous, salon. Another brief but telling scene shows the transformation of Gertrude Stein from what some of her friends (and detractors) felt was a "dowdy, matronly" appearance into the quietly magisterial butch look which she kept for the rest of her life.

We also get to meet the less well-known, but no less fascinating, women of this enclave, who gravitated to the famously different salons of Stein (witty and cerebral) and Barney (wild and sensual). The film draws on groundbreaking research (done by writer and co-producer Andrea Weiss, herself an acclaimed filmmaker), newly-discovered home movies (there is nothing like actually seeing and hearing Gertrude Stein, both in her public and private personas), and intimate storytelling that combines interviews with the people who lived at the time (Barney's spry housekeeper of 40 years, Berthe Cleyrerque, is unforgettable, as is Janet Flanner) with contemporary scholars. Their concise remarks, sprinkled throughout the film, are illuminating – setting these people in the wider artistic and intellectual ferment of the period – and never pedantic. There is something wonderful about Sam Steward, who knew Stein personally, discussing her technique, as she put it, of "addressing, caressing, possessing, and expressing" experience through re-invented but simple, everyday language. For instance, when Stein wrote "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," she intended – through simple repetition – to strip away centuries of literary obfuscations around the reality of a rose.

Time and again, Schiller and Weiss manage to find exactly the right photos, footage, and sound clips (from voice recordings to popular songs and orchestral music, like George Antheil's "Symphony for Sylvia Beach") to reveal these women in their complexity as flesh and blood people who in some cases – such as Stein – shaped the course of modern culture.

One of the film's minor shortcomings is that it does not identify as gay or bisexual the men it touches on (whose sexual orientation is as often passed over by historians as that of the lesbian and bi women), including such luminaries as Cocteau, Gide, Satie, Valéry, Thornton Wilder, and less prominent figures such as critic/amateur photographer Carl van Vechten (misidentified as "Carl Vechter" in his photo credit in the City of Lights Scrabook DVD supplement), and Sam Steward, whose lively interviews throughout the film provide considerable insight, is not only a literature professor but the writer of several popular gay-themed mystery novels, and he is the pseudonymous "Phil Andros," author of critically-lauded gay erotica. Although the fascinating Deleted Scene "Gopher Hemingway" (as in 'Go for this, go for that') touches on Hemingway's possible sexual attraction to Gertrude Stein – and Toklas's jealousy – it does not mention the fact that Stein wondered if his macho facade masked his repressed homosexuality. Still, these are very minor quibbles indeed; and placing emphasis on them might have detracted from the important focus of this landmark documentary.

Paris Was A Woman is not only superb history, it is also inspired filmmaking. Schiller, in her role as editor, uses the energy of narrative flow, balancing of viewpoints, juxtaposition of the intellectual and revealingly anecdotal, structural use of period music, and delicious humor. She is astonishingly successful in bringing this world to life in human, and cinematic, terms.

The DVD, from Zeitgeist, includes many excellent supplemental features, including the complete home movies which were excerpted in the film plus additional footage (of Stein, Toklas, Colette, Picasso, Thornton Wilder, poet Paul Valery, and more), two entire sequences cut from the film (one on Stein and Joyce, the other on Hemingway, Stein & Toklas) which Schiller has edited for the DVD, and dozens of archival photographs (depicting the lives of the women - one memorable split photo shows Colette dressed as a man on one half and as a woman on the other, as well as their paintings, Djuna Barnes's own hand-colored drawings from her 1928 book The Ladies Almanack – which satirized her fellow lesbian literati, and much more). For some people, just the rare home movie of Stein, Toklas, and their dogs – so simple but deeply human – may be worth the price of the DVD.

Documentary film, or history in any form, is rarely as illuminating, entertaining, moving and utterly compelling as Paris Was A Woman, which I have now added to my list of the 10 Best GLBT Films. Whatever your interests – women's history, literature, art, exuberant filmmaking, or the pleasure of escaping into the freedom of a fabulous past world – do not miss this picture.

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Crew

  • Directed and Edited by Greta Schiller
  • Written and Researched by Andrea Weiss
  • Executive Producer Frances Berrigan
  • Produced by Greta Schiller, Andrea Weiss & Frances Berrigan
  • Cinematography by Nurit Aviv
  • Original Music by Janette Mason

Cast

  • Juliet Stevenson ... Narrator (voice)
  • Maureen All ... (voice)
  • Gillian Hanna ... (voice)
  • Margaret Robertson ... (voice)

    Other People Listed Alphabetically

  • Shari Benstock (author)
  • John Bernard (Académie française) (as Prof. John Bernard)
  • Berthe Cleyrerque (housekeeper for Natalie Barney)
  • Janet Flanner (writer, Letter From Paris, New Yorker) (also archival footage)
  • Giselle Freund (photographer)
  • Samuel Steward (author)
  • Catharine Stimpson (Stein scholar)
  • Josephine Baker (performs in musical) (archival footage)
  • Nora Barnacle (in Paris with Joyce) (archival footage) (unconfirmed)
  • Sylvia Beach (bookseller, publisher, Shakespeare and Co.) (archival footage)
  • Colette (with pets) (archival footage)
  • James Joyce (in Paris) (archival footage)
  • Adrienne Monnier (bookseller, publisher, A. Monnier et Cie) (archival footage)
  • Malcolm Muggeridge (interviews Sylvia Beach) (archival footage)
  • Pablo Picasso (blows kisses) (archival footage)
  • Gertrude Stein (reads poems about Toklas, Picasso) (archival footage)
  • Alice B. Toklas (with Stein at soirée, in garden) (archival footage)
  • Paul Valéry (archival footage)

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DVD

Zeitgeist 's DVD offers very good image (probably the best possible quality, considering the age of the archival photos and footage which comprise much of the film) and excellent sound. The supplemental features, described below, are all of exceptional interest, especially the unedited – and rare – home movies of several of the key figures.

DVD Details

Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas & canine friendResources

Zeitgeist Films
Lesbian History (from glbtq.com)
GLBT Literature
GLBT Cinema

Reviewed September 28, 2003

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