Remembrance of Things Past
The belle époque is an era France loves to remember. Known as the golden age of Paris — and recollected in painstaking detail by Proust, immortalized in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec — this period of prosperity before the First World War is hailed as an island of time during which life was good. France was enjoying a surge in industry, the arts as well as a brief well-earned peace between herself and her neighbours. And with leisure now a pursuit rather than a privilege, the cabaret was born — a venue for the audience and artists to unleash bourgeois inhibitions for an evening of wine, women, song and spectacle. A far cry from the stiff-lippedness of traditional theatre, its emblems were a black cat, a nimble rabbit, a womanly wedge of thigh flaunted in a series of skyward kicks. France does well to recall it fondly if only for its tourist trade. But one wonders if, over a century later, authentic spectacle still lurks in the City of Lights? Or is a night at the cabaret simply a Proustian exercise in nostalgia, a remembrance of things past, a tired ghost whored out to the bleary-eyed tourist for a depressingly ludicrous price?
I began my hunt in Montmartre, where cabaret was born and where — thanks to an artists’ migration from the Left Bank and Montparnasse —it first flourished. Seeking bohemian thrills, I made my way up the dark, winding streets toward the oldest cabaret in Paris. To step into the dark-walled room of Au Lapin Agile, lined with framed sketches of Montmartre scenes, graced by the ghosts of Picasso, Modigliani and Utrillo, is indeed to enter a temps perdu. In an effort to recreate the intimacy of yesteryear, the performers sit around a table in the middle of the room, posing as patrons. Piano-accompanied songs, at once familiar, are sung with gusto. Five hours of this entertainment are purchased for €24, but only one drink is included in the price of admission. Fabulous as the cerises maison drink was, I wanted to pay for another, for to fully engage the world the Lapin resurrects demands a suspension of disbelief, which you are unlikely to achieve sober. Had I been drunk enough to ignore the thick and relentless smell of disgruntlement coming from the grim-lipped American tourists who spent the evening fanning themselves with the menu and eyeing the scene with bored suspicion, I might have stayed longer.
Splendid as it was to relive century-old revelry, I left longing for something less frozen in time. I wanted new thrills. I wanted, dear reader, to see someone get naked. The next evening’s full moon found me making my way down the diamond-dripping flanks of George V Avenue toward the Crazy Horse, where, since 1951, creator Alain Bernardin has used the female form as the ideal canvas upon which to realize his “vision.” His vision, bluntly put is to take T & A to new heights. For €90, you’ll find yourself with a red velvet seat to Bernardin’s celebrated Art du Nu show and a half-bottle of bubbly. Too steep? A more reasonable €50 affords you a place at the scratched-up bar and two stiff drinks to boot. “No cocktails,” grumbled the bartender, when I asked for my usual. A pity. But it made sense given the clientele. (Though among the shiny-bald loosened-tie businessmen, I did espy a few saucily dressed women.) After ninety minutes of female flesh writhing beneath the most kaleidescopic pattern of brightly coloured light, my vodka-heavy head spun pleasantly. This, as promised, was no mere strip show. This was artful, sexy, surprising, a strangely coloured smoke-heavy dream that lingered long after I reluctantly emerged from the bowels of the red theatre to make my way home. This, then, was cabaret.
Having sampled the celebrated traditional and contemporary veins of cabaret, I went in search of lesser-known spectacle. Calling itself “le plus petit cabaret d’Europe,” the Zèbre de Belleville — a local haunt that postures as circus, cabaret and music hall — seemed an apt choice. Economical too. Dinner and spectacle were available for the moderate price of €58. According to the brochure, which I read on the rank Belleville Boulevard waiting for the theatre doors to open, the Zèbre strives, in the true spirit of cabaret, to rekindle a lost intimacy between audience and artist. My entrance into the tiny red-curtained space was thus heralded by trumpet. I was then air-kissed by a tall tuxedoed magician toting a lovebird on his bony finger. The show, which came between dinner courses, proved equally colourful. A trapeze artist dangled within feet of our heads. Magicians begged us to be complicit in card tricks. And then the waiter/performer dropped one of his flaming batons during a precarious juggling act. In the smell of burnt carpet, which lingered through a dinner of veal chunks flanked by an unidentifiable white sauce, I was forced to make broken conversation with those at my table. Being the only non-French person present, this was no easy task. Had the meal been edible, I mightn’t have minded. But the starter slab of zucchini-flecked cheese did nothing to open my heart. Dessert was a woeful iced nougat, which I ate with a bitter heart. Meanwhile, the show refused to end. Full now of nougat and regret, we were all dragged onto the stage to salsa with the performers. We did so. But mainly out of pity and an inability to escape gracefully.
I couldn’t possibly visit Europe’s littlest cabaret without sampling its biggest. The Lido — with its $15 million facelift — is the most expensive show on the continent. Far from the seediness of Belleville, the Lido has been a Champs-Élysées institution since 1946. I entered the biggest red-curtained room yet. Crystal dripped indifferently from the ceiling, while on stage a sequined woman languidly sang “Guantanamera” for 800 thankless tourists now picking at dessert. (I had decided to forego the dinner for a steaming crêpe eaten standing in the rain.)
My €80-ticket included a much needed half-bottle of champagne. For even with 80 performers donning $4 million costumes beneath $2 million lights, I was desperately bored. Despite the mechanical elephant, the ice-skating rink, the sheer-shirted gay men, the funny hats. Or because of them, I didn’t know. Regardless, the Lido proved as mind-numbing as the most brainless of blockbusters. In attempting to encompass every aspect of cabaret — women, spectacle, song — it succeeded in missing the point of every one. With lyrics like “shopping is exhausting,” the songs lacked the heart of those at the Lapin Agile. The infamous Bluebell Girls — with their mouseketeer smiles and incongruously bare breasts — were no match for the femme fatales at the Crazy Horse. And as for spectacle, I think I got more of a cheap thrill watching the waiter accidently set fire to the carpet at the Zèbre than I did when a ziggurat emerged from the guts of the Lido stage, bearing a bevy of filigree dancers.
I’m not without my appreciation of the absurd, however, and cabaret is not required to make sense. But it is required to have soul. The Lido lacked both. Though I cannot vouch for rumours of similar atrocities being committed nightly at the Folies Bergères, clearly cabaret, in its truest sense, cannot survive the intensity of designer lights. If it lives at all, then it lives cat-like in shadowy pockets. And in the winking eye of a Crazy Horse dancer, the plaintive note of a Lapin Agile singer, even in the failed magic of the Zèbre — it might suddenly spring forth: unexpected, haunting, dazzling, leaving you charmed and mystified in its wake.
Le Crazy Horse
12, avenue George V
Paris, 8th arrondissement
metro: Alma-Marceau or George V
+33 (0)1 47 23 32 32
Au Lapin Agile
22, rue des Saules
Paris, 18th arrondissement
+33 (0)1 46 06 85 87
116 bis, avenue des Champs-Élysées
Paris, 8th arrondissement
metro: George V or Charles De Gaulle Étoile
+33 (0)1 40 76 56 10
Le Zèbre de Belleville
63, boulevard de Belleville
Paris, 11th arrondissement
+33 (0)1 43 55 55 55