Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” created a gangster in Jean-Paul Belmondo who was an existential hero. Jean Seberg, your friendly local Francophile, represented America’s ambivalent infatuation with a culture that itself has a love-hate relationship with all things American, including cinema. But it’s one thing to debate “Breathless” or, say, Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket,” another New Wave classic, while walking past the Cinematheque Francaise, now a formidable institution in its own right occupying a Frank Gehry-designed structure in the 12th arrondissement on the Rue de Bercy, and another to actually be a victim of a real Parisian gangster.
The French outlaw or rebellious character may be a beloved creature, like Jean-Pierre Leaud in Truffaut’s “400 Blows,” but when you confront the reality of a French gangster, he or she conforms more to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” than to cinematic incarnations themselves modeled on American films. Was Camus thinking about James Cagney’s explosive response to his mother’s death in “White Heat” when he wrote the famed beginning lines of “The Stranger,” “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday: I can’t be sure”?
Pickpocketing is the crime of choice for Parisian criminals, and it’s far more surgical, unremarkable, and uncinematic than anything Godard or Truffaut could have conjured. It’s painful when it happens, as it did to my wife on a recent trip to Paris, but painless in the expert way it attacks the unsuspecting tourist, removing his or her offending affluence and peace of mind like the microbe of a virus that creates havoc invisibly and so quickly as to wipe out the possibility of memory. But here is what happened to us.
We were on our way to a restaurant called La Cordonnerie on the Rue St.-Roch in the 1st arrondissement. Even though it was near the tourist area of the Louvre and not on the Left Bank, where vaguely artistic criminals like the Belmondo character tend to congregate, it was just the kind of charming traditional place advertising six tables, a chef owner, and top ratings on Trip Advisor that Americans like us, whose Grail is authenticity, seek out in droves. The name might have been a cause for concern, with its association to noose, but we were feeling triumphant, despite the heavy rain that had begun to fall, in having gained any reservation at all.
Our stop on the Metro was Tuileries, and by the time we were drying out in the restaurant and arguing about how to deal with a petulant waiter who didn’t appreciate being asked for bread, bread, and more delicious bread every time our bread basket was emptied, unbeknownst to us, the crime had already taken place. It was only when my wife received a call on her cell from her bank saying that someone was making lots of charges on her Visa card that she reached into her purse and realized that her wallet was gone. Our bread basket was filled in time for both of us to lose our appetites, on our first night in Paris.
Rather than playing itself across an imaginary screen the way some painful events do, the violation in question required a retrospectroscope. We thought back to a moment when the exit door at the Metro stop wouldn’t open. Yes, that was it, we both agreed. A man had been standing in front of my wife, seemingly unable to budge the door. I’d felt an almost imperceptible panic, the involuntary response that one has to the feeling of being trapped. We were late for our coveted reservation, which we would lose if we couldn’t get out of the Metro.
Another man had been standing between my wife and me, and I remembered thinking he was a crazy. He had looked at me and said something about “la porte,” and I’d thought I’d done a good job in shooing him off. My wife had been sandwiched between two con men who had expertly “cordoned” her off from me, using the classic concept of distraction that is employed by all magicians who engineer a sleight of hand.
I’d thought we’d be spending the whole night arguing about my unwillingness to shut my mouth with the waiter — who’d also told me I could go to the local “magasin” if I wanted ketchup with my entrecote — but instead we found ourselves on the phone with credit card companies that reported robust activity on my wife’s accounts.
At midnight we ended up at the police station on the Rue Bonaparte, one block from our charming hotel, filing a report and discussing Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” with one of the local gendarmes. He was less baffled by what had happened to us, which was “ordinaire,” than by his own as yet futile attempts to find the street and the chink in time where Owen Wilson accomplished what we all dream of doing, returning to La Belle Epoque, in both the literal and figurative senses of the words. For the rest of our stay we unsuccessfully tried to take a philosophic attitude toward what had happened. If a whole generation had been lost, was it so bad to lose just a wallet?
Francis Levy is the author of the novels "Erotomania: A Romance" and "Seven Days in Rio." He lives in New York and Wainscott and blogs at TheScreamingPope.com.