How The French Do It

by Jacob Isser

A French director fond of filming nudity in his yard battles his new neighbor for the sake of art. 3,614 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

Among the many achievements in my life, there are two of which I am most proud: my moustache and my films. My moustache no one can argue with. It is a handsome specimen: rich, full, and black. It measures 31 cms from tip to tip, but I keep it waxed in precise elegant curls that grace my strong cheekbones. I do look quite the gentleman when I wish to. My sophisticated demeanor and debonair appearance has, I am not ashamed to say, allowed me to escort many a young and attractive lady to my backyard for a petite rendezvous.

You may recognize my backyard from several of my films. It is my oasis — expansive, elegant and romantic — and I use it often. I know its every nuance and contour, making it a perfect setting for my bold handheld style, which some have compared favorably to Godard. Also, as a practical matter it is cost-effective, and quite frankly, less trouble. After my last two films earned an NC-17 rating in the U.S. and a public rebuke from the Ministry of Culture here in France, certain people have grown reluctant to rent me their location for filming. If you think this will somehow compromise my work, however, you are sadly mistaken.

First of all, no one cares what America thinks. Everyone agrees that France, with her proud lineage of brilliant artists from Truffaut to Jeunet (with the exception, of course, of Audiard, a hack by anyone’s standards), has always been the true center of the filmmaking universe. And second, what I wish to say about love, art, sex and culture, I can convey through the natural beauty and metaphor of my own property.

I am a purist, first and foremost. When I show a beautiful woman shedding her clothes, I am similarly attempting to strip away the lies and artifice of modern society. History has always cast the auteurs of the French New Wave and its descendants as geniuses, radicals, revolutionaries, but I do not see us that way. I am not out to prove anything, nor am I seeking social or even artistic upheaval. On the contrary, I am but a humble storyteller. I trouble no one, and simply use sensual, occasionally provocative, imagery to awaken the mind and spirit of my fellow man. And woman. My films are for everyone and I abhor discrimination in all forms. You would thus think that people would leave me to make my art in peace.

But my neighbor, Mademoiselle DuBose, seems to have resigned herself to the pursuit of my unhappiness, and has forced me into the role of her enemy simply as a matter of self-preservation. Who could have imagined that this young woman – an insignificant creature who makes little money and seems to own not one item of flattering clothing – could cause me this much trouble?

She moved into the house next door four months ago and immediately took a disliking to me, for no reason I can discern. She is an animal rights activist whose work is apparently well-known throughout France (I had never heard of her), and she maintains a small zoo in her rear garden, housing geese, rabbits, dogs, a goat, and an infant deer.

I was very hospitable to her from the outset. I even entertained the thought of seducing her for a short time, for she is attractive, in a defiant sort of way. But she viewed me from across the fence that separated our yards with obvious scorn. I could often hear her muttering to herself as she observed my filmmaking while she worked in her garden. For a while we lived in relative peace. And then, perhaps three weeks ago (although rest assured, my friends, it seems much longer), she lost whatever tenuous hold on sanity she possessed and emerged, full flower as the unbalanced, emotional, and most certainly lonely and bitter harpy she is.

It started with a very nasty letter from her that was quite unbecoming, asking if I could possibly film my work elsewhere. “I understand, Monsieur Renaud,” she wrote, “that everyone is entitled to pursue a career in any fashion they choose, but I would appreciate it if you would pursue yours in a direction far from here. The loud (and dare I say, overacted) moans of ecstasy from your stable of minimally talented ‘performers’ have left my geese quite traumatized. They are unable to eat or lay eggs, and I fear for their health.”

Now I very much doubted whether the sound of true pleasure – which can only come from the most loving, tender contact – could possibly traumatize anything. It was clear to me that she was simply uncomfortable with the subject matter of my work, and I set out to remedy this. I paid her a visit with a bottle of expensive champagne – I believe it was a Boerl & Kroff – and although she was reluctant, she finally submitted to my charms and invited me in.

“Mademoiselle DuBose,” I said, as I poured two glasses of the Boerl, “please reconsider your sentiment. You must understand that first and foremost, I am a craftsman. I take immense pride in my work. It is not for the masses of leering, drooling men looking for lewd gratification in darkened rooms. No, it is my vision, my passion. My films are about beauty, art. And tell me, who can deny the beauty and artistry of the female body?”

She shot back at me with accusations of exploitation, and I assured her that this was a crude generalization. Then I blundered. I invited her to participate in my next film so that she could see just how refined and professional it was. I even offered myself as her partner in the lovemaking scene so she would feel more comfortable, and suggested ways to incorporate the geese in a nice pastoral setting, to make up for any injustices and also to comment on French attitudes towards the working class. I have never seen a woman turn so ruthless.

“Get out of my house, you disgusting animal!” she screamed. “If I so much as smell your slime on my property, I’ll set the dogs on you!”

I decided against seduction.

A week later, I had changed none of my routine. To the contrary, I started filming a new project, set entirely in my yard. Was I too provocative? Perhaps. To my mind, I was simply being deliberate, showing her that I had the right to do as I pleased, and proving to her that I was harming no one. How could she possibly accuse me of something so crass as exploitation? Have I even mentioned how I took in two runaway teenagers for several months, and cared for them as if they were my own children? I celebrate women. I am a beacon of safety and comfort to them. The scenes I shot with those girls (from my acclaimed film Les Fugueuses) were some of my finest work.

Unfortunately, the demands of filmmaking have required that I replace the lush natural grass that grows there with an artificial substitute. Please do not misunderstand; it is of the highest quality, as is all the décor in my home – from the bronzed vagina in the foyer to the pure alligator loveseat. Any of my guests will tell you that my faux grass and the real thing are all but indistinguishable, except by touch. Nevertheless, the thought of the deception in which I must engage disagrees profoundly with my personal aesthetic. It pains me to know that my actresses shed their clothes atop a lavish green bed of hypocrisy. Sadly, it is unavoidable. Above all else, I am a professional, and my actresses are my priority. I cannot allow them to lie upon uncomfortable dirty grass, for that is unfair to their lovely bodies, and it detracts from the scene’s intimacy if they are not completely at ease. I care. I do not wish for people to overlook this fact.

It was not long before Mlle. DuBose’s attacks began.

I took two lovely actresses outside one day to shoot a scene in the morning dew (naturally I had to create the dew with a spray bottle – plastic grass does not accumulate moisture well), and my actresses had just disrobed, when I saw them: two geese and a goat, rooting and wandering in the far corner of my yard, near the rock-lined pond.

Now do not misunderstand me. I love animals, although I have none of my own. But filthy creatures like that I cannot abide, particularly in my immaculate yard. I spent the better part of an hour trying to chase the horrid things out with a broom, and my yard smelled like a zoo for the remainder of the day. Being a polite sort, I gave Mlle. DuBose the benefit of the doubt, and sent her a polite letter asking her to watch her animals more closely. I disinfected the yard the next day and resumed shooting.

Not two days later, I awoke to the screams of my housekeeper, Carlotta. She will tell you she was laughing, but she is not the most levelheaded of women and has a tendency to misremember details. It was most certainly a scream, Carlotta, just like the flavor of yogurt I asked you to bring me was most certainly citron and not vanille. I digress.

Hearing screams, I rushed downstairs, where I was shocked to see my entire yard overrun with hopping, twitching rabbits. Twenty-seven of them, to be exact. Rounding them up was no simple task, as I’m sure you can imagine. I was bitten twice, and in the process, Carlotta and I ground countless little balls of rabbit droppings into my lovely turf and I was forced to replace it. Only later did I notice the damage they had done by eating much of my well-kept shrubbery.

That was enough. If I am anything, I am a generous and calm individual. But even the most saintly of gentlemen can be pushed too far. Furious, I stormed over to her house and pounded on the heavy oak door. The instant she opened it, I bellowed at her: “What is your explanation for this?”

She feigned innocence, which only served to incense me further. She attempted to shut the door, but I jammed a foot in and forced it back open. “You know perfectly well what I am talking about. If you ever deposit your damned animals on my property again, I shall notify the authorities.”

To my surprise, she grabbed me by the arm and marched me to the fence separating our yards. There she pointed to a large hole in the fence and said, “If you put up a fence, Monsieur Renaud, then it is your responsibility to maintain it, not mine.” She spoke with such a self-satisfied, condescending manner that I very nearly slapped her.

I regained my composure, however, and hurried home, where I sat down to think.

It was clear that she had made the hole. But I could not prove this, nor did I wish to embroil myself in a tedious legal battle that could draw the attention of the town and put my life and work under scrutiny. Not that I have anything to hide, mind you, but privacy is essential to me and people tend to misinterpret things when they are made public without context. No, I needed to put a stop to this woman myself. My fine moustache was twisted into a withered mess of coarse whiskers when I was finished thinking, but I had several schemes incubating, which would make her life rather unpleasant. My first went into effect that night.

At around 3 a.m. I rose from my bed and stole into my yard. Crouching in the shelter of the ivy-covered fence, I removed from my pajamas pocket a package of firecrackers. I touched a match to one of the fuses, and the entire package seemed to come alive, hissing and spewing fountains of sparks in all directions, momentarily transporting me back to Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and that marvelous fireworks scene. (On a related note, I once met Juliette Binoche in a hotel bathroom and invited her to be in one of my films. She was clearly honored, but had to leave hastily as she was late and so could not give me an answer right then. I have a call in to her representatives.)

Refocusing, I lobbed the package over the fence into the garden where I assumed her geese were sleeping, and sprinted for my back door. I was not halfway there when a terrific series of bangs reported in the silence, sharp and cracking. Immediately there was a violent squawking, fluttering commotion from the darkness across the fence. I watched from the safety of my glass door as lights blinked on in her house, and Mlle. DuBose came rushing out in her nightgown. I had the added pleasure of seeing her step on the hem of her gown and fall – as if jerked from a chain – face-first to the muddy ground.

The next day, her geese were still jittery, and set to honking and flapping about when I called to Mlle. DuBose over the fence to ask how she slept and to invite her over for a croissant and café au lait. The geese were so loud that day that I had to cancel my shooting for the afternoon.

I did not expect her to back down after such a simple prank as that, and I certainly had no intention of quitting yet. Two nights later, waiting until all was still and quiet, I stole out again, this time into her yard, through that very same hole in the fence. Two can play your little game, mademoiselle. There, I turned her hose on full power and left it in the garden. After several hours had passed, I checked its progress with binoculars from my roof.

A small lake had already formed and was growing slowly, inching towards her house. By morning, it would cover her back steps. With the exception of the rabbits, who were bobbing in a large cage in the center of the lake, and the geese, who were swimming happily to and fro like the simpleminded birds they are, all her animals were standing confused on the porch.

I did not bother filming the next day, expecting a counterattack. It never came. I waited several more days, twisting my moustache into knots, but still nothing. Finally I began cautiously filming. My first day passed without incident, as did my second, which only served to sharpen my anxiety. Anticipation is a cruel mistress.

By the third day I was pacing around my yard like a sentinel, expecting the assault at any moment. Nothing.

Could it be that she had admitted defeat to a superior foe? I am a formidable opponent, no one would disagree with that, but I had not expected her to fold so quickly. Perhaps I was even more powerful than I realized.

On the fourth day I was beginning to feel more confident, and by the fifth day I knew I had won. Enemy vanquished, I went out on the town in celebration. Victory lends itself to one’s appearance, and I knew that I could conquer the heart of any lady that night. I brought home with me two ripe young girls, whom I escorted out to the yard. We were frolicking together for several minutes before one of them looked up… and shrieked. I followed her gaze, just in time to catch a face full of wet, stinking manure. Manure, my good readers. So great was my astonishment that I did not move an inch when the second barrage came sailing over the fence, landing in my mouth, which regrettably I had left open in disbelief at the audacity of the first salvo. A third followed, landing squarely upon the expensive photographic equipment that I had set out for the next day’s shooting.

I leapt to my feet in a rage – there she was, staring at me over the fence. I started towards her, but she raised her shovel to show me another helping, and I retreated to my back porch. My girls grabbed their clothes and scampered for home, and such was my humiliation, I did not even try to stop them.

“Vile woman! You want a war? You will have it!” Pointing at her in a fury, I grabbed a loose brick to signify my serious intention. But to my surprise, she did not back down.

Instead, she sneered at me, with a gaze that was so sinister, so filled with loathing and feral abandon, I still see it when I close my eyes.

En garde.”

I set the brick down and went inside. I did not sleep at all that night.

In difficult times, when my soul is troubled, I can ordinarily find solace just wandering the luxurious marble floors of my home, gazing upon my many awards and the photos of my children, who live with their mothers. But not this night. This night, I was a prisoner in my own home. How dare that woman control me like this? I stood in my living room, watching her house through the window. Although her lights were out, no doubt she was awake in there too, scheming her next evil move. Perhaps even watching me just as I watched her.

Then I spotted it. One of her rabbits had gotten loose and found its way through the hole in the fence to my yard. It sat very still, nibbling on my shrubbery. With great contentment, I would imagine.

What can I say? I saw red. My senses failed me, my mind went blank, and the world faded to a dull roar in the back of my head. Before I knew what I was doing, I had burst out the door and crossed the yard, snatching up the rabbit before it even had a chance to see me coming. I gripped the squirming little beast in my fist, and grabbed its head to break its neck.

But the little fellow was soft, and warm, and looked up at me with its dumb animal eyes that knew nothing of its malicious human provider or our feud, and I could not go through with it. Regaining my wits, I instinctively spun in a defensive crouch, realizing that this could only have been another trap – but the neighboring yard was silent, and the lights were still off in the house.

I am a compassionate man. In that instant, I wanted nothing more than to put an end to this nonsense. No more fighting, no more ugliness. We were neighbors, after all.

Cradling the rabbit inside my robe, I crawled through the hole in the fence and into the yard of Mlle. DuBose. I gently set the rabbit down in his cage amidst his colleagues.

The animal offered no thanks, but simply vanished into a tangle of furry legs and ears. I exhaled and turned to leave – and that’s when I saw her. Through the window, standing in the darkened living room of her house. Watching me.

And smirking.

With utter poise, I walked up the steps to her porch. She appeared to falter, perhaps realizing for the first time that she was not safely hidden away in the darkness. But she did not pull away, not even as I stood in front of the window, parted my robe, squatted, and evacuated my bowels on her porch, then turned and walked home without a word.

Both of us have since filed complaints with the police, who seem to take little interest beyond amusement in the case. I do not sleep at night, watching her house for any signs of aggression. My moustache is drooping. I have begun spontaneously crying at odd moments. They say that art imitates life and so perhaps I should turn my camera on myself. But in my estimation, only a select few from the school of New French Extremism – a Laugiere or a Brisseau, perhaps – are properly capable of capturing the essence of human pain and suffering. And so I remain.

But my spirits are high, for above all, I am an optimist. I am locked in a battle for my honor and my art, and I will prevail. She will be the one to back down; I will see to it, no matter what I have to do. I am a gracious loser, as a gentleman of my caliber should be, but I cannot tolerate losing here, not now when it has become a personal undertaking. If she gets the better of me again, I shall send her a fur coat and a subscription to Hunting World.

The entire town knows of our feud by now, and groups of open-mouthed gawkers will occasionally stop by to see if there might be any entertaining events unfolding that day for their snickering pleasure. They stand out there on the street, laughing, drinking beer, making jokes right in front of me, as though I were an ape at the zoo. Do you think I cannot hear you, friends? Do you think I do not understand?

No, I understand very well indeed. So laugh all you want, friends. When I have bested Mlle. DuBose, I will be the one laughing.

About The Author:
Jacob Isser
Jacob Isser is a film and TV comedy writer who has sold, adapted and developed projects for Joe Roth, Sony Pictures, New Line, Intrepid Pictures, Propaganda Films and John Baldecchi.  His pilot script Hosers will have a live reading and panel discussion this fall at NY's Skirball Center with Fast Company, Black List Live! and 2015 Innovation Fest.

About Jacob Isser

Jacob Isser is a film and TV comedy writer who has sold, adapted and developed projects for Joe Roth, Sony Pictures, New Line, Intrepid Pictures, Propaganda Films and John Baldecchi.  His pilot script Hosers will have a live reading and panel discussion this fall at NY's Skirball Center with Fast Company, Black List Live! and 2015 Innovation Fest.

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