The bare-bones story doesn’t exactly qualify as Shakespeare. Marie Trintignant, 41-year-old French actress, is dead, and her lover, 39-year-old rock star Bertrand Cantat, is being held in a Wilno prison hospital. According to initial reports in the French press, the lovers had a violent quarrel Saturday night (July 26-27), and the actress fell and hit her head. She underwent surgery, he was hospitalized; she was in a coma, he was nearly comatose, from a combination of drugs and alcohol. The incident occurred a few days before the end of shooting — Marie was playing Colette in a TV film directed by her mother, Nadine Trintignant. (The eldest of her four sons, Roman Kolinka, has a role in the film; her brother Vincent is assistant director.) Cantat, leader of the record-breaking rock group Noir Désir, is quick to explain that Marie was injured accidentally, though he admits that he pushed her. She is hovering between life and death. She is brain-dead. A French surgeon flies to Wilno for a second, last-chance operation. Hopeless. Marie’s mother speaks up, both directly and through her lawyer. Her daughter was beaten to death. Cantat is arraigned. He’s terribly sorry about the accident, but denies the crime; he’s ready to take his punishment, but not in Lithuania.
Foggy details filter through. Cantat phoned Marie’s son during the night, or closer to dawn, and he’s the one who called the ambulance. Marie’s face and body were bruised. Her electroencephalogram is flat. She is brought home, kept on life support in a clinic in Neuilly. And dies, on Friday morning, August 1.
Marie Trintignant, a lovely, talented young woman and mother of four, is dead, brutally dead, sordidly battered to death and deserving of respectful silence. Her family is suffering unbearable sorrow, and deserving of solicitude.
THE STUFF OF FICTION
But their story is emblematic, and worthy of the treatment only fiction can afford. We look to the journalist to find out what really happened, and in the case of the death of M. T., the information was distilled parsimoniously, timidly, and with no great concern for accuracy. Sociologists and political scientists explain what can be rationally explained. The writer of fiction gathers details like acorns and breathes life into them, making a whole forest of a story, taking it away from those who actually experienced it and giving it to the world not as it happened, but as it is, forever and emblematically.
Beaten to death. The words were pronounced when the news broke, then slipped out of sight for a week. Except for some laconic coverage of the hearing in Wilno, the French press seemed reluctant to investigate. A strange note of evenhandedness slipped in, particularly in radio newscasts. He’s in the hospital, she’s in the hospital. They quarreled, she fell. She hovers between life and death; he’s incoherent, psychologically fragile. On Radio France Internationale, the voice of the very causes that Bertrand Cantat fervently defends, the treatment came close to being a heartfelt appeal for the star whose career is about to be destroyed. C’est logique, non? The woman is dead; no one can save her. Someone has to be saved. And the poor guy is in prison — in Wilno, of all places.
Wilno, the once-and-never-again Jerusalem of Central Europe. How many brilliant brain surgeons were not there to save M. T.? In fact, no one could save her; it was too late. Too late because of the brutality of the attack — or too late because she was beaten and then left to agonize for hours before help was sought?
As the lurid details leaked out, RFI lagged behind. As if embarrassed. Noir Désir (which could be translated as “black desire,” but also means “dark passion”) is — was — the most popular rock band in France. Not trashy — quality rock. And B. C. was known for his refined literary taste and poetic lyrics. Strange, how this coverage reminds one of a certain Middle East situation where, somehow, the victim always seems to be guilty and the aggressor is the guy you’d want to hang out with. In fact, that was the position taken by B. C., known for his “humanism,” his courageous defense of illegal immigrants, his bold allegiance to ATTAC, José Bové, and the antiglobalization movement (now known as “altermondialisme,” meaning “another world is possible”). Recently, at an award ceremony B. C. (verbally) battered J.M. Messier, the now-devalued golden boy of international French business — guilty, in the eyes of B. C. and all who idolized him, of greedily exploiting musical talent for his own evil capitalist ends.
ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS?
But the best of all these commitments of the eminently engage singer is his devotion to the Cause of Causes: the Palestinian résistance. In April 2002, Noir Désir did a Palestinian benefit concert tour in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Turkey. B. C. declared, at a press conference, that he would gladly play in the territories, but never in Israel! With his keffieh wrapped around his neck, he gave little heartfelt speeches before concerts, calling for justice for the Palestinians. On the one-day stop in Beirut, the band visited the camps of Sabra and Chatila. As the cameras turned, a Palestinian told them about how his family had been massacred by the Christian phalangists. But the chauffeur who drove them back to their luxury hotel unashamedly admitted that he had taken part in the massacres — in revenge for his family, killed by Palestinians. There is no indication that this note of complexity had the slightest influence on Noir Désir: The profits from their Live in Beirut album are donated to a cultural project with “Palestine.”
And of course, B. C. and his group — and his then-newly beloved and now-battered-to-death lady — were active last winter in opposing the terrible American war in Iraq. A movement spearheaded by France’s very own president, Jacques Chirac, who declared ceaselessly that war is the worst of all solutions, and we, the French, the Europeans, the civilized and cultured people of this planet, are for dialogue, tolerance, reaching out to others, listening to their grievances, alleviating their poverty, and scrupulously respecting international law as embodied in the United Nations, amen. That antiwar movement. And did they march side by side with the jihadists waving Hezbollah and Hamas flags, shouting Bush-Sharon-assassin slogans, and defacing American and Israeli flags with swastikas? Did they swing with the crowd at Woodstock-type rallies and trash America from the high ground of St.-Germain cafés?
A (PARISIAN) LOVE STORY
They were madly in love with each other, according to the cover story of Paris Match. It all started last winter…just about the time the antiwar jihad marches got into beating up Jews. Not that there’s any connection between the two phenomena — I’m just establishing a time line. It was clashing cymbals and pounding hearts. Jouer le tout pour le tout. Noir Désir, so to speak. B. C. left his pregnant wife — wife or companion, pregnant or having just given birth to their second child: The reports differ on all precise details, and no one seems to care. She left her companion, or husband, or estranged companion or husband, the film and theater director Samuel Benchetrit. And they — I almost wrote “shacked up together.” But that’s not the vocabulary we use for this sort of lovers. It was a sublime passion, a live-it-to-the-hilt love affair. A not-surprising contradiction in the life of the daughter of a fervent feminist who carried in turn the torch of glory to the free woman in countless films and stage plays, who lived in paradoxical family harmony with her divorced parents, and who, a model of the free woman, gracefully raised four sons fathered by three different men: a musician, an actor, and Benchetrit, who gave her two. M. C. and S. B. were married in Uzès in 1998. That’s not so long ago.
But then this new passion flamed up in the winter of 2003 and, as it turns out, nothing could extinguish it but violent death. In June, B. C. joined his beloved in Wilno, where she was playing the role of Colette. Another emblematic figure of French femininity, libertine freedom, and Sapphic loves. Freedom for women, justice for Palestinians, peace on earth, and a sweet little woman beaten to death by her Noir Désir. The jilted wife and the rest of the band rushed to Wilno to give moral support to the suffering rock star. Frightened by French news reports of the young man’s psychological fragility, the Lithuanian authorities thought it wiser to avoid unfortunate incidents by keeping him in the prison hospital. The ex-companion/husband condoled with his father-in-law in Uzès. The feminist mother declared that her grandsons should know that the man who murdered their mother is in prison, adding that if B. C. had been given appropriate treatment, this might not have happened.
So? It isn’t the first time? And out of respect for the private lives of public figures, no one knew how B. C. treated his women? And no one was troubled by the contradictions, his commitment to ATTAC has nothing to do with his habit of attacking, and he can be a good Bovéiste and still take drugs? Was there no way to warn a second-generation feminist of the unwritten claws in this story of dark passion? What could have clued her in?
Her father, Jean-Louis Trintignant, comes from Uzès. I don’t know why his name sings Rabelaisian to me; I do know why I have the impression of a very kind, considerate man, a sincere actor, an absolutely non-glitzy star, the very image of serious-but-not-stolid French cinema. La douceur de la France, the Midi, tile floors and slanting sunlight through old blue shutters, a bottle of rosé cooling in a clay wine crock, fruits and flowers and vegetables du terroir, wisteria, mountain laurel, lavender and cicadas, a battered straw hat hanging in the entry.
Out of a blue sky. No, it doesn’t happen that way. This dark-passion guy was no sweetheart, believe the words of a woman who has lived. Were there no raised eyebrows? Was the whole entourage on both sides of the couple simply swept up in the flames of this passion? The autopsy was performed, the results partially revealed. Brutality leaves precise traces. How many blows, how much force, over what period of time, causing how much damage. Marks on her arm(s) where she was held in an iron grip. He doesn’t remember anything, or he’s a liar and a cad. Details come into focus. The film was almost in the can; L. W. had finished his part and was leaving; he threw a party, everyone drank, the star-crossed lovers had a few more for the road with an unidentified friend. The quarrel broke out at midnight. At 2 A.M. a night watchman knocked at the door of their suite at the Domina Plaza to inquire about the noise. Perhaps alerted by the Italian tourist who had heard sounds of tumult. B. C. apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again. Was she already in a coma? Could she have been saved? Her mother, her brother, her son were all staying in the same hotel. He was just drunk, not drugged, when he smashed her skull. He took drugs, or was it some kind of pills? afterward. To forget — or to hide? When his Lithuanian lawyer finally screwed up the courage to tell him that the wench was dead, he cried.
A NATION (AND MORE?) IN DECLINE
As a girl, M. T. loved animals so much she wanted to be a veterinarian. A full-page portrait of B. C. in Paris Match shows a little pixy face straight out of Walt Disney. In another shot we see him with a silly adolescent grin on his face as he’s escorted from the hospital to the police station for questioning: the image of ineffectual Frenchness. Every nation has its own mediocrity; B. C. is emblematic of France in decadent decline. France swallowed up in its frivolous superficiality, drowned in its baselessly flattering self-image, intoxicated with a shoddy gospel of moral superiority. France, pretentious and utterly defenseless. Eaten up by jealousy and unavowed, violent hatred.
A flash of violence out of a clear blue sky, in the midsummer of a torrid carefree France, and the night after a Jewish community center in Seine Saint-Denis was sacked. The sanctuary of the sefer torot forced open, money stolen, furniture overturned, precious records stolen, and “Death to the Jews” graffiti painted on the walls. Shabat. During the night of July 25-26, in a Parisian working-class suburb. A neighborhood where Jewish men and boys have to hide their kippot under baseball caps. Where all that is Jewish is exposed to attack, to defilement, to pushing and spitting and curses. And it all doesn’t even make a ripple on the smooth surface of the France of peace. It doesn’t make the news — and you can bet it won’t make it into the courts either.
Why so numb? This Noir Désir gets no Scott-and-Laci-Peterson-affair type of coverage. Another example of French moral superiority? No sensationalism, no sick curiosity. No digging up the dirt. A hush-hush silence out of respect for the bereaved family, the innocent children. But it is the family itself that is pushing to reveal the dastardly details. Their lawyer has made a formal request to up the charge from manslaughter to murder. Based on the autopsy report the press skimmed over; based on testimony from members of the film crew, friends of the rock star, people who were in the hotel, testimony that no snoopy French journalist seems to find worthy of further investigation. No lurid details, and a strange solicitude for B. C., victim of his passion without borders.
He might commit suicide; he must stay alive for the sake of his children (will he go back to their mother, who knows?); he was so fragile they didn’t dare tell him she was dead (yes, it would be much easier to let him believe she was still sleeping off an unfortunate accidental fall); we are optimistic that the Lithuanians will extradite him (the poor woman was left to die in a luxury hotel in Wilno, but the man who beat her to death has to be near his loved ones, in his native land, among people who understand him and remember his great poetic lyrics).
It is so easy to beat a small woman to death. And yet it is hard to believe that those gestures can be practiced once, and only once, by someone who never took a hand to anyone. He was jealous, we find, because she had received a tender message from her husband. Ah, so they were not divorced. That shouldn’t have been so difficult for journalists to verify before they wrote their articles. According to some accounts she intended to spend a two weeks’ vacation with Benchetrit and their sons. Others claim it was just a tender text message on her cell phone that ignited the rock star’s furious anger. Maybe the lady was wearying of devouring passion and longed to resume her quiet life with the modest director? Mere novelist’s speculation.
At first, we thought that those raucous cries for justice in Palestine were honestly misled. We tried to explain. But nothing we could say was ever heard. We thought 9/11 would open eyes and minds. Don’t you see — it’s not just the settlements (in France they call them colonies, and Israelis killed on their way back from weddings are colons, which means, legitimate targets guilty of occupying “Palestine”); it’s our very civilization. They sneered. Don’t give us that clash-of-civilizations bullshit — we’re for dialogue. And they waved their flags, and they marched, and they tolerated the intolerable. They wanted nothing of our war in Afghanistan, they wouldn’t hear of our aggression against Iraq, and still some people gave them credit for good intentions. They weren’t pro-Saddam, just antiwar. They weren’t really in favor of suicide bombers, just concerned about Palestinian statehood. As for the latent, or underlying, or adjunctive anti-Semitism, well, we were told to understand the distinction between criticizing the politics of Sharon and persecuting Jews in France.
I thought: I have been thinking for more than a decade — but that’s just the novelist speaking — that these people want to give rein to their lowest instincts, and we stand in their way. No matter how modern we look, there are always some tablets of the law tucked away in our pockets or under our skin or on a symbol around our necks, even if it’s invisible. These tifosi rooting for the dredges of the earth and rallying to the most antiquated despotisms are, in reality, hot for the violence, not for the Cause. They’re not looking for justice for the oppressed; they’re lusting for permission to lash out in the name of whatever and bash up whatever stands in their way.
Seduce and abandon? That’s old hat. Seduce and smash. Slather on the poetic rock and then turn into a one-man Intifada. In Wilno, no less, where smashing heads was once a daily recreation. Seduce the young with hot-lips syncopation, carry them into Oriental conspiracies as if you were leading them to Sunday Mass, wrap them into your keffieh and deliver them up to…the devil. Capture the lovely lady — the frail, sweet doll with a cigarette-husky voice and cat’s eyes, symbol of something delightful in French culture, the southern touch, the authentic delicacies, the savoir faire, roots and tradition and a certain highbrow-popular culture, intellectual bookstores, suave manners, polite alcoholism that knows good wines. Take the charming actress away from her Benchetrit husband, but blend in with her movie-making family with such ease that when the time comes to smash everything they care about, everything they stand for, everything you yourself supposedly stand for — they hover nearby, silent, unwitting, unsuspecting witnesses.
Star-crossed lovers from anti-warring families in a free world where adultery does not turn women scarlet, divorce is not a disgrace, patchwork families cause no concern, Cantats and Trintignants have no old scores to settle — where no one would dream of telling anyone to not do anything that might further the cause of passionate love, and Romeo batters Juliet to death. No Shakespeare, no Greek tragedian, no Biblical storyteller to raise the event to its rightful, epic proportions; just a slew of lazy reporters picking up AFP and Reuters releases, and incuriously serving them lukewarm to a drowsy audience.
The bare-bones story is not Greek tragedy, Shakespearean drama, Biblical narrative. It’s a fait divers: Just one of those things that happen, illustrating nothing. The facts will come out in court, editorialists will pontificate on the futility of seeking vengeance, the bereaved lover will be shown as suffering from the loss of his beloved partner and the destruction of his brilliant career. What more should he suffer? His commitments — ATTAC, José Bové, altermondialisme — will weigh in his favor, as will the well-read works of superb modern French poets in his library. He will, I promise you, make statements against conjugal violence, and maybe even write a few songs to that tune when he starts recovering from the shock.
And strangely enough, the Middle East tour, the keffieh wrapped around his neck, the visit to Sabra and Chatila, the ardent defense of the Palestinians and their armed struggle, B. C.’s Cause of Causes — are not mentioned in the mainstream press today. Not included in the list of Noir Désir’s noble commitments. Why not? Isn’t it the blue-chip value they all share? The bereaved and the aggrieved, the disappointed rock fans and the dismayed feminists, the altremondialiste activists and the campaigners to save battered women….When the rifts heal, won’t they gather once more to drink from the well of Peace & Justice for Palestine, depository of their moral values?
— Nidra Poller is an American novelist and translator who has lived in Paris since 1972. Her translations of two works by Emmanuel Levinas (Humanism of the Other, Unforeseen History) will be published in September by the University of Illinois Press.