French Film’s Yiddish Roots


By Masha Leon

Published July 10, 2008, issue of July 18, 2008.
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“All my books have Jewish characters,” award-winning author Harlan Coben said during our chat at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. We were discussing the French movie thriller “Tell No One” (“Ne Le Dis A Personne”). The recently opened film is based on Coben’s best-seller of the same name. When asked “Why do the film’s key characters — Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet), a pediatrician accused of killing his wife; Elizabeth Feldman (Nathalie Baye), a hotshot lawyer, and Erich Lefkowich (François Berleand), an obsessive detective — have Jewish names?” Coben, a Bruce Willis look-alike, responded, “Myron [Bolitar], a serial character in my crime novels [a former basketball star and an ex-FBI agent], and my alter ego constantly quotes Yiddish expressions.” A huge box office smash in France, “Tell No One” has garnered four Césars (France’s Academy Awards). It is a heart-pounding, nail-biter and the plot is too complicated to describe. The film is a tribute to Coben’s literary genius and the skill of film director Guillaume Canet — it keeps you on the edge of your seat until the film’s final frames. The book’s original New York setting has been shifted to a Paris unfamiliar to tourists. As an example, Coben cited the inner city tough Bruno, a pivotal character who in the book “was originally a Black Panther.” The film also stars Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient”), whose French is impressive and whose involvement in a lesbian relationship adds a bit of Gallic cachet to the plot turns. The film should be called “Go Tell Everyone.”

“My parents were U.S.-born. My grandfather WAS one of seven brothers born in Jerusalem [and immigrated] to the U.S.,” said Coben, who was born in Livingston, N.J., in 1963. “I decided to write novels.” Coben majored in political science at Amherst College. He is the first author ever to have won all three major U.S. Crime Literary Awards — the Edgar, Shamus and Anthony awards. His best-selling novels are No. 1 in Israel. His most recent novel, “Hold Tight” (Dutton), was No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list. In 2003, Elle magazine dubbed Coben “one of the masters of the suspense thriller for his stand alone crime novel, ‘Tell No One.’” There is even a Harlan Coben fan club formed by Baghdad-based American soldiers.


It is an alliance between art and liberty,” said Salman Rushdie, chairman of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. The organization’s reception was held April 29 at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. During the event, prolific writer, critic and author Edmund White was presented with the insignia of officer of the Order of Arts and Letters. An expert on Proust and Arthur Rimbaud, White received The National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994 for his biography of Jean Genet. It was noted that he was also doing work on Irène Némirovsky. During a private chat with Ian McEwe regarding Némirovsky, David Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust (where the exhibit Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française will debut in the fall), alluded to Némirovsky as having “an [unwarranted] reputation in the Jewish community as a self-hating Jew.” British writer [of Scottish ancestry] Ian McEwan’s reaction was: “I hate all this stuff… I read about her being a self-hating Jew… .She was free [as a writer]. You are not writing a manifesto about equal opportunity. All writers must write as if their parents were dead.” McEwan, whose sublime book “Atonement” was made into an exquisite Academy Award nominated movie starring Keira Knightley, added, “If I create a character, a despicable Scot, it does not mean all Scots are despicable.”

The evening’s guests included Marie-Monique Steckel, president of The French Institute Alliance Française. Steckel, White disclosed, “was my landlady in Paris in the Ile Ste. Louis district for seven years.” Also among the guests were Francine Prose, president of the PEN American Center, and Kareen Rispal, the French Embassy’s cultural counselor, who presented the award to White. Rispal said, “This is the fourth annual festival with 150 writers… from across the globe promoting exchange ideas between France and the U.S.” PEN American Center is the largest of the 141 PEN centers in 99 countries that compose International PEN. According to the historical notes, PEN was founded in 1921, “in direct response to the ethnic and national divisions that contributed to the First World War.” In New York, PEN’s partnering organizations include the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center, The Office of Cultural Affairs, the Consulate General of Israel in New York, the Center for Jewish History and the American Civil Liberties Union.


The provenance of the Broadway musical “A Catered Affair” — with its book by Harvey Fierstein (one of the show’s stars) and its subject matter based on a screenplay by Gore Vidal, and in turn based on the original teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky — reminded me of Danny Kaye’s patter song in the 1944 film “Up in Arms.” In a theater lobby, Kaye vamps in a reverse Darwinian progression of a film, from script to paragraph, to plot, to sentence, to its primeval idea. No matter. The latest incarnation of “Affair” is a gem. Set in a 1950s Bronx tenement, “A Catered Affair” has the flavor of a 1930s Clifford Odets Depression classic. Yet, Fierstein has created a memory piece that contemporary audiences can connect to — more so today, as financial belt-tightening makes front-page news.

Aggie, the mother (Faith Prince), wants to blow a government compensation check (her son died in Korea) on a “wedding she never had” for daughter Janey (Leslie Kritzer). But Tom, the father (Tom Wopat), a cabbie, wants to use this windfall to buy a medallion that will give him and the family a measure of financial security. As Aggie begins to lose it, emotional lacerations and accusations surface. The pressure of bridegroom family guest lists, seating, flowers, limos, the desire to impress, raises the expense ante. But Fierstein, who plays gay Uncle Winston, garners one of the evening’s biggest laughs: “We’re good at this,” he says, almost winking at the audience, as he orchestrates and simplifies the wedding details.

Fierstein’s script is not maudlin and has no cutesy audience-pleasing shtick. The night I saw it, there were breath-holding communal silences as audience members seemed to rummage through their own or their parents’ life-cycle memories. The fact that “Affair,” which was nominated for best musical and earned nominations for Faith Prince and Tom Wopat — whose stellar performances justified the audience’s standing ovation — was “dissed” had me fuming. Were I a born and bred Bronxite, I’d shout, “We wuz robbed!” (Actually, my Troy, N.Y.-born husband, Joseph, and I did spend the first six months of our marriage in a sixth-floor walkup railroad flat on Tiffany Street in the East Bronx). Don’t miss out on one of the most charming, heartwarming, memory-ticking musicals now on Broadway. See it before it closes (the final performance date in July 27).

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