It boggles the mind to think that nearly one hundred years have passed since the expatriate community in Paris set the literary, cultural and social world on fire in the early years of the twentieth century. Artists from every country on the planet stormed the city and made landmark changes and inventions in every area of culture and study: writing, painting, sculpting, fashion, and other media. In the years leading up to, during, and following World War I, a city changed the world.
Greta Schiller’s scintillating Paris Was a Woman turns the lens on the women in this group of free thinkers: smart, savvy farm girls and small towners—artists, writers, designers, thinkers—who yearned to become independent professionals. They knew in their bones they could not exalt themselves while remaining in homes or on farms. Exodus was necessary. They packed their bags and headed for what seemed then “the place to be”: Paris. The result was a revolution helmed by such mega-players as the endlessly influential writer Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, playwright/poet Natalie Barney, bookseller Sylvia Beach and her partner Adrienne Monnier, entertainer Josephine Baker, and photographer Giselle Freund.
This movie is nothing short of a marvel. Juliet Stevenson’s narration is perfection. Her mellifluous voice is all warm chocolate and marshmallows, so mesmerizing on the senses. It draws us back to the 1920s with such ease that you want to stay in its dulcet, seductive tones forever. The footage alone is worth the price of a seat. Schiller’s gay Paree is immersive: bateaux mouches rolling along the waters of the Seine under a summer sun, the hustle-bustle of Les Halles, the naughty frolics of Les Folies Bergère. Everywhere the city teems with atomic energy. It isn’t hard to see why Paris became “a haven for a new kind of woman.”
I have spent much of a lifetime studying and teaching 1920s Paris and I thought I had seen all the photos and footage there are to see, but there are eye-poppers here of immeasurable delight— drunken couples making merry inside ashcans; soldiers, home from the war, dancing together; never-before-published photos of Gertrude Stein modelling an Easter hat, Toklas giggling nearby, watering a garden, Natalie Barney’s original salon in all its baroque, flowery beauty.
Schiller shows us how and why we honor these women: how Stein invented a new kind of prose, altering the architecture of how and what a novel could be; how she saved an unknown Pablo Picasso from obscurity and controlled the artist’s output between 1906 and 1909, displaying in her 27 Rue de Fleurus apartment until it was accepted and lionized on the world stage. Were it not for the nurturing instincts and support of women, major twentieth century artists like Joyce, Picasso, Hemingway, and their contemporaries might have remained in the shadows.
We see how Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier quite literally came up with the idea of the lending library catering to the reading needs of women who could not afford to purchase the books needed to educate and entertain themselves. “You have to read a book before you buy it!”
Schiller shows how dancer/singer Josephine Baker was a progenitor of the “Black is Beautiful” Movement (only later was this slogan borrowed and popularized by 1960s hippies and civil rights fighters). So many changes and liberations happened rapid-fire, and all the while Giselle Freund pointed her camera lens at these women artists and supporters of the arts, sensing the importance of immortalizing them even before they became important.
For your delectation, both Freund and the movie deliver the many historical figures of the time: the acerbic, unafraid Janet Flanner (who wrote Paris profiles and portraits for The New Yorker under the pen name, Genet), the prophetic Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier; the intuitive Natalie Barney with an eye toward history and legacy; the shrewd, sexy, and courageous Colette; the bold, poetic figures of Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein. These women come alive on the screen. You can smell the miasma of cologne and hear the cozy, comfortable rustling of their colored caftans coming off the screen. You notice the cigar stains on their hands, their not-so-girly sensibilities, the volcanoes percolating behind their marvelous minds, and feel what their wise eyes have seen. You can almost hear them breathe. No longer names on a college midterm, they reach out and touch you with their candor, with the delight they take in their own incomparable accomplishments.
The whole picture Schiller creates smacks of a deliberate, conscious freeing—of every emotion, especially those emanating from the female ethos. Paris played host to a storm center that was the collective intelligence of these women’s minds, which manifested in their very deliberate plan to liberate visual art, writing, ideas, society, sexuality, and the success they had in doing so.
There is such fun in this film, such emancipation, and a hedonism that puts the Weimar Republic to shame. I sometimes worry that 1920s Paris has become trapped in amber, the time and its zeitgeist no longer relatable to contemporary sensibilities. Nonsense! These radiant, clever, brave, shameless Amazons—women of total heart and total mind—their light dares history to dim them. Paris Was a Woman frees them beautifully and ably from any such fate, shatters any heavy, antique frame the past hundred years might have hung them in and delivers them and their world back into our arms like brilliant bouquets, eternal and eternally new.