Skin-Deep - NIGHT 3: TOUCH - Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter

Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)


Chapter 25. Skin-Deep

No mask like open truth to cover lies,

As to go naked is the best disguise.

William Congreve, The Double Dealer

I’d known Sandy since my first days in France, when she ran a bookshop on the unfashionable fringes of Montparnasse. A native of Iowa, lean and genial, she was then married, though not happily, to a Frenchman who roamed the world, rifle in hand, intent, it seemed, on killing at least one of every species.

When the marriage collapsed, she sold the shop and disappeared into the American hinterland, never, I assumed, to be seen in Paris again. So it surprised me when we ran into one another at Bloom Where You Are Planted, one of those events where speakers and stall-holders hype quick fixes for the despair that afflicts many new arrivals in France.

“I was thinking of you!” she said. “You’re just the man I need to help with a new project.”

I flinched. Sandy’s schemes were inevitably labor-intensive. For a while, she’d proposed holding a summer school at her country house, her husband’s former hunting lodge. Students would hear lectures on impressionism or Ulysses in the morning but spend the afternoon blasting local wildlife in the surrounding forests. I pleaded deficient marksmanship and a horror of loud noises, and heard no more about it.

“If it’s that summer school thing … ,” I began.

“Oh, God, no!” She dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “This is quite different. And right up your street.”

We wandered across the river into the Marais, where she kept a tiny apartment as a pied-à-terre, and took an outside table at Les Philosophes, one of the cafés along rue Vieille du Temple. Usually crowded with tourists eager for atmosphere, at this hour of the morning it was almost empty.

The streets, however, were full, not with tourists but with locals, out to do their marketing. I was reminded again of how, in these narrow streets, traditional limits of personal space broke down. Pedestrians passed so close that a skirt or coat tail might brush your back. Conversations became public property. Eyes met between tables, with mutual interest frankly expressed.

“This idea is absolutely perfect for you,” Sandy began.

“Really?” Twenty years of listening to get-rich-quick projects had made me cynical. Remembering how Diaghilev responded to Jean Cocteau when he suggested a collaboration, I risked a quote from the great entrepreneur.

“Étonne-moi,” I said. Astonish me.

She did.

“I’m going to make pornographic movies,” she said. “And I want you to write them.”

In Los Angeles, I knew people in the adult film business. A friend designed the “porn Oscars,” known as the Heart-Ons, presented each Valentine’s Day by the X-Rated Critics Organization. He smuggled a photographer friend and me into the award ceremony to see prizes handed out for Best Blow Job and Best Anal Intercourse. One recipient thanked “all the men who made it easy for me and all the women who made it hard for me.” Playboy published my wondering account, although the editors discarded my title, “In the Playpen of the Damned,” substituting “The Night of a Thousand Orifices.”

“Why on earth would you want to make porn? There’s miles of it in every DVD store. Even on regular TV.”

“People of our age just don’t identify with the kids in these movies. I think older audiences would be interested in seeing people more like themselves. Who would you rather watch—a couple of teenagers, or, say, Catherine Deneuve or Alain Delon?”

My instinctive response was “Neither.” Instead I changed tack. “What sort of films are you thinking of?”

“Well, how about characters from history? Nobody seems to be doing that.”

And with good reason. In the golden days when porn was shot on film rather than video, ambitious producers made versions of such period classics as Bel Ami, Fanny Hill, even the memoirs of Casanova. All failed because historical costumes and sets cost too much and audiences were just as happy with a contemporary story shot around a swimming pool in Topanga Canyon.

“Think of it!” Sandy said. “Héloïse and Abélard, Madame de Montespan, Marie Antoinette—and that’s just France.”

I stirred my coffee and, over her shoulder, watched the woman sitting behind us. If she tilted her chair back any further to eavesdrop, she risked toppling into the aisle.

“What about locations?”

She waved away this minor complication. “We can use my country place. There are dozens of rooms.”

“But you’ve never made a movie.”

“How hard can it be? The producers I’ve met are such dopes.”

“But … do you have any idea what it would cost?”

“Not in detail. I thought you might help me with a whatchamacallit.”


“Yeah, budget.”

Her confidence was unassailable. “Assuming you did manage to make the films, how would you distribute them?”

“I haven’t got to that yet. Gotta make them first.”

“What about performers?”

“Oh, I know some people. And there are these échangiste magazines—you know, for swingers. I thought I could advertise there. So … are you in?”

“Let me think about it.”

But I didn’t—not seriously.

Aside from period filming being notoriously expensive and time-consuming, I didn’t fancy her chances of finding talent among the amateurs in the personals. And if she did manage to create the films, any pirate could copy a DVD and, by posting it on one of the numerous free porn Internet sites, wipe out all chance of profit. Rating her chances at slim to none, I pleaded pressure of work and bowed out. Which made the email she sent six months later all the more astonishing.

“Well, I did it!” said the message. “See attached.”

The MP4 video ran for seven minutes. It began with a printed introduction in copperplate on a background that imitated parchment.


The credits dissolved in on a candle-lit chamber, period indeterminate. As a husky man with a moustache embraced a lady in a robe of blue silk, a commentary, delivered in a breathlessly excited female voice, explained that she was Marguerite de Navarre, one of the sixteenth century’s most accomplished sensualists, author of the erotic tales known as the Heptaméron. Her partner didn’t need any introduction. Like most male performers in this kind of cinema, he was simply an all-purpose hunk: The Meat.

With a minimum of foreplay, the two lurched toward the bed, where Marguerite, wig now crookedly askew, opened the blue gown and lay back. Watching her companion hard at work, I thought of the old joke about the American girl, just back from Paris, praising her French lover’s expertise.

“Where else would you find a man who licks your navel?” she asks.

“Why is that so great?” her friend says. “My boyfriend does that all the time.”

Her companion raises an eyebrow. “From the inside?”

If Marguerite’s body language could be believed, her lover was giving more than adequate satisfaction.

Mon amour, oh, mon amour,” she moaned.

But that accent … ? Did I detect echoes of Sioux City and Keokuk? Looking more closely, I recognized the face under the heavy makeup and unfortunate wig.

Sandy’s enthusiasm for middle-aged porn made sense at last. She had found a way to bloom where she was planted.