Pascal Blondeau Performs an Inspired Homage to Legendary Artist Ultra Violet at the French Institute
Pascal Blondeau paid a bittersweet, inspired tribute to his mentor, legendary multimedia artist Ultra Violet with the world premiere of his musical homage Only You Could Have a Face Like That (Avec ta gueule pas comme les autres) at the French Institute last night. The title refers to how Ultra Violet – a muse to both Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, a woman who truly did have a face like hers and nobody else’s – referred to Blondeau. He, in turn, became a younger muse to her. A better if slangier translation of that title might be, “With that grill of yours.” As he told it, the two were peas in a pod several generations removed, irrepressible hellraisers, party people, cynical to the extreme in the New York art milieu they could not escape, even if neither ever really wanted to anyway.
Pianist/songwriter Benjamin Swax opened the show playing spacious neoromantic ambience against a voiceover from Blondeau, recalling good times with his beloved, stingingly witty, barbed-tongued mentor. Née Isabelle Dufresne into a religious, aristocratic French family in 1935, she absconded for good to New York in 1951 where she became jailbait to Dali. By the time she and Blondeau crossed paths close to a half-century later, she’d built a vast and playful body of visual art. In the meantime, she’d been in and out of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, one that, as Blondeau told it, she held in contempt. The art world is a bitch.
With his “cheriii” pal, Blondeau recounted staging impromptu performance art on Brooklyn sidewalks, sharing songs and devastating wit and last-minute pre-performance sparring. The most telling of all his anecdotes might have been where Ultra Violet, having decided to collaborate with Blondeau for his Brooklyn debut, also decided at the eleventh hour to upstage him, just to leave the audience without any question as to who was in charge at the opening of a potentially harrowing, 9/11-themed exhibit. Blondeau’s frantic response was one of the night’s funnier moments.
Swax’s songs ran the gamut from elegant, elegaic art-rock, to jaunty neo-cabaret, to sly glamrock, which Blondeau sang with wistful panache. Performed and sung in French, the English supertitles, projected high above the stage so as not to interfere with the performance, were closely attuned to the the original text (although some of the snarkier commentary mysteriously didn’t make it into English). One cynic in the crowd described the stage set as “a piano in a bathtub,” referring to the vast waves of white plastic packing peanuts that Blondeau had to traverse (and occasionally toss at Swax) while crooning to the crowd. At the center was Smile, the ballad from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, enigmatically and opaquely delivered in homage to the irrepressible woman who left such a mark on this work’s creator. It made sense, considering that Ultra Violet was responsible for designing the muted, Roman numeral logo for the 9/11 Museum downtown. Perhaps ironically, her motto, as he recounted, was “What’s art? It’s freedom.”
The French Institute at 55 E 59th Street has taken a turn into live music, dance and all sorts of other performances in recent years, but it’s been one of New York’s best places to see French and foreign films for decades. The end of the year film series here pays homage to French actor and director Mathieu Amalric. The next screening in the series is Arnaud Desplechin’s erudite 1996 comedy How I Got Into an Argument (My Sex Live), at 4 and 8 PM on November 17.