The Lumiere Affair; A Novel of Cannes

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  • Copyright: 2009-04-06
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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Natalie Conway should be thrilled at the prospect of covering the Cannes Film Festival. She's desperate to revive her struggling career, she's passionate about movies, and Cannes is the heart and soul of cinematic glamour and tradition, the place where film legends are born, made, or left withering on the vine.But Cannes is in France, and going to France means facing painful memories of Nattie's brief childhood in Paris and the bizarre accident that killed her mother and forced her mother's lover, Michel Claudel, to ship Nattie off to the New Mexico desert to live with a father she had never met. So France is Nattie's personal nightmare -- but with the bank foreclosing on her house in Los Angeles, it is a nightmare she must finally face.The moment she sets foot in Paris, Nattie's past hits her with the force of a mistral wind. Long-forgotten sights and fragrances and the melody of the language stir up hazy recollections of her mother and Claudel. And then she's whisked away to Cannes and engulfed by the film festival, juggling movies, celebrities, her demanding editor, a seductive ex-lover, and a reckless starlet hell-bent on providing juicy copy.When Nattie discovers a mysterious link between her mother and a mercurial French director named Jacques Vidanne, she turns to the only man she can trust, with questions that may be too painful to answer. Accustomed as she is to digging into the lives of movie stars, she finds that digging into her own life threatens to unravel her reality. In the end, she must make a choice -- to move forward toward her future or to remain in the shadow of her past.The Lumiere Affairis filled with delicious insider movie dish from a seasoned celebrity journalist, but it is also the tender and charming story of a woman's journey to find herself. From California to Corsica, you will fall in love with Nattie Conway and root for her -- all the way to the Martini Shot.


I didn't come here to tell you how it's going to end. I came to tell you how it's going to begin.

Laurence Fishburne, inThe Matrix

Chapter One

Los Angeles

Twenty-five Years Later

Monday, May 5

He's dead," Draper said into the phone.

I was standing ankle-deep in mud and slime. My sweatpants were pushed up above my knees, my cell phone pinched between my cheek and shoulder. The smell of rotting leaves was enough to gag a buzzard.

It was the middle of a still and cloudless spring day that held the promise of a miserably hot Los Angeles summer, and I was groveling in my backyard pond, trying to mend what neglect had broken.

My ex-editor, Vince Draper, who had blithely waved good-bye as I retreated from the LA News office ten months before, was trying to make nice with me, but already he was on my nerves. He'd called to tell me my replacement had dropped dead in the middle of writing a story. My pond had sprung a slow leak over the pallid California winter, and I was obsessing about how to pay the mortgage on my house, but at least I wasn't dead.

"Did you hear me, Nat?" Draper said.

I preferred "Natalie," but Draper had changed my name for my movie column byline because he thought a female journalist could get no respect in a company town like LA. What he meant was that a female journalist could get no respect from him.

"I did, I heard. It's awful," I said, but to be honest it was hard to muster the proper sympathy for a man I'd never met, who'd taken a job I'd quit, to write a column I'd never read.

Besides, I was busy trying to resuscitate a goldfish. He was about ten inches long, and I'd found him lying belly-up in the mud and muck along with his seven brothers and sisters. Most of my fish were white with orange spots, and I was holding the biggest one, a pushy orange koi I thought of affectionately as the Orange One.

"His father went toe-up from a coronary. Same age, thirty-five."

The Orange One was dead as a doornail. I considered tossing him over the back fence for a raccoon's lunch, but I didn't want to get into a food-chain debate with my conscience. I dropped him into a plastic bag instead.

"He was a freaking triathlete!" Draper said. "Which is sweet news for a guy like me who likes to sit on his ass all day. But damn!" Vince Draper had turned sloth into an art form. I thought of pointing that out to him, but an ex-editor is like an ex-anything in one respect: by the time we parted ways, I'd pretty much exhausted my arsenal of pettiness.

"Draper, I'm so sorry you've lost your guy, I really am. But...what is this? I thought you and I had finished our little horse opera."

"Yeah, I know," he said with forced sadness. "But I'm hoping you can give me one more whinny." I knew he thought that would make me laugh, but it didn't. "Okay," he said, "I'm only going to say this once: I apologize for calling you a neophyte. For saying you were useless. And that other thing..."


"Right." When I didn't answer, he let out a little growl of frustration. "Fine. You're a first-rate member of the fourth estate. And okay, you can't expect that I'll agree with everything you say, but I need you on my team."

I stood there in the rancid pond, the mud drying on my hands like cement gloves, and gaped into the phone.

"Come on, I know you can use the money," he said, and I imagined myself dangling at the end of his line. "Look, what're you working on?"

"I'm doing CPR on some goldfish," I said.

"I mean for money."

I was glad I wasn't in Draper's office, where he could see me blush. I'd worked for him for almost three years, which was longer than I'd stayed at either the Voice or the LA Weekly. But I'd quit because nothing I wrote ever satisfied him. From the day I went to work for his paper, he had poked and prodded me to get the Hard Story, as if there were such a thing as a Hard Story where movie stars were concerned. I was heartless enough as a critic to satisfy his thirst for blood, but when it came to celebrities, he wanted dirt -- a glimpse into Candice Bergen's pain when Louis Malle died, Nicole Kidman's shame at Katie Holmes's pregnancy -- and every ounce of dirt I got made it harder for me to hold on to the one thing I wanted most from movies in the first place: quick and affordable transportation elsewhere.

But how can you give yourself over to the ride when you know too much about the driver? How can you lose yourself inMr. & Mrs. Smithwhen someone in the seat behind you, who's probably read the dirt you dug up yourself, is whispering to her date, "I wish he'd stayed with Jennifer. They were such a cute couple." I wanted to leave actors safely in their gilded cages.

Needless to say, I rarely got what Draper asked for. The last time we'd spoken was when I'd interviewed Julia Roberts and neglected to mention either her smoking habits or the twins. Draper had called me a lot of adjectives that all meant he was about to fire me anyway, so I quit.

At first I wasn't sorry. It wasn't the first time I'd walked out on an impossible employer, and I had a pretty good reputation as a journalist. But freelancing was harder than I'd counted on. I couldn't seem to break out of the celebrity niche. I turned down several movie star interviews for national magazines because I wanted to be clear of entertainment for good. I only made it through the winter because a weapons periodical offered me a small fortune to take shooting lessons and write a ten-thousand-word piece called "The Lady Learns to Love Her Glock." It was a measure of my desperation that I took the job. After it was published, I'd received several proposals of marriage from trigger-happy readers. If any of them had been millionaires, who knows what might have become of my principles.

After that, I'd resolved to take any assignment that came my way that didn't involve firearms. In January I'd written a twelve-page treatise on the history of chocolate for a food magazine. The gas company turned off my heat in February, and it was a good thing I liked popcorn, because I ate it three times a day. And so I put my little house -- a generous term for the high-priced shack I'd bought in Studio City -- up for sale. It needed a fresh coat of paint, and the missing tiles on the roof would have to be replaced, but I couldn't afford to make the repairs. I'd borrowed on all the equity, and I had no savings.

I tried not to think about it as I picked at a flake of mud at the end of my nose. When I returned to the conversation, Draper was saying, "Here's the thing, Nat. I need you to take the dead guy's place in Cannes."

"Cannes...France?" I asked.

"No. Cannes,Burundi,"Draper said. "Of course Cannes, France. I know you don't want to go, but this is a crisis. What have you got against the French, anyway?"

I wasn't about to answer that question for a barracuda like Draper. It was no small feat for an LA film critic to sidestep the Cannes Film Festival for nine years, but somehow I'd managed. For twenty-five years, the whole country had loomed over me, wrapped in memories of my mother and Michel Claudel and the unlucky event that had catapulted me from a happy childhood to a desert life with a melancholy father.

"Nothing," I said.

I thought I felt a sudden breeze lift the hair from the nape of my neck, and instinctively I looked at the sky. A puff of cloud had materialized over the mountain at the edge of the blue expanse I equated with safety, and here I stood, with my feet in water and a wireless phone at my ear.

"We can give you a pile of money this time. National syndication. Very big job."

A pile of money? I looked at my poor little house. Even in its present condition, it wouldn't be long before someone offered to take it off my hands. And then what? The idea of returning to France was terrifying, but it was less threatening than homelessness. And when you're teetering on the edge of an abyss, you grab on to anything that's rooted in solid ground, even if it draws blood.

If I said yes to Draper, there was also the possibility of learning something about my mother. The idea was appealing. Over the years I'd tried everything, from hounding my father to a search for her on Google, but her name on my birth certificate, Kit Conway, was all I had to go on, and the information I'd gleaned about her had barely filled three lines on a legal-sized page: beautiful, hungry for something my father could not provide, a starstruck blonde who'd made a single appearance in a French film whose name I'd never been able to find. That was it. If I actually set foot on French soil, at the very least I could visit her grave.

One thing was certain: if I didn't make some money fast, I'd have to move back to New Mexico to live with my father. Another thirty-one-year-old failure to add to the national statistics.

"Okay," I said to Draper. "Sell me."

Most of the details I already knew. The Cannes Film Festival was Mecca to every entertainment writer in the world. In my nine years of writing about movies, it was the only major festival I'd missed, and it wasn't just that I was queasy about returning to France. Being a journalist at any film festival is like sharing a hot tub with a school of piranhas: everyone snarling for the same piece of meat. Cannes was the longest -- eleven days -- and the most prestigious festival of all, which meant a lot more piranhas and a whole lot more snarling.

I cut Draper off in midpitch. "When would I have to leave?"

"The ticket is for tomorrow morning."

"That's not even twenty-four hours from now!" I said.

"Well, the festival begins on the seventh, day after tomorrow. And pardon me for asking, Nat, but has your social situation changed in the last year?"

I started to bristle, but he quoted a sum with a lot of zeros in it.

When I didn't argue, he said, "So, good. Do you have a laptop?"

"I don't...when it crashed I couldn't -- "

"Never mind, you can rent one in the pressroom. And check your e-mail. Daily. You're mine now, and don't forget it. I'll have your ticket waiting."

For a minute I stood with my grimy hands on my hips, fuming at Draper. But the facts were hard to deny: I had no boyfriend who would miss me, no real friends who'd be disappointed if I didn't show up for lunch, not even a dog to farm out to a kennel.

There were my fish, of course, assuming they were still alive. On a whim, I reached into the plastic bag and scooped out the Orange One. I sent a breath into his mouth the way you blow on hot soup and dropped him into the pail. For almost a minute he lay on his side in the water, and then, in a violent jerk that caused the water to splash against the bucket wall, he regained his balance and fought his way back to life.

I stood staring into the bucket as he moved sluggishly around in circles, apparently unaware that he had nearly come face-to-face with the great Holy Mackerel himself. Life is thirsty, I thought. Give it half a drop to go on and it'll beat death by a mile.

It took about thirty minutes to make the arrangements. I rifled through old purses and piles of paper on my desk looking for my passport and finally found it exactly where I'd hidden it, sitting on top of the kitchen counter in plain sight. Draper had insisted I keep my passport up-to-date in case of a global cinematic emergency, which was apparently what things had come to.

I was maxed out on my credit card, so I called Draper back and asked him to advance me part of my fee so I'd have some cash. I stuffed a change of clothes for the airplane in my big travel purse and threw in the Worst-Case Scenario sack: dental necessities, comb and brush, lotion, deodorant, aspirin, a pouch of tissues, sleeping pills, makeup, and a sandwich-sized plastic bag containing a crisis-only hundred-dollar bill, which I'd never touched in nine years of traveling to movie junkets. In my big suitcase I packed enough of everything to keep me adequately clothed for two weeks, including something for the inevitable studio parties: my all-purpose, high-octane, cleavage-revealing black dress. I considered bringing the bottom half of a swimsuit, since I was headed for the Riviera, but I knew there'd be no time for swimming.

It was ten forty-five when I sat down at my kitchen table and poured myself a glass of wine, and I could see the moon rising over the mountain behind the house. It cut through the asparagus fern hanging over the sink, making the slender leaves look sharp and menacing, and I felt a shiver from one shoulder to the other. I was ready to return to France if it meant holding on to my house. What I wasn't ready for was telling my father I was going. I gulped down my Cabernet and dialed his number.

My father had retired from the Public Health Service two years earlier and was still living a thousand miles away, in the house where I'd spent most of my childhood. We were on friendly terms -- since we'd never really grown together, we'd never grown apart -- but I hadn't seen him in months.

When he answered, I heard the high-pitched howl of a color man in the background, calling an old football game my father would have forgotten again by the time he fell asleep.

"Hey, Pop," I said.

"I'll be," he said. I could barely hear him over the TV.

"I hope you weren't sleeping."

"Just watchin' a rerun of the Broncos fumbling for the hundredth time," he said. "How you doin', Buff? You employed or you still looking?"

"Well, Pop..." I said.

"What?" he shouted at the top of his voice.


"Well Pop what?"

"Well, Pop, I'm going to France!"

There was a long pause, during which I wished I could take it back. He groaned slightly with the effort of reaching for his remote, and I heard the color man's voice fade to nothing in the background.

"I got a job covering the Cannes Film Festival."

"Covering it with what?" He made this joke every time I got an assignment. "I guess you think that's heaven: movies all day long."

"Right," I said, and waited for what I knew was coming next.

"When you were a little girl, all you wanted was movies-movies-movies, morning, noon, and night." I mouthed his next words along with him:"My favorite movie buff."

I forced a chuckle. "It's a good job for me right now. I'll be gone for almost two weeks."

"That's a long one," he said. "And France..." His voice trailed off. I was sure he was gazing longingly at the Broncos, hunting for a quick exit.

"I'll make enough to keep the house for a few more months."

"Oh, come on. If you need money, I've got thousands stashed away. Just ask."

"I know, Pop." I couldn't bear to get caught in this argument. He did have thousands stashed away, but he didn't have hundreds of thousands. He needed every penny he had just to take care of himself.

"But France. Hell, France." I could almost hear him shaking his head. Every conversation we'd ever had about France had ended that way. He'd been so hurt by my mother's desertion, he blamed the whole country. "Hell, France" was code forEnd of discussion.

"Hey, Pop. Can I ask you -- "

"It's late, Buff. Shuffle off to dreamland," and the memory of a thousand lonely bedtimes echoed in my ear.

"Pop...do you remember where...I mean, did they ever tell you the name..."

There was a long and deadly silence before he said, "In Paris. In a cemetery near the Vincennes Château." The color man's voice grew louder in the background, and I barely heard him add, "Anything else you want to know, ask the Frenchman."

I could hardly believe my ears. In all the years I'd been with him, my father had never once offered me information about my mother no matter how hard I'd pried, and certainly he'd never mentioned "the Frenchman." I'd asked, but there were never answers. Finally I'd stopped asking.

"Pop, thanks," I said. If I'd been with him, I'd have hugged him -- a gesture that would have made him squirm. I waited for him to say something else. When he didn't, I said, "The Broncos still fumbling?"

"Who cares about the Broncos?"

"Well, then, what?"

"The rattler," he said.

"What rattler?"

"What rattler. The rattler in your bedroom."

The rattlesnake had arrived a few months after I came to live with my father, when I was seven and still scared of wiggly things. A gigantic brown diamondback had slithered into our house during a summer storm and ended up in the middle of my room under a towel. I'd frozen where I was standing when I'd picked up the towel, and it started shaking its tail. When my father called to me from the kitchen and I didn't answer, he ran to my room and found me staring eye to eye with the snake. Before it could get itself coiled for the strike, he'd pulled my Superman lamp from the table by my bed, trapped the snake's head with the base of it, and grabbed it at its throat.

In half a second, snake in hand, he was out the back door and running through the cactus and timothy, where he whirled the rattler around his head like a lariat and tossed it into the sage.

"I remember that rattlesnake," I said now, but I knew he wasn't talking about the snake. He was remembering what he'd told me after he'd tossed it into the sage. He'd looked down at me with a face so stern I was riveted to his eyes. "In the natural world," he'd said, "everything is exactly where it belongs. The rocks, the animals, the predators, even the lightning falls where it must. Nothing is out of place. So it's easy to know where a snake belongs. The trick for human beings is to figure out where they belong."

My father had lived in Crownpoint, New Mexico, working with the Navajo Indians since he was a young man, and he knew it was exactly where he belonged. But he also knew, from the moment I arrived to live with him, that I wasn't even close to where I was meant to be.

After he hung up, I held the dead receiver in my hand for a long time. Everything was quiet except for the eerie yelping of a pack of coyotes in the hills behind my house. I wished that just once my father and I might have a conversation that wasn't laced with subtext. Still, he'd told me where my mother was buried, and that was a first. And "the Frenchman." He had never spoken the Frenchman's name, but I'd been falling asleep with his memory since I was six years old, and I would never forget it: Michel Claudel.

I put the phone in its cradle and went to my computer. I clicked "Michel Claudel" on my Google bookmarks and a familiar site popped up, of a gallery on the Rue Bagnolet in Paris called Galérie Claudel: Affiches de Marque. There he was again. In some obscure corner of my mind was a memory of my three-year-old self, dragging my mother into Claudel's trendy poster shop, where an expensive print by Paul Klee was hanging in the window. I'd tugged on the sleeve of Claudel's jacket to ask him about the print, which I mistook for a drawing I'd done that very morning. I was too young to have actual memories of those details, but it was the adorable and possibly apocryphal mistake that had brought my mother and Claudel together, and I'd heard it as often as a bedtime story during the years before my mother's death. Months after I arrived in America without him, I was still crying myself to sleep, babbling his name.

So Claudel was still in Paris. I gave myself a moment to roll that around in my head and then turned off the computer. I had one more thing to do before I left.

My garage was just big enough to squeeze a go-cart into, but I'd opted to use it for stuff I couldn't bear to throw away. The far wall was lined with plastic storage containers and cardboard boxes, which my father had driven from his garage to mine when I bought my house. Under two containers marked "Buffy 8th Grade" and "Buffy 7th Grade" was one that said "Buffy High School." I dug under my collection of stuffed movie dogs and took out my old jewelry box.

It was a simple wooden rectangle about the size of a Kleenex box, with two roses carved on the top, and it was the only ladylike gift I'd ever received from my father. One of the hinges was broken, and I opened it carefully.

On the top shelf of the box there was a small autographed photo of Ethan Hawke fromGattaca,which I'd bought off the Internet, and about a hundred earrings, scattered and tangled and indistinguishable from one another. The bottom level was lined with black velvet, and lying facedown under some silver bracelets was a three-by-five-inch color photograph. The picture had been carefully laminated, but not before it had already faded with age and been chipped in places the way photographs get when they're carried around in pockets and folded and unfolded too many times.

Holding it in my hands again made me feel the mixture of danger and comfort I'd felt every time I held it since the day I'd discovered it, twenty-four years before, on one of those summer afternoons when a seven-year-old gets so bored she dares for the first time to look through her father's belongings. The picture had been lying in his sock drawer, under a stash of black socks rolled into soft round balls, and the second I saw it I knew it was my mother, even though my memory of her face had faded. I snatched it up without telling my father and hid it in my pillowcase.

Every night after that, when my father said, "Shuffle off to dreamland," I took it out and looked at it before I went to sleep, but it wasn't long before I started to worry that the pillowcase wasn't safe. I wasn't sure what he'd do to me if he found out I'd stolen his photograph. I didn't realize then that the worst thing my father was capable of doing was throwing up his hands and saying he didn't know what to do with me.

I looked for a safer place, but good hiding places aren't that easy to find. Even in old movies, when the pirate hid the treasure map, or the bank robbers hid the money, you could always tell how somebody was going to find the loot. But when my time came, I was worse than bad guys in old movies.

I finally hid it between the mattresses of my bed so that even when I slept she would be with me. By the time I was ten, it was bent in two places: across the top rung of the corral fence where my twenty-one-year-old mother was sitting, and through the chest of my father, more than twice her age, who was leaning against the fence next to her.

My mother had pointy eyebrows exactly like mine, and in the picture her blonde hair was wild and wispy in the wind. She was laughing with her head back and her mouth open, just a little. She looked like the one human being in the history of the world who'd been chosen to live forever.

My father had written her name, "KIT CONWAY," in big red letters on the back of the picture, above the date, which was six months before I was born. That meant that in a way, it was also a picture of me. The next day she had flown away to France and taken me with her.

I lived with my mother in Paris for almost seven years. I imagined her reading me stories and teaching me to tie my shoes the way other mothers did. I know she loved movies; she must have taken me to a lot of them, because walking into a movie theater has always felt to me like walking into church.

But isn't it odd the way even the most important things drift from your memory if you're not paying attention? Over the years, I'd see pictures of Paris, of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Élysées, and I'd recognize them as places I'd probably been to before. But whatever images I'd had of my mother were eclipsed by the memory of that wooden box disappearing into the earth. All that remained was the photograph.

If my father knew I'd taken that picture, he never let on. One day I took the wrapper off a six-pack of raisins and taped the cellophane around it for protection. When I left Crownpoint for college, I left the picture behind in my broken jewelry box.

Now I realized with some surprise that the stolen photograph of my mother was going with me to France. I took one more look at it and slipped it into the zippered compartment in my suitcase.

Copyright © 2007 by Sara Voorhees

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