I See France

Scary Animal Acts

In Los Angeles the week before last, I heard a studio executive mention a musical he was making based on the old Moulin Rouge that will star Nicole Kidman and be called, apparently, The Moulin Rouge. Thus a ticket to the actual Moulin Rouge soon will be scarce, as moviegoers everywhere come to Paris to rub up against the reality of their latest fantasy. Thus I quickly booked three tickets—for me, my wife, and our house guest.

This turned out to be a mistake. Wife quickly declined, saying that if I wasn’t ashamed about being seen at a strip show it was fine by her, but she didn’t intend to be there to witness my depravity. House guest Joel Achenbach—my favorite Washington Post columnist and author of a delightful new book about extraterrestrial life, Captured by Aliens—was equally enthusiastic. He was not some tourist, he complained, but a writer on assignment in Paris. He’d come to research an article on light. I do not lie: light. Light is of course a big subject—and not just here in Paris. You can see light anywhere. Unlike, say, the Moulin Rouge.

House guests, however, you can boss around. Eventually Joel caved and agreed to go with me. But then an hour before we were due to depart he collapsed onto his futon and began to moan. He said he had heart pains. He wasn’t faking it. He really, truly did not want to go to the Moulin Rouge, though at first I didn’t understand why. He just lay there crawling back and forth on the futon and talking about the last time he visited a doctor. Finally, between moans, I gave him a nudge with my foot, and the truth spilled out of him.

“If we go to a PORN SHOW,” he said, “it’ll cost us both huge points on the chalkboard.”

The chalkboard. The chalkboard, Joel said, is the board that parents of small children maintain to keep score in the great game played by all parents: Which of Us Is Suffering More. You need only spend an hour with new parents to see the game in progress. For instance, Joel recently attended a Washington dinner party at which a new father tried to say something about a book he had recently read. His wife, the new mother, cut him off and turned on him, enraged. “You had time to read a book?” she demanded. “WHEN?”

Joel believes that if The American Male is to win the game of Which of Us Is Suffering More he must play with extreme caution. He must exaggerate any misery he endures for the sake of his children and disguise whatever small selfish pleasures he pursues. A strip show in Paris sits near the top of the list of activities he should avoid.

“But there will be lights in the Moulin Rouge,” I said.

For the first time all day Joel brightened, a bit. “That’s right!” he said. “They could be important for the story.” Suddenly, the chalkboard economics had changed. In chalkboard terms, he could see a strip show at business trip prices. He could do, in other words, what traveling businessmen have done since they were invented.

Outside the Moulin Rouge the line extended 30 yards and consisted entirely of well-scrubbed Japanese and American tourists. Worse, half of them were female. Every few minutes another bus rolled up and disgorged 40 more sweet-natured elderly couples. “What is this show?” Joel asked, a bit huffily. And then: “This looks like a total waste of chalkboard credits.”

Inside the Moulin Rouge, which, while no longer a moulin, is in fact rouge, we were seated at the table closest to the stage. Front row. On it there was a sign that said: Drink Minimum 560 FF Per Person, FOOD AND SHOW NOT INCLUDED. We were required to drink either 13 glasses of whiskey or two bottles of wine. Learning this, Joel loosened up and looked around. What he saw made him want a drink. A glittering band played Muzak versions of songs like “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “Unforgettable.” The male and female lead singers smiled at each other with their usual spontaneity. The place was packed with a disturbing number of obviously healthy-minded people. Everyone else seemed actually to be enjoying the warm-up to the show; more to the point everyone else had come with a date of the opposite sex. Joel writhed in his seat with an even greater than normal self-consciousness. In the whole place we were that unpleasant anomaly: The Two Guys Who Had Come To See the Sex Show. “Just don’t do anything too gay tonight, OK?” he said.

Our cramped little table beside the stage apparently was reserved for what the local authorities took to be the weirdos. On one side of us sat a fiftysomething American man with a twentysomething Asian woman. In four hours they spoke not a single word to each other or anyone else. Escort service situation. Their waiter came and went soundlessly until the end, when he was paid off by the man with a platinum American Express card. On the other side of us sat a thick Italian woman with purple hair and chin whiskers, and her daughter, a pretty anorexic with black, hairy armpits. Joel leaned across and explained to me that everyone in Italy understands Spanish, then leaned over to the anorexic Italian and disproved his point. “She has actual body odor,” he said later, to explain why his conversation declined to flow.

At length, the lights went way down, the music went way up, and the show began. Sure enough, six topless women wearing 4-foot high, feathered headdresses came swanning out of the wings. I looked at Joel, who, unfortunately, was looking back at me. The scene was no more prurient than a French beach, but I could see that it violated some rule in him to witness it properly. He’d been conditioned his entire professional life not to so much as glance at breasts. And … now … here they were. Breasts! Naked breasts! Ganging up on him. JEERING at him. All around us elderly couples clapped and smiled and appeared generally at ease, while the two of us just sat there staring into each other’s eyes. It was hard to know what to do.

And then … poof … the breasts vanished. Off went the women. On came the clowns. And the tumblers. And the male dancers. And all the rest of what turned out to be a poor-man’s Cirque du Soleil. Is this what Toulouse-Lautrec paid to see? In the coup de spectacle the stage beside our table retracted. In its place rose what appeared to be either a giant fish tank or a small swimming pool. Inside the tank swam four big pythons, slithering and sticking out their tongues in their best python manner. Now the music darkened, and the crowd went quiet. A blond woman in a glittering gold bathing suit waltzed from the wings, mouthed some French song to a soundtrack, and jumped into the tank. The audience gasped on cue. Several people cried out.

The most frightened creature in Scary Animal Acts is usually the animal. These snakes were no exception. The moment they spotted the woman’s silhouette above them they lit out for the nearest exit. But there was no exit, and so they jumbled together in a pile in the corner of the tank. One after the other the woman seized the poor reluctant beasts by the tail and twisted them decoratively around her neck. The music built mightily and the crowd murmured heavily, and all along, the faces of the snakes were a Gary Larson cartoon. Joel hollered the perfect caption: “Oh shit, it’s that bitch with the neck again!”

The Moulin Rouge is, like the West Village and the Nasdaq, one of those places that people who don’t like to take risks come to for the thrill of being on the spot where risks once were taken. Even Joel’s discomfort eventually gave way to some combination of resignation and relief. He was, in theory at least, willing to pay business-trip chalkboard prices for a Paris porn show. Not even in theory was he willing to pay business-trip prices for clowns and tumblers and male dancers. He’d been had; on the other hand, I think, he was happy that he had not got what he’d bargained for. “I want to see a parrot ride a bicycle,” he shouted, with real glee.