It’s Friday December 14th and Alexander Blackwell has just gotten off work, his holiday is in front of him until Wednesday January 2nd, 2008. His paintings have been on exhibition at L’Osmos Bar at 33 rue de l’Ouest in the 14th District of Paris since November 26th, and will be there until January 3rd. He can’t wait to get home and log on to his Myspace to check his messages, and when he finally does, he’s in a sweat. Yes! His newest virtual lady friend, Emmanuelle Moreau, has invited him to meet tonight at 8. Her place. It’s already 7, he has no time to waste. His phone rings, it’s Michèle, his wife, that he left almost a year ago. She still calls him almost daily to bitch about one thing or another.
She stabs “When are you coming to see the kids? You never do anything for them! You don’t care about us, do you!”
Alex tries to stay calm. “I’ll be there Monday after next in time for Christmas Eve. I’ll spend a day and come back to Paris Tuesday night.”
“That’s not enough time. You should stay the whole week until New Year’s.”
Alex is starting to lose it. “I’d love to if you weren’t there. Even 2 days will take a big effort. You know I can’t stand your bitching all the time.”
“I’ll be nice, I promise, it’s Christmas after all.”
“It’s a promise you can’t keep. Remember when I filmed the kids at Christmas and we could hear you bitching in the background? You never stop. Listen, I don’t have time for this.” He hangs up. The phone rings straight away and he answers, enraged now. “Listen, keep it up and I’ll jump out the window. Eight stories down and that’ll make everyone’s Christmas merry!” He hangs up again and turns the phone off. He showers and perfumes himself, throws on a suit and tie, and rushes out the door to catch the train to the Aulnay-sous-Bois RER station where his date is picking him up.
Emmanuelle Moreau is singing a Tina Turner song with a heavy French accent “Vat’s love got to do, got to do weezeet,..” . Calmly brushing her long blond hair, doing her make-up, and taking her time to choose what she’ll wear. Hmmm, let’s see…and after trying on a dozen different combinations she’s ready. A sleeveless black velvet mini dress with black knee-high boots, covered with a short black fluffy faux fur coat. She wears it open to flaunt her silhouette, regardless of the cold.
Alex is right on time, and he turns his phone back on. 13 calls in absence from Michèle. He puts it on silence. Emmanuelle pulls up to the station entryway a few minutes before 9. She calls him as she’s arriving and he comes out to meet her. “Incredible!” he thinks when he sees her car. She beckons him to climb in. He turns his phone back off. It will stay off as long as they’re together.
“Hello Emmanuelle, you’re just as beautiful as in your photos!” Alex notices meanwhile that her on-line photos were certainly taken at least 20 years ago. In fact, they’re about the same age, her make-up can’t hide the fact, but that doesn’t bother Alex. She does look fantastic for her age.
Her smile is provocative. “Hello Alexander, thanks, you too. I can’t believe you’re 47! You look ten years younger. I like older men, but not too old. In fact, you’re only 20 years older than me.”
Alexander is a gentleman, and doesn’t let on that she’s obviously not 27. “It’s incredible! We have exactly the same car! Even the same color!” He doesn’t mention either that his ’88 VW Golf GTi is still like new and hers looks to be just as old as her photos on Myspace. “I’m surprised, it takes strong arms to drive this, no power steering.”
“You bet I’m strong! But I’m gonna buy a new car pretty soon. This was my brother’s car…but he’s dead now.” Her voice trembles with grief on her last words, no mistake, it was his car no doubt.
“I’m sorry, my condolences. I’ve never lost a brother or sister. It must be hard.”
“That was 5 years ago, but I still think of him every day. That’s OK darling, we’re alive, Carpe Diem!” She throws another delicious smile at him and winks. “What should we eat? Do you like sushi?”
She takes a short detour and stops at a small sushi restaurant in her neighborhood; they’ve popped up all over the Paris area in the last few years. “This is a good place, they do take out, they deliver too.” They order take out.
Emmanuelle’s house is a simple single-storey one bedroom bungalow on the Rue d’Anjou in Aulnay-sous-Bois, just 5 minutes from the station by car, 15 minutes on foot. Alex goes to wash his hands and is astonished by the enormous quantity of toiletries…bottles and jars of every shape, color, and size, and covering every inch of space. In the corridor are at least 20 different pairs of shoes and boots. The kitchen space is small, with a dining table for just two. Emmanuelle serves the sushi on a large square glass plate set between them, with lacquered chop sticks set for each of them. She puts two wine glasses on the table, takes a bottle of Muscadet out of the fridge, and asks Alexander to open it. Alex pours the wine and they sit to dine.
“So Emmanuelle, you want me to paint your portrait, and now would be a good time, I’m on vacation until January 2nd. I’ll be with my children for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but the rest of the time I can work on it.”
“Call me Emmie.” Her bewitching smile has ideas behind it. “Yeah, I love the portraits on your Myspace. I’d like you to do a portrait of my brother too, is that possible? I have a beautiful photo you can work from.”
“I do work from photos. The one I’m doing now was ordered by a Jazz singer and I’m working from her photo. It helps to be able to see the subject because photos don’t give the same feeling.”
“You want me to pay for them? How much do you charge?” Emmie is sure she can get them for free, or at least in exchange for currying a certain kind of favor.
“That’s generally the idea. Sometimes I do it just for the pleasure, we’ll see.” Alex is hoping to make some money, but isn’t set on it.
They finish their sushi while chatting and Emmanuelle takes Alex by the hand, her wine glass in the other. “Bring the bottle and your glass. How about a film?” She leads him to the bedroom, where there’s a small TV set in front of the bed. She sets her glass on the nightstand on one side and climbs on the bed. There are 3 large pillows on each side, and she sits with her back against the pillows, motioning to Alex to do the same. There are tons of paperback books everywhere, in both French and English, all well-known authors. He has to move some to make room for his glass and the bottle on his nightstand. “Never mind, just put them on the floor.” She says nonchalantly. Alex has always been an avid reader, and he knows all too well what a read book looks like. These books are all completely new, he glances through them quickly, not one has ever been opened. There’s an 8 x 10 glossy of a handsome young man on the wall, he looks to be around 20.
“That’s my brother just before he died, wasn’t he an angel?”
“Very handsome, he looks a lot like you.” Alex is thinking ‘If that photo was taken 5 years ago, that’s not her brother. It’s her son. But why would she lie? Of course! So that she can pretend that she’s 20 years younger!’ He lets it ride. No big deal. ‘She loved him dearly, that’s for sure. Besides, I haven’t done any portraits of men yet, it’ll be a nice challenge.’
“What kind of film do you like?” She’s shuffling though a stack of DVDs.
“Almost any genre, but there are good films and bad films in every genre. In general, I don’t care for action films. I prefer something with a good plot and some meaningful dialogue. I used to do filmmaking, so I’ve seen a lot of films. I love watching old films.”
“Sorry, I don’t have any old films. How about something with Brad Pitt?”
“Yeah, I like him. What do you have?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Meet Joe Black, Legends of Fall…”
“Legends of Fall. I’ve seen them all but I really like that one. I was born in Montana, in the Rocky Mountains, so it takes me back to my childhood. I love A River Runs Through It too. Same Montana setting.”
“I don’t know that film. Legends of Fall it is then.”
They drink their wine as they watch the film and start to flirt. Before it gets to the climax they’ve already climaxed and take in the sad dramatic ending in each other’s arms.
“I’m happy to be with you Emmie, you see, I turned my phone off so my wife can’t bother me. She drives me up a wall. One of these days I’ll have a breakdown if this continues.”
“Have you ever seen a psychotherapist? It could do you some good. Mine helps me a lot. We can see him tomorrow if you like.”
“Sure, if you think it’ll help, why not.”
“His office is in Chantilly, have you ever been there?”
“It’s a beautiful area, the forest of Ermenonville and Senlis, a Medieval Village, are nearby. We can rent a room in a B&B in Senlis and stay the weekend.
“Sounds like a plan. Let’s get some sleep, sweet dreams Emmie.”
“Sweet dreams Alex darling.” She reaches into her nightstand drawer and gets earplugs and a black silk sleep mask, explaining “I can’t sleep without these. I need total silence and total darkness. Can you wake me if I don’t wake up before 9?”
“Sure, no problem. I sleep easily and wake easily, and my body clock always wakes me up early.” Another last kiss and they hit the sack.
The weekend goes as planned. It’s only a 45-minute drive to Chantilly. Alex visits the shrink at 11 am, who listens to him for about an hour without saying a word, then says one sentence “There’s no grey. There is only black or white. That will be €50 for the first session please.” He writes out a prescription for a lot of anti-depression drugs. They wander around the streets of Senlis, admiring the Medieval buildings, and Alex finds Christmas presents for his kids at a gift shop ‘L’Escale des créateurs’, they get a room for two nights at ‘Le Castel Ecossais’ B&B. It’s really luxurious, and they spend a perfect lover’s weekend together. Sunday evening Alex turns on his phone to check messages. 30 calls in absence from Michèle and one voice message from his landlord. He calls his landlord and discovers that the police and firemen came and broke his door with a fire axe that morning. Apparently, it was Michèle that was worried that he’d committed suicide because he wouldn’t answer the phone. Both he and Emmanuelle are stupefied. She says that he should file charges against his wife at the gendarmerie, which he does in Chantilly on Monday morning before they head back to Aulnay-sous-Bois. Then they go to Alex’s place to check out the damage. She sees the portrait he’s doing of the Jazz singer and says “You should put some blush on her cheeks.” Using the damage of the door as a reason, Emmanuelle convinces him that his wife is stark raving mad and that he shouldn’t go back for Christmas. He packs his backpack, takes his PC and paintbox. He wraps the children’s gifts and puts them in the mail. Christmas is still a week away, so the package should arrive on time. They visit his exhibition at L’Osmose and she’s impressed. They stop by his workplace, “Atelier des Créativités Artistiques” (He’s the Sales and Marketing Director) and he has one of the workers stretch two 60cm x 80 cm canvasses for the two portraits. He has a big discount on his canvas, stretchers, and picture frames at work. They return to Emmie’s house for the rest of the week. One of Emmie’s friends has a big house in Saint-Malo, Brittany, and rents out furnished apartments short-term. They book for ten nights from Saturday December 22nd through New Year’s Eve. Since Alex has to be back at work on January, they’ll return on New Year’s Day.
During the week staying with Emmie at her place, Alex notices that she has quite a few obsessive habits, especially with regards to food. She absolutely can’t live without her ‘Sucrettes’ artificial sweetener. She goes off of the wall one day because he hadn’t bought the exact brand name package of ready-prepared salad that she’d wanted, preferring to buy regular unprepared lettuce instead. She’s also obsessive about her cosmetics, spending hours in the bathroom pampering herself with beauty creams and other products. She’s really an expert in bed though, so that makes up for all the rest and he puts up with her obsessional behavior. He makes a first charcoal sketch of her portrait on the canvas and she can’t understand that it’s just a sketch. She doesn’t understand the artistic process in the least.
In Saint-Malo, Alex steals a Christmas tree from outside of a shop and they decorate it. On Christmas eve night he calls his old home. His children are all angry that he didn’t come and don’t want to speak with him. Emmie tries to comfort him as best as she can, but for him it’s heartbreaking. He’s ashamed and sorry that he didn’t make the effort to go see them. It’s Christmas after all.
Alex sketches the portrait of her brother on canvas and works on her portrait all week long. At the end of the 10 days, it’s really beautiful. Emmie makes a remark. “My nose isn’t right.”
Alex is defensive “Yes, it is, it’s your nose! It’s perfect.”
“No, it isn’t. You have to do it like it will look after my plastic surgery. The ears too, they’re too big, you have to make them smaller. The make-up isn’t right either, I know, I’m an expert at make-up.”
Alex struggles to hold back his consternation and stupefaction. His mind says “She’s completely cracked!” but he answers calmly. “Alright, I’ll fix it after we get back.” He’s already thinking that he won’t fix anything at all, he’ll certainly stop their relation as soon as he can. They have their New Year’s Eve dinner, and it doesn’t go too well, to put it mildly. She’s not happy with anything he does. The steaks are overcooked and too cold. The red wine he chose wasn’t a good choice…etc. She has her period, so Alex thinks that must be the reason for her behavior.
When they get back to Aulnay-sous-Bois, Emmie convinces Alex to see a doctor she knows that will give him a sick-leave from work for another 10 days for a (fictive) nervous breakdown. Don’t worry, she says, he doesn’t care if you’re really sick or not. Now he’s on sick-leave until Monday January 14th. That’s so he can continue painting.
The exposition at L’Osmose is finished Jan 3rd, so Alex picks up his paintings and takes them back to his studio. Then he returns to Emmie’s place with a bit of hesitation. “It was just her period”, he tells himself, everything will be OK.
The second week is drawing to a close and everything has gone haywire. Emmanuelle is never happy with her portrait, there’s always something that is wrong. Alexander realizes that his phone and PC are missing, and she admits having taken them, as a precaution. She’s also locked the front door. He’s a prisoner until she’s satisfied with the painting.
It’s late in the evening on Friday January 11th. Alex has an idea, he isn’t sure if it will work, but he tries.
“Emmanuelle darling, I can’t work here, why don’t we go back to Saint-Malo, it was so much better there! I’m sure I can work better.”
“Good idea! You can go and do the shopping tomorrow morning and load the car. I’ll call and book for another two weeks. You can get another sick leave from my doctor.” She’s bubbling. The ruse has worked.
“Darling, you can give me back my phone and PC now, can’t you? You do trust me, don’t you?” (not asked like questions).
“Of course! I was just playing with you. Here, take the keys too.” She gives him the car keys and the house keys.
Early Saturday morning, while Emmanuelle is sleeping soundly, hearing nothing and seeing nothing, Alex puts on his backpack, takes his paintbox and PC, and before Emmanuelle even wakes, he’s long gone. He left the two canvasses behind, never to be finished. Upon arriving at his studio, he finds the package that he had sent to his children for Christmas. It's come back unopened. He realizes the enormous fault he has committed. Christmas will never be the same.
That night, Alexander dreams; he is on the Pont Neuf, the bridge where he met Michèle 24 years before. He throws his wedding ring into the Seine.
That night, Emmanuelle dreams; She’s starting to make love with her son when he backs suddenly away, tripping and falling backwards out of the window 8 stories high in a psychiatric hospital.