It's not that Claire Bretecher doesn't like Americans. In fact, some of her best friends are Americans. It's just that she finds their, how do you say, their comportment pretty appalling compared to the French.
She puckers her mouth up in the way only a French person will do when expressing total incredulity.
"Oooooooooph," says Europe's most popular cartoonist, blowing a long trail of cigarette smoke out of her mouth and raising her eyebrows. "The Americans are so preoccupied with their Protestant ethic and their psychoanalysis," she says. "They're so turned on by having to solve their problems. They're so obsessed with success and their personal problems. Look at the Italians, they don't care about any of this at all. But the Americans want everything to be perfect."
This idea is so ridiculous that it forces her to laugh.
"Do you realize," she says, "that Ms. magazine had a cover with the caption, 'Can a Woman Do Everything?'
"I think it's a joke to ask a question like that. There's a certain naivete involved."
She adjusts her granny glasses, rubbing her nose where they have left a sligh mark. "But then," she says, almost as an afterthought, "I suppose it is that ambition, that drive for success that made America what it is today. It's that Protestant ethic to always want to do better. If the Catholics do something stupid they just go and confess. The Protestants suffer so much more over their failures."
She shudders. "I would be terribly afraid to have to live in a world that was totally ruled by Protestants."
Claire Bretecher may well feel that way, yet she herself at 38 is caught in a hopeless contradiction. Because today in France - in fact all over Europe - as the iconoclastic satirist for the Nouvel Observateur she has become the darling of the intellectuals, journalists, women. She is famous, rich, successful. She is, you might say, the female Garry (Doonesburg) Trudeau of the Continent.
She shrugs at this suggestion and dismisses the author of the popular American cartoon with, "I just don't get him."
(That, of course, may be simply a matter of language. Bretecher doesn't speak English at all and understands only a bit. She speaks in a rapid fire French slang punctuated with Gallie obscenities.)
And now she is touring this country to promote her book of comic strips (in English), and she is being syndicated in Ms. magazine and the National Lampoon.
"I didn't succeed on purpose," she says quickly, almost embarrassed. "Well, not consciously anyway. In France one doesn't work as a cartoonist in hopes of succeeding. You just do it."
Though she demurs, Bretecher admits she actually does enjoy her success. "I'm happier now," she says, "and through my success I got rid of certain complexes. I had all the complexes in the world.I was too fat, too ugly; I was stupid, nobody loved me. I still have them but they don't invade my life the way they did. If things start to go wrong, however," she says ruefully, "they'll all come back. I'm sure."
She says he's never been to an analyst and would never go.
"We French," she says "are certainly more fatalistic than you Americans."
Claire Bretecher was not exactly succes fou from the start. She was born in Nantes of a strict Catholic family and was educated in a convent, which may explain her vehement feelings about religion. "I think religion is one of the worst words in the language, any religion," she says).
For years, after a brief stint at art school, she did free-lance work as an artist until she submitted her first comic strip to "Spirca" a cartoon magazine, in 1968.
Then, three years ago, she was hired by the Nouvel Observateur as a cartoonist and quickly became the sensation of France.
She still doesn't want to act successful; she doesn't even like talking about it."You keep referring to me as a successful woman," she says during a recent interview last week at the Madison Hotel coffee shop. "But I don't think of myself as successful, really."
Part of it, as she says, is that she is French. Part of it could be that she is a successful woman in France, a rather unusual role. She is not a typical Frenchwoman. Her strong opinions, her outspokenness, her definite approach to things would be a threat to most Frenchmen.
She appears for the interview in blue jeans, a striped T-shirt, granny glasses and boots. She wears very little jewelry - a few thin gold chains, a tiny gold ring on her middle finger. On her wrist she wears an Elvis Presley watch. "I bought it in Paris," she says with a laugh.
She is a bright, funny person and of course wildly opionated. She is pretty, toto, sexy even in a hip, French way. One gets the feeling, however, that she has gotten caught up in her own cartoons, her own spoofs on the woman in her mid-30s and in playing a role she started out to mock and now doesn't know how to get out of. She seems a bit locked into her own image of herself.
Making fun of her own insecurities is part of the schtick, yet there is a sense that it has become self-perpetuating.
She insists there is nothing that can't be mocked, and one of her main targets is the French radical feminsists, or as she calls them the "feministes pures ," even though she herself is an ardent feminist.
But is there really nothing she will not ridicule?
She looks down, toys with her ring, then says, "My childhood. My childhood was so painful I still can't talk about it."
Bretecher says that in France it is the nonmilitant women that are her fans, to whom she is a heroine. "There is a large group of women in France who are not vocal at all but who have been very touched by the movement. In many cases it has changed their whole lives. I don't have a single woman friend right now who is not trying to change her life."
She says also that, "The militant feminists don't understand me; they don't know what to make of me. Attacking feminism is a sin, they believe. One doesn't have the right to do it. Most women in France are friendly to me except for them."
"At any rate," says Bretecher, "in France nobody talks about anything else any more except feminism. It's the subject which is a la mode right now."
She finds it interesting that in America not one journalist has asked her if she had any trouble making it because she was a woman whereas, she says that is always the first question a French journalist asks.
She says she travels in a rather rarified crowd where the men "are all up to date on feminism, at least verbally. There is a small group of men who are profeminists," she says, "because they like independent women."
She says her husband, a photographer to whom she has been married for six years, "supports the situation quite well." It might seem odd to some that a woman as liberated as Claire Bretecher would be married at all. She think so, too.
"I wonder why I'm married, too," she says with a laugh. "I guess it's because I'm married to a guy who is also very indepenent. We each have our own domain; we don't share money. We have different friends. There's no real reason why I'm married, though, I don't know. I think there is a profound desire to be married justto show you can do it. I have a friend who married a homosexual just to say she had been married. Now the divorce laws are stricter, and she's having a hard time getting out of it. But I think to get married is neurotic. I'll tell you why I got married. My mother cried every day for six years because I was't married.
"It was that stupid. One day we just said 'Bon d'accord, let's do it.' Everybody gets married for idiotic, neurotic reasons anyway. I regret having gtten married. Not because I don't love my husband, but I regret having acceded to the pressure of my mother's blackmail. It was terrible. Ohhhhh," she moans and winces.
"My husband," she says, "is very comforting, very supportive. It's because he has as many insecurities as I do. Worse, even. We have a good communication, we really know each other, we understand each other really well."
But then, ambivalently, she will say, "But . . . we do fight a lot." "Actually," she says, "he's a horrible person. Frightful. His personality is atrocious."
On the subject of infidelity in France she is more candid about her friends than herself. "All my married friends who I worrk with have boyfriends. But their husbands don't know about it."
And she? "No comment," she says blushing.
One of her favorite subjects to lampoon in her comic strips is women and their ambivalence about having children. She admits she feel it herself: "I don't know," she says. "Sometimes I want to have them, sometimes I don't. I don't have the courage to make the decision." Then later, "It's not a problem with me. From time to time I say 'maybe,' then I visit a friend with children and spend two hours and I can't stand it. It demands too much energy."
What energy she does have she puts into writing her one column a week, due at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and which she usually begins writing about 2 p.m. the same afternoon. "It's a miracle that I even get my column out," she says. "I'm always near sucidal the day it is due."
Still, get that column out she does, and it has given her the financial security that she never had, which is important to her - plus an enormous cachet she doesn't quite like to admit she enjoys. Somehow a story about how she lunched with Giscard d' Estaing, then turned down a dinner invitation when he called her at home got around and has been extensively written about.
"I don't know how that story got out," she shrugs, but it is clear she doesn't mind.
Claire Bretecher knew what she didn't want in life a long time before most women do. She knew she didn't want to be married and have children - from the time she was 15, she says. "I always knew it was a trap," she says and insists she has many women friends, now 35, married with several children, who are unhappy and want out but have nowhere to go and don't know how to do anything.
"They're cornered," she says. "It's terrible. I'd rather die than be like that. Well, it's impossible. I never would be."
Yet somehow, here she is, a little cornered herself.Because, though at 15 she had figured out what she didn't want, it seems that at 38 she doesn't quite know what it is she does want.
"I always knew I wouldn't marry and have children," she repeats again. "Because I wanted to be free. Really. Really," she says emphatically.
"And besides, I thought then that I was too ugly."
So what does she see today when she looks at herself in the mirror?
"I see always the same thing," she says. "And I don't like it any better."