Perhaps by chance, perhaps by design, the French actress of mythology crosses your path. To be alive is to accept such possibilities. This actress, does she not exist? Do you not exist? Do not two roads in the country, however different their destinations, occasionally intersect? So then, what if by some chance or design you met this French actress, eh? No, you say. Such things do not happen.
But . . . perhaps you are walking down M Street, in midday. It might be very cold, cold as New York, Berlin. As cold as the wind that sweeps the streets of Paris. Or it might be very warm, as warm as the August breeze up the Cote d'Azur. But let's say it's very cold.
On this walk, in which the wind is turning your nose into a popsicle like those sold on the streets of Tetuan, you happen to overtake a woman and her companions. Under her coat, she is wearing pantaloons that blossom out at the knee and then become narrow at the ankle. The pants of an actress, or of a tentmaker's daughter. But let us say an actress, because this is chance, not invention.
She walks lightly, as if the frozen sidewalk were a summer stage in the adoring provinces. She gestures, making some unhearable point, and her companions laugh. French-inflected syllables rise in the air like balloons from a tropic beach. Despite the cold.
Perhaps . . . No. Yes. She crosses M at 21st Street and strides, still laughing, into the lobby of the corner building there. You follow, every step a shrug. You, too, have business in this very building. The elevator stands open, as in a dream. You enter, and find that she is there.
The door closes with a hiss, your head pounds. Dust particles hang in the paralyzed air of the ascending cubicle. A strange voice speaks. With a start, you realize it is your own. You have introduced yourself.
"Yes," she says. "I am Brigitte Fossey."
A thousand things occur to you, yet you say nothing. You would like to say that you remember her from Bertrand Blier's "Going Places," when she was sexually harassed by French thugs on a train rolling across the screen of the Outer Circle Theater. You want to mention "Forbidden Games," made by Rene Clement in 1951, in which she played the unforgettable 5-year-old. Or "Farewell Friend," with Alain Delon and Charles Bronson. Or "The Man Who Loved Women" by Francois Truffaut. Or the elusive Robert Altman movie "Quintet," in which she was the wife of Paul Newman. Or the 25 other firms in which she has shown herself variously noble and erotic and sinning and sinned-against.
Dumbly, you follow her out of the elevator into the suites of the Delegation of the Commission of the European Communities.
A factotum explains that Fossey is visiting Washington as the guest of the commission. She is, in fact, about to be interviewed by the press. But -- you stammer. An amazing stroke of fortune: You are the press. Quickly the two of you are ushered into a suite with a huge window. Fossey falls into the corner of a beige divan.
Her green eyes gaze coolly, and perhaps she tosses her head. But facts falter in the face of mythology. She must share herself with our understanding of herself.
"I was only 5 when I was in 'Forbidden Games,'" she says, "and after that I lived with my family in the north of France. Yes, I was bound to be an actress. There were social differences in my family, and I was always the clown. I had to be, because I couldn't hear the misunderstandings. You see, some of my family were teachers, like my father, and some were not cultured at all, and some had inherited wealth, and some had gone broke, and some were hungry.
"In Paris, I had an aunt, who was like a good and bad fairy. You must come to Paris, she told my parents. And so they did. And in Paris they were divorced.I was 12. I went to boarding school. Then I studied French and Spanish and politics -- anything, they said, but theater. When I was 18, however, I got the part in "The Wanderer' ['Le Grand Meaulnes,' based on the novel by Alain Fournier]. That is the way luck interferes."
Fossey, warming to the conversation, slides down on the divan in supine repose.Her beauty is not elusive, but neither is it ordinary. She runs a hand through her blond hair. You ask her about Hans Geissendorfer. Not long ago she introduced the German director's films, "The Glass Cell," at the American Film Institute.
She answers: "Hans is wonderful. This movie is about an architect who's been falsely imprisoned because a school he designed collapsed. He goes to jail for five years, but the movie is really about what happens to his wife while he's gone. He comes back shrunken like . . . like a nylon shirt in a washing machine. But she has grown. While he's been away she's loved him, but she's also had a wonderful relationship with a man which she otherwise would not have had. Yes, I believe it is about betrayal. Part of it is that."
Behind her, the crayon-red sun lies pasted on the window like a child's drawing of a sun that has been pasted on a window. Silence. Miss Fossey breaks it.
"Talking on invented to hide the thought."
" . . ."
"I know what betrayal is about," she continues. "It's the noblest faithfulness an actor can give to his part. At first, I thought it was impossible to act if I did not feel day by day the thoughts of the script, if I did not feel it was the truest story in the world. But that is a betrayal. For I came to understand that in any interpretation, you must act quite the contrary to how you feel. To understand a character, you must come to judge him. You must know why he does as he does -- and why he does not do something else. And the beginning of judgement is the beginning of betrayal."
Perhaps you should ask her about the role of self. You have heard about egos the size of the Eiffel Tower. What if the question causes her offense? But -- to live is to accept possibility. Perhaps in your mind the delicate question forms itself in perfect French; but, as always, it comes out in regional English, because it is your destiny not to speak a word of French.
"For all of us," she answers, "the role of the ego is the beginning and the end, the earth beneath the tree. Then, if you are the tree which grows from this earth, and you work very hard, perhaps your branches can reach the air. But the soil must always be the soil of ego.
"And when your branches are as high as a house, you must find something else. You must find other people, or you will dry out and wither, and fall into depression, alone with yourself. For it is other people who make life funny and sad and romantic and terrible."
Fossey, saying this, slides easily off the couch and regards you now from a position of total recumbency. Perhaps she is unaware of the theatricality of her posture. Perhaps not. No, let us say she is unaware.
"The difference between romantic and romance?" she asks, repeating a mumbled question. "They are not the same. Romance is the consequence of your work, and your life, and your craftsmanship, and it is both public and personal. When I think 'romantic,' I see big titles on a newspaper kiosk."
She looks up, curious to see if she has been understood. And changes the subject. Or does she?
"Do you know the Turkish story? An old man dressed in rags is bent over the edge of a pond, stirring the water with a spoon. A young man comes along, and asks him why. In order to turn it into yogurt, the old man explains. Ah, the young man says, but why a spoon? And the old man says, in case it works.
"This same man appears in many Turkish stories, and I wish I could remember his name. He knew, for example, that to cheat and to be cheated is the same thing. When he himself was cheated, he always laughed. But when he cheated someone else, he remained serious, for he knew what it was like to be cheated."
Fossey continues to recline, but . . . The door opens. Faces appear, smiling. Fossey sits up. One of the faces recites the remainder of her daily schedule, and the entries scroll through the air like the closing credits of a film. Time, which stops in the face of mythology, reconstructs itself. Clocks tick loudly again. Outside, traffic noises resume. And on the glass of the window, the disk of sun becomes unglued and tumbles swiftly toward the western skyline.
"Well," she says. "Au revoir."
Outside it is extremely cold. Walking, you find yourself behind a tall man with a certain swagger. He is wearing beautiful shoes and he smokes a cigarette with a holder, and his hair is combed slickly back and his eyes are hooded as if he had seen much, perhaps he has seen enough. He is speaking Italian to an elegant woman. They have argued violently, but perhaps now she puts her arm through his. It is Marcello Mastroianni, the Italian actor of mythology.
You introduce yourself.
So sorry -- you could have sworn it was Mastroanni.
But it was Brigitte Fossey.