By Jim Gilles
On Wednesday, June 15, at the Raleigh Studios in Hollywood was a special screening of Octavio Carlin’s 27 Rue de Fleurus (2019), a much-awaited film which has had a delayed premiere due to the pandemic.
The film takes its title from the address in Paris of 27 Rue de Fleurus, which was the home of the American writer Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. It was also the home of Gertrude’s brother Leo Stein for a time in the early 20th century before Alice moved in. The home of Gertrude Stein was a renowned Saturday evening gathering place for avant-garde artists and writers, notably Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway described Stein’s salons in A Moveable Feast. Stein’s collection of modern art was displayed in the apartment, including works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso which she and her brother Leo had bought. Octavio Carlin’s contemporary re-imagining of the salon of Gertrude Stein in Paris brings to life the fascinating artistic personalities who frequented 27 Rue de Fleurus.
When Leo Stein left 27 Rue de Fleurus, he and his sister Gertrude divided their art collection. The two agreed that Leo would take sixteen Renoirs, and leave with Gertrude the Picassos, most of the Matisses, and the Cezannes, with one exception: Cezanne’s “Five Apples.” When Gertrude fought her brother over possession of “Five Apples.” Leo responded by saying: “The Cezanne apples have a unique importance to me that nothing can replace – I’m afraid you’ll have to look upon the loss of the ‘Five Apples’ as an act of God.” But as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind” and with Leo and Cézanne “Five Apples” gone, Gertrude eventually forgot about that still-life and turned her focus to Cubism, as was being promulgated by young Pablo Picasso.
Writer/director Octavio Carlin has based his modern re-telling of the soirées of Gertrude Stein at 27 Rue de Fleurus on historical facts and written accounts, although he plays free and loose with the chronology of events – as if the many years of soirées at 27 Rue de Fleurus occurred on a single Saturday. When I asked Octavio about his film, he said that he considered his work to be a form of “theatre of the absurd.” The pretext for the story is Gertrude’s determination to reclaim Cézanne’s “Five Apples.” To that end in Carlin’s telling, Gertrude sends off a fictional character named Marel (Heather Compton) to retrieve the painting from Leo’s apartment in Montparnasse.
The film 27 Rue de Fleurus opens with a charming boozy narrator named Dolores (played by Karin Hallén), who fills us in on what the film will be all about.
The film opens in color and soon shifts to monochrome when we arrive back in time at the apartment of Gertrude Stein (played by Christina Lemon), where she is berating her houseboy Gregory (Dylan George). We quickly realize that the story has a large element of farce, with its excessive overly-dramatic acting that one might expect in Mexican telenovelas. From the start, the character of Gertrude Stein, as portrayed by Lemon, is intriguing, yet baffling, in her commanding presence and her odd syncopated delivery of lines – an embodiment of the kind of language she used in her own writing.
The events at the soirée at Gertrude’s apartment emerge with a plethora of well-chosen details about the characters. We first see Alice B. Toklas (played by Alison Stolpa) half- buried on the sofa beneath Gertrude Stein – in the self-effacing way that she usually comports herself. The character of George as the effeminate houseboy is an invention of Carlin, who figured that character more interesting in his film interpretation than the real female housemaid that Stein kept. At the beginning of Carlin’s film, Alice and George are busy in the kitchen making and then eating Alice’s famous brownies which she baked using cannabis and later included in her published cookbook. This sets the tone for the rest of the film, as its clever dialogue and arched interactions are presented in 10 episodes, cobbled together synchronically as if all the people could have realistically been at the same soirée in 27 Rue de Fleurus.
The story opens with the arrival of the Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta, both from Baltimore, where Gertrude Stein herself had previously lived while attending Johns Hopkins University to study medicine. The Cone sisters were wealthy heirs to an international textile manufacturing company (which created Levi-Straus blue jeans) and traveled to Europe every year to buy paintings. Claribel Cone (played by Kat Brower) is a more vocal of the two sisters; Etta Cone (played by Elizabeth Ferraris) was more demure and possibly had a romantic relationship with Gertrude back in Baltimore some years before. There was a large age gap between Claribel and Gertrude, but that disappears in this film where all the personalities seem to be fairly young. American art collectors, world travelers, and socialites during the first part of the 20th century. The Cone Sisters were active as American art collectors, world travelers, and socialites during the first part of the 20th century. They purchased much of Matisse’s work, but also Cézanne, Gaugin, Van Gogh and Picasso. Gertrude Stein later tried to downplay the Cone sisters as mere shoppers guided by their taste. In fact, the sisters had an excellent feel for fine art. Furthermore, the Cone sisters are interested in buying art from Leo Stein as well as from Gertrude.
Soon arriving at the apartment of Gertrude Stein are fast-talking Carl Van Vechten (played by Terence Taylor) and his wife Fania Marinof (played by Cat Pursel). Carl Van Vechten was an American writer and photographer who had lived in Hollywood at the beginning of the silent film industry and knew all the gossip. He was married but engaged in numerous homosexual affairs over his lifetime. He is most famous for his photographic portraits of famous writers and artists and well as his 1926 novel Nigger Heaven about the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Although the real Carl Van Vechten was white, Carlin cast Taylor who is African-American against type and it works brilliantly. As Van Vechten’s Russian-born wife Fania, Cat Pursel is hysterically funny. Those who know the background to Stein’s fondness for Carl Van Vechten also know that he became her literary executor after her death.
We soon find in the dining room at the same table happily imbibing alcoholic drinks Henri Matisse (Laurent Tetard), whose pronouncements about art in French go largely overlooked. He is overshadowed by the dashing young Pablo Picasso (David Gangel) who has just moved into his Cubist stage of painting, which Gertrude does not seem to yet understand. On the wall of the dining room is a large portrait of Gertrude Stein that Picasso painted years before back in 1903 and Gertrude complains that it does not look like her. However, Picasso quips: “It will.” Matisse complains that Picasso’s recent paintings are all African-influenced (1907-1909) and Van Vechten snarkily points out that Picasso must have stolen examples of African sculptures from the Louvre.
Picasso (David Gangel) is portrayed as generally over-sexed and unable to keep his eyes and hands off of the beautiful Evelyn Nesbitt (Courtney Slusser), who was the idealized “Gibson Girl” and fashion model once courted at age 16 by architect Stanford White, who was gunned down at Madison Square Garden by Nesbitt’s jealous husband Russel Thaw. Nesbitt later appeared in silent films and dropped in at the Stein soirée while in Europe on tour with a dance troupe. The Cone Sisters were apparently at the show in Madison Square Gardens in New York City the night that Stanford White was killed. It was the premiere of Mam’zelle Champagne, apparently a dreadful musical production but one with a great song finale, “I Could Love a Million Girls,” which the Cone Sister adore and break into song twice remembering it.
Octavio Carlin, in writing this amusing and fast-moving script, obviously drew on his experience with theatre and there is no question that the film is highly theatrical in its every nature. Carlin is well-known as a successful designer of women’s cloture but he also has considerable experience in theatre. As boy growing up in Mexico City, he was surrounded with theater and movie people and has kept that interest alive with his own dramatic troupe in Los Angeles – Teatro de la O, for which he has written several plays that were staged at the Hudson Theatres in Hollywood as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festivals between 2015 and 2017 (Hollywood and Broadway: Gloria & Tallulah Talk, and Hollywood Diary). Many of the actors who took on roles in Carlin’s film 27 Rue de Fleurus are part of his Teatro de la O and have worked with him before.
As I mentioned, there are 10 episodes to Carlin’s clever artistic exposé of the soirée of Gertrude Stein and some of her more famous visitors. Carlin has great fun playing with the theatrical aspects of his film, with a dash of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, a classic forerunner of the Theatre of the Absurd. Some of the actors in Carlin’s cast do not seem to know anything about the characters they are supposed to portray. At this point several times in the course of the film, the fourth wall of the stage fades away and the monochrome cinematography reverts to color, as the real-life actors attempt to figure out what to say and how to act. Several times the lanky female narrator Dolores steps in to clarify what’s going on. Arriving late to the evening soirée are F. Scott Fitzgerald (George Benedict) and his wife Zelda (Genevieve Joy), who seem completely out of character at the Stein table. The others, including Van Vechten, try to fill in the actor portraying Fitzgerald about who he is and the books he has written – especially the famous Great Gatsby. After a “deus ex machina” color intervention, Scott and Zelda reappear transformed – in characters and dressed in style, with Zelda nagging Scott for his lack of productivity in writing and she all over him in semi-drunken amorousness.
Last to show up is Ernest Hemingway (Kelly Brighton), who was famously close to Gertrude Stein for many years and very much influenced in his own writing style by her concise use of language. The relatively unknown Hemingway first met Fitzgerald in May 1925 and they were at first good friends – perhaps too good, to the extent that Zelda always suspected some homosexual attraction between the two men. Hemingway’s debut novel The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926, after he settled in Paris among the modernist writers and artists of the 1920s who Gertrude Stein referred to as the “Lost Generation” who were drinking themselves to death. He eventually withdrew from Stein’s influence, and their relationship deteriorated into a literary quarrel that spanned decades, because in the 1933 book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (written by Gertrude Stein), Stein depicted Hemingway as physically frail and claimed credit for teaching him how to write. Hemingway notes that, as years pass, Stein came to resemble a Roman Emperor, which “was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman Emperors.”
Behind and between these episodes of conversation and intellectual sparring at Gertrude Stein’s soirée, Alice B. Toklas seems high and eventually passes out on her cannabis-laced brownies. Stein seems comically to ignore that, as if Toklas were just part of the table setting. The fight between Fitzgerald and Hemingway is one of the more interesting parts of the film. But, also, occurring intermittently is Gertrude’s phone calls to her fictional assistant Marel (Heather Compton) who is supposedly stalking Leo Stein’s apartment in Montparnasse in an attempt to recover Cézanne’s painting of “Five Apples.” Up in Montparnasse, there are some interesting figures walking on the street at night. One of them is Kiki de Montparnese (played by Andrea Mora Hidalgo). Kiki was a French cabaret performer, painter, and artists’ muse named Alice Ernestine Prin, who was famous as a model for many artists and had an intense love affair with Man Ray. Kiki is seen in this film walking her dog at night as she struts along the boulevard in style – wearing of all things, a tunic with the name of the filmmaker and clothing designer Octavio Carlin (obviously a Surrealist joke, of sorts). This Marel was supposed to meet with Christina Casati Stampa de Soncino (played by Maula Jones), a fabulously wealthy Italian heiress to a textile fortune and known for parading around with a pair of leashed cheetahs. Somehow this is related to retrieving the Cézanne painting but ultimately Marel does not retrieve the Cézane painting. She ends up getting a priceless jeweled necklace, originally a gift from the King Umberto I of Italy to the Marchesa. Up in Montparnasse, there are some interesting figures walking on the street at night. One figure is Prudentia Griffel (played by Naomi Torres), a Mexican actress who is in Paris and seems to have a relationship with Leo Stein.
Gertrude Stein, who was often short-tempered when her mind was made up, decides to drive a car to Leo’s apartment in Montparnasse to retrieve the painting herself, and after throwing her houseboy Gregory out of the car, drives recklessly to the apartment and there attempts to injure or kill Christina Casati. Unfortunately, she did not know that Alice B. Toklas was there at that very moment to deliver some food she had prepared at home and it is Alice who Gertrude hits with the car instead. This preposterous incident seems largely an invention of Carlin, as I am not sure exactly where this idea originated. At any rate, the increasingly irate Gertrude Stein cannot handle the loss of her beloved painting of Cézanne’s “Five Apples” and that leads to some crazy scenes toward the end of the film. The story degenerates into a messy argument out on the street and a fatal car accident, as some of the fictional characters are eliminated. We are left with Christina Lemon’s unflagging portrayal of Gertrude Stein as an obtuse and strong-willed woman who is determined to have things the way she likes them.
The screening of Octavio Carlin’s film was preceded by a red-carpet event at the Raleigh Studios. The DP for 27 Rue de Fleurus is Richard Mora, who has been Octavio’s business partner for some time. Most of the actors in the film were there in attendance and are part of his Teatro de la O. Knowing that 27 Rue de Fleurus is a film more appropriate for an arthouse audience, he is working on a plan for its distribution later this year. Currently Carlin has another film Die Trennung in post-production and shot in Germany, due to be released in 2023, with Richard Mora as DP. Over the last 20 years, Octavio Carlin has established himself as a major designer, dressing starlets and hipsters in both LA and Mexico. Octavio has worked extensively with private clients, primarily dressing them for special events, from film premieres to charity functions. Octavio has appeared in such publications as Lucky, FLAUNT, British Glamour, Los Angeles Times, Razor, California Apparel News, Ciudad Magazine, WWD and the Daily. Until recently, Octavio had two namesake boutiques, Teatro Clothing, which were located in West Hollywood and Los Feliz. Presently, he is living and working in Rome, Italy.