Histoires d’amour

Love stories are both universal and intriguing. Irrespective of age or gender, culture or nationality, whatever alchemy makes people fall in love with each other is a mystery. And it is a beautiful one at that.

What puzzles me more, and is a question I’ve been thinking about lately, is what makes people stay together. Once that first spark fades, some couples endure, others split. There are shared values, of course, and commitments both contractual and emotional. There are financial interests. There is sexual attraction, intellectual companionship and compatibility on so many levels. Still, it is a long haul. For better or for worse.

The idea of divorce, of breaking something that has been built together over a lifetime or even a number of years, is brutal. And yet it is something that happens roughly 46% of the time in France, a figure similar to that of other countries. Which means that those who do stay together must have their reasons. Just as those who split must suffer terrible pain.

What is the glue that attracts and then holds people together? Perhaps it is some combination of complementarity in character and need that each fulfills in the other.

The love story of Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron should never have happened. Or if it happened, by all rights it should have ended when he left the high school in Amiens where she was his French and drama teacher.

Their 24-year age gap is beyond what most people can fathom and certainly what most parents can accept. Apparently Emmanuel’s parents at first objected strenuously to the relationship. They could have had Brigitte fired, even jailed. He was 15, she 39. When it became apparent that it was happening, against all reason, they accepted Brigitte. In 2006, she left the husband with whom she had born and raised three children, then married Emmanuel the following year.

Shortly after her husband turned 40 as France’s youngest-ever President, Brigitte celebrated her 65th birthday in April. Truth is surely stranger than fiction.

Lately I’ve been watching two wonderful BBC dramas about love and divorce.

The first is The Split, a dramedy about a family of female divorce lawyers with their own relationship issues. Right up my alley. And with outstanding performances from the ensemble cast led by Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan. Here’s the scoop on the production from screenwriter Abi Morgan.

The other is A Very English Scandal, directed by Stephen Frears, in which Hugh Grant memorably portrays Jeremy Thorpe. Thorpe was a British politician and leader of the Liberal Party who became involved in a homosexual scandal in the late 1970s. Norman Scott, his young lover, is played by Ben Whishaw, whose performance I found even more gripping than Grant’s. The mystery here is the love story between the two men. Despite the fact that his mentor tries to have him murdered, and the scorned lover attempts to bring down the older politician in a biting yet hilarious courtroom drama, the glances between the two men reveal a very real and enduring love.

What is this thing called love? And why are we forever fascinated by it? There is something about the unlikely pairing of people that captures our imaginations and tickles our romantic hearts. Who more so than Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg?

It is perhaps no great mystery why, when a young Frenchman walked into a bar in Toronto back in 1985, this woman eight years older went home with him. What I still haven’t figured out is how we managed to bridge the gap of distance, language and culture, get married and remain together all these years.

But I’m so glad we did.

What’s your favourite love — or divorce — story?

Fautes de goût

Bad taste or literally, ‘mistakes in taste’ is the phrase most often used by the French fashion police. Mostly they are undercover. Outside of a few people magazines and reality TV shows, French style rules for what to wear are largely unspoken. But believe me, you know they’re there.

On the street you will observe a certain uniformity in the way people dress, what could even be described as a uniform. Skinny legs, close-fitting waists and nary a panty line. Belts and buckles and laces and earrings. It’s all standard issue.

Brigitte Macron, France’s best-dressed first lady, has the unanimous admiration of her compatriots for rising to every occasion sans faute de goût.

At the office, creativity in putting together an outfit tends to be limited to a small detail, an accessory or an unusual cut. To avoid fashion blunders, flashy colours are a no-no, heels are de rigueur, no mixing of patterns and stripes! It is like an army in military drab.

Quintessentially Parisian style maven Ines de la Fressange advises people to dare to make fashion faux pas. Yet she herself is impeccably classic in her uniform below.

Brazilian-born Cristina Cordula is queen of les Reines du Shopping, a French reality TV show in which the female candidates compete to buy a new outfit on a set budget and model it for each other to see who will qualify as shopping queen. Wrongly pairing neckline with jacket, heels to hem height or mixing too many colours and textures will earn the dreaded ‘faute de goût!’

The way I look at it, the only real mistake you can make in what you wear is to forget who you are. Be true to your own style. Wear what feels good for you, be that in ‘good’ taste or not.

Sometimes I will try to dress to fit an idea that is not mine, say with a few more accessories than usual. Because I’ve seen it on someone else and thought it looked good. So I try it on, check in the mirror and it looks okay. Then I walk around for two minutes and change. Because it’s not me.

Ultimately I opt for what makes me feel good. Which means comfortable and confident. Although I avoid going out in track pants or leggings unless I’m actually running. Exercising is one thing; going to the shops is another, even though styles have loosened up a lot in recent years and the line between street wear and exercise gear has blurred. Even in France.

As Gore Vidal said: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

What’s your style? Or do you not give a damn?