Mag­i­cal se­crets of Paris

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - DESTINATIONS -

of Marvels, one of the trio of col­lec­tions in this three-ring cir­cus. The dark­ened room is like a Baz Luhrmann movie com­bined with a Diane Ar­bus cir­cus photo: grandiose, lush, lurid and a lit­tle bit creepy. It’s a place where fin-de-siè­cle odd­i­ties com­pete for your at­ten­tion: toy the­aters, mer­maids pos­ing provoca­tively in L’isle aux Tré­sors (Trea­sure Is­land), mech­a­nized for­tune tell­ers (like the one from the movie Big), feath­ered danc­ing ladies and gilded Egyp­tian stat­ues. But also: a wooden leg, a large dis­em­bod­ied model hand with for­tune-telling lines painted on it and, in the court­yard, arms hold­ing can­dle­sticks pro­trud­ing from the trees. In one room, a half-woman, half-uni­corn looms omi­nously over a player pi­ano and, as my English brochure tells me, is said to play by telepa­thy. Mu­sic can be heard through­out the tour — mostly from Fa­vand’s col­lec­tion of re­stored or­gans, some of which have been com­put­er­ized. It’s the kind of sprightly vaudevil­lian march mu­sic you as­so­ciate with cir­cuses and car­ni­vals, but when it comes from an­tique in­stru­ments, it res­onates more deeply. That’s be­cause some of th­ese or­gans have a se­ri­ous set of pipes. One me­chan­i­cal or­gan, which uses a punch card to cue its notes, was so pow­er­ful I could feel the tune vi­brat­ing through my body. An­other or­gan played Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 — fa­mous from Stan­ley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and suit­able, con­sid­er­ing all the masks you’ll see on this tour — and all the chil­dren in the room be­gan to dance. En­tire rooms are built around mu­sic. In the Salons Véni­tiens, a col­lec­tion of Ital­ian ar­ti­facts, one of the high­lights is a red-cur­tained ball­room with masked fig­urines from the Vene­tian Car­ni­val peer­ing down at you. At Bedeau’s cue, the an­i­ma­tronic ac­tors be­gin to “sing” — or at least me­chan­i­cally ges­ture along to a record­ing of the best-known songs from op­eras such as La Travi­ata and Lakmé. Think a high­brow ver­sion of the au­to­mated, an­thro­po­mor­phized gui­tarplay­ing an­i­mal ro­bots of the Rock-afire Ex­plo­sion at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Once Fa­vand ac­quired those fig­ures, he com­mis­sioned an en­gi­neer to cre­ate the com­put­er­ized sys­tem that brings them to life. “He’s like a stage di­rec­tor,” Bedeau said. “He thinks it’s like a stage here.” If that’s the case, Fa­vand’s pro­duc­tion has the most in­cred­i­ble set — thanks, in part, to his eye for the dra­matic. Much of the mu­seum is in dark­ness, with spot­lights high­light­ing prized ob­jects. When you emerge from the cave-like pavil­ions, it takes a few sec­onds for your eyes to ad­just. “The dark is very im­por­tant for him,” Bedeau said — it’s a tool to “cre­ate mys­tery.” Mys­tery is al­ready abun­dant. The ware­house where Fa­vand stores his col­lec­tion is “for­bid­den to jour­nal­ists.” Bedeau said Fa­vand will not say how many items he owns. Some have pegged it at ap­prox­i­mately 50,000. But the tour guide says that the ob­jects on dis­play rep­re­sent less than 10 per cent of the col­lec­tion. Many of them re­quired hours of painstak­ing restora­tion. Why, then, let peo­ple touch — and po­ten­tially ruin — them? Fa­vand, Bedeau said, “thinks that ob­jects are alive be­cause you play with them.” They die not when they are bro­ken, but when they are ig­nored. Things break all the time in the mu­seum, Bedeau said, but that is not their worst fate: “So they are ru­ined, maybe, but alive.” We mounted a carousel that dates to 1900 and, in its present in­car­na­tion, is a con­glom­er­ate of the best parts of other carousels. You’d never be able to tell if it weren’t for a few pro­vided clues: ears that are point­ing for­ward in­di­cate a Ger­man carousel horse, but ears that are straight are French. (They aren’t on this ride, but it’s even eas­ier to spot an English carousel horse — they look to the left be­cause English carousels turn clock­wise.) One scene from Woody Allen’s Mid­night in Paris was shot on this ride. A waltz honked out of the or­gan as the horses bumped up and down, and ex­hil­a­rated kids grinned. I felt light. I was on va­ca­tion in Paris and had spent the pre­vi­ous day drink­ing wine, eat­ing steak tartare and walk­ing the grand boule­vards. But I didn’t truly re­lax un­til I hopped onto a carousel. The next ride didn’t have any horses at all. We ap­proached a carousel with no plat­form — just a metal cage en­cas­ing the wheels of a cir­cle of con­nected, over­size bi­cy­cles. Built in 1897 in Bel­gium, this carousel is self-pro­pelled: Visi­tors climb on a bike and pedal to get it mov­ing. It’s said to be one of two re­main­ing in the world. “In or­der for it to work bet­ter, I need sporty peo­ple older than 12 years old,” Bedeau said in French. (Younger kids could ride on a bench, where they wouldn’t have to pedal.) In English, he added: “Please join us on this carousel. It can go very fast, up to 64 kilo­me­tres per hour.” He wasn’t ly­ing. We all ped­alled fu­ri­ously, and the ride creaked and squeaked as much as you’d ex­pect for a nearly 120-year-old amuse­ment. By the end, we were all flushed and dizzy — and ready to do it again. Fa­vand, the ec­cen­tric owner, is count­ing on his guests to give his rides life. Re­ally, it’s the other way around.


The Musée des Arts Fo­rains fea­tures turn-of-the-cen­tury games, dec­o­ra­tions, the­atri­cal sets and this won­der­ful, vin­tage carousel.

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