Sacré Bleu: A Comedy D’Art

Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore (Harper Collins, April 2012) reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in Midnight in Paris, when Adrien Brody nails it as Salvador Dali  (“Rhinocéros!”). Like Midnight in Paris, Sacré Bleu is a smart artsy romp through the bohemian past of Paris.

In Sacré Bleu, Moore turns the clock back even further to the age of the Impressionists, he adds a little black magic, a lot of bawdy humor and a bit of bizarre mystery — and serves up an outrageously playful historical comedy (truly, “A Comedy D’Art”).

There are no fussy painters in long white beards and frock coats here. This is an irreverent mystery with a sexy muse named Bleu and her partner-in-crime, “The Colorman,” whose magical blue paint works a devilish spell on the young French Impressionists, including Manet, Renoir, Pissaro, Van Gogh, Monet, Morrisot, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Set in Paris from 1863, the year of the Salon des Refusées, to 1891, a year after Van Gogh’s death, this book stirs up big trouble for each of the Impressionists. Bleu arrives and inhabits the bodies of the artists’ favorite muses, from Manet’s Victorine in Dejeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia to Monet’s first wife Camille, to Renoir’s Margot in Bal du moulin de la Galette. Each painter is seduced to use more magical blue paint, which just happens to be Bleu’s and The Colorman’s lifeblood.

Ever wonder why so many of the Impressionists and their muses died so young? Did you ever question the story about Van Gogh’s supposed suicide, in which he shot himself with his own gun at an impossible angle and then hiked a mile up a country road to get help? And why did Monet paint a blue-tinged portrait his wife on her deathbed? Let’s just say that Bleu and The Colorman know the truth.

A fictional young painter named Lucien Lessard carries the story. Working in the family’s boulangerie on the butte de Montmarte, he becomes the story’s Forrest Gump: he’s a young rat catcher during the Siege of Paris in 1870, he helps Renoir carry his large canvas of Bal du moulin de la Galette to his studio in 1876 (“Oh la la, the wind. We had to pick leaves and pine needles out of the paint every week.”), he was Monet’s assistant at the Gare Saint Lazare in 1877, he runs around the bars and brothels of Pigale with Toulouse-Lautrec. He sees it all.

Lucien comes of age, becomes a painter, and falls under the spell of his own little muse. Although Juliette is hard to resist, Lucien pieces together the various blue clues. He and his studio-mate Toulouse-Lautrec chase Bleu and the Colorman through the cobblestone streets and rat-filled catacombs of Paris. They discover a cache of mysterious blue canvases in the limestone caves and encounter even more death-defying magic.

It’s a good story, but trying to make sense of each twist and turn of the time-jumping plot can be a little confusing. Just go with it – don’t sweat the details or the timeline and just enjoy the ride. After all, you’re on the Christopher Moore L’Express.

Highly recommended.

*  *  *  *

If you live in Paris or if you’re planning a visit soon, I recommend that you pair than this book with a trip up to Montmartre. You might want to pick up Paris by the Plaque, an excellent guidebook to the history and sights of Montmartre. Paris Walks offers an English-speaking group walking tour every week, but if you’d like an in-depth personal guide I also recommend Pamela Grant at Paris Perspectives. If you’re just an armchair traveler, Christopher Moore has already created a Paris photo guide to some of the scenes from the book, which you can enjoy here (Chapter One – Auvers sur Oise) and here (Chapter Two – Montmartre, Pigale).

Before you start thinking about following in Christopher Moore’s footsteps, you should really pick up an early copy of the book. The first edition of the book will images of the paintings and prints in full color. Subsequent editions will just be in black and white. I’m just saying, you might want to click here to order yours now.

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