The other night I watched French director Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir. The movie centered on the muse Catherine Hessling played by Christa Theret who like other French women before her used headstrong ambition to deliver her out of poverty into a Cinderella life.
Okay, so the French Cinderella story differs from the faerie tale many of us know. The French Cinderella has a more feminist bent and she would rather secure the glass slippers than the prince, even if the prince acts as the vehicle for upward mobility. The French Cinderella doesn’t lament or protest, but she schemes and searches for the weak spots in men. She uses allure and seduction to hit her target, but not always. Coco Chanel, Edith Piaf and Catherine Hessling come to mind.
But there’s also the tomboy version whose ambition hardly fits the feminine ideal. In this regard, Joan of Arc (Jeanne D’Arc) comes to mind. However, she’s a holy relic and a martyred saint in which modern biographers and her contemporary supporters lost the thread. She wasn’t illiterate and precocious child comes to mind. Many Indigo and Crystal Children could relate to Joan’s psychic abilities and old soul wisdom.
The other part of the story where the thread got twisted revolves around Joan being a peasant teenager. While she grew up in the countryside and her father owned sheep, he was also prominent in his community. Joan’s mother was a member of a gnostic sect and descended possibly from a line of mystics, but this isn’t my point. Joan desired the glass slipper and not the king, though she did desire to do right for her dauphin and make sure that he landed on the French throne to legitimize the nation, even if he himself lacked legitimacy. In this regard, Joan was an innocent and it wasn’t until she was imprisoned did she learn about the deceit of men.
Perhaps in Joan’s case, she was the prince and not the princess-in-waiting. Perhaps she was her own knight in shining armor as presented in medieval tales. Perhaps, like Edith, Coco and Catherine, Joan had enough of men and her feminine role, which couldn’t have seemed appealing to any young woman with older brothers with ambitious dreams. Similar to Coco, Joan also dressed in men’s clothing, but in the name of conquest over the English armies and not fashion.
We have an image of French women, especially Parisian women dressed in silky dresses and high heels cooking dinner in miniscule kitchens without dropping any sauce on the floor or her dress. We have images of the carefully made up Parisian woman who appears to be wearing no makeup at all (au natural), and many of us have viewed French women as the feminine ideal.
But there’s another image that haunts me and that is the ambitious French woman who knows well how to handle men. She thinks men are a nuisance to put up with as she climbs her way to the top. She is the haughty actress, dancer or muse who rises from rags to riches, not just because of her looks, but also her ability to strategize and patiently wait for her prize. She is also willing to pull up her sleeves and work hard. We would never call the French Cinderella lazy. If anything, she is resourceful, practical, and a bit of a door crasher when the patience finally runs out. Get me to the Dauphin already, cried Joan.
I don’t agree with Coco, Edith, or Catherine’s tactics or their ability to climb over men who would use them anyways. I do know what it’s like to dream and wonder where the means to manifest the dream will appear. I know what it’s like to live in a world of limitations and off-limits. Coco, Edith, Catherine, and Joan lived in traditional societies where men called the shots which were never in favor of passionate women following their bliss. Yet, these women were willing to pay the price for achieving their aims and in the end, who cares about a few hurt egos?
In a sense, the French Cinderella transformed the age old story and gave us glimpses into other realities, even altered realities. While Coco succeeded beyond her wildest imaginings, Catherine, Joan, and Edith died tragically. In Catherine’s case, she landed the acting career, married Jean Renoir, but later left the film director landing her in poverty and obscurity. She chose to shatter the glass slipper and the prince. One can only wonder what was up with that? Self-sabotage?
No doubt we will find more examples of French Cinderellas throughout the ages from queens falling passionately in love with roving troubadours, to daughters of kings who chose to only marry for love to orphans who stormed the castle and took over an industry. I’m not sure what makes a French woman different than women from other nations, but she has an allure and a strength when combined masters the art of seduction and achieving the impossible. If we had been in Joan, Coco, Catherine or Edith’s shoes, we might have given in to societal demands. Then we were stuck with the old Cinderella story that ended in tragedy despite the shoe fitting and life in the prince’s castle. You know old Cindi was bored living in the castle while her princely husband traveled about the country from one adventure to the next. Have you ever read Anne Sexton’s poetic version?
Sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns despite what anyone thinks. That’s the lesson that the French Cinderella gives us. And for spiritual people especially we don’t require anyone’s permission to fulfill our missions and leave our legacy behind.