“La Femme Nikita”: From Caterpillar to Butterfly

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Nikita: My sweet, Marco. The world has given me only this one taste of love, and I will remember you always.

Marco: Are you leaving tonight?

Nikita: (nods)

Marco: Got a little place for me?

Nikita: You belong in a big place.

“La Femme Nikita” (1990) is one glamorous viewing experience, an updated version of “My Fair Lady” (1964), but rather than featuring a guttersnipe molded into a duchess, it gives us a street junkie with killer instincts programmed to be a government assassin, seduction her arsenal. As Amande (Jeanne Moreau), Nikita’s mentor in the art of womanly charms, advises, “Let your pleasure be your guide, your pleasure as a woman. And don’t forget, there are two things that have no limit: femininity and the means of exploiting it.” Role of state sanctioned liquidator aside, this could very well be the creed of an actress. Movies tease our voyeuristic nature, and beauty is what the movies is largely about; hence, world cinema’s treasure chest of tales that pay homage to this most potent female attribute: “Pandora’s Box” (1929), “And God Created Woman” (1956), “Lust, Caution” (2007)…

I didn’t catch “La Femme Nikita” when it premiered in theaters some 25 years ago, had never heard of it, until its release on DVD. A friend told me the film was a must. Since I am rarely keen on thrillers, I was hesitant, yet I took my friend’s word for it. I didn’t ask why his enthusiasm, and it didn’t matter, because as graphic as the opening sequence is… guts popping like splattered tomatoes; bottles blown to pieces, their shards twinkling with the effulgence of 4th of July fireworks… it is choreographed in the manner of a stylized dance that contrasts the heat of violence against an atmosphere of cool blue.

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Then there’s Nikita (Anne Parrilaud), a fox prettied up in Yves Saint Laurent. When she isn’t on call, she’s just a girl, spry and doting, wanting nothing more than to keep house for her man. A romance develops between Nikita and the most benign of humans, a grocery bag boy by the name of Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade). She deserves a normal existence. She’s been rehabilitated, taught to walk and talk as a lady, and so she keeps her profession secret from Marco. We are all worthy of a second chance. However, thrillers being what they are, we are aware from the first kiss between Nikita and Marco that the stakes involved for them are supremely higher compared to those citizens of no consequence such as you and me would have to contend with.

Most of all, I remember “La Femme Nikita” for the moment of revelation that occurs between our lovers: the world has given me only this one taste of love. In a wasteland where the morals by which we survive have gone to dust and life is dispensable, Nikita is reborn. Compassion illuminates what was once a black soul. From a leper that threatens to kill upon each temper outburst to a woman who realizes the poetry nascent in human bonding, Nikita represents the extremes of cold and warm implicit in us all.

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I have a temper. This admission would be a surprise to those who know me. A colleague at the Cornell University writing program once described me as possessing a “Zen calmness,” while during my freshman year at Tufts University a decade before that, my roommate had said that the general opinion of me was that I was “happy and peaceful.” None of them had ever witnessed me lose my top. The odd thing is that I tend to blow up over a trifle.

Last week I had an altercation with the owner of a Chinese restaurant I would frequent on account of the lunch specials: a cup of soup and a rice dish for ten bucks. The waitress who usually served me would give me two glasses of water… one to drink down the meal and the other with which to mix my gym supplement… only she was unavailable, and in her place was a new member to the staff. I asked the restaurant owner, who was making the rounds, to give me my prerequisite second glass of water. He looked baffled at first but consented. Then I requested for a spoon, at which he impudently said, “Only ask once.” I grabbed my backpack and hurried out. His rudeness reminded me of an occasion at a Japanese restaurant many years ago in which a waitress had berated a friend and me with the comment, “You guys would really make it easy on me if you ask for everything at once.” For such a comment was unexpected, neither my friend nor I responded. Instead, we whispered to each other the “B” word. In retrospect, I would have said, “When people dine, they don’t know immediately upon sitting down all they’d like to eat, which is why a waiter is present to assist them throughout the course of their meal. If you have a problem doing your job, I can talk to your manager about it.”

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The same defense came to me at the Chinese restaurant, although the source of my ire was himself the big boss. So rather than relying on the efficacy of words, I walked. Still, I was so choleric that a few blocks away I wanted to have it out with the owner. It turned out that I had also left my supplement bottle. As the waitress who had been serving me handed me back my work out booster, I told the owner never to speak to me that way again. “Don’t come back here,” he said. “Who is this man?” I asked the waitress. I knew his position of importance, as he wasn’t dressed in uniform of white shirt and black pants but in civilian clothes of an azure and white-checkered button-down shirt. And even though the waitress was too scared to respond, she who seemed to be a student waiting tables for extra income, I demanded an answer. I inquired of a pair of staff eating at a corner table. “What are you doing?” the owner asked. “Get out.” He clapped his hands as if I were a dog, though not before one of the staff replied to my question. “Never come back,” he repeated. “I won’t,” I said. Upon leaving, I slammed the door against the entrance wall, and from a block down, I heard the owner hurling malisons at me.

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I huffed and puffed towards the Castro, envisioning the restaurant burning down, a brick smashing the windows, spray paint vandalizing the façade. Suddenly, amidst the pedestrians, I spotted a guy I had met the previous weekend. Awful timing, for sure. Regardless, I did what any civilized person would do – smiled and attempted conversation. “You look good,” he said. If only you knew, I thought. My yelling at the head pharmacist at Kaiser over a prescription that was processed incorrectly, the Aetna representative who was silenced to tears because I insulted her as incompetent over medical refill errors that would happen every month, a note at San Francisco AIDS Foundation in which I instructed the mail person to be careful with letters addressed to other employees that were placed in my box (the note got me in hot water with human resources)… looking good notwithstanding, I could be an asshole, one with a maleficent inclination, if only in my mind.

We’ve all been guilty of a behaving abominably, saying things we wish we had kept to ourselves. At the writing program, Jay – a Jamaican-American at Cornell to earn his Ph.D. – recounted a disagreement with a professor that had occurred during his undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois; he had blurted out that the professor was a “skinny assed white bitch.” In Manila some years ago, a friend expressed his regret for cussing at a real estate broker skeptical of his financial security in spite of the large sum he had put on the table. Noel’s expletive: “You can take my money and shove it up your ass.”

This isn’t who we are. Whatever the situations that push us to act as an insect, we are deep inside as splendorous as a butterfly, perhaps not in the cloth of Anne Parrilaud, who with her athleticism, fashion model silhouette, and emotionality is a ravishing Nikita, but with plenty of redeeming qualities nonetheless, enough for us to feel an affinity to our heroine.

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No, this isn’t us at all. We have risen to heights too distant from our Neanderthal ancestors to remain tottering in dirt.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”: Ignorance Is Bliss… Or Is It?

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During my junior year at the American College in Paris, I took a philosophy course where the discussion for the day was a utopian future in which we human beings could achieve a uniform state of happiness. One guy in class supported the possibility. He justified his stance with theories of conditioning and physiological programming. The guy could have been a sci-fi junkie, what with his nasal voice and dark hair Medusa curly, black-rimmed glasses and stout physique – the embodiment of a nerd – and only a nerd could subscribe to the notion of people as mechanical as robots. I disagreed, of course. The problem was that I hadn’t yet acquired the material or developed the rhetoric to defend myself. “As it is, we all have a different idea of happiness, so how could it ever be the same?” I asked, at which he responded that we could evolve to a Nirvana in which all our dissimilarities would disappear. “But… but…” I stammered.

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Through the 29 years since that day, the liberal politics of San Francisco (where I now reside) have enlightened me to the merit of diversity. If I could relive the discussion between the two of us, I’d say that for Homo sapiens to converge on one definition of happiness, we’d have to eradicate all that individuates each of us – from gender and ethnicity to creed and personal history. We would even need to do without love, for love begets pain, and considering the multitudinous degrees with which we hurt, the intensity that we feel love’s joy would vary in equal measure.

A world bereaved of the sensation of our hearts in a flutter over someone who stands out as unique to the rest of the population… what would that be like? The question could be the basis of a separate course entirely. Unfortunately, most of us are working folks scant of hours to sit in a classroom. We can spare 108 minutes, however, the running time of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). No need to read Buddha or Plato or Sartre either. Simply grab a bowl of popcorn, relax, and watch. The answer will unfold before us.

As the film title indicates, every day would be sunny, life carefree, and we wouldn’t have a bothersome thought, at least not the kind that drives Juliet to stab herself with her dead beau’s dagger. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) It really is an attractive prospect. In the alternative world presented in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a clinic performs a procedure to obliterate all remembrances of a failed romance. Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) is proof of the procedure’s benefit. She can carry on with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), the man who caused her emotional ruination, as though the split between them had never been; absent from her recollections, Joel is now a stranger. If she could do without him, he reasons, then he could do without her. But mid-way through the procedure, Joel realizes that he’d rather live with heartache than without.

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The guy is a clodpate. What good does hurting do us? If anything, we yearn for the wretchedness to pass, downing a bottle of vodka to benumb our insides. Some of us are so messed up from a break up that a psychiatrist’s couch is more comfortable than our own bed. And yet, this apothegm: “Better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all.”

Love is veritably the stimulus to our existence, despite its outcome. Today would not be today as we know it had Mark Antony and Cleopatra remained immune to the spell of dopamine and had Edward VIII not abdicated the throne to wed the American divorcee who, in rattling his heart, sabotaged the British monarchy. The Egyptian and Roman empires might have flourished for centuries more; Charles and Diana would never have been; and we would have less to gossip about. Now take away Lancelot and Guinevere, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Urbino, and the many trysts of Querelle. Gaping holes would be left in our literary canon. As a result, we’d be deprived of tales to fortify our conviction that love exceeds the limits of age and death. In essence, love… for all the weariness it inflicts… gives us something larger than ourselves to aspire for – a treasured place in someone’s memory, a piece of heaven, immortality. Even if the affair should come to an end, we shall have made an impact on a life.

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I have no doubt that breathing would be simpler should the yearning to possess and to be possessed never aggravate us, for it is an aggravation. Worse than that, it’s a tribulation, especially when it becomes a pattern that our own status with the person we so desire puts us in a quandary. We lose appetite, sleep, and rationale. We’re angry and frustrated but have no outlet to vent. A community such as that which thrives on the Star Trek Enterprise is ideal. Be us black, white, yellow, or brown, race is of no issue, and whether Vulcanian or Earthling or a specie from any member of the United Federation of Planets from Aaamazzara to Zytchin, relationships of all nature prosper. We are more similar than different. Conflicts over love never linger. Whatever our dissentions, we reach a resolution by the end of an episode, and forward we voyage through limitless galaxies with our hearts at ease.

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Or we could regress to the innocence of Adam and Eve. How liberated we would be prancing nude among bushes a combustion of butterfly leaves and wading through streams jewel blue. No shame in our bodies equals no self-doubt. Love is a given. We wouldn’t need to fight for it. We wouldn’t need to prove our worth. So complacent we would be that we probably wouldn’t know what love is. That’s as good as having a spotless mind on which the sun shines eternal. As poet Thomas Gray once wrote: “Ignorance is bliss.”

But then where would be the passion in such ignorance? In a resolution secured in a span of 30 minutes? Nowhere. We would be as characterless as unhatched eggs – alive within, but entrapped in shells that deter us from expressing the multidimensionality of our colors. So the serpent despoils Eden, and Krall attacks the Star Trek Enterprise. With the omen of danger forevermore a stain on paradise, we are alert to all we must value, reminding ourselves never again to take them for granted: family, friendship, companionship… everything that instigates in us selfless acts in order for us to hold closer those who are dear.

Joel Barish in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is no dummy. Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) himself is skeptical of his own love-amnesia device. So someone we thought would grow old with us has taken off, never to return. Tears were shed and words of hate were spewed. We’re a prostrated lot. Yet through the murk, a light shines through. We have learned through the ordeal what we are capable of giving – a helluva lot – and with our appetite for life rejuvenated, we continue our march on the battlefield of love, positive that victory awaits at this next round, a happiness ours to keep.

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“Dangerous Liaisons”: The Danger of Love

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“Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) is a Hollywood adaptation of a novel authored in 1782 by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. It’s a commendable adaptation, according to my French tutor when I was living in Paris, one more engaging than its source, which she described as a monotonous, plodding, and tedious read. Leave it to the American movie industry to make of a foreign tale 200 years old fast-paced entertainment replete with the titillations that headline National Enquirer.

The treacherous entanglements alluded to in the title are dares of the heart that high society priestess, Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), orchestrates in collaboration with her partner in crime, the lothario Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich). Their victim is the unblemished Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). Nobody is above love, not even the most cynical of us. In fact, cynics fall the hardest, the pulsations in their chest a fracas that tears through the core of their being. And so in their delusion of invincibility, the marquise and Valmont inadvertently find in Madame de Tourvel someone who upsets their universe.

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This is the danger of love. For all the sonnets and songs it inspires and the lyrical prose that elevates it to a spiritual realm, love can trigger in us a rascally urge, a recklessness even, to turn it into a sport, a game, an amusement. We may not be aware of the precarious position we put ourselves in… so lost are we in the fun of everything… until one instant, like the sting of a bee, we are at once conscious of a fire lit by the person we had thought at the onset as merely another point on a score sheet.

I write of this as a man who has had a history of such instances; dangerous liaisons are integral to my kind. A common topic of discussion amongst us gay men is the complication of divulging to someone we have hooked up with for the sole purpose of sex a simmering of emotions. As a friend once commented of my e-mail to Joshua, a one-night stand that developed into something more, “You’re too open with your feelings, Rafaelito.” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/two-lovers-so-close-and-yet-so-far/) This was approximately five years ago. Since then, I’ve had a premonition that once again I’d be in the situation in which I had been with Joshua, this tight spot of how much to hold back and how much to reveal, and I’ve often wondered when and with whom. At last, I met him in May.

On a Friday night four months ago, in a state of amorous starvation and void of luck on Adam4Adam, I scrolled through rentmen.com. I had not intended to hire an escort. Sex as a monetary transaction would have left me feeling as an empty shell, the physical attraction wholly one-sided. I was gazing at the pics of beautiful men merely as gasoline to my fantasies, after which I planned to head out to a bar. But then I saw a young face with a tremendous smile and a price tag beneath the usual rate. My adrenaline rushed. The demand of my groin overpowered me. Go for it, I thought. Shut your mind. This is nothing serious.

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Anthony was true to his pictures: dark hair short at the sides and pomaded on top Tintin style; the lean build of a high school jock; and though he’s of German heritage, a pout that brings to mind Brooklyn-born Italian heartthrob Tony Danza. In terms of performance, as Valmont admits with veneration to Merteuil about Tourvel, “She was astonishing.” Being a beast when in the sack is the nature of Anthony’s profession, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Still, we know the difference between fake and real, between coitus that’s perfunctory and one hormonally stimulated. We sense it. And with a moment where cash for one person is the aphrodisiac, we expect the former. I was pleased to get more than my dollar’s worth and left it at that, until a few days afterwards, when I bumped into him in the Castro neighborhood as he walked out of a Walgreen’s pharmacy. I hugged him. He hugged back, and he kissed me on the cheek, gently.

I started to sext Anthony. One morning, not even a week following our encounter in the Castro, my phone chimed to signal his response, though what I read was far from what I anticipated. Anthony was in the emergency room. “I’m scared and crying,” he texted. He had been bedridden for three days, had undergone laboratory tests to determine the cause of his ailment, and since the tests failed to produce definitive results, he feared he had cancer. I called his number. “Who is this?” he asked, his voice boyish and shaky. “Raf,” I said and then, “Do you want me to come to you?” He said, “If you want. I’m alone here.” I had a dental appointment scheduled that morning, and I assured him that I would go to him once it was done. But he was calmer by then, in large part on account of medical information I had been texting him that a nurse friend provided, all banishing any suspicion of cancer.

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So continued our sexual romps for the ensuing months and up to the present. Although technically I’m a client, a connection has formed between us that even Anthony acknowledges. He has told me that of all who call on him, I treat him the best and that he feels at home at my place. He is off the clock when with me, staying for as long as four hours, falling into a slumber during which he utters the most nonsensical things that make me smile. (“The boogie man’s coming… He’s sucking on his toes while sitting on a tree.”) How adorable Anthony is in repose beside me, a vision from a dream itself aloft in a dream. Upon each meeting, our embraces grow ever tighter, the copulation more fervid, and the air around us hotter.

Sample our text messages:

Me: You’re so fucking beautiful.

Anthony: :)

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Me: I like the time we spent on Pride. You were relaxed and we had great fun and you looked so sweet sleeping beside me. I’d like to see you outside of that context, too. If you’re open to it. I like you. You’d be a cool friend among other things.

Anthony: I’m definitely not opposed to that in fact I would like that very much

And yet, I am not entirely on safe ground. As Valmont’s and Merteuil’s scheming in “Dangerous Liaisons” over their prey delves into intricate territory, the shields to their hearts are pounded on and blunted until the duo is defenseless. As I write this posting, I ponder to what extent Anthony is willing to allow me into his life, where he is and what he is doing, if a “client” is what he will always regard me as. I’m at the Church Street Café, my self-designated office where I write nearly every afternoon. I texted Anthony to come over. He texted back with “okay.” Three and a half hours have passed.

All I wanted that night in May was a screw. Now here I am.

Kelly LeBrock: “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful…”

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Thus goes one of the most famous tag lines in advertising history as purred by Kelly LeBrock. With a flip of the hair and a rapturous smile, she makes Pantene shampoo something for a man to fantasize about. Should we ever wonder how females responded to the commercial, watch “Weird Science” (1985), the John Hughes comedy in which our supermodel plays a dream woman a pair of horny geeks (Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) brings to life by feeding magazine cut outs of her image to a computer. As a teen girl (Suzanne Synder) gripes over LeBrock, “She’s so beautiful, and her body is… it’s gorgeous. I mean, what would I be compared to her?”

The question sums up the enigma Kelly LeBrock must have been to those born in her ilk. However, adulation had not always been the lot of this libidinal creature. Because LeBrock was not all-American, her look was at the start slow to catch on, particularly in the Philippines, where people to this day idealize the United States as one step close to heaven. As a result, I credit myself for having discovered her.

The year was 1983. I was a high school junior when one day my Filipino literature teacher allowed us students to spend recess in the classroom. An issue of Vogue was making the rounds. When the magazine landed on my desk, I opened it to a fashion pictorial, and what graced the pages caused my head to throb as if I had just unearthed Nefertiti’s bust. Those lips – voluptuous, sexy, as delectable as strawberry; the sensuous gaze; the haughty stance… LeBrock displayed the qualities of history’s most fawned upon femmes fatales, from ancient queens to the seductresses of the camera, starting with Garbo (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/) and culminating with the celluloid sensation of the day, Nastassja Kinski (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/).

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“I don’t find her pretty at all,” a girl said. “I like the gloves she’s wearing,” said another. The guys couldn’t get past the lips, and not in a favorable way either. They found the lips flagrantly large. Indeed, they were; hence, my instant attraction. LeBrock was unlike any actress or model before her, and I’ve always been one for a peculiarity, something or someone that doesn’t adhere to a standard edict of beauty but that commands our attention because the object or person possesses a certain je ne sais quoi. That was LeBrock. Contrary to what second millennium film viewers believe, the full lip craze did not begin with Angelina Jolie.

To no avail, I insisted that LeBrock was gorgeous. Nonetheless, I was sure that someday my friends would change their minds; nobody could be that blind for long. The day came with the release of “Woman in Red” (1984). Pre-“Weird Science,” the film was the first to cast LeBrock as a dream woman, this time one in fleshly form, the target of an advertising executive’s adulterous cravings. Set in San Francisco, “Woman in Red” follows Teddy Pierce (Gene Wilder) as he stalks the mysterious beauty through a maze of urban hills and landmarks reminiscent of “Vertigo” (1958). (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/vertigo-in-search-of-the-perfect-mate/) (Trivia: the Brocklebank Apartment Building, which features prominently in both movies, is located a block away from where I live.)

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Suddenly, Kelly LeBrock was a sex symbol to every pubescent boy and CEO. “Woman in Red” was best viewed on betamax, given the machine’s feature that allowed for slow mo. “Kita yung kiki,” gushed my friend, Jonathan, in reference to a scene in which LeBrock flashes her privates as she wraps herself in a bed sheet. We can surmise that the tape section containing the segment must have been marred due to incessant rewinds.

Although I gloated over the realization of my prophecy, the means to the end disappointed me. “’Woman in Red’ desecrates the idealized image of her,” I commented to a guy when the subject of LeBrock came up a few years later in college. He laughed. Herein is the difference between a heterosexual and a homosexual man. A straight male is attracted to a woman on a carnal level. A gay one, such as myself, appreciates her on an aesthetic level. Herein, as well, is the difference between a figure in stasis and one in kinesis. The former invites the spectator to project one’s own ideas onto the subject, endowing him or her with characteristics that ingratiate one’s wants and needs. The latter humanizes the subject. Speech, movement, thought… all factors that expound on an individual’s three-dimensionality… permit less room for fantasy.

In hindsight, no other model could have done what LeBrock does in “Woman in Red” and “Weird Science.” Christie Brinkley is perfect in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983). The role called for a California blonde to pose and pout in a white dress in front of a red Ferrari, white being the color and a Ferrari the flashiness synonymous with the American West Coast. LeBrock, on the other hand, exuded a continental persona – dark-haired, aloof, European exotic. Certainly, other models might have qualified. Joan Severance and Carré Otis come to mind. Despite being American, they were more sophisticated than girl next door. But the lips were a key factor, and only one among the contenders stood at the forefront in that department.

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Kelly LeBrock got was she deserved. The woman reeked of animal magnetism. A pity had she not been cast in either film, thus forever remaining invisible to mankind. Regardless, I can’t help associating her with a passage from the novel “Palace of Desire” by Nobel-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz:

… she has descended from heaven and is wallowing in the mud, after living grandly over the clouds… she’s allowed her cheek to be kissed, her blood to be shed, and her body to be abused.

These are the thoughts an intellect by the name of Kamal harbors for Aida, a woman he is enamored with but whom he holds in such a lofty plane that upon her betrothal to another, he considers it a defilement that she should partake in a physical union with a man, no matter that the man is to be her husband. Kamal can’t even conceive of Aida emptying her bowels. He reminds me of my own early opinion of Kelly LeBrock. The fellow may as well be gay.

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Alas, as a film historian declared of Jayne Mansfield, “Sex is an expendable commodity.” Kelly LeBrock could not be a pinup forever. Not only did she age, but she also gained weight, a ton of a lot of weight. In 2005, she procured media attention as a participant in “Celebrity Fit Club,” undergoing rigorous exercise and diet, all under the specter of her once bombshell statistics of 34-23-36. How reassuring it must have been to millions of women that a Cosmo cover girl, the unattainable ideal, should suffer as they did from negative body image. Of the public’s reaction to her plus size physique, LeBrock has said, “Sometimes people have been cruel, and people aren’t always nice.”

None of us can ever be as we were in our twenties. Such an aspiration is unnatural, inhuman. Fortunately, the goddess who descended to earth in “Woman in Red” and “Weird Science” is an obsession of the past, and the lady behind the image has trimmed down by a method realistic to a human being in her fifties. “I grow all my veggies and make my own cheese and yogurt,” the former model/actress said in a 2013 interview. “To work the land full time keeps me so fit that I haven’t worked out in seven years. I clean the pool myself, muck out the pigs and the horses.” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2402408/Kelly-LeBrock-comes-hiding-photoshoot-reveals-toll-drugs-divorce-took-her.html)

At last, Kelly LeBrock has found peace, a tranquil existence in a Santa Barbara ranch. Life goes on.

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