To put it mildly, 2003 was not a banner year for Franco-American relations. There were many cringe-worthy moments, such as - but certainly not limited to - the advent of ``freedom fries'' and French's Mustard issuing a statement informing the masses that there was nothing French about its product (as if we needed to be told). Happily, this cold war melted when French President Jacques Chirac gingerly bussed Laura Bush on the hand. What this means for you is that there should be no impediments or guilt involved in celebrating the very French holiday of Bastille Day this year.
On July 14, Boston's French population and the city's numerous Gallic admirers take to the streets, restaurants, and clubs to remember the day when rioters stormed the Bastille, releasing prisoners with cries of ``Liberte, egalite, fraternite.'' Of course, most folks will be more concerned with finding a good bottle of wine than remembering some crazy riot that took place in 1789. And for those looking for a good bottle of wine, or perhaps an Edith Piaf melody, here are some ways to celebrate the day in grand style.
Le grand fete
Technically, Bastille Day falls on July 14, but in Boston, the holiday begins July 12. That's when the French Library and Cultural Center holds its 29th annual Bastille Day Celebration, the grand-pere of Boston's Bastille bashes.
``What we do is re-create the feeling of the street dances in Paris,'' says Elaine Uzan Leary, executive director of the library. ``It's what we call the bal musette. Every square in Paris decorates with lights, and people just dance all night long.''
For many years, Boston's celebration took place al fresco on Marlborough Street. But two years ago, a lack of sponsors and security concerns drove the party inside. This year, the celebration takes place at the Boston Harbor Hotel. Big spenders can shell out $250 for a diner de degustation starting at 7. Or, simply dance the night away at the bal musette beginning at 8 for $45 ($40 for library members). Leary says the party will return to the great outdoors next year to commemorate the library's 60th anniversary and the party's 30th anniversary.
Any cineaste worth his imitation margarine-flavored popcorn topping already worships at the altar of Catherine Deneuve and Jacques Rivette, which is exactly why the Cultural Services office of the French Embassy teams with the Museum of Fine Arts to offer the French Film Festival every year. The festival, which begins tonight, offers an opportunity to see the best of new French films before they land in art cinemas. In many cases, this is your only opportunity to see the films in the US. The festival opens tonight at 7:45 with ``Nickel and Dime,'' a crime drama that feels like a working-class ``Ocean's 11'' as interpreted by Guy Ritchie.
Other highlights of the festival, which runs through July 25, include:
``As If Nothing Happened'' (Tomorrow at 7:45 p.m.) It's a bit of ``Love Story'' or ``Sweet November'' (your pick) without the gooey sentimentality, as the theater director falls for the museum guide in ill health.
``Moi, Cesar'' (Saturday 12:15 p.m.) The world through the eyes of 10-year-old Cesar, a well-meaning and slightly rotund romantic. Technically, this is a kid's movie, but it's far too clever to be wasted on the tykes. All adults are depicted as either simmering fussbudgets or taradiddle-spewing airheads, leaving Cesar and his two friends one option - road trip to England.
"The Story of Marie and Julien'' (Saturday 2 p.m.) It doesn't get more French than this. Jacques Rivette's story of a lonely clock repair man and his reunited love who find themselves wrapped up in a blackmail plot.
``See How They Run'' (Saturday 7 p.m.) No one does dark, funny, and superficial better than the French, as evidenced by this black comedy of conniving cheaters and sneaks. Like ``Coupling'' (the British version, not the American), ``See How They Run'' is populated by women looking for sex, not love.
Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., 617-369-3300. For a full schedule, log onto www.mfa.org.
The beginnings were humble. Eleven years ago, Suzi Lee, accordion player from the band Slide, dressed as Marie Antoinette. Guitarist and lead singer Shaun Wolf Wortis bought the cake from Star Market, and Bastille Day A-Go-Go! was born. Wortis, who has been obsessed with the French Revolution since childhood, and who is known to dress occasionally as Napoleon Bonaparte, confesses that this rock 'n' roll bash ``has less to do with France and more to do with playing New Orleans rhythm-and-blues music.'' But don't let the not-so-authentic intentions get in the way. In the true spirit of Bastille Day, the party is a rowdy, fun-loving free-for-all featuring Slide (the band is no longer together, but it reassembles for Mardi Gras and Bastille Day parties), plus performances from Bleu, Dennis Brennan, and Andrea Gillis.
The party gets underway at 9:30 p.m. with the very authentic music of Ziaf. The local band, which also performs every Tuesday night this month at ZuZu!, pays tribute to Gallic goddess Edith Piaf.
Bastille Day A-Go-Go! takes place July 17 at the Lizard Lounge. Doors are at 9 p.m., $7, 21+.
Bastille Day is perhaps an ideal excuse to tell Monsieur Atkins and his carb-counting road show to take a hike. After all, you can't have steak without frites or creme without, um, brulee.
``This is a holiday about democracy and food,'' says chef Raymond Ost of Sandrine's. For several years, Sandrine's took over Holyoke Street with a Bastille Day street fair featuring a handful of chefs providing inexpensive treats and oodles of music. This year, a sluggish economy means a scaled back party. Essentially, the dining room of Sandrine's will be set up in the street. Bertrand Laurence, who sings American swing in French (and French swing in English), performs and also plays DJ, spinning a mix of classics, plus some pop, rap, jazz, and lounge for good measure. Ost offers both an a la carte menu and a $35 prix fixe menu from 5 to 10 p.m. (8 Holyoke St., Cambridge, 617-497-5300).
Other restaurants celebrating the day include:
In true French fashion, Brasserie Jo also takes its Bastille Day celebration to the streets. The French restaurant at the Colonnade Hotel opens a sidewalk creperie from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. with chocolate crepes and crepes Suzette. Inside, Brasserie Jo offers lunch and dinner specials for $17.89. (120 Huntington Ave., Boston 617-555-5555).
At Rialto, Jody Adams tries her hand at a slightly less traditional Bastille Day menu. Her wine barbecue, taking place in the courtyard of the Charles Hotel, features interpretations of French picnic food, such as slow-roasted pig with grilled eggplant, and grilled striped bass with warn fennel confit. Each of the five courses is paired with a wine from a different region of France. The party, complete with music, kicks off at 6:30 p.m. and costs $95 per person. (Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St., Cambridge, 617-661-5050).
Craigie Street Bistrot takes the French experience beyond cuisine. Beginning July 15 at 8:30 p.m., and Thursdays thereafter, the restaurant designates a table as the French Connection table. That means it's reserved for folks looking to converse solely en francais while nibbling on their gratin of potato. To keep the Left Bank illusion running strong, the waitstaff will also speak French. Dinner options include a three-course prix fixe dinner for $29.99, or order from the a la carte menu. (5 Craigie Circle, Cambridge, 617-497-5511).
Bleu, the French restaurant at Mashpee Commons, celebrates the day with a special menu featuring foie gras, French beer, and live music from noon until 10 p.m. (7 Market St., Mashpee Commons, Mashpee, 508-539-7907).