x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Life imitates art in France

Love and marriage, the insanity of female dieting, the spirit of the French, the appeal of accessible actors, and helpful drivers

French teen spirit

What is it about the French? Parisian society is a yardstick of style, the women are chic and the men are laid back. And yet the minute something upsets them as a nation they take to the streets yelling and screaming.

Since the first tricoteuse counted the heads of the aristocracy falling into baskets on the guillotine along with the stitches of her knitting during the French Revolution, the beautiful boulevards of Paris and other big cities are where people like to make strong political statements.

Students especially love the tradition of manning the barricades and creating mayhem on the streets. The student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit turned student protests against the de Gaulle government into an art form in late 1960s France.

Now they're at it again, like a cast of extras from Les Misérables, setting cars on fire and hurling rocks at police as a protest over government plans to raise the retirement age to 62. As they say in France: plus ça change.

Nothing seems to have changed since Dany le Rouge - but you have to admire their spirit in a world where teenagers in many countries are renowned for their apathy. The French government may not like it, but at least it gets a pretty good indication of how its young voters are thinking.

Putin orchestrates a domestic performance

What a rare and fascinating glimpse it was into the marital life of Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila at the weekend, all carefully stage managed to banish those nasty and unsubstantiated rumours that they're divorced.

Go on admit it, you weren't even aware of poor old Lyudmila's existence, as they are rarely seen together in public.

In the age-old tradition of politicians everywhere, the wife is wheeled out on occasions when hubby wants to make a political point, scotch a rumour or polish up his image. This time it's a mixture of all three as Putin lays the groundwork for a possible return to the Russian presidency in 2012. He is also determined to banish forever rumours of a close friendship with the former Olympic champion gymnast-turned-politician Alina Kabaeva.

His image makers are worried that such rumours might damage his image as a sober and religious family man and blight his chances of a return to the presidency. They've worked hard to promote him as a tough, ex-special forces macho man, and the videos he has permitted to be shown reveal him doing manly things such as an energetic butterfly stroke in a raging river, white-water rafting, fishing bare-chested, and riding - also bare-chested.

The 11-minute video posted on a Russian government website and now up on YouTube was filmed to promote the country's latest census but may have had the reverse effect to that which Russia's most powerful man intended.

For a start, it was all very beige - both Putin and his wife wore beige and almost disappeared into the beige sofa in a room that was supposed to give the appearance of an ordinary Russian home occupied by a man of the people. In reality, it looked anything but a home- there are no pictures on the walls, no cosy cushions or knick-knacks and nobody is going to believe they still have such an ancient television set.

They could have done with some body-language coaching too. He shows more affection to his elderly black labrador Connie than he does to his wife; there's no eye contact, and the very nervous-looking Lyudmila isn't even wearing a wedding ring.

Constantly fiddling with her clothes, she glances anxiously at him with every question, although she appeared quite spirited when he ticked her off for boasting about speaking three languages fluently.

For the record, they married in 1983 and have two grown-up daughters but Mrs P spends most of her time these days at their home in St Petersburg. She looks as if she can't wait to get back there and leave him to it.

The gal that got away

A lovely little vignette from the thoroughly indiscreet and outspoken film director, producer and bon viveur Michael Winner reveals the extent of Frank Sinatra's grief at the death of his former wife Ava Gardner.

Sinatra's daughter Tina found him "slumped in his room, crying and unable to speak", which says so much more than words about how much he still loved her. He certainly continued to help her out financially long after their divorce, and Gardner is quoted in one biography as describing the singer as "the love of her life", despite having led him a merry dance.

I once met Gardner in the ladies' room at the Royal Albert Hall in London at one of Sinatra's 1984 sell-out concerts. She said she wouldn't have missed it for the world, and it was clear they adored each other right to the end.

Winner says he tried to persuade her to tell the truth about her life and all the men in it and he even found her a writer to do her autobiography.

Her reply was priceless: "Of course I'm not going to tell the truth, darling. I'm going to say things that leave the impression with people that I want left with them."

It's a mad, mad weight-obsessed world, especially in Tinseltown

The voluptuous actress Christina Hendricks is embarking on her very first diet, according to Hollywood sources who say she's fed up with comments about her body.

In Tinseltown, anyone above an American size 4 is seen as "fat". Remember Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada talking about the slender Anne Hathaway's character Andie as "the clever fat girl".

Hendricks, who plays the office manager Joan Holloway in Mad Men, has very quickly become a male fantasy figure with her obvious and enviable assets. Now we're told she wants to lose 30lb (13.6kg) and is cutting out carbs. If it's true, it's got to be the ultimate in Hollywood craziness. Her curves are what made her famous, although earlier in the summer she complained that no fashion designer would give her a dress for red-carpet appearances as they only lent out their tiny model sizes.

Maybe they should change the show's name to Mad Women.

Hollywood access

One of the most enjoyable features of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival has been the informal conversations with stars such as Julianne Moore and Clive Owen.

Hollywood stars are notoriously protected by battalions of managers and spin doctors and at other film festivals, events are often highly controlled with people standing by to fend off awkward questions.

The atmosphere here makes artists feel so relaxed that they come across, refreshingly, as real people.

Honk if you care

For once, I didn't feel that customary flash of irritation at being hooted at the minute the traffic lights changed. The sun was so bright that even with my sunglasses I couldn't see the signal switching from red to green, so I was grateful to the person in the car behind me for urging me to get a move on. It's a real problem in countries such as ours where the sun is really bright for several months of the year and even shaded traffic lights are often hard to see.

Bright sun accounted for 22 accidents in the past eight months, according to the Abu Dhabi Police, and it doesn't surprise me.

We're told to stop on the side of the road during bad weather conditions, but that isn't always possible. We're also warned to be cautious at sunrise and sunset, but I find it's hardest to see the lights in the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest.

Perhaps a sound signal of the sort used in some countries to help blind people cross the road, might be helpful. On the other hand, it might be seen as a waste of money as there's always a "helpful" driver behind you giving you all the sound signals you could ever need.