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3 men in rowboat
3 men in rowboat

Kjartansson, center, in a scene from his video work “World Light,” inspired by a Halldór Laxness novel. Courtesy the artist / Luhring Augustine and i8 Gallery, ReykjavÍk

“Bonjour,” a live theatre piece conceived, designed, and directed by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, premièred last October at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris. The story line is brief. A young woman wakes up in her second-floor bedroom, above a café in a picturesque French village. She gets dressed, puts a record on the old-fashioned phonograph (it’s Charles Trenet, singing “La Mer”), brushes her hair, and pulls on stockings. Simultaneously, a young man on the ground floor of the house next door has been making coffee and glancing at a 1958 copy of Paris Match. The man goes outside to smoke a cigarette. Moments later, the woman comes down the staircase on the outside of her house, carrying a vase of flowers. She walks to the public fountain in the space between the two houses, sees the man, and hesitates. He says, “Bonjour.” She replies, “Bonjour.” He watches her fill the vase at the fountain, turn, and walk back up the stairs. Just before she goes inside, their eyes meet again. He goes back into his house. After a brief pause, the five-minute sequence starts again. It repeats continuously, with different actors, working in shifts, for twelve hours a day.

I watched the first rehearsals of “Bonjour” with Kjartansson, who was wearing a three-piece brown suit and a colorful silk scarf tied at the neck. After the second run-through, he called out, jubilantly, “That was fucking awesome. You made me fall in love with both of you.” Exuberance is Kjartansson’s default mode, in directing as in life. Shorn of the reddish beard that he usually wears, and three months short of turning forty, he looked more robust than I remembered from our meeting in Reykjavík a year or so earlier. He gave the French actors a few suggestions, in English, asking the woman to face in a different direction when she pulls up her stockings, and telling the man, “Remember, you’ve been waiting a year for this to happen.” The actors both spoke enough English to understand his rapid-fire, Icelandic-accented delivery. While they prepared to do the sequence a third time, he turned to me and announced, “All my ideas come out of nowhere, and they never change. This one was like the ultimate French cliché. I wanted to make a play about a moment when something happens and something changes.”

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