creme brulee, if you dare

Helene Matte’s L’essence de la Vie

In bright blue workman’s coveralls, Helene begins by sweeping the floor. A cosmetics suitcase, metal ladder, a circle of black plastic taped to the floor. She has comic delivery. She pulls seven members from the audience, slides between their legs, declares it a boy, or a girl, then hands out licorice cigars.

Every action is punctuated by a wind-up kitchen timer, which goes off, and is then reset, continuously throughout the performance.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She lifts to her face a potty training seat, the kind that fits snugly over a toilet seat, and peering through it, mugs for the crowd, sticks her tongue out like a child. This is particularly funny because she holds the pose for a long time. It’s simple and effective. She’s doing the inappropriate. Demonstrating unsocialized behaviour, a common complaint of children. But she is showing the face we all want, at some point, to show. I know this face. I feel it beneath my own, I feel it wanting to get out and misbehave, in the most puerile way. Fart and moon and dance around holding my crotch. My inner clown.

She is wearing a tight dress made of a print that makes me think of Polynesia, with a red t-shirt underneath and slits cut out for her breasts. She gets the audience to sing an impromptu medley of Mama Mama Mama. She directs us to sing different notes and rhythms, it sounds tribal.

To a calypso beat, Helene does a spoof of tribal dancing, all hips and pelvis, still with the potty training crown on her head. She passes out a coconut treat.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

The timer goes off again. She applies a white cold cream to her neck and chin, she takes off her dress, smears white cold cream over her ass, then a smear of red paint across her ass and knees. Her red t-shirt has “drama queen” written on it.

Helene has a read thread hanging from her vagina like a tampon string. She attaches it to a small doll which can record what she tells it. “Now you do what I say, not what I do.” She asks an audience member to hold the doll, then backs up into the centre of the room, the thread unspooling out of her vagina, until the end comes out. She ties this around her waist and winds herself up again, spinning towards the audience.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She gets down on her knees, sticks licorice in her ears, and a black licorice cigar up her ass. She gets a man from the audience to throw Smarties into her mouth from a distance. Finally, after twenty excruciating tries, he finally gets one in her mouth.

The timer goes off again.

Helene puts on an old-fashioned wool bathing suit, balaclava and toque, sets up logs for a campfire, hauls out a fire extinguisher, and crumples newspaper like she’s about to start it. She is holding a breast pump and brings out one more log for the fire, pricked with sparklers.

Reciting a poem in French, “L’essence de la Vie”, she pumps her breast. “What makes us advance, destroys us, because when we advance, we advance towards our death. That’s life.”

She climbs a ladder, hangs a sign from a construction site, “installation sous tension, danger de mort”.

She pours thick molasses in a ring onto the black plastic circle taped to the floor. She ties her head up with string, recites the poem again, in English this time, douses herself with milk from a red plastic oil can. Then she passes around some more deserts. Homemade crème brulee. Says, “Please,” very sweetly, begging for help in handing them out. She’s covered in milk. And wet. And she’s just been through hell.

(Photo by Henry Chan)

She surrounds the audience with tape, like we’re at a crime scene. On the tape is the word FRAGILE, repeated over and over.

This desperation, drained-out, burnt-out, just humiliated feeling, then having to serve sweets, be sweet, home-made desserts. She’s drinking straight out of a can of maple syrup now.

The plastic circle, bordered by molasses and full of milk, has an orange light shining down on it, now a slide of a baby breastfeeding. The milk makes a perfect projection screen.

A wind-up lullaby from a crib, Helene lights the sparkle log, sits at the top of her ladder. The timer goes off again. She stands under a rigged-up bucket for another three minutes. The timer goes off. She pulls the cord and is showered in safety matches.

This is not, I don’t think, a piece for deep analysis. It is a piece to witness and to feel. It is a wave you have to let crash over you. And I am sitting here looking out over the aftermath and thinking, yes, I know what it’s like to feel, in motherhood, a maddening exhaustion, when you think you might be going insane. When you feel like a beast, a monkey, a pig, or a cow – une vache. You feel like you’re kneeling in front of a crowd of strangers, with licorice sticks in your ears and a candy cigar up your ass, and you’re trying to catch Smarties in your mouth, thrown at you by a banker, or a gynecologist. You feel like your life is brittle, in tinders, a bucketful of matches, waiting to burst into flames. And meanwhile the timer rings every three minutes, you can’t fucking concentrate on a thing, the constant interruptions are driving you crazy, you can’t think, and at the end of it all is this godawful mess of spilled milk, the sickly sweet smell of molasses, and you’ve made treats for all the kids, for everyone, in fact, and with milk on your face, your boobs hanging out, you must try to be dignified, as you pass them around.


1 Comment

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One response to “creme brulee, if you dare

  1. miguel invierno

    auto da leche. mw

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