Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t wish he or she had traveled from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express, the fabled train of James Bond movies, Agatha Christie novels and many, many other literary and cinematic works? Probably not. Now an exhibition in Paris, “Il Etait une Fois l’Orient-Express,” at the Institut du Monde Arabe, allows visitors to take the trip vicariously and virtually.
The idea of visiting this show was as irresistible as riding the luxury train itself, but I feared a kitschy presentation that would kill the romance. Nothing of the sort, I am happy to report.
The name “Orient Express” has been used on several different rail lines over the years, but the original and the source of most of the romantic legends, was the one run by the
Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits from 1883 to 1956. For many years, its end points were Paris and Istanbul, although passengers often continued on to Iran, Iraq, Lebanon or Egypt on other lines, stopping off on the way for sejours in cities along the route.
Four of the handsome royal-blue cars, including an engine (which can’t be visited), are parked in the IMA’s huge courtyard. Scenarios are set up in the compartments, on
the seats and at the tables of the dining cars, while subtle sound effects re-create the clackety-clack of wheels on rails and imperious whistles. This is where things could have gone kitschy, but the curators have done a great job of suggesting stories using period objects – gloves, clothing, eyeglasses, books, a newspaper from an appropriate year, a portable manual typewriter, a negligee hanging from a hook, a card game in progress (complete with a half-smoked cigarette in a holder in the ashtray), etc.
These little stories are accompanied by tags that tell the story of a personality associated
with the train (real or fictional), e.g., Graham Greene, who used the Orient Express as a setting in two of his novels. “I enjoy very much the passing scene,” he said about the train in an interview in 1968, “watching one country melt into another country. In a sense something might happen at any point, but one is safe in the compartment all the same.” Another is Mata Hari, who solicited secrets of war from the men she made love to on the train.
These scenarios are so well done that you have the impression that the denizens of the carriage have just stepped out. Some of the tags have film clips on tiny screens embedded in them, and a bit of technical information is provided about each car – when it was put into service and how it was configured, etc. – but train-spotters may wish for more.
The decor of the carriages is another delight: the beautiful frosted glass panels by Lalique, the leather sofas and armchairs in the smoking car, the wing chairs in the Flèche d’Or car and so on.
Once you have “ridden” the Orient Express, the exhibition continues inside the IMA building, with informative displays on the history of the train and its destinations, film clips, handsome Art Deco advertising photos, paintings, various memorabilia and more decorative details from the trains: fold-down sinks, inlaid wood decorations, brass and glass œil-de-bœuf windows from Pullman cars, Louis Vuitton trunks and more. And, of course, there are clips from films in which the train featured, including From Russia with Love with Sean Connery.
For those who can’t visit the exhibition or who want to live virtually the experience of riding the train, students at the Ecole de la Passion Créative, or E-Artsup, have created an immersive website, “Journal du Bord d’un Conducteur” that allows viewers to take a ride across Europe and the Middle East on the Orient Express in the company of Jules Fradet, a fictional character based on two real conductors, between 1906 and ’36. The Facebook page, Jules Fradet, Journal du Bord d’un Conducteur, adds new details to the story every day.
And here’s a great idea for a special occasion: a meal at the pop-up restaurant in the Orient
Express dining car with a menu designed by celebrity chef Yannick Alléno and prepared by luxury caterer Potel et Chabot. See below for details.
Restaurant Éphémère Orient Express par Yannick Alléno: Open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Fixed-price menus: €160 and €120. Online reservations: www.yannick-alleno.com