As he left New York in the early 1990s after a year studying film at NYU, Benoît Cohen swore he would be back. He was 22 and had just directed a short film, There Must Be Some Way out of Here, about a man who hires a professional killer to help him end his life. Thirty years later, he developed this same idea in Le prix du paradis, a novel whose main character is a billionaire fashion writer pursued by the two hitwomen she has paid to take her out. This crime comedy combines the writer’s favorite genres: dark humor à la Coen brothers, a pinch of romance, thoughts on utopia and societal inequalities, and a nod to the legendary Tucson studios in Arizona, the setting for countless westerns.
Benoît Cohen had been a director and a producer, yet New York transformed him into a writer and a cab driver. In 2014, having spent 25 years living in Paris and devoting his life to cinema, he realized his American dream by moving into a brownstone in Brooklyn with his wife, actress, director and author Eléonore Pourriat, and their two children, who were 13 and 16 at the time. “Since our honeymoon in New York, Eléonore would talk to me about it every year,” he says. “Seven years ago, she was about to direct a movie for Netflix, and we agreed that the time had come.” Meanwhile, his latest feature-length movie, You’ll Be a Man, had won several awards at American film festivals. Just a few months after moving to NYC, the director enrolled at a cab-driving school in Queens, hoping to find locations for a movie. After overcoming a number of administrative obstacles, he was finally granted his license. On January 4, 2016, at 7:50 a.m., he picked up his first fare in Chelsea, on the corner of West 19th Street and 8th Avenue.
He spent six months exploring New York, armed with his filmmaking perspective and a recording device on the passenger seat. He learned the ropes of his new job, had to pay a few fines, and discovered the city’s full geographic and social diversity. “You meet all sorts of people, with every fashion sense imaginable, from all over the world. The potential for fiction is omnipresent.” The movie project shifted to become a book, Yellow Cab: A French Filmmaker’s American Dream (recently adapted as a graphic novel in France), a story punctuated with excerpts from his cabbie logbook in which he confesses his doubts: “I pretend to be a cab driver but I don’t really know the city and, most of the time, I have to rely on my GPS to get me where I need to go,” he writes. “But isn’t that the case with most cab drivers I’ve encountered? […] Some have been at the job for years and have a better grasp of their subject (especially the ones from the pre-GPS days), but the beginners are all in the same boat.”
“Staying to Fight Back”
Like many others in the city, convinced Hillary Clinton would be elected president, Benoît Cohen took Donald Trump’s November 2016 victory like a “punch to the gut.” “We considered moving back to France, but when you love a country, you have to stay to fight back.” With this in mind, he wrote Mohammad, My Mother & Me (2018), a book that used inclusivity as an antidote to the aggressively exclusionary stance of the then U.S. president. Through this story, written between New York and Paris, he recounts how his mother, Marie-France Cohen, who founded the children’s clothing brand Bonpoint and the Merci concept store with her husband, welcomed an Afghan migrant into her mansion in the chic seventh arrondissement of Paris. Comparing his personal experience as a “luxury migrant” to that of Mohammad, an interpreter recruited by the French army and then abandoned to fend for his life, Benoît Cohen reveals a longstanding activism that has resonated in America.
Having closely witnessed the Black Lives Matter movement, he published an article on systemic racism in the United States in the French magazine America. “I can’t believe that the French won’t admit that it also exists in France.” Married to a feminist activist and director of the short film Oppressed Majority, which depicts a world in which men are sexually harassed by women (an idea she later developed in the Netflix film I Am Not an Easy Man), Benoît Cohen is particularly aware of the societal changes driven by #MeToo. He has also observed the chasm that this topic has revealed between France and the United States. “There is a lot of resistance to #MeToo in France, underpinned by a French ideal of gallantry and seduction. There are even enormous differences in the concept of consent between the two countries. Of course, there have been times when things have gone too far in the United States, but this is a necessary evil if we want to revolutionize the patriarchal system.”
Seven years after arriving in America, Benoît Cohen has no intention of moving back to France, even though that is where most of his upcoming books and movies are being developed. Based in the cosmopolitan Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he spent two memorable days celebrating Joe Biden’s election, he feels at home and is delighted to see the country emerge from months of lockdown. He and his wife have applied to become U.S. citizens, and their two children became Americans last April. “This is where my life is; I feel like a tourist in Paris. The United States is both gentle and violent, a place where you have to be on the right side of the gate. Everyone is constantly on the alert, but that creates an energy that I find more exciting than scary.”
Article published in the July 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.