John Waters to join ranks of Meryl Streep, Robert Redford with French arts honor

One of Baltimore’s finest has gone international.

Filmmaker, artist and author John Waters has been named an officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters (Ordre des Arts et des Lettres). The honor, announced Monday, is awarded to artists “who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world,” according to a news release from the French Embassy.

“I am a great admirer of Mr. John Waters,” said Mathieu Fournet, head of the film, TV and new media department at the French Embassy in New York.

After an appearance at Lincoln Center about four years ago, where Waters spoke glowingly of such French cultural figures as Jean Genet, Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard, Fournet said he recommended the man responsible for “Pink Flamingos,” “Polyester” and “Hairspray” for the honor.

“I thought, ‘Wow, what a great ambassador for French culture and French cinema,’ ” Fournet said. “I was really a big fan of his unconventional way of doing films. … When I got back to the office, I was, like, ‘We need to honor this amazing figure of American arts and American cinema.’ ”

“The French have always been great to me,” Waters said Monday afternoon from Argentina, on his way back to the United States after presenting five of his movies at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema. “I’ve never understood Americans who said the French are difficult to deal with. ... It’s always been a country that I’ve been very excited to go to.”

Waters has been making and setting movies in his native Baltimore since 1964’s “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket.” His last film, “A Dirty Shame,” was released in 2004. But in recent years he has, if anything, expanded his impact on American culture. Two of his books — “Role Models” and “Carsick” — have made The New York Times best-seller lists, his stand-up performances have attracted sellout crowds, and his photographs and artwork have been exhibited throughout the world.

The embassy release noted that Waters is a “great admirer of French cinema.” Local audiences got a taste of that in 2014, when his annual pick for the Maryland Film Festival was French writer-director Catherine Breillat’s 2013 “Abuse of Weakness,” starring Isabelle Huppert — “my favorite actress in the world,” Waters said Monday — as a filmmaker who, after suffering a stroke, is victimized by a notorious con man.

“I love a feel-bad French movie,” Waters said.

Waters served on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival in 1995. And one of his favorite movie memories, he said, was taking the legendary film star Jeanne Moreau to the French premiere of “A Dirty Shame,” in which Tracey Ullman plays a Baltimore housewife who turns into an insatiable sex addict after getting bonked on the head.

“I’m sitting there with Jeanne Moreau, thinking, ‘What is she going to think of this movie?’ ” Waters remembered. “I’m very nervous, and as the film ends, I turned to her and said, ‘Oh, we had a lot of censorship problems.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Why? It was poetry.’

“Well, no one ever called it that before. That was a new one.”

The honor is set be awarded to Waters during a ceremony May 7 in New York. Joining Waters will be New York-based film curator and critic Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The Order of Arts and Letters was established in 1957 and is handed out three times annually. Previous American honorees have included Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Uma Thurman, Marilyn Horne and director Jim Jarmusch.

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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