Cheesy? Creepy? Démodé? One of those is probably the first word that comes to your mind when you think of wax museums. Images of Vincent Price and Charles Bronson coating bodies in paraffin may well follow.
Some of those adjectives no doubt applied to the Musée Grévin in its early days, when it featured scenes of conquistadors, Napoleon in Moscow and ballerinas of the day. That “day” was 1882, when Arthur Meyer opened the wax museum in Paris. Meyer was also the director of the daily newspaper Le Gaulois. In a time before newspapers had photographs, he charged cartoonist, sculptor and costume designer Alfred Grévin with bringing his front-page headlines to life as wax tableaux. The original Musée Grévin, in other words, was intended more as a newseum than as fluffy entertainment.
Now that TV and the internet have superseded print media, such an idea seems quaint. Still, the appeal of standing next to an approximation of a newsmaker remains. Given today’s cult of celebrity, perhaps that attraction has grown. With the opening of its second museum in Montréal, 131 years after the first, the Grévin Academy is betting on it.
According to the Grévin’s director of communications in Montréal, Elodie Vincent, the company that owns the museum, Compagnie des Alpes, decided two years ago to begin a worldwide expansion. Montréal is just the first of what the owners hope will be numerous museums outside France.
Visitors like me, who are already wary of the flashy-but-insubstantial Madame Tussaud’s chain, may be further taken aback by the new Grévin’s unlikely location. It’s on the top floor of the Centre Eaton, a 175-store mega mall in downtown Montréal.
The central stomping ground may not be dignified, but it makes perfect sense, Vincent asserts, because it gives the new museum a captive audience. The French Musée Grévin boasts about 800,000 guests a year, but the Centre Eaton sees 28 million people pass through annually.
Déclassé location aside, this wax museum doubter found the Grévin utterly delightful. The experience begins in a closed-off room called “Palace of the Seasons.” An ultra-realistic animated film of the seasons’ changing flora and fauna plays on one wall, while the other mirrored walls reflect it on every side. The result is an IMAX-like immersion effect, especially when the film sweeps across vast areas. If you’re disposed to motion sickness, you may need to close your eyes or look up at the cabbage-like chandeliers that unfold above. It’s an impressive multimedia environment created by Montréal-based new-media entertainment studio Moment Factory.
Once summer has turned to fall, the doors open on a bright wonderland: the “Paris-Québec” section. I had no problem recognizing Marie Antoinette right at the entrance, but after that the section became a whole lot more Québec, devoted to local celebrities who aren’t so famous to Anglophones across the border. Who are Denise Bombardier and Jean-Pierre Ferland? Labels on the wall behind the figures offer some bare details, and QR codes promise more illumination. Too bad I didn’t have a smartphone.
The other visitors were rapt, though. One man got out of his wheelchair to pose on the couch with Bombardier — who, it turns out, is a novelist and talk show host.
This first room, crowded with six dummies, was my first taste of feeling surrounded. In my peripheral vision, I couldn’t tell who was a fellow living, breathing visitor and who’d recently been crafted in France for the museum’s April 17 opening.
It’s disconcerting to examine a mound of wax, painstakingly implanted with 50,000 individual hairs, that still looks like it should be able to move and talk. I felt gauche observing the age spots on one female mannequin’s chest, let alone commenting on them in front of her. Many of the models at the Grévin suspend the viewer’s disbelief in exactly that way.
Others don’t. Some models of nonwhite celebrities, such as Gandhi, Yoko Ono and President Obama, look not only less like the people they represent than the other figures do but also somehow less alive.
For this 5-foot-tall reporter, the Grévin quickly became an excuse to see whom I measured up to. Charles Aznavour and I could safely seesaw together, and Queen Elizabeth could be my stunt double. After passing a giant-like Charles de Gaulle and a towering (and perhaps excessively flattering) portrait of Steve Jobs, I was relieved to sandwich myself between Padre Pio and Frère André, 20th-century Catholic saints, who were both my height.
The man in the wheelchair rose once again in the “Sports Palace,” made to look like a hockey rink, to get his photo snapped with 69-year-old rocker Robert Charlebois, kitted out in a sequined version of the Canadiens jersey. Otherwise, the arena was filled with youthful models of the likes of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. Just outside the rink, Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci, poised with her eyes downcast in concentration, was particularly convincing.
I couldn’t resist getting in bed with John and Yoko, posed for the second half of their honeymoon “bed-in,” which took place in 1969 at Montréal’s Fairmont Queen Elizabeth. But I began to wonder how good such interaction was for the wax figures. Visitors are encouraged to pose for pictures with them, but what if I slipped and snapped off one of John’s fingers? What if the twentysomething women posing with their hands on Ryan Gosling’s tush grabbed a little too hard?
Vincent had an answer for that: “The only thing is that the visitor is not allowed to touch the hair and the face of the character because it is very fragile.” While the wax figures themselves are produced in Paris, she added, Grévin Montréal has its own workshop “responsible for the characters’ maintenance on a daily basis. We just opened three months ago, but up to there we had no mishaps!” she went on. “Great thing for us!”
Left to right: Ray Charles, Robert De Niro, Andy Warhol
For any historically minded Vermonter, the “Nouvelle-France” wing is likely to prove one of the Grévin’s most interesting sections. First, meet Jacques Cartier, who claimed Canada (specifically the Gaspé Bay) for France in 1534. He makes Samuel de Champlain, in all his curly-mustached glory, seem like a Johnny-come-lately with his 17th-century expeditions.
These historical waxes are an especially interesting feat. When it comes to modern figures, the Grévin’s artists often make their models from consenting celebrities with the help of photos, videos and minute measurements. Many of the subjects even donate their own clothes. Historical personages force the sculptors to work from scratch, extrapolating what they can from existing paintings.
In the case of Cartier, no contemporary portraits of the explorer exist. The artists were forced to work loosely from potentially inaccurate paintings completed after his death, and the result is a far less angular, craggier and more human-looking version of Cartier than any painting portrays.
The ships on which the nation’s founders appear in “Nouvelle-France” are believably crafted, but it’s the whipping wind of fans and subtly moving lights evoking early morning that are truly transporting. Champlain is posed over a pair of contemporary maps that portray the first gasps of European awareness of North America.
The lighting and sets in general are among the Grévin’s greatest strengths. Alfred Hitchcock sits in a director’s chair in a fluorescent-lit bathroom, commode in view, as he faces the shower while directing Psycho. A group of comedians and founders of Montréal’s Juste Pour Rire festival pose at a bright green-and-yellow “mad tea party.” A table of snacks hovers on the ceiling, while the walls are covered with reproduced portraits by da Vinci and Modigliani, painted in gaudy makeup.
Though the Grévin is at its heart a resolutely old-timey entertainment, the people behind the museum do their best to keep it up to date. A corridor where guests are invited to make themselves part of a Deus Ex video game draws lines of people waiting to animate themselves.
A “sculpture consultation” program allows visitors to approximate the experience of having their own wax models built from a photo-booth portrait. They move from screen to screen, each time scanning their tickets, so each separate computer can perform the next step on the evolving image. Unfortunately, I was so busy listening to the photo instructions that I ended up with an unsuccessful image, more double chin than facial features.
I felt pretty bad about myself as I walked past models Coco Rocha, Naomi Campbell and tattooed and pierced Montréal native Zombie Boy. I could feel them silently laughing at my inability to be photographed correctly.
The final ballroom crams a dizzying array of wax people into one space. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro look blasé on leather couches, while Nicolas Cage looms eerily behind them. Céline Dion stands on a stage with husband-manager René Angélil keeping track of her. I never thought I’d see Scarlett Johansson’s trashy tattoos at such close range, or pretend to play trumpet on a platform with Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix.
So is the Grévin Montréal cheesy? Sure, but only by turns. Creepy? Absolutely, but in the best possible way. Démodé? Nope. Unless you’ve got a problem with fun, the new museum is utterly à la mode.
Grévin Montréal, 705 rue Saint-Catherine Ouest, Montréal, 514-788-5210. grevin-montreal.com.
All photos by Alice Levitt.
The original print version of this article was headlined "House of Wax"