PRINT Summer 1968


La Chinoise, Carabiniers, and Belle de Jour

LA CHINOISE CONCERNS A SUMMER shared by 4 to 7 youths intoxicated with Maoist communism: a humorlessly vague, declamatory crew made up of Jean Pierre Leaud (taut, overtrained exhibitionistic), Anne Wiazemsky (girl intellectual with a year of prostitution behind her) and a sensitive tapeworm with steel rims, always dunking his bread and butter in coffee. Reclusive, never penetrating or being penetrated by the outside world, they study, debate, never seem to converse but try to out-fervor one another, while the camera images suggest a scissoring motion, shuttling back and forth, giving equal billing to the doors and shutters, rough-brushed with red-blue-yellow, and large blackboards covered with measured handwriting.

What has to be made clear is that this is an infuriating but cagy film. Why? There is such a wide swath of rhetoric, dogmatic rights and wrongs, employed or deployed through replicas of the pop media, pamphleteering, TV interviews, slogans and protest march placards, as well as in the mechanical recitations of the adolescents, escapees from a local nursery school.

What is maddening is not the facile manipulation of modern communication devices, but the hollow shaft between the Hot Shot imagery and cunning rhetorical jam-up. Scene after scene has a gaping hole, as well as, admittedly, a kind of piquancy: the hollowness seems to result from a number of curious policies: (1) limiting actors to one trait, like Wiazemsky’s single-minded zeal, plus one maddening repeated tic, lip pulling, shifting the eyes dreamily, fingering the hair, (2) pre-editing scenes into anagrams, talking news photos, pettily pedantic debates, (3) flashing the screen with a Pepto Dismal of modern painting devices (Marvel Comics heroes), which seem as peculiarly out of date as the supposedly hip clothes.

Given the stunted bloom on their faces, the parrot talk; as though they’re reading a news report, and the With It air, these Marx-Lenin jabberers come across with enormous dairy-fresh impact. Living surprisingly cleanly on a Paris top floor, always fresh new 1957 prol clothes to wear (pale-ish yellow and red cardigans and pull-overs) these kids seem to be pushing out with intolerable talentless mugging. Veronique (played with hard-to-say blandness by Ann Wham) stands smack in front of the screen and does Nothing. Pushing her innocuousness into a virulence, she and her buddies turn the Cubistic Mary Poppins set into a nursery, a French primary school called Notre Gang. Scenes are set up like a first grade primer: Dick and Jane drink tea, Dick-Jane-Jasper-Max do morning exercises on the veranda, the kids take an afternoon nap, looking like happy little mummies, no reaction, like zombies.

It is hard to get this sealed-off communist cell as a shrewd portrait of youth protestors: Berkeley-Tokyo-Paris. While seeming to patronize these foolishly idealistic fish-like girls, green-garrulous boys, the film actually sees itself as being part of the movement to shake up the Establishment. Bomb the Sorbonne, bomb the Louvre, Donnez-moi-un-bombe incanted endlessly. The film is summed up in the pathetically slack-faced amateur presence of the second-girl lead, an aimless player who acts out a series of talking news photos. In one she is a Vietnamese peasant cringing with terror as cardboard bombers buzz around her like gnats. In another she’s a Viet Cong soldier with a plastic machine gun, behind a barricade of firecracker red books. Each one of these bits of playacting is rawly, offensively puerile. The use of amateurs who play their ineptness to death is a deliberate, effectively gutsy move, but nonetheless, it can make your skin crawl.

Unlike the sliding door effect of Chinoise, Les Carabiniers has a surprisingly wet, fluid mossiness: its people seem beautifully wan, primeval, murky, like woodchucks camouflaged by Nature. Forget the allegory about war: this is a topsy-turvy series of pastoral gambols, with so many throwbacks to Sennet, etc., that it suggests a Movie Lover’s Diary. The movie takes place on an interesting piece of real estate—it’s flimsier than dilapidated—a cropless farm in Southern Question Mark. Four mysteriously demented ragamuffins exchange their brother-daughter-mother roles like demented kids, bundled up and waddling on this dusty D. W. Griffith plot. (Those girls are some tomatoes, like the Gish sisters, skipping around the back yard. The mother (?) is named Cleopatra and thus wears Egyptian-gypsy make-up.) The two male clods get conned into an anonymous war which ranges around the two hemispheres. Much of the battlefield looks like the Marseilles suburbs, but is referred to as Santa Cruz.

Michelangelo and Ulysses have a hard time getting into the area of human beings. One of them is skinny but is covered with old rags, old Potemkin costumes, so that even he looks bloated, limp and lymph, unable to act in any way except sort of cruising through events. They move through this war amazingly incognizant. The supposedly comic hubcap, Michael Jello, is a little rubber duck, a banal anal actor who keeps pushing a curds-and-whey, soppy milk effect. Raking his hair across his forehead a la Buster Langdon, using his limbs like club feet, this actor embodies the stupidity, sadism and salt of the earth in one compressed shape.

One of the most haunting passages is that of Mike pawing, in Neanderthal fashion; two immobile customers before finding his seat in the Cinema Mexique. (What’s that neon sign about? Your eyes travel up and down for ten seconds trying to locate the hidden political association, or anagram-like reference in it.) Buffeted about, climbed over, they never twitch (the effect is the same as the evil-face Kirilov marching over his sleep-paralyzed pals in the Chinoise bedroom). More extraordinarily, they don’t move, as Michael, now up on the stage, slowly and stupidly and wondrously runs his hands over the screened image of a naked woman, and jumps up and down trying to see over the bathtub rim.

A thing you notice as the movie goes by is that this mid-film passage is the first in which there is a sense of buildings and streets being foursquare to the earth. It comes after a swell of off-kilter scenes, lilting girls and tilting soldiers. This mysteriously poetic effect is of a whole movie funneling into a stillborn chamber where a slow somnambulist pace take over. It should be said about now that Carabiniers (French for Shoot Em Naked) is beautiful, the nicest bleak photography since Wretched Orchard or Bleak Blouse. Rather than being ominous or warlike, this worn-torn allegory is likeable and terrestrial: frozen rivers, empty squares with Van Gogh trees, the feeling of boy scouts on a Saturday morning hike, the men uncover their enemies, partisans, like kids would uncover slugs in the undergrowth.

The beautiful people in Belle De Jour, a queerly psuedo-Hollywood film, include a wife, pale blond from head to foot, her beefy male model husband, an urbane lago-ish friend on the sidelines who cynically nudges the wife out of purity and the husband into cuckoldry. A singular trait in this coolly deadpan comedy is the sinister equilibrium in the alignment of these figures with their furniture and possessions.

In Belle De Jour, the viewer is apparently directed towards perverse eroticism of the standard types and a modernized Bovary story: a pair of patent leather pumps (Catherine Deneuve) takes a two-to-five job as a prostitute, supposedly because she wants to try some new moves but feels either shy or uninclined to try them with her Boy Scout doctor husband. This sunlit story, pampered wife driven into prostitution during the hours usually reserved for piano lessons and housework, is filmed with a linear concision, Dali-esque clarity, and like that painter it works well within conventions forty or fifty years old. In the case of the pornography, the conventions are Victorian and earlier: a woman walking the corridor of a grand chateau, naked except for black transparent veils and a lily-of-the-valley wreath, heading for a necrophiliac encounter with a Count (an aged, stretched-out Jean Pierre Aumont). The count has her lie down in a coffin, and begins an incantation about his deceased daughter before climaxing below the casket. This little pageant, as well as many others, is so well-rehearsed and costume-oriented that there is little sexual bite.

"There’s one wonderful maison that has such marvelous esprit de corps,” enthuses Husson, Michel Piccoli, the Iago, murmuring in syphilitic sibilants about the fancy brothel, Madame Anais. Truth-to-be, it’s a very stuffy, furniture-cramped apartment, but Catherine Deadnerve, who plays the wife, flourishes as Carmen-Bite-Me-Daddy until she runs into a possessive jealous client, an international dope pusher with provincial brass knuckles teeth. This never-ending thin ingenue is fantastic, the only element of 1968 post-Blow Up hip. Sulking, a lot of lip and gnashing, he seems to be on the wrong movie set, pushing through the rooms, trying to find his place in the film.

For such a clear, carefully styled film, Belle is a consistently jarring film, one put-on after another. Starting with the mezzotint color, a kind of sallow sunlight which throws every shot off kilter, off the realistic, the movie keeps knocking askew each character-actor-situation, going off a little or a lot into the outré. What seems like a Who Knows cut, a broadly caricatured death, a standardized fetish, a dreadful gag about Geisha credit cards, a lead actress who gets happy at the strangest moments, turns out to be one deadpan twist after another.

The clientele and the staff at the whorehouse, on the surface, seem like mis-matches and questionable movie solutions. Severine’s two cowhores, Anais’s ninnies, are like two sides of the same dismal, unappetizing working-class woman: hard and soft, straight hairdo and Ann Margret tease. With each Joker Card client, these two merge and fadeout, creating a solid background for Deneuve’s golden girl figurine effect. Unlike these two who are simply reversed from the expected Mercouri effect, dropped back without causing any excitement at all, the men are an endless run of assorted sordid weirdos.

The inch-from-convention bedroom innocuities of Severine and Pierre Serisy have to be a pun on all Hollywood movies: Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett in neat expensively sheeted twin beds, the man always wearing white rayon pajamas with blue piping, a pair of white slippers alongside, in between the beds a little table with lamp, clock, and a glass of hot Bovril. There’s no blood: when young handsome Meatface asks his wife if he can get in her bed, she says Non (Scram buster, go - - - - someone else).

How does one get passionate about a perfection piece like Belle?

A few things I left out so far are:

One: A recitation scene in Carabiniers, with a partisan blond reciting Mayakovsky’s poem before the riffraff, the same way she would be doing an oral exam in Russian 1A. Without enumerating the queernesses of this blasé blond May Queen in a car coat and old slacks, she picks up the film’s hollowness. When her friend gets knocked down, she runs for shelter in the most amateurish, no ferocity manner. The effect that the movie is trying for: fill her with a frenzied saintliness, like a witch about to be burned.

Two: The swift, expedient, doesn’t make-it-carpentering, which still has a great deal of shambling charm. The first set starts out as a small farm house with an assortment: chicken-coops, a bathtub, tall fences. While this dazzling Gothic single-room house, foundationless, shifts around the plot (the better to photograph you, my dear), the movie also finds a new focal point, a mailbox at shoulder height which is the only manmade item for desolate miles. The two left-behinds skip to it and home again, the mailbox drips postcards.

Three: It wouldn’t be legit to describe the contaminated spirit in Belle De Jour as being similar to the raunchy, down-and-out decadent expression normally on the face of a Rolling Stone. In fact, the movie’s studied canter-like pace, its nicely staid-static images, the complete lack of emotion or drama in its star, or its photography, are actually the furthest reverse of Mick Jagger’s cruddy, carefully nurtured degeneracy. But this Eau de Clean movie, its actors doused in deodorants, after shave lotions, harbors decadence. Also its casting suggests the Fleur de Mal put-downs that are inherent in a Rolling Stone production.

Four: Deneuve is so object-like: even as a beauty she is lacking. From head to foot, she’s like a porcelain dummy, probably the most evocative shot of her mechanical doll act shows her walking along the edge of a tennis court, forcing herself to be jaunty, walking with a forced stiff-legged jauntiness. Deneuve keeps achieving a curiously intriguing detachment, as though she’s on drugs. What’s so infuriating about her is actually her contribution: that she’s content to be all surface. Her very unrebelliousness, the fact that she stays in place, a contained element among other contained elements, is a large part of what makes this film so precisioned and polite.

Five: Compared to the nice dappled, three-dimensional impressions of Les Carabiniers, La Chinoise has a suspicious sideways movement: the actors and/or cameraman can’t retreat or advance one inch. Watching it is like being forced into an insidious, abnormal work that, sliding sideways, crab fashion, bars progress to its inhabitants, keeps turning the actors whirligig fashion without revealing anything about them.

Manny Farber