Winter 2005 & Spring 2005
Images of Women in French Cinema 
CLASS Connections TITLE
Take-home Final Exam
Festival International de Films de Femmes de Créteil (Annual Event).
gives you access to filmographies, cast, technical details, literature and criticism, reviews etc...
The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture (University of Exeter: England.) Cybercinema
An Interactive Site Devoted to the History of Computers and Artificial Intelligence in Film (Cybercinema is sponsored by the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Alexander J. Cohen, Program in Film Studies UC Berkeley: "CinemaSpace is devoted to all aspects of Cinema and New Media and is the primary link for resources from the UC Berkeley Film Studies Program."
Northwestern University Production page (Department of Radio, Film and Television)
a series of links chosen by Professor Thomas Spear (Lehman college). Click on "cinema" (mostly in French)

* African Media Program, Michigan State U.
* AlloCiné, actualités cinéma en France.
* Cannes--le Festival International du Film, 52e année, du 12 au 23 mai 1999.
* CinéFil, banque de données importante (bandes annonces, photos, prix, festivals).
* Le Serveur d'ECAV (Etudes Cinématographiques et Audiovisuelles).
* France Cinéma Multimédia. Office National du Film du Canada. Plurimédia coproduction..
* La Vidéothèque de Paris. Club-Internet. Presse, culture, forums, dialoguez en direct.
* In French:
(actualités du cinéma français)

• St. Thomas Aquinas : “Man can correct his wife with words, but also with a rod.”  “L’homme peut corriger sa femme avec des mots mais aussi avec des verges.” (Summa Sacrae Theologiae III, XIII, IX, 4)
• Jean de Meung: mépris de la femme, simple instrument de la persistance de l’espèce et outil de la procréation: “Une pour tous et toutes pour chacun.”
 (Roman de la rose)
• Molière: “Votre sexe n’est là que pour la dépendance.” (L’Ecole des Femmes, III, 2)
• Rousseau: “Ne faites point de votre fille un honnête homme.” (Emile ou de l’Education)
• Voltaire:  (Les femmes), "faites pour adoucir les moeurs des hommes.”

1. Roman Law ;
2. Carolingian Period ;
3. Salic Law i.e. the legal code of the Salian Franks ;
4. Medieval University ;
5. French Revolution (Convention) did not entail improvement in women’s conditions.  In 1792 a law established divorce in France, but the law was abolished in 1816 and reestablished in 1884. In 1793 the Revolutionary Government suppressed Women Societies and Women Clubs. The great principles of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen", which affirmed “Political and social equality of all citizens”, were just words when it applied to women;
6. The Napoleonic Code of 1804 seems to confirm it, since a married woman, contrary to a non-married who in theory enjoyed all her civil rights, had all her possessions under the tutelage of her husband;
7. It was not until 1924 that secondary school programs would become similar for boys and girls.  In 1842, women were authorized to become medical doctors and dentists but it was not until 1900 that she could practice the profession of attorney;
8. Bourgeois paternalism;
9. Syndicalism (trade unions) ;
10. Laws of 1920 favorable to repopulation (after World War I).  In 1920 the State forbade all types of birth control and abortion.  Woman’s role was to produce children.
It’s only in 1945 that women were able to vote after dedicating themselves during World War II to the efforts of the Resistance. If the Constitution of the IVth Republic in 1946 instaured the equality of rights between men and women in all domains, it was only in 1970 that “paternal authority” was replaced by “parental authority”.

 N.B. The image of woman did not fundamentally change in France until the movement of liberation that began after the choc of 1968. Yet, in 1949 Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)’s famous book, Le Deuxième Sexe,(The Second Sex) and her often quoted  “On ne naît pas femme, on le devient”  ("You’re not born  a woman, you become a woman”) marks the beginning of a new era.

Are the French obsessed by love?

Seducers, good lovers, consumed with love: the myth sticks to their skin. In his latest book, L’amour à la française [Love, French-style], Jean-Jacques Pauvert, the editor of the most important erotic authors in French literature, examines the ideas, right or wrong, that foreigners have about love French style.

The French ? the men - are debauched and seducers. As for the French women, they are frivolous, too easy and willing. Is not this an excessive judgment? The myth has been hard to destroy. If we’re to believe their Europeans neighbors, French people are indeed the specialists of carnal love. For example, in Punch  not too long ago a British journalist was inquiring with typical British humor, “How do you know that a Frenchman has been visiting?” His answer: “The trash is empty and your female dog is pregnant.” This example will attest how France’s reputation as a country of seduction and forbidden pleasures, provokes as much attraction as it creates disgust.

Let’s have a very brief look at history. As early as the 15th century, Europeans accuse the French of all vices. At the time, a new sexually transmitted disease, the pox, renamed syphilis, is causing a severe loss of lives. Who are the ones to blame? The French, of course!  They’re the ones who are responsible for this scourge. Later one, in 1631, a German, Abraham Goelnitz, deplores the fact that France has the worst of all vices, that of “giving themselves over to women.” For the British Tobias George Smollet (1766), it is even worse. Those “frog eaters” will do anything to seduce your own wives. If you receive a Frenchman in your family, says he, and demonstrate toward him repeated signs of friendship and esteem, he will show his appreciation by beginning first to woo your wife is she is pretty, if not, your sister, your daughter or your niece. If he is unsuccessful, rather than lacking in gallantry, he will court your grandmother!

On what  do foreigners base their accusations?  Are they just naïve observers? The answer clearly is negative.  History in this case can enlighten us.

In the 17th century, while other European countries align their rules of conduct on the Judeo-Christian principles of moral and virtue, France stands by itself and invents no less than the libertinage, [which, in English, is understood less as freedom of thought as unrestrained morality or promiscuity] seen  as  a provocation that shocks France’s neighbors. However the same neighbors decide to let the French practice their art of love in all freedom ? besides, how can you prevent them from doing so? ? and make France their favorite destination to take advantage of it. This “tradition” is still alive today.  Le Moulin Rouge and other erotic cabarets, are they not the most appreciated places by the tourists? Why is Paris still today considered he city of lights and the city of love?

Let’s take another example. In her book,  Regards sur les Françaises  [A Look at French Women], Michèle Sarde explains that, according to her research on prostitutes, the ones who do best are the French women ; they are worth twice the price of a Spanish or a British woman, to such an extent that  prostitutes who want to be successful in their trade take a French name. Paradoxically, France is also the country where women have the reputation to have real power within the family, to be rather independent, even feminists. The foreigners are the first ones to recognize the fact and to admire such empowerment.

It remains that foreigners continue to be chocked. On one side, the Americans are surprised by the type of explicit ads seen on television or displayed in public places; on the other, the Portuguese, for example, envy the French for their systematic utilization of the nude, erotism and sexuality to sell a prepared dish, a new soap or a new automobile. Thus the attitude of the French toward love remains both shocking and awfully appealing.

Le statut de la femme en France aujourd'hui
L'égalité politique pour les femmes (Gisèle Halimi)
L'amour à la française or Are the French Obsessed with Love?
A Note on Pornography

Note:  A propos de cinéma en général, c’est une lapalissade que de dire que, quel que soit le genre, western, musical, drame ou comédie, l’intrigue est d’abord et toujours une romance entre les sexes. Vous connaissez peut-être le mot de Truffaut, qui semble être d’inspiration hugolienne. Je pense au trimètre romantique  du “grand vieux” comme le surnommait Flaubert: “Chair de la femme, argile idéale, ô merveille!”  Cet autre homme qui aimait les femmes et le cinéma écrira quant à lui: “Tristesse sans fin des films sans femmes.”  Ou bien, pensez, par exemple, au cinéma de Marguerite Duras, hanté par la relation homme-femme, par l’amour fou; Duras qui a écrit et réécrit la même histoire d’amour impossible d’Hiroshima mon amour à L’Amant, ou L’Amant de la Chine du Nord, scénario  puis “livre [qui] “aurait pu s’intituler, dit-elle, “L’Amour dans la rue” ou “Le Roman de l’amant” ou “L’Amant recommencé.”

= Talking about cinema in general, it's a truism to say that, no matter the classification, be it a western, musical, drama or comedy, first and foremost the plot is always a romance between the sexes. Truffaut has this comment, which perhaps is of Hugolian inspiration (Hugo wrote: "Chair de la femme, argile idéale, ô merveille!"): "Tristesse sans fin des films sans femmes", which, perhaps could be rendered in English as:  "Infinite sadness of movies without women" ... We can think also of the French novelist Marguerite Duras and her films, haunted by  man-woman relationship , and so-called "amour fou", literally crazy, excessive love.

La nouvelle Marianne fait de la télé
    La populaire animatrice de télévision Évelyne Thomas a été choisie pour incarner la France, en prêtant ses traits à l'effigie de Marianne, symbole de la République française. À 38 ans, cette femme brune et souriante, rendue célèbre par son émission de télévision "C'est mon choix", déloge donc l'ancienne Marianne, la mannequin Laetitia Casta, dans les 38.000 mairies de l'Hexagone.  Elle a été nommée par un jury spécialisé pour ses "qualités républicaines", sa "personnalité" et son "dynamisme".  (Source: Journal Français, Décembre 2003).
    Marianne has been the anonymous female image of France since the revolution, when a replacement was needed for the toppled crown. She has been at different times bare-breasted warrior and virtuous mother-figure, and since the 1960s a succession of celebrities including Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve have supplied the features.

Depardieu restaurateur
    L'acteur Gérard Depardieu, qui s'était déjà diversifié dans les vins en devenant propriétaire de plusieurs vignobles, vient d'ouvrir avec sa compagne Carole Bouquet son premier restaurant à Paris, "La Fontaine Gaillon", dans le quartier de la Bourse.  La carte propose bon nombre de spécialités de cuisine française traditionnelle, reflétant  le goût de l'acteur pour la gastronomie "élaborée" avec les bons produits du terroir.

Sur la contradiction existentielle du corps de la femme:  voilé, secret, mythologique d’un côté, nu, exploité par la publicité, sexe-objet de l’autre. according to Agnès Varda,  = veiled, mythologic on one side, sex-object and exploited by publicity on the other.

Video clips :
A. From woman-icon to woman-object

0.1  Les enfants du Paradis / Children of Paradise - A Film of Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert
    Children of Paradise, a 1945-classic, made by Marcel Carné with a script by poet Jacques Prévert, is one of the most beautiful love stories ever shown on film, with the help of three famous actors:  Jean-Louis Barrault, in the role of Baptiste, the mime Debureau,  Arletty in the role of Garance, and Nathalie, the ever faithful wife, who loves Baptiste, her dreamer of a husband.  It’s a story of impossible love, opposing the woman-icon, the goddess-like Garance, to the mother-with-child, represented by Nathalie.  Sign of the times (1945), you will notice the discretion of the camera filming chaste lovers.  For example, when Garance, who is soaked by rain, starts to undress in front of Baptiste, she tells him : “Tournez-vous si ça vous gêne” (“Turn around if it bothers you”), which he does. In that famous scene, you’ll see how she drapes herself with the print bedcover, as if it were a sari, similar to a living tableau copied from Ingres's The Odalisque [Odalisque is a word of Turkish origin meaning a femal slave or concubine in a harem.]   This is a perfect illustration of a woman's transformation into an icon, i.e.  a sacred image that inspires awe and fascination.  Listen to Baptiste's exclamation:  “Comme vous êtes belle!”  (with its formal "vous") - Not “How desirable!”, not  “How sexy!”, but “How beautiful you are!”.
    Since this is also a “moral” film, in the second clip of Children of Paradise,several years later, after Garance and Baptiste have spent the night together (a love-scene we are not privileged to view),  Nathalie, after knocking in vain at the door, enters the hotel room and finds her husband with "the other woman”. She confronts Garance, who leaves, pursued by Baptiste.  But he cannot reach her because of the carnival crowd, among whom are mocking figures dressed as Pierrots (clowns).
    For a detailed analysis of the film, see: Edward Baron Turk, Child of Paradise, Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema, Harvard University Press, 1989.

0.2  Lola Montès
    This second film is also a classic, Lola Montès(1955), made by Max Ophüls, a German who had found refuge in France during the war. The film was made in French, English and German.  Ophüls was already convinced that cinema made a voyeur of everyone.  Ophüls said in an interview with François Truffaut: “We must kill publicity . . . I find it dreadful, this vice of wanting to know  everything, this irreverence in the face of mystery.  It is on this theme, continues Ophüls, that I have buit my film:  the annihilation of the personality through the cruelty and indecency of shows based on scandal.  He chose to represent the life and many loves of the most scandalous woman of all time, Maria Dolorès Porriz y Montez,  countess of Lansfeld, called Lola Montès, [the Spanish-Irish cabaret dancer, who became the mistress of Franz Listz and Ludwig I, King of Bavaria. Her political influence provoked the insurrection of February 1848 in Bavaria and abdication of the king.  She died in New York in 1861].  He gave the role to Martine Carol, France’s foremost sex goddess, then at the pinnacle of her career.  Among the stars in the cast were the flamboyant Peter Ustinov, as Monsieur Loyal, and Oskar Werner, the  German student, (who plays the role of Jim with Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim, another classic of Louis Malle)
    All aspects of the film’s technique attempt to subvert the spectator’s voyeuristic gaze and turn it back on itself.  The framing device of the mamoth circus  (set in New Orleans in 1880 ) serves to distance the spectator from the events of Lola’s life presented in flashback.  Lola, confined in a cage, is introduced by the ringmaster, shouting “Lola, combien d’amants?” (how many lovers?)  and paraded as a beast more dangerous than any found in the circus ménagerie.  Her entrance is preceded by a parade of clowns representing a caricature of a parade of her lovers.  Even the  stiffness, (the “woodenness”) of Martine Carol’s performance  -- when you compare her to feline Brigitte Bardot -- is turned to advantage.  Lola is treated as an object, a beautiful but hollow doll, an empty manikin, to be invested with the fantasies of the men who possess her.
    Pay attention to the circular tracking shot which opens the film and the camera’s plunge which duplicates Lola’s own plunge at the climax of her performance, and,  at the end, watch the final track back revealing the line of men queuing up to pay for a brush with immortality at Lola’s hand.

0.3 Manon of the Spring, Monsieur Hire, etc.
     The two next clips from Manon of the Spring (1986)  and Monsieur Hire (1989) are a perfect illustration, among many, of voyeurism, male gaze and woman object.  Both were directed by men, Claude Berri for Manon and Patrice Leconte for Mr Hire and  both were great commercial successes. These examples show admirably how popular cinema is characterized by obsession and the “objectification” of women on the screen.  Both employed talented actresses: Emmanuelle Béart as Manon and Sandrine Bonnaire  (Vagabond) as Alice in Mr Hire. While lovely to look at, Emmanuelle Béart is given very little to do in Marcel Pagnol’s story turned into film by Berri, besides playing the object of desire of Ugolin, a nature-loving, harmonica-playing nymph.

B. From Sex-object to Sexual Liberation

An Important Note: It is as sex-symbols that women actresses gained a relative ascendency over their male counterparts for the first time in France’s film historySee Bardot1Bardot2"To every boy growing up in the Fifties she was the ultimate sex fantasy; to the French Jehovah's Witnesses she was eternally damned." (Anthony Slide, Fifty Classic French Films, 1912-1982).

04.  And God Created Woman / Et Dieu créa la femme - 1956. A Film of Roger Vadim
Dir.: Roger Vadim, Sc: R. Vadim.  Cinematography, Armand Thirard. Music: Paul Misraki. Pr.: Raoul Lévy.
      Saint-Tropez 1956, la naissance et l'affirmation d'une liberté.
Entre le village d'hier (les frères Tardieu, qui entretiennent les bateaux des pêcheurs) et le Saint-Trop' de demain (Eric Carradine, le financier étranger), Juliette l'orpheline invente et impose une autonomie solaire et provocante. La jeunesse et la beauté comme promesses de bonheur.  <>
    "Ce qui est beau dans ce film pourtant modeste, c'est que les personnages du film sont comme le public : ils découvrent, soudain interloqués, que la starlette tropézienne et dévergondée a non seulement les moyens de les séduire (parce qu'elle est belle) mais aussi ceux de les faire sonner creux (parce qu'elle est star). Sa soif d'absolu relativise les parades viriles des petits mâles qui se sont trop vite crus dans un film sexy. Le film qui avait commencé sur un ton quasi champêtre bascule soudain vers l'inconnu."  Serge Daney, Libération, 10 novembre 1988
        Saint-Tropez. The 18-year old Juliette (Brigitte Bardot is actually 23), is a young woman of provoking beauty. In love with Antoine Tardieu, she marries his brother Michel out of spite and then  (during one “beach- stand”) she becomes Antoine’s mistress. When Michel discovers it [his own mother told him!], a violent fight breaks out between the two; Michel is the winner. Then, crazy with rage [and his brother’s revolver], he finds Juliette dancing the mambo in a night club.[famous scene].  He slaps her violently. Juliette understands his love for her and accepts to follow him home, after she has assured him she will remain faithful.
        The sociological importance of this film outweighs its artistic significance. The film’s liberal sexual attitude, which presented Bardot’sexual appetites as healthy, not immoral, marked an important step in the liberation of woman’s sexuality on screen and, possibly, off screen as well. Bardot’s sensual power is revealed to the fullest, as she renders mad, not only the men in the film, but also the men in the audience.  She was married to Vadim when the movie was made; it was his first feature. This was the film that made Bardot a sex symbol and a mythic character of the Riviera.”  The film was an enormous success, albeit a scandalous one. Many claimed that it had a youthful and lively quality that long had been missing in French cinema, and called it the first film of the New Wave.

0.5 The Lovers / Les Amants - 1958. A Film of Louis Malle
Dir. Louis Malle. Sc.: Louis Malle ; Ph.:  Henri Decae ; Réalisation:  Irénée Leriche ; Int.: Jeanne Moreau, Alain Cuny, José-Luis de Villalonga, Jean-Marc Bory, Judith Magre.
     A landmark of both French cinema and screen eroticim, The Lovers stars Jeanne Moreau as a fashion-dominated provincial wife whose shallow life changes overnight when she encounters an unpretentious young man. The film’s guiltless treatment of adultery and its unmistakable evocation of sexuality caused a storm of protest and censorship when it was first released. Today its tender eroticism and genuine feeling for passion are a welcome relief.
     The Loversmost memorable moments come during a protracted bout of love-making in a moonlit garden. Henri Decae’s magical photography and Brahms’ Second Quartet create an atmosphere of luminous romanticism.
     A major public success, based on scandal. The embraces, the love scenes, though precise, are yet discreet. Since then we have seen much more. This film has aged considerably but remains a milestone in sexual liberation.  --- The French just said  "libération des moeurs" (mores),  but everyone understood sexual liberation --   Yet it is a film to appreciate for the beauty of its images and the elegance of the camera caressing the lovers
    Ils partaient pour un long voyage                                They set off on a long  journey
dont ils connaissaient les incertitudes.                                aware of its uncertainty.
Ils ne savaient pas s’ils retrouveraient le bonheur          They might not recapture the happiness
         de leur première nuit.                                                             of their first night.
Déjà, à l’heure dangereuse du petit matin,                         Already, at the dangerous hour of dawn,
      Jeanne avait douté d’elle . . .                                                Jeanne had doubts  . . .
Elle avait peur, mais elle ne regrettait rien. . .               She was afraid, but regretted nothing. . .

More on Moreau

In summary
• The first sex symbol à la française is not Brigitte Bardot. She was born a few years earlier in a film by Richard Pottier, titled Caroline chérie  (1950), whose star was Martine Carol (the Martine Carol who plays the “wooden” Lola Montès  in Ophüls’s film and who unveils or rather veils her nudity behind a veil of mousseline.
• Then came Brigitte Bardot, BB (bébé):  the icon of French female sexuality,  who influenced the walk and the look of a generation of female adolescents. In cinematic terms, BB was France’s greatest cultural asset able to compete with America’s new-style sex-symbols.
• In addition, in the 1950's, there was a move toward a more explicit eroticism of the female body  (Caroline chérie with Martine Carol is perhaps the most explicit example).  Arletty  in the role of Garance and Martine Carol in the role of Lola are not the same women as the Jeanne Moreau of Louis Malle’s Lovers or And God created Woman with Brigitte Bardot.  Arletty, for example, was a representative of the working class, so is Brigitte Bardot, whereas Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle’s film is from the high bourgeoisie (like Louis Malle himself).
 • Before  Louis Malle’s Lovers or Vadim’s And God Created Woman, eroticism came down to hints of sexual promise and intimacy.  Women are “unattainable” --  but, mysteriously,  women “gave” themselves to the hero - but only for one night -   A perfect example of this is Garance, who enjoys with Baptiste “the fullness of love”, but  for one short night. Yet, the representation of woman in the 1950's still painted her misogynistically. When she is not the respectable woman like Nathalie in Children of Paradise, she is either fallen, adulterous, ensnaring or scheming. Stereotyping French cinema, on could say that the woman is either sentimental or licentious, lacking sexual restraint. The “perfect”, I should say, the most cruel example of an adulterous woman on display is that of Lola Montès, whose sexuality is narrated upon by the ringmaster of a circus as she sits cooped up in a cage in the circus ring.
•Female sexuality comes more potently to the fore in the 1950s and its representation reaches its apogée, its top performance, in Roger Vadim’s film:  Et Dieu créa la femme / And God Created Woman . . . But the Devil created Brigitte Bardot, added the publicity, renamed by some feminists as  Et l’homme créa la salope / And man created the slut.

 Video clips: Brigitte Bardot (A&E Interview) and Jeanne Moreau (An Interview with Mike Wallace on 60 minutes)
 Interview of Catherine Deneuve with Larry King on CNN

 Film 1 - A Girl On the Bridge (La fille sur le pont) - 1999 - A film by Patrice Leconte

One chilly night, on a Paris bridge, a girl leans out over the Seine with tears in her eyes, contemplating the icy waters below. Suddenly, a stranger with a penetrating gaze emerges out of the darkness, a man who will change her life. It is Gabor, a once brilliant but now fading performer in need of a partner. He has set his sights on this luckless but oddly alluring girl, Adèle, a girl with nowhere to go who is shifting nervously on the edge of a decision. In his 18th film, an erotic fairy tale about luck and love, director Patrice Leconte again astonishes.

Girl On the Bridge is part romantic comedy, part road movie that moves along with the exuberance and suspense of an action thriller. A hypnotic modern fairy tale old against a romantic and oddball whirlwind tour of Europe, the film received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film as well as eight César Award  nominations (including Best French Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Writing).

Daniel Auteuil earned the César for Best Actor for the film. Gabor (César winner Daniel Auteuil) is a circus performer with unusual telepathic talents. Now
half of a knife-throwing act, he needs a willing target who, preferably, does not care too much about life as it is dangerous work. He finds all that he is searching for-and more-in Adèle (César winner Vanessa Paradis), the dispirited young girl he recruits after their chance encounter on the bridge. Quickly transformed from a wounded doe into a glamorous Cinderella, Adèle is whisked away to Monaco by her new svengali. Though sternfaced Gabor is falling hard for his lovely Pygmalion, he never touches her?

A situation that generates ample sexual tension between them as their knife-throwing routines gain a thrilling urgency and sensuality. Plunged into a strange,
telepathic symbiosis, they perform to audiences from Paris to the Peloponnese leaving them mesmorized. But like a dollar bill that has been torn in half, Gabor presents Adèle with half a dollar bill they then discover that each of them is worthless without the other.

Ultimately, these two halves of a whole must rely on their mystical connection to overcome the circumstances that conspire to keep them apart. Taking us from sumptuous Mediterranean locales to an exotic, Fellini-esque carnival sideshow, Girl on the Bridge is a charming, chaotic, unforgettable ride through the tunnel of love.


"Shot in sumptuous black and white, replete with dizzy, swooping camera effects and gorgeous shots of Paris, Monaco, Athens and Istanbul, [the film] is like a
pocket anthology of your favorite foreign movies ... a meticulous cut-and-paste collage of a half-dozen half-remembered, dreamed-up movies by Godard, Truffaut and,
above all, Fellini." A.O. Scott, The NYT

"Perilously close to perfection! Great entertainment. Fearlessly original, wildly funny and subversively erotic. One of the Telluride Film Festival's flat-out triumphs. A
fearlessly original, wildly funny fairy tale. Absurdist in tone and subversively erotic ? each fling of the knife carries a sexual charge ? it sustains a pace usually
reserved for mindless action thrillers, yet appeals to the mind with a cinematic wit that is sharpened by stunning black-and-white photography and brilliant editing.
A sensation!"   Joe Morgenstern, WALL STREET JOURNAL

"Whimsical, sexy, and smarter than your average romantic fare."  Deanna Kizis, ELLE MAGAZINE

"Three and a half (out of four) stars! Stunning. Original. Vanessa Paradis has the aura of film legends: Jeanne Moreau's eyes, Marilyn Monroe's voice and Jean
Seberg's boyish bob. Vanessa Paradis takes on the allure of a mythical star. Erotically charged. Exotic?powerful. Alluring and funny."  Geneviève Royer, MONTREAL

"Erotic. French director Patrice Leconte has emerged as one of the leading lights of French cinema. In the energetic and irrepressible Girl on the Bridge, Patrice
Leconte works with brilliant and ubiquitous French actor Daniel Auteuil and actress Vanessa Paradis. Patrice Leconte makes a stylish, passionate attempt to reinvent
a genre: romantic comedy."  Robert Denerstein, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

"A wonderfully sensual romance."  -Bruce Kirkland, TORONTO SUN

"This unexpectedly intense black-and-white French romance about faith and our ability to save one another was the hit of the Telluride Film Festival."   Warren

"Hits the bull's-eye. An unconventional love story that toys with the conventions of movie romance while careening ahead with the suspense and verve of an action
thriller. A charming comedy. The sexual subtext of the knife-throwing sequences is right up there with the hormone-charged gluttony in Tom Jones. Big, bold
musical contributions range from Benny Goodman to Marianne Faithfull, and from Brenda Lee's 'I'm Sorry' to the infectious North African rhythms that gave The
Hairdressers Husband much of its haunting edge."  - Lisa Nesselson, VARIETY

"Girl on the Bridge may earn Vanessa Paradis a place in that shapely line of French actresses - Signoret, Bardot, Deneuve -who have encouraged Americans to feel
oh-so-very Continental about sex." - Joseph Hooper, MEN'S JOURNAL.


Adèle: Et bien parce que c'est toujours comme ça avec moi : ça commence mal et ça finit encore plus mal. Je tombe jamais sur le bon numéro.

Adèle: Et bin la poisse, ça s'explique pas, hein... C'est comme l'oreille musicale, si vous voulez, on l'a ou on l'a pa

Adèle: Vous savez les papiers collants qui attirent les mouches en spirale ? Mais c'est moi craché. Les histoires moches, il n'y en a pas une qui me passe à côté. Faut croire qu'il y a des gens comme ça qui font aspirateur pour soulager un peu les autres. Je tombe jamais sur le bon numéro. Tout ce que j'essaye, ça rate. Tout ce que je touche, ça se transforme en vacherie.

Adèle: Peut-être que j'ai jamais mérité mieux ? Ca doit être écrit quelque part, j'sais pas où. Y en a qui sont fait pour vivre en rigolant, moi j'ai jamais passé un seul jour de ma vie sans me faire avoir.

Gabor: Vous avez l'air d'une fille qui va faire une connerie.

Gabor: Vous en mettez ?
Adèle: De quoi ?
Gabor: Non, mais à votre avis, quand vous vous en fermez aux chiottes avec le premier venu, en général, vous mettez quoi ? Des boules Quiès ? Un protège-dents ?
Adèle: C'est pas le premier venu. C'est... Il fait de la tachycardie
Gabor: Et alors ?
Adèle: Bin alors... il a le coeur qui bat trop vite. Et moi aussi des fois. J'avais besoin, j'avais envie que quelqu'un me prenne dans ces bras. J'avais besoin d'un petit peu de douceur, et puis bon euh, je me suis peut-être un petit peu emballé, j'ai pas réfléchi.
Voyageur: Moi, non plus. On n'a pas réfléchi.
Gabor: Ah, bin comme quoi, vous étiez fait l'un pour l'autre. A vous deux, vous êtes à l'abri de la congestion cérébrale. Hein, ça...
Adèle: C'est de ma faute. Je sais bien que c'est pas une solution. Ca fait que colmater les brèches.
Voyageur: Mais quelles brèches ?
Gabor: Ben les siennes. Vous voyez bien qu'elle est fêlée de partout. Non. Non, non, ça ira, merci. Vous pouvez aller colmater ailleurs.

Gabor: Qu'est-ce qu'il y a, il vous plaît ? Si vous voulez faire connaissance, les chiottes sont sur votre droite.
Adèle: On me sourit, je suis polie.
Gabor: Ah, mais j'ai bien peur qu'avec vous, la politesse finisse toujours au fin fond d'un plumard, hein.
Adèle: Non, mais évidemment, si vous voyez le mal partout...
Gabor: Non, non, non, pas partout, non.

One film review

Director Patrice Leconte introduces us to Vanessa Paradis at the very start, intercutting shots of her lively face between the main titles. It is an irresistible face: expressive, open, fine-boned, and carrying a gap-toothed smile - the flaw that renders the whole totally disarming. Paradis plays Adèle, who believes that "making love is life," but hasn't yet learned the difference between making love and having sex. Adèle suffers from low self-esteem ("My ideas are always bad.") and has sex with almost any man who offers her attention. She is invariably disappointed and is discouraged to the point of leaping off of a bridge. Before she does, a stranger approaches, Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), who tries to talk her out of jumping. "Burned out women are my stock in trade," he tells her, "Trust  me, I'll make you somebody who laughs and takes life with ease."

Leconte tells the story of their love, framing it as a fable, exploring the nature of intimacy and passion. Gabor is a knife thrower and Adèle becomes his target, restoring his fading career in the circuit of circuses, casinos, and cruise ships. The stakes grow higher as dangers are added to the act - Adele covered with a sheet, Adèle spinning on a wheel, Gabor with eyes closed. And as the stakes grow higher, their passion becomes ever more intense; it is the intimacy of danger, vulnerability, and trust that charges the crackling electricity between them. They don't have sex (and Adèle's eye keeps roving), but in performing their act they find a profoundly sensual connection; that intimacy is as sexual as if their bodies were connected as one.

After each performance, Gabor gently bandages Adèle's scratches - Leconte's metaphor for the wounds that intimacy inevitably brings, but wounds that are  tended to by the caring lover, wounds that will heal.

Leconte intertwines themes about luck with the exploration of intimacy. "Luck takes willpower effort," Gabor insists, and at another point, "You don't take it, you make it."  Easy for him to say, perhaps, because Gabor is clairvoyant and telepathic. Suspicious casinos have banned him from the tables, but now Adèle acts as his surrogate. Together they prosper as they tour the European circuit. Gabor carries his tests of luck to dangerous extremes - he turns off the headlights of the car as they drive on a dark night. "Learn to lose or you'll take winning for granted," he cautions. In beautifully composed black and white, Leconte follows the fortunes of Adèle and Gabor, each experience, each advance of the plot adding a twist o an insight into the connections between love and luck and destiny. Paradis is a marvel of natural charm, but it is the confluence of her performance and Auteuil's that is genuinely remarkable. In contrast with Paradis’s charmingly transparent openness, Auteuil's Gabor is at unfold, his vulnerability subtly emerges and the balance in the relationship becomes more complex.

With serious themes that might have resulted in a ponderous scenario, Leconte bouys the proceedings sustaining a tone of lightness. There is abundant wit and wry humor in the dialogue (screenplay by Serge Frydman). Even as Adèle is poised to leap from the bridge, the music in the background is a cheery cha cha rhythm. Choices of music throughout are surprising and apt, in particular Marianne Faithfull singing "Who Will Take My Dreams Away?" as the knives fly and the passion ignites.

While its Felliniesque touches inevitably evoke comparisons, Girl on the Bridge stands as a uniquely original and superbly accomplished work in its own right, surely one of the finest films released in the U.S. this year. - © Arthur Lazere

Another Review

It's ironic that a motion picture designed as mainstream, commercial entertainment in France will be viewed as an art house film during its American run. The movie in question is Patrice Leconte's The Girl On the Bridge, which made more than $20 million during its theatrical run in its native country (an astounding box office tally). However, because it is in black-and-white and has subtitles, the film has been acquired for U.S. distribution by Paramount's foreign and independent division, Paramount Classics, and will play primarily to upscale audiences who aren't intimidated by the  experience of reading while watching a movie.

The Girl On the Bridge follows standard romantic comedy guidelines with some interesting variations and rhythms.  There are those who will immediately assume that because the film is French, it must contain deep philosophical musings, but that's not really the case. Leconte, working from a script by Serge Frydman, tickles the underbelly of things like fate and chance, but he never does much with these weighty issues. They are present a plot devices; this is not a deep exploration of the existential aspect of humanity's nature. Instead, it's a quirky love story that appeals more to the emotions thanks to the intellect.

With the exception of a few supporting characters who make brief appearances, this is essentially a two-character movie. Adèle (Vanessa Paradis) is adown-on-her-luck young woman who is convinced that she is afflicted with a Midas Touch in reverse. She's as unlucky in love as she is in life in general. A compulsive sex addict, she sleeps with almost any man she has eye contact with, but she falls in love easily and has had her heart broken on multiple occasions. Eventually, after deciding that things aren't going to get better, she walks out on a bridge crossing the Seine and prepares to jump. That's when she meets Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), who changes the course of her life.

Gabor is a professional knife-thrower, and he offers Adèle an alternative to suicide: become his assistant (aposition which, he insists, might lead to the same end). She agrees, and the two begin a successful partnership.Of course, they fall in love, but neither admits it.Adèle continues her trysts with attractive men, and although she and Gabor never consummate their relationship, they develop a deep psychic bond (they can hold conversations over long distances) and their knife-throwing exhibitions mimic sex in every way possible (except that they're not touching). Best of all, when they're together, they have tremendously good luck. But, when their paths diverge, their fortunesbegin a downward spiral.

The Girl On the Bridge is undoubtedly an artistic endeavor, but it is in no way obscure. The central metaphor - that of knife-throwing standing in for sex is so obvious that it's impossible to miss (if nothing else, Paradis' orgasmic moans give it away). From avisual standpoint, The Girl On the Bridge is beautifully composed. The black-and-white cinematography isstunning. Leconte cleverly intermixes a variety of camera techniques ranging from the hand-held approach of cinéma vérité to the crane and helicopter shots of big studio productions. There are a large number of close-ups, but their placement is carefully chosen. The camera loves Paradis, and it's an experience to see herface gazing down from the big screen (especially sincethe movie was made in wide-screen). And Auteuil's features express emotions that his voice and dialogue never betray.

Of the two stars, the 40 year-old Auteuil is by far the better known performer. Next to Gérard Depardieu, he is arguably France's most recognizable leading man, having appeared in dozens of movies, many of which have received international distribution. His subtle, effective work in The Girl On the Bridge won him a César Award for Best Actor (his fifth nomination and second victory). Paradis, on the other hand, is not an established thespian. Her fame - and she is known world-wide - comes primarily from her singing career.  Acting is a new field, but she acquits herself admirably, and it doesn't hurt that she has the kind of natural charisma that can camouflage a host of minor flaws. Like her co-star, she received a César nomination for her performance here; unlike him, she did not win.

The director, Leconte, has an international reputation.  He is best known for a trio of features: Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser's Husband, and Ridicule  [and more recently The Widow of St. Pierre.The Girl On  the Bridge is different from all three, although its closest cousin is The Hairdresser's Husband. Both are romantic fables; however, there is considerably more heft and melodrama in the earlier movie. The Girl On the Bridge is lighter and more humorous. Upon its French release, Leconte was blasted by a number of French critics. His response, which disagreed with the assertion that a commercially successful motion picture could not have artistic merit, touched off the latest brouhaha in French cinema. As much as at any time in the past, the question of art vs. entertainment has become a source off odder for French critics and pundits.

If subtitles were not so feared in the United States, The Girl On the Bridge might become one of the summer's biggest hits - an unpretentious romantic comedy that revels in the exuberance of new love. However, because it is not in English, the movie will never reach a wide American audience. But, for those who aren't scared off by the thought of entertainment in a different language,  a rewarding experience awaits. The Girl On the Bridge is an appealing diversion. © James Berardinelli

Film 2 - Diva - 1981 - A Film by Jean-Jacques Beineix

     A seductive fast-paced romantic thriller, Diva mixes music, comedy, love and murder... Shot on location in Paris, the city’s new high tech, pop art and discor flavors are blended beautifully with its timeless monuments, and the effect is heightened by a haunting, sensuous score. (Based on a novel by Delacorta)  Cast: Wilhelminia Wiggins-Fernandez  (Cynthia);  Frédéric Andrei (Jules); Richard Bohringer (Gorodish), Thuy An Luu (Alba)

    Moitié conte de fées, moitié polar, Diva a connu une réception très mélangée lors de sa sortie en 1981, mais s’est établi depuis comme un film-culte, surtout pour les jeunes. C’est l’histoire de Jules (Frédéric Andréï), un jeune facteur, qui se trouve en possession de deux cassettes. La première est un enregistrement pirate de la Diva afro-américaine, Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhemenia Wiggins Fernandez), faite par Jules lui-même et qui est convoitée par une bande asiatique. L’autre contient la preuve de la corruption d’un policier important, qui est impliqué dans l’univers de la prostitution et de la drogue. Poursuivi des deux côtés, Jules découvrira qu’il est sous la protection d’un bon sorcier, Gorodish (Richard Borhringer) et de la fée Alba (Thuy An Luu).
     = Half fairy-tale, half thriller, Diva enjoyed a mixed reception when the movie came out in 1981, but has become since, especially with the younger generation, a kind of film-culte.  It's the story of Jules, a young mailman, who happens to be in the possession of two audio-cassettes.  The first one is a pirate recording of the Afro-American Diva, Cynthia Hawkins, made by Jules himself, a tape that is coveted by an Asiatic gang. The other one contains the proof of the corruption of an important police officer, who is implicated in a major drugs and prostitution scheme. Pursued from both sides, Jules discovers that he is under the protection of a good sorcerer, Gorodish, and of Alba, the good fairy.
    Abolissant les frontières entre la grande culture et la culture populaire, Beineix crée avec Diva un film qui cultive la qualité de l’image et la vitalité du rythme. La bande son est, elle aussi, remarquable.
    = Erasing the distinction between Culture (with a C) and popular culture, Beineix creates with Diva a film that cultivates the quality of the vitality of the rythm. The soundtrack is also remarkable.

Two recent reviews

    1. Jean-Jacques Beineix's wonderfully stylish thriller was largely responsible for the renaissance of foreign language film in the UK in the early 80s and remains impressive viewing today. The story of Jules (Andrei), an opera-obsessed courier whose bootleg recording of a rare concert by American diva Cynthia Hawkins (Wiggins-Fernandez) is believed to be a tape connecting the chief of police with a Parisian vice ring precipitates a frantic search for its whereabouts by two murderous thugs (Pinon and Gérard Darmon).
    Beineix's début - from the impressively taut novel by Delacorta - is not only stunningly composed (director of photography Philippe Rousselot imbues the film with a seductive neon hue), peppered with thrills like the moped chase on the Metro, it also fair bristles with a sadistic, Dystopian tension in which heroes and villains are readily interchangeable. A hybrid of genres: noir, new-wave, and fairytale romance - "Diva" has the lot yet still manages to wear its composite nature with distinct daring and élan.
    The cast acquit themselves adroitly, with Bohringer's charming existentialist a particular high-point though Pinon's cultured knife-throwing heavy runs him close. Vladimir Cosma's opera-tinged score rounds things off nicely, creating a witty, playful intelligent film as enjoyable as it is influential. A rarity, something from the 80s well worth re-visiting.
    Reviewed by David Wood  - Updated 18 January 2001

    2. Jean-Jacques Beineix's "Diva" reminds me of so many movies that I've seen before. And yet it seems incredibly original. It was the striking debut from Jean-Jacques Beineix, and it seems as though, frustrated by the movies that were being made, he decided to show everyone how to make a perfect thriller. He succeeded.
     At the heart of "Diva" is Jules, a postal delivery man who rides around Paris on his moped and has a love for opera. He attends a concert starring Cynthia Hawkins, a diva (hence the name) who he has an obsession with. He leaves the concert with one of her dresses and a perfect bootleg that he recorded. This makes him the target of Taiwanese bootleggers who want to get their hands on the tape (those Taiwanese bootleggers are a real problem nowadays)
      Meanwhile, a young prostitute carries a tape in her hands that holds a revelation of the most shocking kind. Before being killed, she indiscreetly stuffs it in the bag on Jules's moped. Soon, he is being chased by two nasty-looking thugs. All of this while he tries to meet Cynthia Hawkins to return her dress.
      This movie doesn't have any great philosophical message at its center. It has no redeeming social or moral value. It never presents itself at more than face value, but it is one of the most acclaimed foreign films of the last 30 years for one main reason. It is an incredible joy to watch. 
      Sympathetic characters in an original plot that unfolds in inventive ways is rather hard to do, but Beineix makes it seem so effortless. It is funny, touching, witty, exciting, and tense. It begins with a moment of touching beauty, and it finishes with its many loose ends perfectly resolved. In the middle, we get a subway chase, a very sexy girl named Alba, and gorgeous opera music. What more could you want?
    "Diva" is a glorious movie that simply celebrates the joy of being a movie. It was made by a cinema fan for cinema fans, and takes its place next to "Z" and "The Vanishing" as one of the great foreign thrillers  © 2003 Jeremy Gable

Henry Garrity, Purity and Lust: Women in the Films of Jean-Jacques Beineix. [Part 1]

    At age 40, Jean-Jacques Beineix has made only three films evoking praise, scorn, and stirring controwersy far out of proportion to their number. His reputation was made with Diva, his first film. An international success, Diva has developed a kind of cult following, as popular today among the young as when it premiered six years ago.

    Beineix's second film La lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter) was as great a failure as Diva was a success. Revisionist critics like to say that the film was badly received because the public expected too much and refused to see its merit. Undeniably, some of the images in Moon in the Gutter are among the most arresting in recent filmmaking. No one denies Beineix's eye for the shot. Andrew Sarris while panning the film in the Village Voice is forced to acknowledge the power of the images. More recently, Deineix produced 37º 2 le  matin (Betty Blue) which had great critical and commercial success in France, won as best film of the year at the Montreal Worid Film Festival in 1986 and was nominated by the French Director's guild as France's official entry for Best Foreign Film at the American Academy Awards in 1987, Beineix's second nomination.

    Whatever their reception, Beineix's films are marked by the presence of unforgettable female characters, both in principal and supporting roles. Indeed the women in Beineix's films dominate both the action and men over whom they have almost magical or spiritual power. From the country which brought us auteuriste cinema, can Beinoix escape scrutiny as a new auteur? The force of Beineix's women invites comparison, raising the question whether Beineix's portrayal of women is consistent enough to suggest an auteuriste point of view.

    The soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez's portrayal of the ideal woman dominates the other characters in Diva which is, fundamentally, a modern fairy tale, The soprano Cynthia Hawkins, is worshiped by the innocent young man, the mailman Jules who, although good, is corrupted by his excessive zeal for beauty and sublimated lust, eventually falling victim to the evil forces of the film. These forces are the Chinese record pirates and immoral elements of society represented by the police who traffic in lust through a ring of prostitutes. The counterpoint to the sullied is Jules's apparently pure but ambiguous relationship with the ideal diva. No doubt, she is his goddess, the object of his worship. He has traveled from Paris to Munich on his moped in order to hear her sing in the temple of song, the opera house. But this love is as much eros as agapê. because Jules violates Cynthia in two ways. First, he violates her person by stealing her white concert dress and then her virtue by stealing her voice through an illegal recording, what Film Comments calls "his pianissimo lust."

    The magical power of the diva over her admirer is manifested at the opening of the film as Jules arrives at the Opera and takes his place in the hall. At the moment Cynthia Hawkins enters on stage, the public is silent. In a series of close-up field/reverse field shots, Beineix relates how Jules is emotionally tied to his goddess. The concert becomes a sort of marriage between them, one, however, which will never be consummated except symbolically. The index of Jules' emotional tie is the aria from La Wally  sang by Cynthia at the concert and repeated throughout the film.

    The magical and sexual powers of women are portrayed as well in the secondary roles. Most importantly, there is the character of Alba, the young Vietnamese who is a sorcerer's apprentice. She is the companion of the guru-wizard-puzzle-and-problem-solver, Gorodich, who saves the day in the last reel. But as a magician in her own right, Alba works her own wonders. When first we meet her in a record store, she makes the record album she is stealing disappear in her portfolio, blinding the shop's proprietor with the magical dust of her own nude photographs.

    It is not unimportant that Jules admires her for her feat of légerdemain. The two are united by crime. Later in the film, when Alba is invited to share Jules’s theft by listening to his secret recording of Cynthia's voice, Alba marks the event by producing a Rolex watch which she has stolen. When, later in the film, Jules is wounded by murderous gangsters, Alba blessed also with healing powers cures him with apples by rubbing them against her person.

    There is a third woman in Diva who represents the sexual power. She is the black prostitute, Nadia, with whom Jules consummates symbolically his lust for Cynthia. The prostitute even wears Cynthia's white concert/wedding dress which Jules has brought with him to arouse his desires. It is the ironic twist of the plot that the black prostitute with whom Jules chooses to replicate Cynthia Hawkins also works for the bosses of the prostitution ring who are out to get Jules. Nadia fingers Jules, who then must flee pursued by the evil elements of the police.
[Garrity does not say anything about the fourth woman, Paula, the policewoman, "who is made to look particularly intelligent by juxtaposition with her self-obsessed and sexist partner, Zatopeck, cf. Diva's Deluxe Disasters by Phil Powrie].
    Women in Beineix's films are icons for worship, ideals of beauty, objects of lust, but they are also dangerous as Nadia proves. Through her threat to expose the crime ring, Nadia is the prime mover of this plot. Her escape from a mental institution where she has been placed to keep her from telling what she knews about the police's involvement in the prostitution ring frightens the ringleaders who have her murdered.

Diva's Deluxe Disasters

By Phil Powrie

Diva was one of the most popular films of the 1980s, both inside and outside France. It seemed to mark a break in French cinema where the film image was concerned. Fredric Jameson, in an essay first published in in 1982 called Diva  the first French postmodernist film, dissecting its combination of the old and the new. This chapter [of French Cinema in the 1980s] will be concerned with that combination. After reviewing Jameson's argument, I shall explore what makes Diva 'new' beyond the new type of film image it promotes, which I discussed in the introduction to this section: the pastiche of the polar and an apparently contemporary concern with the status of women. I shall then discuss what makes the film 'old': the status of women, and the neo-Romantic quest. My aim is to develop Jameson's argument and to sketch out an answer to the question at the end of his  essay: is Diva 'regressive or conservative recuperation' or 'a historically original "imaginary solution of real contradiction", which may be explored for Utopian elements and possibilities, including some whole new aesthetic in emergence'.

Jameson's essay usefully delineates various simple binary oppositions: Gorodish is active, whereas Jules is passive; Gorodish is at case in a certain type of postmodern urban space (his loft dotted with isolated fetish objects, the disused hangar), whereas Jules seems overwhelmed by it (his cluttered loft, the metro, the arcade); Gorodish is 'a] new kind of character', the counter-cultural businessman, whereas Jules is a very traditional naïf. And since Diva appeared in the same year as the Mitterrand government [1981], Jameson links all this to an ideological opposition between a post-1960s multinational modernity represented by Gorodish, and a discredited French left populism represented by Jules. Although Jameson does not mention it, the opposition between internationalism and parochialism is clear even in the names of the characters: Gorodish sounds vaguely middle European, whereas Jules, as the diva says to him [about his first name], 'sounds old-fashioned for  a young man'. What also makes Diva  mixture of old and new for Jameson, distinguishing it from an American postmodern film such as de Palma's Blow Out, is that the celebration of the technological does not occur at a surface or formal level, but is integrated within the narrative:

The new-technological content of post-modernism has been recontained, and driven back into the narrative raw material of the work, where it becomes a simple abstract theme: the Diva’s horror of technological reproduction along with the incriminating posthumous testimony on the other tape - these have become 'meanings' inside the work, where analogous material in Blow Out  is scarcely meaningful or thematic anymore at all, generating on the contrary  a whole celebration and 'acting out' of the reproductive process as form and as the production of sounds and images.

This chapter will to some extent take issue with that last comment, as well as amplifying aspects of the oppositions established by Jameson.


The most obvious characteristic of the 'serious' as opposed to comic polar is its gritty realism. As a genre, it is  fundamentally conservative and rooted in "facts" and "truth" rather than  fiction and phantasy'.  In that context, the film stands out. As one reviewer put it: 'Flashy, outré, derisive, modern in every way in which the modern is excessive ... [Beineix] does not simply catalogue, with enthusiastic candour, the most contemporary and transient mythologies: he shows that he is not duped by them.' One aspect of excess is that the polar does not normally have anything to do with opera, for example. Diva also explodes the traditional polar by its play with stereotypes. There is, for example, its atypical hero, who is not the disillusioned, hard-bitten 30-year-old with principles, but an amoral opera-loving youth on, of all derisive things, a moped, whose obsession is not the truth of Law, of Order, the traditional concerns of the polar, but the pursuit of pleasure and perfection, part of youth culture  with its modish lifestyle of lofts and its conspicuous consumerism. As Beineix comments, 'in the classic cinéma policier, there is a certain orthodoxy, and the reason that Diva shocked quite a lot of people is that we were playing with familiar archetypes ... [We] hijack them to reintegrate them into modernity'.

It is the emphatic, indeed overemphatic use of stereotypes which distinguishes the film from other polars. Gorodisb, for example, is unambiguously connoted as the knight errant on his white stallion, in the form of a Citroën traction avant, itself a mythical stereotype, as Gorodish, again unambiguously, tells Saporta: 'the traction avant was a car used both by the police and by gangsters'. Jules is spirited away by Gorodish to what Alba describes as a fairy-tale castle; the manner in which Gorodish deals with the vicious Le Curé who is about to kill Jules is fairy-tale-like: a simple squirt of chemical. In the novel, Jules is shot by the pursuing gangsters, but loses them, phones Gorodish, and takes refuge in the toilets of a chemist's, where Gorodish comes to collect him. The difference between the novel and the film is instructive.  Beineix and his co-writer, Jean Van Hamme, went for maximum dramatic potential (the arcade as a vision of the inferno), and defused the dramatic almost magically by the use of the chemical gas gag, which turns Gorodish into a derisive and ironic mixture of silent comedian and knight in shining armour, both roles made forcefully and unambiguously clear to the spectator.

Unambiguous references of this kind shift the tone of the film into pastiche and irony. There are many ways in which this functions, one of which is intertextuality. The use of the white Citroën is a clear reference to the early Feuillade Fantômas series. The meeting between L'Antillais and Gorodish underneath the pavement is preceded by a direct reference to The Seven-Year Itch (1955) as a woman's dress is lifted by the upflow of hot air. In the informer's death scene, the woman in the old couple is called Garance, recalling Carné's Les Enfants du paradis. The solving of a huge jigsaw puzzle in an echoing room is a direct reference to Welles's Citizen Kane. The point of such intertextual. references is not playfully to explore the filmicity of the film, but rather to engage in sophisticated pastiche and irony, another example of which is the use of polar conventions.

The police in the film not only have a relatively passive, almost comical role to play, in the sense that they mostly react to events instigated by Saporta or Gorodish, they  are also constantly undermined by a complex irony. Zatopeck, the young male detective, is several times ridiculed by Saporta for believing in a stereotypical drugs trafficking ring. The point here is that the ring exists in the narrative, and Saporta is the head of it, but at the same time it is true that it is one of the staple situations of the genre. The police dialogue is conventional, and occasionally comical in its conventionality, as when Zatopeck, in Jules's loft in a traditional, and therefore banal, stake-out scene, remarks, 'c'est pas banal ici'.

The criminals are also parodied. Le Curé's hallmark is that his  dialogue is almost always a statement preceded by 'j'aime pas', [= I hate] more often than not heavily underscored visually  (the crane-grab crushing the car after he expresses his dislike for cars; the bust of Beethoven smashed in a puddle after he expresses his dislike of Beethoven). When he and L'Antillais rough Jules up, they make comments on the desirability of order, comments which spectators cannot help but perceive as anything other than ironic, and doubly so, since order/disorder is precisely the structure on which the polar is predicated; but it is normally the order of bourgeois law which is re-established, whereas, in the scene mentioned, it is the criminals complaining about the disorder introduced into their world by Jules and the audio-cassette. And at the same time as they claim the need for order, they are paradoxically causing further disorder in the already ransacked flat.

Irony, pastiche, derision, fantasy, the privileging of stereotype over narrative cohesion: these are all ways in which Diva might be said to break the mould of the polar. It also seems to suggest a relative freedom from the traditional female stereotyping, and thus to vehicle an awareness of the changing political and social conditions for women.


Women have many and various roles in the film, and the principal role, that of the diva herself, shows not simply a strong, independent woman, but one who is black and whose role is non racial; with the exception of an implausible sequence where she is called 'the queen of Africa' by the black street-seller. [...] Moreover, her ethnicity is paralleled by the woman in the other major couple, Alba, Gorodish's Vietnamese companion, is also in appearance independent, with no particular emphasis on  her race. Paula, the policewoman, is made to look particularly intelligent by juxtaposition with her self-obsessed and sexist partner. Nadia, and indeed the diva, have pivotal roles in that their voices are on the two tapes which cause the world of high art and the underworld to meet.

The men, for their part, are 'new men'. Gorodish, most obviously,  is a 'homemaker' and his lethal disposal of the gangsters-squirting a spray into the face of one, tricking the other into stepping into the lift-shaft, is feminine in so far as it suggests tactics conventionally associated with a woman's defenses, not a man's offensive. Jules is typified as a 'weak' man, swooning and sensitive. The utopia of multiculturalism coupled with feminism and the much-hyped 'new man', so apt for the socialist 1980s building on the feminist 1970s, is only an appearance, however. The status of women within the film forms part of a very familiar and regressive ideology, that of women as male fantasies.

In the parallel couples, Gorodish-Alba/Jules-diva, the two women never meet, and their isolation in the face of the remarkable and almost implausible empathy established between the two men is all the more emphasized. The only female solidarity within the film, between prostitutes, also emphasizes that isolation as well as undermining it. The women's isolation serves to highlight their iconicity. This is particularly the case for the diva, given that she is an opera singer. She is frequently in frame alone, even when with  Jules, e.g. in the sequence when he returns her dress. A very revealing sequence in this respect is the walk in Paris, where there is a shot of a statue, with a matching shot on the diva, as impenetrable as the sculpture, while Jules studies her admiringly. The walk is the only occasion she is in the world outside her profession, since at all other times she is isolated in her hotel or on the stage, and yet even here the mise en scène stages the diva by framing her in the Arc de Triomphe, and replacing the noisy bustle of the city by mood music. The diva is therefore an object to be admired, a stereotype of the passive female, since she has things done to her rather than doing anything herself (apart from singing). This is equally true of the othe women in the film, who are, like the diva, at the mercy of men: Jules steals the diva's voice as well as her dress; Gorodish threatens to send Alba back to Vietnam; Saporta has Nadia murdered. The two women who are not killed, Alba and the diva, are both non-white, suggesting very strongly a typical male fantasy of the compliant Eastern woman: Alba gives what she steals to 'her men'; the diva does not seem to mind that Jules has stolen her voice and her dress.

Alba, too, emphasizes her status as object by pinning photos of herself in Gorodish's flat. She too is frequently framed in windows or, for example in Gorodish's flat and in the castle, in mirrors. She corresponds to the male fantasy of the Lolita figure, or the child prostitute, a paradox neatly encapsulated in the sequence when she plays hopscotch on the painting of the naked woman on Jules's floor. Indeed, the parallel couples have age differences in common, so that together they suggest an atomized family: Gorodish as (God) the Father, all-knowing and all-powerful, with Alba as his daughter (the exact nature of their relationship is never clarified) on the one hand, with the diva as a mother-figure, the Black Virgin by her insistence on the purity of voice, and Jules as her adoring son  (again, there is ambiguity as to whether they make love, although it is clear that Jules has sexual feelings for the diva, since he asks the prostitute to wear the diva's dress when they make love).

The film is far too sophisticated not to show some awareness of these undertones, clearly inscribing within its images a critique of the male gaze. The diva is seen reflected in the Taiwanese businessmen's sunglasses in the opening scene at the Opera, an all too obvious comment on the proprietary gaze of the male; and Alba, in the record-shop sequence, is obliged to show photographs of herself naked, ironically commenting 'can I get dressed now?' to the cashier who has accused her of stealing. Nevertheless, the women are not themselves for men: they are goals, and this is suggested by the play on costume. Alba's skirt in the record-shop sequence has a picture of the Opera on it, and the diva's dress is pure white. What these aspects of costume suggest is that Alba 'is' the city, and the diva 'Is' purity, both of which the two men wish to control and/or acquire.


The second aspect of the 'old' is connected with the status of women in the film, more specifically with the notion of purity just mentioned. The film articulates very traditional and conservative concerns with Beauty in its most abstract aesthetic sense. Diva's postmodernism incorporates a reaction against the modern. The choice of an iconic décor such as the loft, or of images which can be identified as advertising clichés, is, in this argument, explained by the  need to use a contemporary image to vehicle the real concern of the film which is the revaluation of art, as is illustrated by Jules's mania for one of its supposedly higher forms, classical music. Beineix talks of his aim as 'cinéma poétique total', of retrieving what a previous film style bad evacuated, the notion of the beautiful and colour:

Advertising has never invented anything except what artists have invented. On the other hand, it has been able to capture, inflect, parody, imitate. It appropriated the Beautiful  which the cinema of the New Wave had rejected,  which makes certain ignorant critics say that beautiful equals  advertising. It kidnapped colour, which the cinema no longer violated, so preoccupied was it with being true to life, which makes certain cretinous critics say that colour equals advertising. It dispensed with stories, which the narrative cinema was unable to do without, so some stupid critics are saying that a film without a story equals  advertising. Finally ... it generally captivated young people, whose aspirations the ageing cinema no longer translated, so that some old critics who are only interested in what's dead and gone, or those who are dead and gone are saying that youth cinema equals advertising. (Parent 1989)
The yearning for a transcendent truth, a pure art, is clearly part of Diva's discourse, as Beineix himself points out. When talking about his adaptation of the
novel, he pronounced himself. Pleased with the dialogue, saying that 'there is a discourse on art, on commerce and on the commerce of art of which retrospectively I am quite proud' (Parent 1989). Given that the only statement of any import concerning this issue in the film is the diva's short outburst at her press conference, 'it is up to commerce to adapt itself to art, and not up to art to adapt itself to commerce', Beineix's statement is more significant for what it aspires to rather than what he has achieved.

To the notion of transcendent Beauty we can add the notion of excess. Beineix comments on modern cinema's abandonment of 'reality', a reality which is 'more and more transcended by colour, the excess of the décor, and by a certain type of playfulness (which is not that of truth). The author does not speak the truth any more, he speaks differently' (Parent 1989: 241). Transcendence and excess are combined in the self-imposed discipline of the film's colour scheme. Beineix stated that 'The basic concept was to make a "blue" film', and that although this in itself was not new, 'our originality lay in our persistence' (Beineix 1981) in the face of all kinds of technical problems. Beineix is striving for transcendence through excess, a neo-Romantic project made more interesting than this definition might suggest by the obsessive repetition of opposites and doubles, which establish the familiar, and very traditional, pattern of the labyrinth through which the hero must travel to reach his goal, which is, in traditional narrative, his identity.


The film promotes a double neo-Romantic hero. Jules describes himself as 'un lyrique', and the description is applied to Gorodish by Alba in the following scene, creating the double hero, both immature/mature, innocent/all-knowing, the first of many doublings. The aim of both men is the use of sensation to achieve purity. This is perhaps less clear in Jules's case, although his fascination with a perfect reproduction of the diva's voice, and  his paranoid fixation on his hi-fi and its reproductive abilities, suggest it. It is clearer in the case of Gorodish. He is absolutely  marginal. Unlike the novel, we know nothing about his past; any connections he may have had with the underworld are implicit, rather than explicit as they are in the novel. Moreover, he is described by Alba as 'un métèque, un rasta', both references to other races to which he does not belong visually. He is not only absolutely marginal, he is supremely elevated above the fracas of the real world, 'in his cool period' as Alba puts it, 'dreaming of stopping the waves'. We later discover that this statement is at  least partly true in that Gorodish is trying to solve a puzzle of a large wave with a small bird at its centre. The bird signifies escape,  as do Susan's jigsaws in Citizen Kane. The shot of the bird taken out of its central position in the jigsaw by the Taiwanese and placed in the centre of a wad of notes suggests the temptation of commercialism and the paradox of an unattainable but threatened purity. This theme is treated more humorously, even ironically, as if the spectator is being told that it is a mirage, in the Zen art of buttering bread sequence.

The point of this sequence is to stress transcendence from banal reality. With a snorkel mask on his face to protect his eyes from onions, Gorodish says:

Some people get high on airplane glue, washing powder, complicated things! Me, my satori, is this!!  zen and the art of buttering bread!!! ... There's no more knife, there's no  more bread ... there's no more butter ... there's only a gesture which is repeated ... a movement ... space ... emptiness!!! (even the over-frequent and unjustified use of exclamation marks in the film script, although presumably unsupervised by Beineix himself, but all the more significant for that, suggests the promotion of excess as an  integral part of the film's discourse)
Gorodish's disquisition could be a motto for the whole film, which takes ordinary everyday objects, and throws them together in an attempt to get them to cancel each other out so that purity, defined as the non-object, or more precisely the non-product, objects untainted by their value as objects of exchange, may transpire. This is why the diva's recorded voice is so precious, and, an even more compelling sign of purity; it has not been used in commercial exchange. Like the jigsaw bird, it is threatened by  commerce, by exchange; indeed, the point is explicitly made by the position of the bird on the wad of notes which is the down payment by the Taiwanese for the recording. If sound is ultimately the greatest purity, it is  because images have been circulated and thus soiled.

Diva is a film about loss and about being lost. The loss is of  innocence, an original purity, associated with sound. Hence the thefts which occur in the film, many of them  associated with sound (cassettes, records), principal among which is the original theft (which the diva calls both theft and rape, 'vol/viol') by the son of his mother's voice at the beginning of the film (in the novel, this does not  occur until we have been introduced to Alba) in an effort to rediscover what has been lost, the sound cast out to an  audience into a performance space. The sound is rediscovered at the end of the film as Jules gives the diva her  purity back again in an empty Opera house, the pure space of performance without the exchange implied by an audience.  Given the central notion of loss, the film is understandably then also about being lost in a motherless world. The final scene between Jules and the diva at the end of the film (is it sexual or not?), with its ambiguous fusion (mother/lover), suggests precisely that the centre of the labyrinth is the return to the mother. The pure sound of the diva/mother-goddess is what comes before language, non-differentiation and symbiosis with the mother.

Diva is a traditional narrative of initiation, a rite of passage through a variety of labyrinths, as Beineix himself suggested: 'It's a film which is a labyrinth, a film which echoes  itself, a film of correspondences and displaced connotations; it's like a puzzle'. The labyrinth is signalled here by the obsessive repetition of confusing double-talk and double-image. Two narratives intertwine, and within those two narratives, images and characters repeat themselves: two lofts, one cluttered, one empty; two Taiwanese (there was only one Japanese in the novel) and two gangsters (Le Curé and L'Antillais); two cassettes which contrast two worlds, that of high art, of the Virgin, and that of the underworld, of the whore; two white Citroëns. These doublings have been discussed by Hagen who points out the insistence on reflections: puddles, chrome headlights, windows, mirrors, glasses, and so on. Whereas he infers from such semiotic structures 'a visual and  aural equivalent for losing oneself in music' (Hagen 1988), in other words a coincidence of form and content, I am suggesting that beneath the modern trappings lies an old and recognizable story: the quest for the holy grail, for the hidden casket/cassette. It is an allegory of transcendence which rejects precisely those elements which it uses to construct itself: the objects taken from the material world, images of products. The material world is a confusing labyrinth of theft and commerce.

The aim of this essay has been to attempt an answer to Jameson's question: is Diva 'regressive or conservative recuperation' or 'a historically original "Imaginary solution of real contradiction", which may be explored for Utopian elements and possibilities, including some whole new aesthetic in emergence' (Jameson 1990). Jameson's own answer is equivocal:

Fortunately the film does not conclude either: the final frightened handclasp, the Diva's surrender to technological reproduction, her consent to Jules's virtually sexless worship of her . . .- all this, freeze-framed for a last instant on the great stage, in theatrical space, then rapidly recedes from us, suspended, into a distance which leaves the future wide open.
In terms of the advertising debate of the 1980s, Diva inaugurates a new film style, which is not so dissimilar to American postmodern films such as Blow Out after all, in that it too, particularly when one thinks of the obsessive blueness of the film, generates 'a whole celebration and "acting out" of the reproductive process as form and as the production of sounds and images' (ibid.). Then there is also the film's playful irony, which spills over into the disabused self-irony typical of postmodernism. As  Beineix has said, 'humour and derision ... are typical of our age. What can we believe in today ?' adding elsewhere that, in Diva, 'modernity is treated derisively'. The combination of obsession with form and derisive self-irony does suggest that we are dealing with a 'historically original' film, which includes 'some whole new aesthetic in emergence'.

On the other hand, the status of women in the film, the film's conservative neo-Romanticism, and its suggestio of a return to the origins suggest 'regressive or conservative recuperation'. Is this not what Jameson is saying, that it is impossible to decide between recuperation and Utopia? that the film in this respect 'leaves the future wide open' [...]

Unlike Jameson, I do not see the ambiguous ending of Diva leaving 'the future wide open'. Everything about the ending suggests paranoid closure: it is, literally, a return to the past. The film ends where it began, in the Opera; at the beginning of the film, Jules stole the diva's voice; here he returns it to her, giving her back what she always had anyway. The closure is, moreover, a fantasy of purity: the voice is untainted by commerce and doubly so, since Jules, by returning the only recording to her, has saved the voice from being commercially reproduced, and the empty stalls mean that the voice is not even tainted by the commerce implied in performance, as was the case at the beginning. The fact that the only listener is the diva herself, who exclaims 'I never heard myself sing' , merely emphasizes the closure. Jules, meanwhile has chosen the oblivion of self-effacement, since what defined his importance during the film was his possession of the voice, which he has now returned. Far from suggesting a wide-open future, the film, with its labyrinth of doubles and repetitions, turns in on itself like a completely spherical mirror, in a kind of enthusiastic sterility, as Jules sinks wanly into his Mother-Goddess's arms.

© Phil Powrie  [excerpted from"Diva's Deluxe Disasters", French Cinema in the 1980s, Oxford, 1997]

Film 3. Betty Blue - 37º 2  le matin.1986. Another Film by Jean-Jacques Beineix


    Zorg is a handyman working at the French Riviera, maintaining and looking after the bungalows. He lives a quiet and peaceful life, working diligently and writing in his spare time. One day Betty walks into his life, a young woman who is as beautiful as she is wild and unpredictable. After a dispute with Zorg's boss they leave and Betty manages to get a job at a restaurant. She persuades Zorg to try and get one of his books published but it is rejected which makes Betty fly into a rage. Suddenly Betty's wild manners starts to get out of control. Zorg sees the woman he loves slowly going insane. Can his love prevail even if it comes to the worst? A tragic love story about Zorg and Betty, who from the moment they met are passionately in love.  When she discovers the manuscripts that he has written, she becomes obsessed not only with him, but with his dream to be a writer. Her obsessions lead to madness, and eventually Zorg does have his novel published, after Zorg resolves himself to “put an end to Betty’s misery.”

    This love story is of an absolutely modern sensibility, but with the tragic proportions of centuries-old dramas.  The aesthetic is the same “super-cool” style Beineix mastered in Diva.  Betty and Zorg have been called examples of the lost youth of the 1980s: intensely passionate with no focus, they end up self-destructing.  Or they can be seen as victims of the wild vicissitudes of art. Even for those who find the love story too melodramatic, Beineix’s film is a visual and musical pleasur, making the tragic end that much harder to bear. André Sarris believed it was “the most explicite erotic” movie ever nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and “not for every taste.” The film opens with a torrid love scene, a long take, tracking-in shot of Betty and Zorg, naked, making love under the smile of a Mona Lisa painting with a voice-over of Zorg saying: “From the moment I knew Betty, we made love every night.”

One Film Review

    “She is neurotically generous. She is neurotically needy. We all know about people like Betty Blue : in movie, though not necessarily in life, they come to a bad end. Indeed, much of the suspense in this high-fevered melodrama resolves around whether that end will arrive sooner ot later, and just how painful it will be.

    Yet one ends up caring about Betty, because Writer-Director J.- J. Beineix keeps coiling the story of her last months tighter and tighter until the tension is unbearable. Also, Béatrice Dalle as Betty and Jean-Hughes Anglade as Zorg, her bewitched and befuddled lover, bring mesmerizing intensity to their work.

    The movie begins under false, bright colors at a beach colony where Zorg is the caretaker, and glad enough to have an attractive girl come into his life. The sex here is very naked and bluntly erotic - a few minutes of careless sex unmediated by commitment or guilt. For a while the movie seems like another study of love along what is left of the hippy margin. But no, it moves toward ever darker, more claustrophobic interiors as Betty realizes that the lackadaisical Zorg cannot absorb all of her energies.  She discovers that he once wrote, and abandoned, a novel.  She will type out the manuscript and get the masterpiece off to publishers. When the rejections pile up, she focuses her hopes on motherhood. When her pregnancy proves to be false, the only place to turn is inward, toward self-destruction. It is a fine irony that  Zorg achieves a passion to answer hers only when he must help her complete her botched suicide.

    In 1982, Beineix attracted 15 minutes of over attention with his emptily stylish Diva. A year later he stubbed his ego on the contumely of critics when his next film, The Moon in the Gutter, was hooted out of the Cannes Film Festival. Both films were arias of adolescent male obsession with the fatal mystery of womanhood, a theme that Betty Blue investigates more maturely, more dangerously. There is doubtless a feminist parable to be found here, and criticism to be made of its too schematic structure.  But the film is full of quirky incident and compassionate humor. What might have repelled ultimately compels.”  R.S.

Synopse du film en français
    “Zorg ne demande rien à personne, lorsque Betty débarque dans sa vie. Ils s’aiment avec passion.  Elle découvre des manuscrits qu’ils tenaient cachés et elle est persuadée qu’il est un grand écrivain.  Mais les éditeurs répondent par la négative lorsqu’elle veut le faire publier. Elle commence à avoir un comportement excessif. Après avoir travaillé dans la pizzeria d’un ami, ils partent tenir un magasin de pianos en province. Betty sombre de plus en plus dans la déprime. Hospitalisée, elle se crève un oeil. Zorg abrège ses souffrances.  Son souvenir lui redonne la force d’écrire.
    Un film de décors, de couleurs, d’artifices où, visiblement, Jean-Jacques Beineix manie sa caméra avec bonheur.  Il donne souvent l’impression de filmer le vide avec talent. Et pourtant ses personnages existent, entre dérive et folie, enfants perdus de notre génération, interprétés avec une grande présence physique par deux excellents comédiens. Un film clinquant et sophistiqué d’un esthétisme très “mode”.

Purity and Lust: Women in the Films of Jean-Jacques Beineix  [Part 2]

    Betty Blue is as visually arresting as Beineix's first two films. Once again his central character is a woman who changes the life of the men around her. She is rebellious and defiant. But the relationship between man and woman is significantly different. Zorg, the house painter and would-be novelist, obtains the object of his lust. The film opens with a long take, tracing-in shot of Betty and Zorg naked, making love with a voice-over of Zorg saying: "From the moment I knew Betty, we made love every night." Like Cynthia, Alba, Paula and Loretta, Betty is someone from somewhere else. She is an ideal of physical beauty  and she also is a victim. When we first meet her, she has just lost her job. She accuses her bosses of being swine although who they are, what she did, and how she got to Zorg's front door remain unanewered questions. Interestingly enough, it is once again the question of a ticket, this one a ticket Betty cannot buy to leave town which brings Zorg and Betty together.

    Like its predecessors, Betty Blue is a film about obsessive love. Beineix tries to draw distinctions, nonetheless, between Betty Blue and his earlier films: "In Betty I  triedto escape from 'fake' and look at how people can really inspire each other, especially men and women. I wanted to talk about passion and sexuality, about all the things men and women share. And about the details that suddenly make life full of beauty and intensity. I'm bored with archetypes and speeches and long descriptions of love.”

    Betty is as proficient magically as her sisters in Diva and Moon in the Gutter. She fascinates Zorg sexually, to be sure, but she also has the power to transform his life. She appears at a time when he is earning a living painting bungalows in a lifeless community where all the houses are built on stilts. Betty discovers Zorg's talent for literature. To free him and herself from the prison of self-deprecation into which they have fallen, she burns down their bungalow when they are threatened with eviction, forcing Zorg to take action, even if negative and against his will. Her aimless life takes meaning when she reads Zorg's manuscripts compiled in notebooks. Betty sets herself to typing and sending the manuscripts to editors who, scandalized by what they read, one by one reject Zorg's work. Betty teaches Zorg the meaning of her total commitment when she makes him accompany her to the apartment of one of the editors who has brutally rejected the manuscript where she attacks the editor, cutting his face with her comb.

    After the couple has taken over a dead woman's piano business in a futile attempt at a bourgeois life style, Betty's belief in eventual publication of Zorg's manuscripts diminishes. Another hope arises to take its place: the creation of new life as a family with Zorg. But when Betty is faced with her failure to conceive, she succumbs to depression, retreating in the silent, closed world of madness after putting out one of her eyes. Ironically, as Betty lies in the hospital strapped to her bed, withdrawn from the real worid, Zorg receives word that his work will be published. Unable to communicate her triumph to Betty and realizing that she can never return to him, Zorg in disguise, slips into her hospital room one night and suffocates her. As the fiIm ends, Zorg, with Betty's white cat as a symbol of her presence, returns to writing in his notobooks pursuing the creative muse rekindled in him by Betty's spirit. In her own victimization, self-sacrifice and death, she has magically given Zorg a new creative life.

    When we first meet them, Zorg and Betty are creatures in suspension, from nowhere going nowhere, linked by sexual attraction. But this is no less true of Jules and Cynthia, Gérard and Loretta. But Diva ends inconclusively with a shot of Jules and Cynthia alone on stage listening to her voice stolen by Jules's secret recording, together in their love for the ideal yet separated by the impossibility of Jules's lust for her. The unreality of their relationship is indexed by the theater, a place of illusion and escape.

    Moon in the Gutter first and then Betty Blue offer solutions to the human dilemma they describe. Those solutions are escapes from the real world. For Gérard in Moon in the Gutter, there is the worid of alcool which has already claimed his father and brother, a world to which Loretta's brother too has escaped after killing his parents in an auto accident. The alternative, the clean world of the other side of the tracks to which Gérard aspired through marriage to Loretta, is forever lost. Moon in the Gutter ends on a note of pathos as the camera tracks in on a billboard advertisement for Italian vermouth which bears the slogan: "Try Another World." Betty's escape is the most radical: self-mutilation and madness. Nevertheless, though the most pessimistic, Betty's solution offers the clearest vision of hope of any of the other women's in Beineix's films. Betty leaves behind a legacy of inspiration which pushes Zorg to create and thus to return to his literary calling.

    Moreover, all of Beineix's ideal women are outsiders. Cynthia chooses not to play the game of commercial success which can be attained easily by recording her voice. Loretta rejects her bourgeois world of comfort to find satisfaction in the slums of town. Betty is a woman with no past and no future, with no hope until she finds a momentary reason for living in the cause of Zorg's literary aspirations. Betty, Loretta and Cynthia claim the men totally. Jules, Gérard and Zorg devote themselves completely to the obsessive passion and lust inspired by Beineix's ideal woman.

    If there is a progression in the development of Beineix's women' it is clear that Betty derives from Cynthia and Loretta only in her iconical ideal. Betty is real, substantial and traces her origins back to Bella and perhaps to Alba. Bella, who is  willing to have Gérard beaten rather than lose him, is a woman ready to defend her rights to her man. She and Betty are committed, ready to risk everything to claim what is theirs.

    Beineix's avowed goal is the making of internationally accepted films. He hopes to come to Hollywood. His intimist filmmaking may translate with difficulty into American terms, but, on the other hand, it is not too great a leap from his obsessive lovers to those in the recent success Fatal Attraction. Beineix's women are existentialist beings who having passed through despair find nothing on the other side.  © Henry A. Garrity - St. Lawrence University

Another Point of view  By Marcia Pally - Beineix Blue - An interview with Beineix

    Jean-Jacques Beineix, director of Diva and this year's French entry  to the Oscars, Betty Blue, is on the phone with a journalist who couldn't make it to interview him in person because he couldn't find a taxi. The subject of the talk is "Life in America." It's a bowl of cherries, Beineix tells the reporter who can't be bothered with plebe transportation. Never been grander. Never been richer. "What do I think about American cars?" Beineix doesn't miss a beat. "It's stupid to buy a car that goes 140 mph to drive 35 mph. What? I have a car that goes 140 mph, but," straining to keep his voice down, "I drive it that fast in France."

    He also climbs mountains and made it up the Matterhom.  He sails his 35-foot boat in the Atlantic. The storm that followed him to the Azores and blew him to Portugal didn't stop him from going out again. But, Beineix concedes, he had a "boring child-hood." He studied philosophy in college and got highest scores in the baccalaureate exam, except in math, where he got a zero. "Since I was so good in math, I decided to become a doctor." He studied medicine for a year but, bored, took a job in TV ostensibly to race around in production vehicles.

    Now 40, [today (2005) 59 - he was born in 1946], Beineix apprenticed as an assistant director on a dozen or so films by René Clement, by both Jean-Louis and Nadine Trintignant, Claude Berri, and by Claude Zidi. He worked with Jerry Lewis on The Day the Clown Cried and with Moshe Mizrachi on Madame Rosa. Beineix shot his first short, "Mr. Michels'Dog," in 1977. It was nominated for a Caesar. Two years and one more AD job later, producer Irène Silberman asked him to write and direct an adaptation of Delacorta's roman noir, Diva. That film claimed four Caesars.

    Beineix still isn't sure where he belongs. Small and boyish, he squirms around on his palmy hotel couch in a black T-shirt, black pants, and a scraggly week-old beard that fails to give him authority.  "I'm not part of this business," he shrugs. "I'm between cultures—not quite bourgeois, not a worker. I'm part adventurer but too shy to be a real one. I've been on the ocean, mountains, motorcycles, horseback. But in a strange city I'm afraid to go out because I don't know where I'm going."

    Beineix asks me what I'm wearing to a reception later in the evening. "I'm, asking because I want to know how I should dress. I like to be as visible as possible, but I don't want to be stared at with hostility. Unless I'm with a group of friends and we're all being crazy together, I'm a conformist." Beineix smiles, shrugs, pouts, and considers the ceiling.

    "I've traveled, met people, had lots of women. But I haven't been able to hold on to one. I have no children. I think I would like a child, but I know after a year or two I will move, go away. My only home is film, but this is not a roof; it is fights with bad businessmen and decadent capitalists who want profit without risk.

    "I have been a lot of things, but I'm still looking for a little harmony. There are moments on the boat when I am in perfect balance with the waves. I steer through them with just two fingers on the wheel. I can sit there, riding, for 17 hours. Sometimes the camera, after an extraordinary amount of work and technique, finds the smile of a woman in just a certain way, and I see this harmony. For a day it helps me accept my fears that I will age or become stupid and pretend that I know everything and stifle the next generation. I don't ever want to do that. That's why I have to keep climbing. I have to put everything at stake every time. But it's hard. This is the great contradiction: do I keep pushing, driving myself for a glimpse of those moments? There are so few of them."

    Maybe. But it's the only game in town. The rest is complacency. Beineix finds his peace making movies that run wild. While the rest of his countrymen film the ennui and charms of the bourgeoisie, Beineix looks for loose screws. His characters bound on springs that are about to pop and vault into the corners of their obsessions.

    In Diva, a young mailman lusts after an opera singer who refuses to record her performances. He dreams of stealing her voice, and for months he plots to pirate a tape— his pianissimo pornography. Beineix shot Diva in neon-bright primary colors that float in a velvety black no man's land. One scene flies off the tangent of another, and the story careens with the abandon of our hero's delivery truck. The critics hailed it as a stylistic splash. In his second film, Moon in the Gutter (based on the novel by David Goodis), the images are just as smashing and the plot as rude. The film takes you for a ride through a port city slum where a stevedore (Gérard Depardieu) dreams of a pristine woman (Natassia Kinski) and the clean, cool life of the rich. The critics panned it as ponderous.

    Adapted from Philippe Djian's 37º2 le Matin,Betty Blue,in Beineix's most vivid work to date, tells of a young man named Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade). He meets up with an unruly siren, Betty (Béatrice Dalle), and falls in love. Without manners, inhibitions, fear of failure, she sets his life spinning. She makes him believe in himself—and in his novel. But the force that propels her is all faith and desire. Like the genius that spurs both art and madness, it cannot accept the world:  Betty goes very crazy. The critics split. Some were transported by Beineix's mad Magdalene; others yawned.

    Beineix's theme repeats itself: In each film, an ordinary fellow meets his muse, compelling and uncompromising as air. She literally brings him life. In Betty, however, she also brings her own point of view. Unlike the Aphrodites of Diva and Gutter, Betty is flesh and blood, opinionated, stubborn, and available. And unlike the heroes of Diva and Gutter, Zorg achieves his dreams. Despite Beineix's doubts about belonging in the business, his success is showing.

    Beineix both is his uncompromising Betty—as wild and driving—and wants to have one all his own. But he'd also like a reprieve from her insistent inspiration. He wants both muse; - and mother, or mother of his child— which comes to the same thing. Unfortunately for him, divas rarely settle down.

    “The rich have the means to protect themselves," Beineix says, explaining his interest in the little guy who reaches beyond his grasp. "I prefer les gens populaires. They are closer to their own weaknesses and their own grandeur." Gutter,he continues, is about "fake" or the false promises of advertising and movies. Diva is about the chimera of theater.

    "In Betty I tried to escape from 'fake' and look at how people can really inspire each other, especially men and women. I wanted to talk about passion and sexuality, about all the things men and women share. And about the details that suddenly make life full of beauty and intensity. I'm bored with archetypes and speeches and long descriptions of love. I leave this bullshit for the soap operas. I like the quality of the unsaid, like the lovers' argument in Betty that is reconciled by a few notes on the piano."

    Not only are the relationships in Betty more down to earth than in his earlier work, the storyline is more continuous and traditional. "I can't commit suicide every time I make a movie. Even if I think of myself as subversive or rebellious, I know I have to give the audience a chance to understand what I do. Young directors sometimes go too far. It's a quality of youth and also the limitation. I think Gutter is a masterpiece, but it's also pretentious. I thought the images ii would be strong enough to mesmerize audiences. They weren't.

    "The critics were very good to remind me that there are rules. For ten years working in film I learned about those rules. And when I finally overcame the guilt of not following them, they wanted to stop me. They were successful. In Betty I'm trying to be effective but more pragmatic. So I reinforced the structure, the chronology."

Is Betty a compromise?
    "Yes. But a good one because the spirit is intact.... I'm still attacked by committees for the defense of the old régime who claim my work is empty, all surface images, and that I don't consider dramaturgy or the actors. But they are old fashioned. They are like the academies of the 19th-century dealing with Impressionism. They think cinema should serve reality in a literal sense. They ask where the message is, but they don’t see that the image is the message. They don't understand the theories of Toffler or McLuhan, which are not new. They don't see that we can use reality and give it another dimension in film. The image that begins with reality is open. We play with it.

    "There's a gap between the audience and some critics. There are a few who try to revise their codes, but others use cinema to promote themselves and their ethical patterns. They cheat themselves and the audience. When the writer from Vanity Fair says Betty Blue has 'fruit-salad brains' or that the film is pointless except for the sex, it means he's interested not only in a traditional treatment of narrative but in conservative messages and morals.

    "These critics won't succeed. It is a political fight. People ask me why I bother to respond to them: because they affect not only me but other artists who try to work with form and images in  new ways. It's like fighting the conservative parties.... I am screaming, no? You will lose patience with me. Sometimes I am much worse, but the pressure is bad now because Betty is successful and everybody wants me to make a film for them—studios, agents, actors. And not only in France; in America, also. They all want to sign me up and I want to resist them," he says, contradicting reports that he's eager to make a film in Hollywood, as well as his own attraction to the idea. "I want to choose the right script, and I have to be my own producer.

    "I ask myself if I should make the big American picture. Am I forcing myself into more fights with a new bureaucracy and a new language? And here I don't have the same fences, the same protections as in France. I don't know anyone. There is so much anxiety about making a film; to add more is dangerous. I don't want another failure. I can't afford another personal failure.

    "The phone never stops, and every-one is pushing. And I have to play games with all of them."

    Like his l5th-century mentor, Louis XI, Beineix is a consummate strategist. When bad reviews come in, he gets angry and plots out the next step. When good reviews come in, he plots out the next step. He explains to me what interests him about playing film politics— pitting agents against studios and dancing with the press.

    "There are four rules: dramatize every move you make; advertise every move; make every success seem twice as big as it is; and make every failure work fo ryou. I love these games. It is all such bullshit."

It turns you on?
    "On one level. But I also hate it. I do it to avoid the void. I hate that it is so hard to make films. I also despair.

    "I have fantasies about returning to commercial films. There I am a director for hire. You want to make a film about chocolate or cars? No problem. I ask for a lot of money. I am cold, mercenary. Commercial directing improves your technique. It's quick, exciting, and over. It's a way to keep moving and not see that you are aging."

    A call comes in from France. Beineix  rails about film deals in the U.S. "Already there are rumors in Europe," he growls, "that I am in exile in America ; and am making a big movie here." I suggest it fits the loner image he's been painting.

    “Perhaps this image is not the result only of choice. Perhaps it is because I can't do any better. I don't feel I fit in with the standard of French culture. The French lack challenge, ambition. They have pretensions but no pragmatism. So I try to challenge. We have to  improve the rules all the time. But this attempt at subversion would be directed at America if I lived here. I try to keep being alien."

Sounds seductive. What's this problem with women you mentioned before?
    "I have never been with one more than two years. I'm reckless and restless. I am always looking for something new, for something else. But maybe it's just that my process of maturation is slow. Maybe I need to change pace."

    Out of the blue, Beineix says, "Excuse me. May I ask you if you are a dancer?" He mumbles something about long necks and the Russian school. "I was with a dancer who studied in Russia. We were together for two years, but I left at the end of Betty. You don't like - the question. But don't be angry. It's just that I can’t see you. You are hiding behind your scarf.”

I don't have to be angry. Print is my revenge.
     "I don't think you'll take your revenge this way."
      Divas, Bettys, and ballerinas…
      Béatrice Dalle, dubbed "the new Bardot" by Parisian tastemakers, has doe eyes, black hair, and the most curvaceous body I've seen since Twiggy flattened tits'n' ass. Her most lubricious feature is her sizable mouth, which, a colleague informed me, drives men mad thinking about what it could do. Brought up in Le Mans, Dalle bolted to Paris, where she took up the punk scene around Les Halles. A photographer spotted her hanging around Place de la République, took a few shots, and landed her on the cover of Photo Revue. Helmut Newton grabbed her for a photo spread in Vanity Fair, and Beineix signed her on as Betty. "She imposes herself," he has told a thousand reporters. "You cannot invent a character like that." But not all viewers are as impressed. One man told me her mouth looks like the grill of a Pontiac. More problematic is Dalle's character. Her temper tantrums are a self-indulgent pain in the ass.

What's the appeal for Zorg?
    "He loves her." Beineix seems surprised by the question,  "She gives him what he needs. She says what he deserves; she kicks his ass. She gives him back the passion he forgot."

 Would you stay with her?
    "Would you stay with General Patton? But it is still an interesting picture. If people are asking themselves “Would I stay with her?” the film is provoking them. But Béatrice gets all the  attention. No one notices Anglade."

    Jean-Hugues Anglade has a chiseled body and naive eyes. They disarm and then arouse, apparently without design. Anglade played the lead in Patrice Chéreau's The Wounded Man, the roller in Subway, and Zorg in Betty Blue {as well as Marco in Besson's La Femme Nikita]. In my book, he and Gérard Darmon (as Eddie, the owner of a pizza parlor and pal to our doomed duo) steal the picture.

    "Anglade acts with great technique. It is sizzled, precise, elegant. He never overdoes it. It is a very high level of work. But in this business, people don't talk about technique. They don't understand the difference between text and context, subject and treatment, or between what is created by the script, the camerawork, and the acting."

    Perhaps not, but they do notice male nudity. Much of the attention Anglade has purloined from Dalle can be blamed on his frontal frankness.

    "I felt ashamed of the way women are treated in movies," Beineix explains. "This doesn't mean I don't like the bodies of women and looking at the bodies of women. I do very much. But if the woman is nude, the man must be nude, too. If he is not, then it means there is something shameful about men's bodies or there is something shameful about being nude. Neither is good. On one hand, if nudity is shameful and men show women nude, there's a problem between men and women. That's bad for relations between men and women and that ends up being bad for me. On the other hand, if men are ashamed of their bodies, how can they deal with the body of the other? How can they be sexual?

    "So there is a lot of nudity in Betty. Perhaps I was relieving some personal inhibitions. I know there are some people who say I shouldn't do that in public. But I think there are some others who are a little like me, so I relieve their fears, too.

    "I don't support censorship of any kind, but I wonder how people can criticize nudity in film and not violence. You can put brains on the floor, cut throats, and show rapes, but you get an X because of nudity. There are sex scenes in Betty [jettisoning shame at the outset, it opens with a long, slow zoom into Betty and Zorg fucking] but these are love scenes. They are even in the missionary position.

    "I didn't get any official trouble about them, but everyone asks me about the sex. In France, Betty is rated 'No one under 13';  in England, 'No one under 18.' It has no rating here because it's an independent. I think the studios didn't pick Betty up so that they didn't have to put it through the [MPAA] board and get an X.”

    While Anglade is an accomplished actor, Dalle is new to the field. ...    "To discover new people," Beineix says, "is the interesting part of this job."

    I never got an answer to my question. Would you stay with Betty?   "I have stayed with much worse.'  © Marcia Pally

Film 4:   Entre nous / Coup de foudre / Madeleine et Lena, 1983.  A Film by  Diane Kurys
Cast: Isabelle Huppert,  Miou-Miou

    Story of the friendshsip between two young women in the 1950’s and the breakup of their marriages. Set in Lyon in 1950, two women are drawn together by post war discontent. Isabelle Huppert and Miou-Miou are both trapped in middle class marriages and find they can offer each other something their men cannot. Their relationship deepens into a dependency that eventually bursts the confines of the provincial society around them.
    Diane Kurys explores a loving, but not quite lesbian, relationship between women. Their feminine rapport is at once liberating and sad. The material was taken from Kury’s life. At the very end of the film it is revealed that she was the child of one of these women, and therefore also the child of one of the deceived and deserted husbands.

Synopse en français

    Lyon 1952 : Léna s’ennuie auprès de Michel, qu’elle a épousé sans amour pendant la guerre. Elle rencontre Madeleine, une jeune femme aux moeurs libres qui s’ennuie également auprès d’un mari velléitaire.  Entre elles se noue une amitié de plus en plus dévorante dont Michel prend ombrage. Lorsque Madeleine “monte” à Paris, elle demande à Léna de l’y accompagner. Celle-ci, après une explication orageuse, abandonne son mari.
    Aucune ambiguité dans cette amitié qui est avant tout une libération, ces deux femmes ayant besoin l’une de l’autre pour se sortir d’une vie monotone.  Justesse d’observation, mise en scène soignée,  bonne reconstitution d’époque, actrices remarquables. Un film particulièrement intéressant.(Guide des Films)
     Essential Reading: Stanley Kauffmann On Films  “All For Love”  (The New Republic,  21-22, 02/27/84)

Sur Diane Kurys et ses films:

      Les adultes, surtout les parents, n'ont pas le beau rôle dans les films de Diane Kurys. Et les hommes encore moins, faibles, bornés, possessifs jusqu'à la violence et, néanmoins, dominés par les femmes, la leur ou celle des autres. C'est par celles-ci, qui font l'expérience d'une liberté difficile à conquérir dans les années 50-60 d'un féminisme naissant, que le malheur arrive. Pour vivre leur vie, elles n'hésitent pas à rompre les amarres, à fuir l'échec de leur couple, la famille, les enfants.
        Ceux-ci, les tout-petits comme les adolescents, surla plage des vacances de La Baule-Les Pins (1990), dans les couloirs du lycée Jules-Ferry, Diabolo menthe (1977) sont les victimes désignées du Coup de foudre (1983) qui en fait des enfants du divorce. Avec une tendresse infinie, la caméra sait surprendre dans le regard candide de ces fillettes - dont se souvient si bien le cinéaste qui fut l'une ou l'autre d'entre elles - l'angoisse d'un abandon qui les privera de leur enfance...
        Janvier 78. Un premier film, écrit et réalisé par une jeune femme inconnue, interprété par des jeunes filles inconnues, crée l'événement en remportant un énorme succès tout à fait inattendu. C'est Diabolo menthe. L 'auteur du film, Diane Kurys, y raconte une partie de son adolescence. Nous sommes alors en 63 et son héroïne, Anne a treize ans...
        Février 80. Diane Kurys récidive. Dans Cocktail Molotov, chronique du Printemps 1968, Anne, cette héroïne qui lui ressemble tant, à 18 ans (c'est Elise Caron). Mais Cocktail Molotov est un terrible échec public.
       Décembre 82. Diane Kurys tourne Coup de foudre, son troisième film : L 'essentiel de l'histoire se déroule dans les années 1952-53, et c'est sur le visage d'une toute petite fille (prénommée ici Sophie) que se clot le film. Pas besoin d'être devin ou agrégé de mathématiques pour s'y retrouver. Après avoir raconté ses treize ans et ses dix-huit ans, Diane Kurys continue, dans Coup de foudre, de raconter sa vie. Mais la petite fille qu'elle était en 53 n'est pas au centre de ce nouveau film. Les deux héroïnes de Coup de foudre ont une trentaine d'années, elles s'appellent Madeleine et Léna, et leur histoire (vraie, donc) constitue l'un des plus beaux scénarios que 1'on ait jamais écrit pour deux femmes... Madeleine et Léna (ce fut, un moment, le titre du film), ce sont, bien sur, Miou. Miou et Isabelle Huppert. L 'une a perdu un mari pendant la guerre, 1'autre en a trouvé un (Guy Marchand). Quand elles se rencontrent, par hasard, en 1952, elles ont toutes deux une vie, une famille, un ou deux enfants. Mais elles s'entendent si bien, se vouent une affection si intense que, peu a peu, Madeleine et Léna veulent vivre ensemble. Pas simple... Madeleine quitte l'homme qui partageait sa vie (Jean-Pierre Bacri, remarqué l'an dernier dans Le Grand Pardon d'Alexandre Arcady, lui.même co-producteur de Coup de foudre et compagnon de Diane Kurys) et attend que Léna en fasse autant avec Guy Marchand...
      Pour la première fois, Diane Kurys parle des adultes. Pour la première fois, elle raconte une aventure qu'elle n'a pas directement vécue. Pour la première fois, elle doit diriger des comédiennes professionnelles, et pas n'importe lesquelles... En plus, son sujet est assez périIleux puisqu'il s'agit d'évoquer une histoire d'amitié qui, sans être jamais "particulière", finit tout de même par être plus forte que l'amour... Enfin, on peut supposer qu'il ne doit pas être très simple de replonger à ce point dans sa petite enfance pour raconter comment et pourquoi votre mère a quitté votre père..
     Pour Miou et Huppert, c'est une grande première. Et des retrouvailles. C'est en effet la première fois qu'elles se partagent la vedette d'un film (il est vrai qu'en France, les occasions de ce genre sont rarissimes), mais elles avaient déjà tourné ensemble, voilà neuf ans, dans Les valseuses.  Là, Miou, égérie du tandem Depardieu-Dewaere, initiait la petite Isabelle ( elle n 'avait pas 18 ans) aux joies de la liberté et du plaisir sexuel, Dans Coup de foudre, Miou-Miou est encore celle qui veut briser les tabous pour entraîner Isabelle à prendre ses responsabilités et à vivre comme elle en a envie. Décidément...
       Après des chemins bien différents, les revoilà face à face, côte à côte, avec des "têtes" inédites, pour vivre un épisode crucial de leur carrière." En effet, 1982 a été, pour toutes les deux, une année en demi-teinte et elles aimeraient bien, comme Diane Kurys, renouer avec le succès grâce à ce Coup de foudre. Elles ont pour cela tous les atouts en main puis que les scènes de comédie y sont aussi nombreuses que celles d'émotion, et qu'elles pourront enfin démontrer, en un seul film, toute l'étendue de leur registre.


      Lesbianism considered as a means of escaping from the monotony of married life, it could be said about Entre nous if irony was the proper thing. But there is no reason to be ironic. In Diane Kurys’s third film, feelings, all feelings are dealt with with rare sensitivity, and the characters that inflict suffering on others are no less good, or less moving, as are the others.
        In 1951, in Lyon, Madeleine (Miou-Miou) and Léna (Isabelle Huppert) find themselves idle and bored. They have tea together and discover that both got married somewhat by chance. Lena, a Belgian Jew emprisoned in a French camp, married the first légionnaire who came along, just to escape from the camp. A widow at eighteen, Madeleine married Costa because he has made her pregnant. The  French soldier is now the owner of a garage, a job that does not lead much to a life of dreams. Costa, a failure as a comedian, is also a swindler who has had his share of failures. Their mediocrity at the social level seems to extend to their intimate lives: Neither Madeleine nor Léna are women who are sexually satisfied.
        After a mutual confession, they come to having innocent fun together, then being fond of each other, with a type of friendship that public opinion quickly considers as excessive, and that even their respective husbands believe to be wrong, although not a single scene of the film allows to prove it.
        For, to the opposite of what a male filmmaker probably would have done, Diane Kurys puts off the drama in the background as long as she can. She proceeds by means of intimist scenes, sometimes happy, sometimes comical. The children are seen as much as the adults. They see everything, hear everything, and the viewer is left wondering whether they comprehend what is happening and is threatening them as well. Finally, as in Henry James’s What Maisy Knew, one realizes that the story is apprehended through the eyes of Sophie, only five, Lena’s second daughter, for which role Diane Kurys has chosen a young interprets who resembles her. Only then is the viewer able to understand that the “love affair” that unites Madeleine to her mother, if there is such a relationship, is never evoked: if Sophie can perceive it, it would be difficult for her (at 5) to imagine it as such.
        The events that traumatize the children are not necessarily  the same ones as those that upset the lives of the adults. The film ends on the scene that will mark Sophie forever. From the window of a summer home in Cabourg, the little girl (Sophie = Diane Kurys) witnesses the definitive separation of her parents. A separation that, for Lena, means the possibility of finally being able to live with Madeleine. [my translation]

Lesbian desire in Coup de foudre

        Perhaps even more so than gay film, lesbian filmmaking has occupied the margins of French cinema, from Germaine Dulac's avant-garde critique of marriage in La Souriante Madame Beudet (1923) onwards. The portrayal of lesbian desire did at times enter mainstream classical cinema in the form of the 'community of women' genre, exemplified by Jacques Deval's Club de femmes (1936) and Jacqueline Audry's Olivia (1951). Although made by a male director, the former was one of the first films to treat lesbianism in what the American lesbian journal Vice Versa called 'a sane, intelligent manner, rather than furnishing the usual subject for harmful propaganda or mere sensationalism'. With the rise of the women's movement in the early 1970s, male-authored representations of lesbianism included the pathologising fantasies of Jean Rollin's vampire films, but this period also saw lesbian directors such as the Belgian Chantal Akerman beginning their careers. The major Francophone lesbian film-maker currently working, Akerman remains, for all the commercial success of Golden Eighties (1987), outside the mainstream. None the less many of the female auteurs who, since the 1970s have become increasingly active in French cinema, 'although speaking from a heterosexual (or unclear) position, provide very affirmative images of lesbianism, often seen as an enviable alternative to relations between the sexes. One of the most prominent and popular examples of this is Diane Kurys's Coup de foudre (1983).

    Coup de foudre has clear auteurist origins, based as it is on Kurys's account - co-authored with Olivier Cohen - of her mother's life. The narrative centres on the friendship - which implicitly develops into a lesbian relationship - between Léna (Isabelle Huppert) and Madeleine (Miou-Miou). After a prologue set during the Occupation, the action switches to Lyon in 1952, where the two meet for the first time. The intensity of this meeting, evoked in a silent shot/reverse-shot of the faces of the two women, immediately suggests an emotional undercurrent which will run counter to the rather dull married lives that Léna and Madeleine have at this point. That undercurrent is, however, buried very deep, while Kurys's nostalgic attention to fifties costume and popular music, and above all her avoidance of the strident excesses of melodrama, ensure that Coup de foudre is for the most part merely a tasteful period piece. As Andrea Weiss has commented, 'the film's formal qualities - so dependent are they on the codes of art cinema-restrain the women's relationship as the narrative seeks to extend it', although as a consequence 'the shroud of ambiguity surrounding the exact nature of the women's relationship leaves space for the lesbian imagination'. Once Madeleine has left her husband and moved to Paris to await Léna, the narrative pace quickens, with Léna first visiting her friend secretly and then attempting to secure the financial independence needed to join her by setting up a boutique. Fearing that she has been abandoned by Léna, Madeleine has a breakdown, and it is in the emotional reunion of the two friends that the 'excessive' code of melodrama -signalled by tears - is first mobilised by Kurys. Although the tone becomes more measured again once Léna and Madeleine begin living together, their escape from Léna's jealous husband Michel is again signalled by tears, this time those of Michel himself, who finally accepts the situation with an appropriate 'feminine' response (weeping) rather than his previous inappropriate macho violence (destroying Léna's shop). As it has done throughout, however, the period music - here Perry Como - maintains a wistful and nostalgic note which characterises the film as a whole, and keeps the excesses of melodrama at arm's length, just as the image track assiduously avoids any direct representation of lesbian desire.

       Kurys's subsequent film, Un Homme amoureux (1987), was a lush heterosexual romance filmed at Rome's Cinecitta studios with an international cast (Peter Coyote, Greta Scacchi, Claudia Cardinale, Jamie Lee Curtis and Vincent Lindon). The result is a largely predictable array of stereotypes, including the angst-ridden film star (Coyote) and the nagging wife (Curtis). Un Homme amoureux is mediated, like Coup de foudre and Après l'Amour (1992), by a female auteur figure, in this case Jane (Scacchi). Whereas the mother daughter relationship underpinning Coup de foudre is only suggested in the final dedication, in Un Homme amoureux it is Jane's mother (Cardinale) who bestows on her daughter the narrative powers which result, in the closing scene, in her writing the story we have just watched as one long flashback. This framing device, although a cinematic staple, is usually associated with a male narrator, and to that extent, its function in Un Homme amoureux is emblematic of Kurys's cinema in general: stylistically orthodox, but from a woman's point of view.  (Guy Austin - Contemporary French Cinema)

Essential readings:

1. The Women  - By Pauline Kael

    "Entre Nous" moves along in relaxed and unruffled way as the filmmaker Diane Kurys tells the story of two young married women in the nineteen-fifties who don't recognize how unfulfilled they have been in their marriages until they meet each other. In the preliminary scenes, set in 1942, Léna (Isabelle Huppert), a pretty eighteen-year-old redhead with a soft, curly long bob, has been arrested and brought to an internment camp for Jews in the Pyrénées. The camp is guarded by members of the French Foreign Légion, and one of them, Michel (Guy Marchand), writes her a note warning her that she may be deported to a Nazi camp and offering her marriage as a means of escape.  She accepts. During the marriage ceremony, she discovers that he, too, is Jewish; she's incensed to learn that she won't have the protection of a Gentile name. But she has no choice, and they hasten to the Italian border. Michel carries a small black suitcase with their possessions, and before they make it across the Alps and into Italy he's also carrying his exhausted bride, on his back. By 1952, the hardworking Michel has got himself his own garage in Lyons, and Léna, now the mother of two small daughters, has a fur coat, and a servant to does the cooking and cleaning. Léna meets Madeleine (Miou-Miou) at a school pageant. Madeleine, who comes from a moderately wealthy family, was an art student in 1942 and had married a fellow student, who was killed in a street skirmish between the students and the collaborationist police. (Miou-Miou lets out an impressive scream as her husband is torn up by bullets.) A widow at nineteen, Madeleine drifted into marriage with a sometime actor and sometime black marketeer, Costa (Jean-Pierre Bacri), and now she has a son at the school. Much more a worldly than Léna, Madeleine seems somewhat dissociated from her own life; she seems to be walking through it, and her little boy, treated indifferently by his mother and made fun of by his father, is shy and scared of everything.

    The two women become inseparable; they develop an intimacy that is based partly on their sitting around complaining about their husbands. For Léna, the friendship with Madeleine is like one long consciousness-raising session. She begins to see Michel as uncouth, as gross. Kurys, who collaborated with Alain Le Henry on the screenplay, presents the material in short, anecdotal scenes, skipping back and forth between incidents in the two women's lives as they struggle to define themselves. The two husbands are dark and hairy and grubby; they never look really clean. But Miou-Miou, a brunette here, with a short bob, is tall and elegantly slender in the long, full m skirts of the early fifties, and she and  Huppert are lighted and posed so that d they are two heroic profiles, with taut neck tendons and beautiful chins. The men, who always seem to need a shave,  are treated as lumps, as part of the common herd. The two women are romanticized and politicized; they're d turned into feminist precursors.

    The film is primarily about Léna's a courage in leaving her husband, and in s what has become known as "taking charge of your own life." After Michel has been driven half crazy by frustration at being closed out of Léna's new interests, she has the justification she needs to walk out on him, taking the children. At the end of the - film, she and Madeleine (who left her own husband sometime earlier, had trouble holding a job, and went through a nervous breakdown) are about to open a dress shop in Paris, which will presumably thrive. There's no doubt that Lena is meant to be the heroine; the camera feasts on her determined little face. (Huppert, who's eager and responsive in her initial scenes, goes blank after a while and just stands stiff for the camera; when Lena is at her most heroic, Huppert seems totally outside the events of the story, as if she already knew the ending and were a little bored with it all.) The audience is cued, as it was at Paul Mazursky's 1978 "An Unmarried Woman," to see the faults in the husband and the superiority of the wife. In one scene, Léna, who usually wears blouses with Peter Pan collars and prim, slightly boxy suits, puts on a clinging black cocktail dress that Madeleine has given her. Michel, who is supposed to be going out with her, tells her that she looks like a whore, and that her panty line shows; she wriggles free of her panties and leaves alone. There were cheers and applause from the audience I saw the movie with; you could practically hear the "Right ons" of the seventies. Kurys has shaped the scene like a cheerleader.

    What's left unshaped is how Kurys feels about much of what she shows us. It's apparent that Michel has supported the family and built up his business without any help from Léna, who even leaves most of the child care to the servant. Léna is a proper bourgeoise who keeps her children in their place; she prizes refinement and respectability,  and she doesn't like it  when Michel roughhouses with the two little girls and makes up stories for them, or, at a picnic, galumphs around imitating an ape and uses his head to bat a ball. (How could kids not love a father like this?) Michel, a man with a capacity for enjoyment, has still got Léna on his back. He's married to an armored, frigid woman who, after she forms her attachment to Madeleine and discovers class, independence, and arts, thinks herself above him. But this movie is not meant to be about a tight little bitch-princess with aspirations to culture. Kurys lets us see the women's self-preoccupation and unresponsiveness to their children, but this is all pushed to the side;  it isn't given any weight. In one scene, Léna and Madeleine take their kids out on an excursion, and Léna, talking to Madeleine, boards a bus assuming that the kids are with them; after a while she notices that her daughter is with Madeleine's son but her younger daughter is missing. Little Sophie has been left behind somewhere ~ Sophie, the five-year-old, who, we're told at the end, grows up to be the filmmaker herself. Diane Kury shows her father slapping her mother on this one occasion: Michel slaps Léna for not caring enough about Sophie to keep an eye on her. Yet the incident is presented so as to call attention to Michel's oafishness rather than to Léna's negligence. She is somehow meant to be charmingly oblivious.

    The psychology of the film goes in one direction; its sexual politics take it in another. What we see and what u we're told we're seeing are in conflict. Michel is the only character that a viewer is likely to have any feeling for. Guy Marchand plays the role superbly, without any actorish fuss; Michel's furtive lecherous side and his outbursts are completely believable, and we can see that he made a tragic mistake when he proposed marriage to he pretty girl he'd never actually talked to. Léna will never love him, and she's so shallow that she may never understand the depth of his love for the children ~ he's completely enchanted when he's with them. Yet there is no apparent recognition on Kurys' part that Léna is a pill. Kurys doesn't dramatize what she felt about her mother then ~ at the time that she and her sister were taken away from their father. She has made a very peculiar kind of memory film; she identifies with her mother in a political, feminist way, yet it’ s the father who's loving e and playful, and who's the suffering center of the raw, undeveloped material in the movie.

    The director's idealization of Léna and Madeleine seems to be based on a traditional conception of women as being finer-grained and more sensitive than men, and this is joined to the seventies view of sisterhood. The two women ~ who live as if they  are members of the leisure class ~ appear to be very casual about being taken care of; a cynical observer might suggest that their greater sensitivity consists in not doing anything to help the men, yet the director doesn't point this up. The husbands, working to provide for their families, are made out to be clods. Poor Costa, who's rebuffed or outsmarted in his every shady negotiation, keeps trying to be a wheeler-dealer. In one sequence, he borrows money to buy eighteen carloads of men's shirts, and they turn out to have only one sleeve; he sits at home at a sewing machine in a dark, cramped room, trying to turn each long sleeve into two short ones. Madeleine, who can see him from her bright, airy studio, doesn't commiserate with him, doesn't offer a hand; she isn't really in the marriage. Yet the scene is played not to show us her detachment but to show us his comic ineptitude. (He belongs in his sweatshop.) The film's feminism is so facile that we don't get any new perception of what women's relationships might have been like at that time. Is Madeleine's being upper-class Gentile part of what Léna responds to in her? The movie doesn't give us a clue. And why is Madeleine attracted to the conventional-mind Léna ~ is Léna meant to have a vitality that Huppert didn't come up with? We don't get much insight, either into why the apparently assured Madeleine couldn't function in a job and broke down. Nothing about her is revealed to us; she's a stranger until after her crackup, when she loses her composed look. Then she's pale, her face goes a little vague and glassy from confusion, and she's more like the Miou-Miou we know from Bertrand Blier's "Going Places," Bellocchio's "Victory March," and Alain Tanner's "Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000" but without that Miou-Miou's infectiousness.

    "Entre Nous" trivializes Léna and Madeleine at the same time that romanticizes them. Their friendship seems to be about their great profiles and an interest in clothes. Nothing is going on in their heads that's different from what several generations of male movie directors have indicated. And they don't show signs of any physical, sexual pressure, either. "Why do I feel so at ease with you?" Madeleine as Léna, and we never get an answer. Perched on a bed next to Madeleine, Léna says, "I feel like kissing you," but she doesn't do it. This is a movie about two women not having a lesbian affair. "Entre Nous" keeps teetering on the verge of a seduction scene that isn't there, yet that teasing possibility -suggested mostly by Madeleine's cool, knowing glances-gives many of the scenes their only tension. At the women's very first encounter, at the school, Léna realizes that Madeleine isn't wearing stockings, and gasps at her audacity; Madeleine runs a finger down her leg over her suntan lotion and then thrusts the finger under Lena's  nose, giving her a whiff. After the dinner party where Madeleine meets Léna's husband for the first time, she whispers  to Léna, "You're not made for each other;" she's flirting. And when she does a portrait of Léna she seems to be using traditional male-seducer blandishments. Early in the friendship, Madeleine begins suggesting that Léna leave her husband, and when the women meet secretly in Paris they dance together at a night club, while other patrons-their curiosity piqued ~ scrutinize them.

    On the train to Paris, Léna lets a soldier make love to her. Describing the encounter to Madeleine, she explains that she didn't allow him to go "all the way" ~ and she had an orgasm, for the first time. Implicitly, male-female sex is low-class and unsatisfactory. If Léna had let the soldier go all the way, she wouldn't have had an orgasm. The film has a political commitment to women's friendship, and it comes very close to having a political commitment to lesbian sex ~ Léna and the soldier didn't do any thing that the two women couldn't do ~ but Kurys doesn't develop that. She just keeps it lurking in the air, though the film's title in France was "Coup de Foudre" -  love at first sight.

    Are we perhaps meant to think that I Madeleine breaks down because she I couldn't quite have a love affair with Léna? Some of Madeleine's actions  may look predatory, but there's a muteness about her. At several points, she seems about to "take" Léna, but she doesn't. Is this what wipes her out ~ her lack of sexual aggression? Certainly her breakdown wins the audience's sympathy-which she probably wouldn't have got if she had carried out the seduction. Léna's first venture into business, a boutique in Lyons that is financed by Michel, is called Magdalena ~ a marriage of the two women's names. Yet when Michel accuses the women of being dykes the accusation is treated as evidence of his low, limited mind, his incomprehension of the finer things. The two women appear to be above sex of any kind; their passivity is part of their superiority. (Those vulgar husbands are always trying to make out.) Kurys leads us to expect a sex relationship in order to hold our interest. (Nothing else seems about to happen.) But apparently we're supposed to think that whether or not the women are lovers is irrelevant to the changes in consciousness they bring out in each other. Léna and Madeleine are what used to be called soul mates; "Entre Nous" is about spiritual lesbianism.

    Kurys doesn't build scenes dramatically or prepare for changes in the characters' behavior, and this lackadaisical flabbiness in the construction can be interpreted as lifelike. But we also keep waiting for moves that have been indicated, and they don't come. "Entre Nous" isn't really much of a picture. Kurys directs the sequences involving Michel and his daughters with all the affection and humor that one could wish for. She also gives Michel his due in his final scene; for a few seconds the film is flooded with emotion. But she's remarkably callous in her treatment of Madeleine's little boy; everybody ridicules him, and we're supposed to laugh at him, too. (He's made a pathetic clod, like the two husbands.) And there's something superficial and complacent in the tone of the movie: inthe way it swings with the feminist party line of about five years ago ~ with what's taken for granted now, and has no threat in it. "Entre Nous" has no present-tense urgency; it's all the director's retrospective view. This may, of course, work to its commercial advantage. A battle-scarred audience may take pleasure in a film in which everything seems resolved. The only thing that's distinctive about "Entre Nous" is its veneer of post-feminism. Kurys achieves this restfulness by making a movie about sexual politics without sex.

    The insipidness and the false leads all go back, I think, to a single cause: there's a deep and shocking violation of privacy in Diane Kurys' putting her interpretation of her parents' lives and quarrels and betrayals onto the screen. This movie depends on the filmmaker's revelation that Léna and Michel are her parents: that's how she can get by with her undramatized sequences. "Entre Nous" is presented under the guise of "This is how it was ~ it's real, it's life." There's a casual sort of chutzpah about the method. In presenting fiction minus the protective veils of fiction, Kurys is attempting to give birth to her parents; she's trying to re-create them for her own purposes. She takes possession of them, and then she tries to contort her feelings about the rigid, repressive Léna in order to make her a modern heroine. Kurys doesn't romanticize her mother out of love. You don't have to romanticize someone you love  (as Kurys demonstrates in the father's scenes). And she doesn't do it out of rage. She romanticizes her mother for her own convenience.  © The New Yorker, March 5, 1984

2. Coup de foudre: Nostalgia and Lesbianism (excerpted)

By Phil Powrie

Coup de foudre (1983) is usually seen as an example of mainstream lesbian film, and has often been bracketed with similar Hollywood films from the 1980s, such as Lianna (1983) and Desert Hearts (1986). This might on the face of it seem surprising, given that lesbianism in Coup de foudre is closeted behind gestures and dialogue which are more likely to lead to the conclusion that it is a film about female bonding. Coup de foudre is also a nostalgic film, and it is the uneasy marriage between female bonding/covert lesbianism and nostalgia which I shall explore in this chapter [of French Cinema in the 1980’s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity]. I shall be arguing that this marriage is important because it allows the spectator more easily to construct a female perspective, predicated on the rejection of patriarchal law. In this respect, lesbianism is tangential to the film's concerns, although this is not to deny the validity of lesbian counter-readings. By linking nostalgia and lesbianism, however, the film creates ambivalence [...]. Far from suggesting that this ambivalence is contradictory, as if lesbianism excluded nostalgia for the father, I shall show how it is a crucial part of the function of nostalgia.


Nostalgia is created by a triple historical time-scale: the 1940s with the parallel histories of the two women; the 1950s with their meeting and subsequent common history; and the autobiographical present, as the film's ending makes clear that the histories referred to are seen through the eyes of the director-as-child. Within the first two periods mentioned, all the hallmarks of the nostalgia film occur. There is meticulous period reconstruction in décor, costume ('Isabelle depends a lot on costume to act, and Guy Marchand chose his braces  [suspenders] himself, the same as his father's'), and music; in the latter case, the Glenn Miller of the liberation and the ironically used Perry Como song 'I wonder who's kissing her now' of the mid-1950s.

There is loss, a crucial component of nostalgia. The film opens with various aspects of separation caused by war: the Jewish internees are separated from their families; Léna tells her newfound friend that her mother has died two months ago; her friend can only communicate with her husband from a distance; Léna can only communicate with her eventual husband by means of notes and gestures; Madeleine loses her husband in a gun-battle between Pétainist militia and Resistance fighters.

There is also reference to the experience and points of view of children. As Kurys herself pointed out, the film 'is seen through the eyes of children, it's me who is telling the story and it's my memory'. The two women meet for the first time thanks to their children acting in the school play; there is an intrusive sequence structured around Léna’s children's view of adult sexuality as they spy on the maid and her boyfriend kissing through an open door; and the final sequence, crucially, as I shall discuss, forces the spectator retrospectively to view preceding events from a child's point of view.

Audiences may well have seen it as mainly a nostalgic film, which to some extent accounts for its popularity (the twelfth most popular French film in 1983, with more spectators than Superman), but a clear audience segment both in the USA and in France saw the film principally as a mainstream lesbian film.


Diane Kurys was keen to downplay the lesbian subtext, claiming that she did not want spectators to be able to reduce the story to a story 'about lesbians', which would have been an oversimplification of biographical truth, as well as pandering to male fantasy: 'Several of the backers wanted an explicit lesbian scene - it's one of their main fantasies'. If it was nevertheless seen as a lesbian film, one of the main reasons is the general lack of gay films with positive images of gays, and the even greater lack of specifically lesbian films, particularly in France, where there is less of a tradition of cultural lesbianism than in the USA. This no doubt accounts for the flurry of critical excitement over Coup de foudre in the gay press of the USA. The film was called 'the best gay film of 1984' by Steve Beery of the Advocate, and 'the most sensitive gay film [she had] seen in years' by a contributor to Womanews.

The review of the film in the only well-known French lesbian journal of the period, Lesbia, suggests that lesbian audiences might have read the film in the same way as in the USA:

I'm impressed. I had expected comfortable commonplaces on friendship between two women stuck between their husbands and their kids. I was led up the garden path by all the film critics; they had kept quiet that Coup de foudre is one of the most beautiful films about homosexual love between  women. Diane Kurys herself has steered clear of alluding to it; nothing is insinuated, there is only the blinding  truth in each image, each word, each look. They meet and already they can't leave each other! From complicity to confidences, their intimacy increases, they confess their attraction amidst laughter: 'I miss you', 'Why do I fell so good with you?' [“Pourquoi est-ce que je me sens si bien avec vous?”] They touch each other with looks, words, gestures. Miou-Miou is remarkable in these half-tone sequences where her burgeoning desire brushes against a shyly trembling, sensual Isabelle Huppert. Oh, of course, nothing is said, except by the husband, mad with rage: 'You know what it's called: dykes'. Without batting an eyelid, his little wife tells him that she can't live without her friend. It's as simple as that. Although you had to let yourself see it ... My friend complains in her seat: 'All those prigs (beaufs) who didn't realise it!' 'Elementary my dear: I'm impressed ...'
The male gay reviewer of the leading gay periodical in France placed the film historically, pointing out that the discretion shown by the film is consonant with a period when the gay movement, which eventually came out of the various protest movements in the wake of May 1968, did not exist.  As he points out, 'a relationship of this type, plausible in 1952, would no longer be so today, precisely because [gays] have struggled to impose a recognition of homosexuality'.

It is precisely the fact that a gay community exists which can lead to gay readings of otherwise ambivalent texts. This is clear from comments made by Holmlund, who states that  'reception and context are key ... We should not continue to insist that authorial intent and/or textual structures in and of themselves define what is a "woman" or when a "lesbian" is a lesbian'  [Christine Holmlund (1991) ‘When is a Lesbian not a Lesbian? The Lesbian Continuum and the Mainstream Femme Film’, Camera Obscura]. Holmlund,  trying to legitimize the massive enthusiasm of lesbian audiences for the film, suggests, somewhat lamely, that in a scene such as the swimming-pool scene where the two women admire each other's bodies, 'it is easy to imagine them as lovers, and their constant exchange of clothes and fashion tips legitimizes lesbian readings of them as femmes, not just friends, for lesbians know how much femmes like to dress up and step out'. Straayer points to the exchange of glances which, she suggests, are eroticized by the women's 'physical proximity and subtle body contact', combined with the fact that they are more often than not both together in the frame, viewed as a couple. Such shots tend to be contrasted with shots of 'lone males', thus 'depicting female bonding as the exclusion of men'. Men in the film act as 'intermediaries' between the two women. Thus, in the nightclub scene, 'two male onlookers become intermediaries by diverting the women's glances and easing the tension created by their physical embrace'or again, the experience Léna has on the train with the soldier is a means of being initiated by Madeleine, who informs her that it was an orgasm; or, finally, it is Léna's husband who calls the women  dykes, 'not only reveal[ing] the fears of a jealous husband but confirm[ing] the audience's perceptions'. Ultimately, then, the only difference between a lesbian reading and a female bonding reading is one of degree, and degree of perception. As Straayer herself points out, Coup de foudre challenges mainstream cinema because it deals with female bonding, leading to ambivalence:

The focus on two women together threatens to establish both asexuality and homosexuality, both of which are outside the heterosexual desire which drives mainstream film and narrative. Therefore, simultaneous actions take place in the text to eroticize the women's interactions and to abort the resulting homoerotics. These very contradictions and opposing intentions cause the gaps and ambiguous figurations that allow lesbian readings.
It might have been possible at a greater level of abstraction to claim that the implicitness of the lesbian context reflects a specific strategy, close to Irigaray's contention that the only possible disruption of phallocratic law is not its attempted replacement, but a disruption and modification, 'starting from an "outside" that is exempt, in part, from phallocratic law' [Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 1985]. It is clear, however, that Coup de foudre does not construct a space outside the law, since there are obvious constraints on a lesbian reading, as indeed the same critics sympathetic to lesbian readings have pointed out.


The most striking of these constraints is the consistent use of the 'vous' form between the two women throughout the film, suggesting respectful distance. Kurys sees it as a phenomenon of its time; the 'strait-jacket side of the 1950s', she calls it, saying that the two women 'are intimate while keeping a kind of distance'. The presence of children, and of a child's viewpoint, also acts as a constraint for a lesbian reading, as Merck has explained, suggesting that

The sexual curiosity incited by [the film] is rendered innocent by [its] use of children as ... fascinated onlookers. Léna's husband - who experiences the film's one, very displaced, primal scene when he interrupts Madeleine and her art teacher dressing after sex - may 'wonder who's kissing her now', the soldiers may spy on Lén's seduction on the train, but then so do the little girls when they watch the maid kissing her boyfriend.
The only sex acts which are narrativized are heterosexual acts; sex between the two women is always displaced, for example in the ironically used song 'I wonder who's kissing her now', or in the relative lack of nudity, displaced onto the naked women Madeleine sculpts at home. It is true that there are moments of intimacy, such as the bedroom scene where Léna brushes against Madeleine's arm as they lie in bed, or the swimming-pool scene. In this scene, the two women look at themselves in the mirror; Léna says that she thinks her breasts are too small, to which Madeleine replies, 'they're adorable'; after a brief hesitation she says, 'why do I feel so good with you?' It is the women's intimacy which is stressed here, however, rather than their desire for each other. It is important, however, that their exchange is preceded by a man showing off his body to Léna by the side of the pool, the point being that sexual spectacle is contrasted with non-competitive female bonding. Indeed, this also seems to be the point of the scene in the nightclub, where the two women decide not to follow up a possible encounter with two men who have been watching them dance. The two women leave arm in arm, Léna saying that she did not feel like it because 'he had a skinny bottom'. Again, the possibility of heterosexual exchange is contrasted with non-sexual female intimacy. Even less equivocal are the two heterosexual encounters, Madeleine caught by Léna's husband after sex with her art teacher, and Léna herself, who has an orgasm after non-penetrative sex with a soldier on the train to Paris.

If I have spent some time reviewing the lesbian problematic raised by this film, it is partly to emphasize what we do not see, which as a result causes ambivalence on the two levels of cinematic identification.[...].The debate on whether the film constructs a lesbian viewpoint forces spectators to confront the woman-centredness of the film not just as a monolithic phenomenon, but as shifting, variable, and above all multiple. As soon as we start asking to what extent the film is lesbian, we are asking ourselves how the film constructs different and various female positions for the spectators (both male and female), not a single position, in opposition to the normative male position.

In the remainder of this chapter, I shall analyse two sequences of the film in detail, to show how the normative male position is undermined by the elaboration of a female-centred perspective. These two sequences act as keys to trace the move from male-dominated space where women are spectacles of the male gaze, to the literal breaking of the mould by the self-mutilating violence of the male, i.e. castration of the male and the introduction of a female-oriented gaze, whose function is to reject the male-centred position. The analysis of a third sequence, the final sequence of the film, with its problematic reuniting of male and female perspectives in the wistful gaze of the child, will force us to confront ambivalence head on.


The first sequence is the reunion between Léna and Madeleine; the second occurs shortly afterwards when Michel ransacks his wife's clothes shop. Léna and Madeleine's reunion is mainly filmed from Léna's point of view. It shows Léna's resolve and impatience through her abrupt and purposeful dialogue, and through extremely mobile  camerawork. This signals a change in the relationship between the two women, since Madeleine had up to this point been constructed as the more forceful and independent character.  Madeleine's mother, shot against a backdrop of window-rails, appears threatening, in a mise en scène suggesting imprisonment. The beginning of the sequence therefore constructs a scenario of initiation as Léna retrieves her now passive, melancholic lover from the negatively construed family. The remainder of the sequence functions as a transition from family space, which has obtained throughout the film at various points, mainly at mealtimes, to a female space. Straayer has pointed out how point of view neatly introduces the spectator into that female space:

The camera temporarily identifies with the look of Léna/Huppert approaching Madeleine/Miou-Miou through a subjective tracking shot,  and then holds steady while Léna enters the frame. The viewer is carried into the women's space via an identification with Léna's look, then observes their embrace from an invited vantage point.
A female perspective is constructed as a combination of passion in the form of the light wind (machine) ruffling the women's hair, and innocence, in the form of the cultivated garden, signifying the innocence of Eden, or at the very least a refuge, in contrast to the next shot of Madeleine's father and son in long shot framed by thick, and more obviously 'wild', foliage. As Straayer points out, however, this shot is important for the limits it imposes on the Edenic female space: 'These two males foreground the generation missing between them - Madeleine's husband. Hence their look both acknowledges and checks the dimensions of the women's visual exchange'. The next stage in the construction of a female perspective will call into question male authority and the violence which upholds it.

Not long after their reunion, Michel ransacks his wife's shop, driven wild when he sees Madeleine, whom he thought his wife had agreed never to see again in return for the buying of the shop. The sequence is characterized by fast cutting; from the shot in which Michel hurls the plant he has brought his wife down onto the glass table, there are seventeen shots in forty-seven second. [...]

The fact that Michel hurls an object at the camera and breaks the glass of the window suggests that the look of women has been 'let in' to rejoin that of the two women protagonists, thus creating a women's gaze, whose function is to critique Michel's stereotypical display of male violence. There is more than a critique in fact, since the only extreme close-up in the sequence is of Michel's bloodied hands, held over his genital area. The violence of the male has well and truly been castrated by the female gaze constructed  by the cinematography. Indeed, there is a small detail during the sequence which a first viewing does not show, but which is nevertheless clear. In shot 12, as Michel rages in front of two mirrors on the wall to his left, two women can be seen in the mirror closest to the camera. These women are not Madeleine and Léna, but members of the film crew, who also watch Michel attentively, but rapidly move out of shot as Michel jumps across the field of vision. Michel is thus surrounded by women gazing at him attentively, as he rampages in the shop.

A female perspective is therefore established by the ransacking of the shop. It is emphasized by the sequence which follows. Michel visits Costa, just as Léna had earlier in the film, to find out where the women have gone to. The sequence emphasizes male solitude in contrast to female solidarity. It is a mirror scene, but unlike the mirrors in the shop, where Madeleine and Léna looked at themselves together, Michel has his back to the mirror and grunts in response to Costa's question, suggesting by comparison with female bonding scenes that there is very little empathy between the two men. The fall of the male is highlighted by the play in which Costa is acting, Ruy Blas, by Victor Hugo. The dialogue we overhear is from Act 1, Scene iii; Costa plays a Falstaffian  nobleman who has seen better times, and who is about to be abducted and sold to pirates. The undermining of Costa is of course constant throughout the film, whether it be his attempts to sell questionable items, such as the stolen Modigliani, the untrainable dog Tito which turns out to be a bitch, or the consignment of US Army shirts with one sleeve only, or whether it be the way in which he is ridiculed by the two women for his attempts as a mime artist.

To recap, the film is less lesbian than woman-centred. It is woman-centred by virtue of its ridiculing and rejection of the men in the film. In this respect, the combination of lesbianism and nostalgia has a crucial part to play, since both help to emphasize that rejection. Lesbianism, however implicit, clearly suggests exclusion of the men.

Nostalgia provides a historical frame which emphasizes lesbianism in the sense that social structures in the 1950s clearly made lesbianism more problematic than in the more liberated 1990s. Audience awareness of social constraints turns even implicit lesbianism into a heroic struggle for affirmation, at the same time as it legitimizes that implicitness by suggesting that two women in this position could not have been open about their relationship. The woman-centredness of the film is brought into question, however,  by the final sequence, which reunites male and female perspectives in the wistful gaze of the child, despite the fact that narratively the sequence reiterates and emphasizes the exclusion of the male.


The final sequence of the film is ambiguous in its presentation of a woman-centred perspective, since the strong feeling of nostalgia which it conjures up is nostalgia for both father and mother. There is no reason why a woman-centred perspective should exclude the  possibility of nostalgia for the father, were it no for the fact that that perspective has been predicated on the exclusion of the father and the patriarchal law he represents. I shall first discuss how the final sequence, which begins with Léna and Michel's discussion at twilight overlooking the beach, constructs nostalgia for both father and mother, before turning to some final theoretical considerations.

There is a series of shot-reverse-shots of Michel and Léna broken by a medium long shot which introduces one of their daughters. This shot establishes the father as the object of the daughter's gaze, reintroducing the male as object of affection for the daughter, and therefore, at least potentially, as object of identification for the spectators. And yet three shots in particular reaffirm the female perspective. In the first, the camera pans right to frame the mother looking at her daughter. In the second, the daughter stares out to sea, just like her mother in the preceding shots. And in the third, Léna stares directly at the camera, which we assume to be in the daughter's position given that it is framed by shots of the daughter. These shots, then, are maintaining the female perspective, mapping daughter onto mother onto film-maker. On the other hand, ambiguity is is reintroduced in the two following shots, which echo the earlier close-ups of Michel and Léna, suggesting the mapping of daughter onto mother; but at the same time the position of the camera suggests that the daughter might just as well be looking longingly at her father as at the sea.

The final shot of the film carries an epigraph which tends to emphasize the father at the mother's expense. It reads: 'My father left at dawn. He never saw my mother again.' The epigraph could have read 'I/my mother never saw my father again.' The epigraph carries on: 'It is now two years since Madeleine died. To the three of them I dedicate this film', which merely confirms, by its final sentence, the attachment to the father at the same moment as it unequivocally establishes the nostalgic retrospection of the child's view.

It has to be said, of course, that in attempting to prove my point about the establishment of a woman-centred perspective, I omitted evidence which prepares the spectator psychologically for the return to the father. In spite of ridicule, Costa is ultimately presented as an endearing fool. As Madeleine says early on in the film, if she and Costa got married, it was because he made her laugh, as he also does the spectator in the bungled mime sequence. Equally, and more persuasively, given that the exclusion of the male centres principally upon him, Michel is not just presented negatively in his violence and possessiveness, but as a caring father to his children. This is in contrast to both Madeleine, whom we see more often than not berating her son, and even to Léna during the picnic sequence, where she complains when Michel and the girls play ball while she reads. We can add to this the section of the film where the two women forget one of Léna's children in the street due to their excitement over their common project of the shop. A wistful return to the father is then psychologically motivated for the spectator.

Nostalgia, and more particularly nostalgia for the father, and lesbianism are therefore far from being mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are interdependent, functioning to emphasize the rejection of the male perspective, lesbianism by its exclusiveness, and nostalgia by its historical valorization of that exclusiveness. The fact that nostalgia in the film includes the male perspective as much as it apparently excludes it suggests ambivalence.[...] The ambivalence I have indicated in the film, the interdependent  rejection and inclusion of the male perspective, is thus understandable as a function of nostalgia, insofar as nostalgia is constructed like mourning. It is both a protection against and a reparation of the lost object.[...]

In plainer, but oversimplified terms, the film criticizes the father (this constitutes the protective function), while at the same time longing for his imagined return (the mourning  for and imagined reparation of the lost object). Nostalgia, by its very constitution as a process, requires the  kind of splitting procedure exemplified by this conjunction of rejection and inclusion of the father. The spectator is placed in a position of mourning which attempts to reintegrate what has been lost: the good objects, the parents before the separation, as the opening sequences also suggest with their emphasis on loss (Léna's mother, her friend's husband, Madeleine's husband) and separation (the difficulties L6na and Michel have in making contact). Coup de foudre may have been read as lesbian by some spectators, faute de mieux [for lack or want of anything better]. Ultimately, however, lesbianism is displaced not just by lack of explicitness, but also by the work of the camera and editing, which establishes nostalgia for the lost father as a major part of the film's concerns. The crisis of masculinity dominates even films  which might have been thought to escape th mould. © Phil Powrie, French Cinema in the1980s, 1997.

Film 5  -   French Twist - Gazon maudit (1995). A film by Josiane Balasko

    Cheating husband Laurent has it all - a beautiful wife, a good job and two adorable children. Somehow that isn't enough - he just can't stop having affairs. Loli, his gorgeous wife, fed up with Laurent's unexpected evening appointments, meets and is seduced by Marijo, a butch cigar-smoking lesbian. When Loli hears of her husband's adulterous activities, she is outraged and Marijo moves in to become her live-in lover. With Laurent's male ego in tatters, the stage is set for a sexy hilarious menage a trois battle for Loli's sexual favours. Will Laurent go to where no man has gone before to win his wife back?
     Actress/Director Josiane Balasko's latest film 'French Twist' [was] the second most popular film of the 1995 French box office. Balasko, one of the most popular French filmmakers, has always been a comic actress and author. Through 'French Twist' she wanted to talk about lesbianism to a large audience without hurting lesbian sensitivities and also to erase the guilt from lesbianism. Balasko blames poor promotion by the agencies for the absence of an international market for French cinema. She strongly denies any feminist leanings and believes that her films address everybody.

Avec Gazon maudit, Josiane Balasko aborde un sujet délicat et peu traité au cinéma. La cinéaste estime qu'il s'agissait d'un "pari difficile, puisque je n'avais pour références en la matière que des films pour la plupart faits par des hommes concernant les hommes, l'homosexualité masculine ayant été déclinée à l'écran sous toutes les coutures, à la différence du lesbianisme, plongé dans le silence du non-dit."
= With French Twist, Josiane Balasko tackles a delicate subject rarely seen in the movies. She admits that it was a "quite a challenge, since the only reference on the subject were films made for the most part by men and dealing with the men, male homosexuality  having been presented on the screen under every angle, while lesbianism has remained in the silence domain of the not-said."


Twist and Farce by Ginette Vincendeau

    Marijo is an unemployed musician and a lesbian. When her van breaks down, she stops at the house of the beautiful Loli, near Avignon. Loli alone at home with her two small children, gives her some coffee and they strike up a friendship. Laurent, Lolita’s womanising husband (an estate agent) immediately distrusts Marijo and wants her to go. He leaves, however, to meet another woman. After dining with Loli, Marijo eventually leaves, though she returns in the middle of the night. The following day she invites Loli and Laurent to a restaurant, with Laurent's friend and business partner, Antoine. When Laurent notices Marijo fondling Loli's knee under the table he makes a violent scene. He orders Marijo to go away and bars Loli from his bed. He goes on a bicycle trip with Antoine, gets very drunk and crashes his bicycle.

    Meanwhile Marijo has come back and she and Loli make love. Antoine inadvertently tells Loli of Laurent's numerous affairs. She installs Marijo at home and works out a weekly arrangement whereby she sleeps with Marijo and Laurent three nights each and one night alone. The situation breaks down when two of Marijo's friends, including an ex-lover, drop by. Jealous, Loli leaves home temporarily and demands Marijo's departure. Marijo agrees, but unknown to Loli, on condition that Laurent makes her pregnant. Several months elapse. Loli meets Marijo's ex-lover on a train bound towards Paris, and learns that Marijo is pregnant and working in a gay night-club in Paris. Thinking she has been betrayed, she decides to go and make a scandal: Laurent joins her by plane. A scene takes place at the nightclub and Marijo is sacked, whereupon she goes into labour. Later, Marijo, Loli, and Laurent are seen living happily all together, with Loli and Laurent's two children and Marijo's baby. Laurent is called to see a client. Diego; while they discuss the deal it is clear that the two men are attracted to each other.

    The strength of Josiane Balasko's French Twist, and the reason for its huge success in France, is that it revives the tired, though ever popular, triangular structure of the French vaudeville farce—man, wife and lover—with topical issues and the dynamism of modern comic acting.

    The original title of French Twist, Gazon maudit (literally 'cursed lawn' is one of the metaphors for female genitalia discussed by the giggly Marijo and Loli after their first dinner. It sets the tone for the film's representation of lesbianism: both oblique and frankly stereotypical. 'Butch' and 'femme' are taken to their limits in the looks of the two actresses. "Mummy, there's a man at the door," says one of Loli's children when the stocky and short-haired Marijo first calls in trucker's jeans and cap, while the adorable Loli, frequently holding a child in her arms, is all lissome curves, cascading curls and girly frocks. The lesbian as a mannish (and childless) woman, literally an outsider, is thus immediately evoked. Moreover, French Twist is clearly not interested in the politics of lesbianism: issues are dealt with on a stnctly personal level Within this format however, Balasko explores the myth of the 'normal' family and pinpoints the double standards of the laddish husband.

    In a scene apparently cut in the film's American release print, Antoine is seen attempting to seduce a young woman who is (unknown to him) his estranged daughter. The daughter has set up the encounter to check that her mother's derogatory portrait of her father is accurate. The scene economically condenses patriarchy's 'own goal': male predatory sexuality leads to men's loss of patriarchal power. In this respect, French Twist uses the figure of the lesbian as a catalyst. She reveals the problems of the heterosexual family and ultimately resolves them through motherhood. More than "love conquers all" the idea is that "maternity conquers all”. A conservative discourse in some ways, but one which relocates power structure of the family along the mother-child axis; the large audience for the film in France would seem to indicate the acceptability, and thus recognition, of this phenomenon. The reduction of man to mere instrument of procreation is made plain in the very funny yet rather uncomfortable scene in which Laurent and Marijo force themselves, to 'make love' in order for Marijo to become pregnant. And while Marijo is initially the outsider, she becomes the figure of identification. The film laughs with her, not at her.

    Balasko, as a director, is aware of her theatrical and filmic comic heritage The ménage à trois scenes are a witty reprise, with the 'twist' of lesbianism of Labiche, Feydeau, Guitry and a host of other classic comedies, with frantic bedroom interchanges, slammed doors, and comic domestic scenes. An as in the best of this tradition. Balasko’s timing is almost consistently excellent. That this type of comedy depends on precise mechanism shows on the few occasions when the film sags, or, on the contrary, when it strays into slapstick, as in the scene where Laurent's bike crashes into a pig. This scene also demonstrates the difference between successful stereotype (Marijo) and unsuccessful caricature (the two English sisters, apparently always sexually available for the men’s visits). But Balasko, as director and actress, is also a prime exponent of a more modern comic tradition, that of the café-théâtre. Born in the wake of May 1968, café-théâtre humour combines topical issues, derision and naturalistic performances. Balasko, known in Britain for her dramatic role in Bertrand Blier's Trop belle pour toi, is here a consummate comic actress precisely because she injects a stereotype with a subtle, intimate performance. Abril who, in the last few years, has begun to carve out a comic career in France alongside her Almodovar résumé, employs her Spanish sex bomb’s image to excellent effect. As Laurent, Alain Chabat, a well-known television comic, is a triumph of bemused ordinariness.

    Beyond their contemporary resonance, French Twist's 'new family' and sexual mores also strongly evoke Balasko’s café-théâtre origins. A congenial, utopian atmosphere bathes the film, from its credit sequence evocation of Procol Harum's 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' to the ending and its hint of gay male couple joining the group, as in Coline Serreau's 1977 "Pourquoi pas!"  As with Serreau’s films, it is easy to criticise this gently comic, utopian perspective as undermining the serious issues raised by the film. Nevertheless, while Pourquoi pas! was an independent art film with a limited distribution, French Twist made a lesbian relationship acceptable to a mass family audience,which is no mean achievement.  © Sight and Sound, April 1996.

Another (feminist) review  By Linda Lopez McAlister

    One of the promotional images for Josiane Balasko's film prominently features Victoria Abril's curvy backside. A wireback chair frames her with an approximate heart shape, leading your eye to her just-below-frame derrière. She glances right, in profile, and wields a cigar. She looks demure and seductive, winsome and assertive.

    The mixed message of Abril's pose is to the point of the film's schizo affects: it's charming and obnoxious, progressive and retro. This is French Farce, with a familiar emphasis on sexual appetites and domestic abuses, all played as broad comedy, and all resolved by film's end (by way of happy pregnancy), so no one feels bad. The twist is that the movie's generic sexplay includes lesbianism, which still passes for daring, or at least somewhat unconventional, subject matter. That said subject matter is used toward exactly the same end that more typical subject matter might be used might be understood as some version of social and political progress.  Now jokes made at the expense of a "diesel dyke'' can be as inane as those jokes made at the expense of a "lunkhead husband.''

    Abril plays a French housewife, Loli. She's feeling confused: she's beautiful, sexy, a good mother (two kids) but she's also unhappy, sensing but not quite sure that her husband is sleeping around. Laurent (Alain Chablat, who is effectively unctuous and annoying) is a real estate agent who has sex with all of his wealthy female clients. It's not exactly clear why the women desire the boorish, self-absorbed Laurent, but this is the film's narrative point of departure: Loli is lonely and Laurent is not.

     Enter Marijo (played by writer-director Balasko), whose elaborately painted minivan breaks down near Loli's suburban driveway. Conveniently and symbolically, Loli's sink has just sprung a leak, and Marijo, being a truckdriver and a "mannish lesbian'' (she smokes cigars, wears pants and her hair short) knows how to fix it. When Loli learns that Laurent is skipping dinner for an evening "meeting,'' she invites Marijo to stay. The women talk and smoke and laugh, and by the end of the evening they're both quite  smitten with each other. Loli is a bit taken aback by her own desire, displacing it onto Laurent when he comes home. He's already tired of course, and resists her advances.

      It's not long before Laurent, who is evidently much more observant than his wife, picks up on the women's mutual attraction. The movie then spends much time observing the results of his anxiety: he can't get it up with his buxom dates, he gets drunk and complains loudly to his Fred-Mertz-meets-Tony-Randallish best friend (Ticky Holgado), and he repeatedly gets up in Marijo's face to have it out "man to man.'' (At one point when she's outside waiting to speak with Loli, he goes to his balcony naked, displaying his penis because "it will do her good.'' We're invited to laugh at his silly guyness.)

       The farce mechanisms kick in hard when the three of them (plus the prop-kids) decide to live together, with Marijo and Laurent in separate bedrooms, taking turns sleeping with Loli. She luxuriates in their fighting over her, but gets jealous when one of Marijo's ex-girlfriends arrives for a brief visit (Abril has a tough part here: Loli is pretty stubbornly shallow). What's ultimately tiresome is the glib use of formula: it appears that a simple change of gender suffices to make a banal plot look vaguely new but familiar enough to be reassuring. PremièreMagazine  has recently (March 1996) spotlighted Balasko as someone who might "make French film accessible'' to an apparently recalcitrant U.S. audience (and what about Depardieu? Or Truffaut or Deneuve for that matter?).  As France's nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, French Twist  is getting media attention, which means it might even garner an audience beyond "arthouse.''

      That it makes nice with these potential viewers isn't a bad thing.  And there are some good reasons to see this film. Abril does physical comedy, including elaborate harrumphing and wide-eyed reaction shots, as well as anyone and Holgado has a great elasti-face. I found myself wishing, though, that the film would cut loose a little from its "accessible'' generic framework.

Main article: Gazon maudit: French national and sexual identities

By Lucille Cairns

Gazon maudit, written and directed by Josiane Balasko, was a huge  box-office hit when it was released in France in 1995: a surprising success, perhaps, given the film's spotlight on lesbianism, a subject not normatively regarded as particularly congenial to mainstream audiences,' and given, also, the film's apparent dislocation of that privileged social configuration, the 'normal' family. In her review of the film for Diva, a British lesbian magazine, Gillian Rodgerson recalls one reaction overheard as the credits rolled: 'the straight, middle-aged woman behind me drawled to her companion: "So that's what the French get up to!" ' Rodgerson's anecdote is followed by a claim which makes an interesting starting point for discussion: 'Ironic or not, her remarks do illustrate our view of French sexuality as just somehow more complex and naughty than our own.

The view summed up by Rodgerson is predicated on the perception of various arguably national traditions: those of French libertinage, French farce, and French contestation of conservative norms. It is a view which can easily over-estimate French tolerance of deviance from norms. The comic tradition of French sauciness has been overwhelmingly heterosexual in structure and logic. Equally, popular forms of entertainment and recreation have been subject to the surveillance of successive heterocratic regimes, as is illustrated by two twentieth-century examples. When Colette and the Marquise de Belboeuf, alias Missy, performed 'Egyptian Dream', a mime act with definite lesbian overtones, at the Moulin Rouge on 3 January 1907, the performance was stopped by an outraged audience, and the Marquise was requested by the Prefect of Police to refrain from taking part in any further  performances.' And on 1 February 1949, in the wake of the so-called Liberation, an edict issued by the  Paris Prefect of Police proclaimed that 'dans tous les bals, établissements et lieux publics, il est interdit aux hommes de danser entre eux."  Homosexuality is certainly less repressed in contemporary French society: since the early 1970s, successive gay groups have emerged; in 1982, the gay age of consent for sexual acts performed in private was harmonized with the heterosexual age of consent; and Gay Pride marches now take place every year. But the heterosexual family, which since the nineteenth century has been more of conscious priority in France than in Britain (because of chronic demographic anxieties about falling birth rates and consequent threats to national survival, both economic and military), has formed and still forms one of the most salient constituents of French national identity in the modern era.' The content of Gazon maudit seems subversive in its flouting of this sacred cow; how, then, might we explain the film's immense popularity in a nation which takes the institution of family so seriously?

A number of responses suggest themselves. Firstly, and most obviously, the film is amusing. Comic treatment of a dissident sexuality is palatable in the late twentieth century because it does not demand a politicized reaction (although it does not, crucially, preclude one). Secondly, the film's formulae are familiar and accessible. The narrative is linear; as Ginette Vincendeau remarks, there is 'the tired, though ever popular, triangular structure of the French vaudeville farce - man, wife and lover'; conventional narrative codes are deployed (for instance, instead of showing sex between two women, the film uses the techniques of ellipsis and beatific music to convey Loli's post-orgasmic high); and two popular traditions are invoked: that of farce, sometimes shading into slapstick (such as in the fisticuffs scene between Marijo the bull-dyke and Laurent, Loli's womanising, dyke-hating husband), and that of heterosexist stereotype.

The first tradition is what makes the film entertaining, and the second is what makes it interesting - for the tradition of heterosexist stereotype is exploited rather than simply upheld. Balasko plays with stereotypes; but, beyond this ludicity, does her film ultimately challenge them? One of my aims here is to explore to what extent Gazon maudit, within the sécurisant [= safe] context of comedy, either services or subverts normative conceptualisations of dissident sexualities and of the family within the context of French national identity. To this end, I shall engage with a number of claims made by Vincendeau in her stimulating and incisive review of the film. Vincendeau states that Gazon maudit 'is clearly not interested in the politics of lesbianism'.' But lesbians may be interested in the politics of her film. It is axiomatic that no representation of a minority group can be innocent; it ineluctably makes judgments, which in turn gives rise to questions of power. Vincendeau's assertions that Gazon maudit 's representation of lesbianism is 'both oblique and frankly stereotypical', that the film 'reveals the problems of the heterosexual family', and that it made a lesbian relationship acceptable to a mass family audience' will provide fruitful scope for analysis.

'Frankly stereotypical': from the very first appearances of Marijo and Loli, the mainstream audience is reassured by the familiar visual code of representation - the butch-femme dyad. Interspersing the credits, the opening sequences feature a conspicuously mannish-looking woman (Marijo, played by Balasko) driving a van; later on, when Laurent sees her, he immediately and contemptuously pigeon-holes her as a 'gouine' (dyke). Conversely, the first images of Loli instantly establish her as feminine according to established canons, indulgent and loving in her maternal role. The audience is thus not challenged in its assumptions about lesbian styles and aesthetics, at least not initially. True, the hackneyed model of the butch-femme is subtly offset later on. But for the greater part of the film, stereotypes of lesbians seem to be reinforced. This may perhaps serve to inveigle the mass family audience, lulling it into a sense of security which blunts the impact of the rather less conformist representation of lesbians in later parts of the film. Dany (one of Marijo's ex-lovers), for instance, is neither excessively feminine nor excessively masculine. The women at the lesbian nightclub in Paris reveal a far greater range of styles and types than the reductive butch-femme dyad admits. Further, the butch and femme characters of Marijo and Loli respectively undergo a subtle transformation. When we see her in a train some time after Marijo's departure, Loli, still very attractive, is newly androgynous, her short hair and sober trouser-suit contrasting with the cascading curls and girlish frocks of before. In counterpart, the butchness of Marijo is much attenuated: though her hairstyle and sartorial habits remain unaltered, she acquires through motherhood a softer, more feminine glow (as witnessed in the somewhat schmaltzy shots of her doting on her child). But it could be contended that, even before giving birth, she combines a hard masculine image and manners with feminine tenderness, discernible, for example, in  her comforting a distressed Loli out of what seems to be genuinely disinterested love, and in her compassion towards Laurent as he sinks into depression: it is she, his despised rival, who magnanimously exhorts Loli to mercy, which leads to the sharing arrangement between the trio (Loli spending three nights with Marijo, three nights with Laurent, and one by herself).

Does this new set of lesbian images displace the unashamed stereotype which dominates the greater part of the film? Maybe, for those who desire such a displacement. What is likely to remain engraved in the minds of the mainstream audience, however, is the classic, familiar model. This model is the most lisible [readable] for the collective heterocratic consciousness, since the butch-femme coupling can be construed as dependent on, and thus inferior to, the heterosexual model, with one woman remaining a woman and the other aping the man. Such an interpretation can, of course, be disputed, particularly with reference to Judith Butler's cogent work on gender. Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity  posits a more dissident dynamic, that of  parody and redeployment, within the sexual stylization of butch-femme identities. 'The notion of an original or primary gender identity is often parodied within [...] the sexual stylisation of butch-femme identities' (:137). As she observes, 'Within feminist theory, such parodic identities have been understood to be [...] an uncritical appropriation of sex-role stereotyping from within the practice of heterosexuality' (:137). She argues, however, that such parody destabilizes, through denaturalizing sex and gender. 'The notion of gender parody defended here does not assume that there is an original which such parodic identities imitate.Indeed, the parody is of the very notion of an original [...]' (: 13 8). While Butler's argument is a compelling one, it may not be the most appropriate in the case of Gazon maudit's general reception,  since, as she herself acknowledges, 'Parody by itself is not subversive'; while 'certain types of parodic repetitions' are 'effectively disruptive, truly troubling', others 'become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony' (:139). For a parodic performance of gender to disrupt heterocratic norms, it has to be perceived  as parodic, and it is highly questionable whether the subtleties of Butler's analysis have widely informed the general reception and understanding of Gazon maudit. Assuming that the more common perception of the butch- femme coupling in the film is likely to have been that of  derivative dependency on and, by implication, inferiority to the heterosexual model, we might propose that a more radically destabilizing scenario would have been for Loli to team up with  another equally feminine-looking woman, for in such a union the male element would have been  elided. As it is, the male element persists, on at least two levels: that of hegemonic views of gender identity, as suggested by Laurent's insinuation that Marijo is merely an ersatz male, and, secondly, that of biology: sperm (Laurent's) is an indispensable commodity for the mannish lesbian's 'true' fulfilment, achieved in motherhood.

On these points, it is interesting to note Gillian Rodgerson's  comment that 'British dykes might not have minded that Loli and Marijo make a fairly classic butch-femme duo, but some did have a problem with another plot twist. Marijo wants a child and decides that Laurent is the perfect donor. Balasko didn't really answer when I asked why the script calls  for the two actually to have sex but I suppose Gazon maudit  is a sex farce, not a syringe farce.' This is a scene to which I will return; for the moment, let us revert to Vincendeau's analysis.

Vincendeau is certainly justified in qualifying the film's representation of lesbianism as 'oblique'. The mass family audience is never offended by explicit sex between the two women. It is tantalized, even titillated, by the lustful kisses, touches and squeezes exchanged by the two women; but each such shot is cut short, and the promise of lesbian love-making  vaporizes. When Marijo returns in the night after her first evening with Loli, on the pretext of having left behind her wallet and identity papers, ellipsis is deployed to suggest without actually showing sex between the two women: they embrace, then the camera cuts to a shot of Loli looking euphoric. The hyperbole of her enraptured expression, reinforced by the epiphanic music on the soundtrack, confirms the woman's gratification through the comic codes of excess. Balasko could be accused of  pandering to dominant notions of good taste in using such devices to convey Loli's high after the  event, rather than having that event enacted. Film is a visual medium, but lesbian sex is invisible in this film. This may be a judicious commercial calculation on Balasko's part, but by the same token it could be criticized by lesbian viewers as selling out, and as censorship of what differentiates innocuous same-sex sentiment from subversive same-sex passion. In her interview with Thierry Jousse, Balasko claims: 'je me suis donné comme principe d'éviter le voyeurisme. Le voyeurisme est purement masculin et le voyeurisme devant deux femmes faisant l'amour, on le trouve dans n'importe quel film porno. En revanche, la force des sentiments - beaucoup plus violente - m'intéresse davantage. [...] C'est peut-être plus dérangeant que de voir deux femmes se caresser et rouler sur un lit. Les sentiments sont beaucoup plus dérangeants que l’acte sexuel.'(As a matter of principle I decided to avoid voyeurism. Voyeurism is purely a male thing, and showing two women making love, you find that in any porno movie. I am more interested however in the power of the feelings ? which is something much more violent [...] It is perhaps more disturbing to see two women caressing each other and rolling over a bed than viewing the sexual act.)

These statements simultaneously invite dissent and assent. On the first count, Balasko is right in implying that lesbian sex scene are a commonplace in pornographic films designed primarily for male heterosexual consumption. But this does not mean that any filmic representation of lesbian sex is inevitably pornographic or voyeuristic. The proble with Balasko's stance is that it posits a male heterosexual viewer and neglects to ask whether some lesbian viewers might not havc appreciated an enactment, non-prurient of course, of lesbian love-making. One doubts that this was beyond the bounds of Balasko's imagination. But even if it was, she could surely have consulted real lesbians for tips, Rodgerson notes that Balasko did not consult any of her lesbian friends about character development, and quotes her as saying 'I didn't need to make an inquest.[...] In myself I found the way to play this  character. I realized that love is the same, the feelings are the same, jealousy is the same, the desire for  possession is the same. The technique may be different..."' Quite. The techniques (I pluralize intentionally) are indeed different, and exploration of this difference might have enriched and further authenticated the film for lesbian viewers.

One could take a cynical view of Balasko's hypothesis that 'la force des sentiments [...]est peut-être plus dérangeant[el que de voir deux femmes se caresser et rouler sur un lit', and infer that she feared alienating the mainstream family audience by explicit lesbian sex scenes. French national identity appears relatively disinclined to provide a space for  representation of lesbianism; possible reasons for this will be explored later, but the situation is summed up tellingly in the words of Carole Kéruzoré, president of the new French lesbian organization named 'Les Lesbiennes se déchaînent':'On parle très peu de nous. Notre sexualité reste très floue dans l'esprit des gens."' (Very little is said about us [lesbians]. Our sexuality remains vry fuzzy in the minds of people.).Balasko was perhaps unwilling to take the risk of making that sexuality clearer to the mainstream audience on whose tolerance threshold, as much as anything else, the  commercial success of her film depended. Conversely, one could credit her with sincerity, and credit the feelings her two principal female protagonists express for one another with more weight than their comic vehicle would seem to support. Her assertion intersects with observations made in more serious contexts by such intellectual grandees as Michel Foucaul and David Halperin. Foucault opined that:

Imagining a sexual act that does not conform to the law or to nature, that's not what upsets people. But that individuals might begin to love each other, that's the problem. That goes against the grain of social institutions: they are already crisscrossed by emotional intensities which both hold them in place and fill them with turmoil - look at the army, where love  between men is endlessly solicited and stigmatized. The institutional regulations cannot approve such [emotional] relations [between men], with their multiple intensities, variable colorations,  imperceptible movements, and changing forms - relations that produce a short circuit and introduce love where there ought to be law, regularity and custom.

'Hence', as David Halperin comments, 'it is "the homosexual way of life" that, according to Foucault, is much more threatening "than the sexual act itself". (Which may be why it is easier to legalize gay sex than gay marriage.)"'

In Gazon maudit, a lesbian love goes against the grain of a specific institution: the patriarchal family. It enrages the representative of that institution's apex, the husband, who is symbolically castrated, and himself admits how much less disturbing it would have been for Loli to have fallen for another man.[...], Laurent is utterly disarmed by his inability to compete with unknown and unknowable lesbian jouissance.[= sexual pleasure] Laurent's refuge lies in vapid phallocentrism, witnessed, for example, in his efforts to insult Marijo by the taunt 'les couilles te manquent', (you don’t have balls) and in his plaintive laments to his friend Antoine: 'Elle se tape la gouine [...] Pourquoi avec cette espèce d'ersatz?' (For him, a lesbian lover can only be an inferior substitute for the plenitude of phallic man. Yet he is forced to admit defeat, as in his reproach to Marijo: 'Vous êtes en train de détruire mon foyer.' (= You are destroying my family). However, he has not a moral leg to stand on; his past wrongs against his wife come home to roost, and his own responsibility in the breakdown of family life as he knows it becomes obvious.

This brings us to Vincendeau's claims that Gazon maudit  'reveals the problems of the heterosexual family', and that it 'made a lesbian relationship acceptable to a mass family audience'. I would give a qualified assent to.the first statement, but would wish to problematize the second. The film evidently does reveal certain problems of the heterosexual family, but does it truly challenge that institution? In the film, these problems appear to boil down to male irresponsibility and philandering (epitomized by Laurent, but reiterated also in the rather pathetic attempts of Antoine to seduce a young woman who is in fact, unbeknownst to him, his long-estranged daughter). At the start of the film, Loli seems contented in her orthodox role as wife and  mother (although occasionally nostalgic about her former dancing career, she does not question her renunciation of it in the name of love); her only source of discontent is her husband's absences, and later on, discovery of the reason behind them (his sexual infidelities). In fact, it is pique at Laurent's absence from the family home that causes her to invite Marijo to stay for that fateful dinner. And  although love between the two women is powerfully conveyed, this love is ultimately reconciled with Loli's enduring love for her husband rather than supplanting it. By the end of the film, the crisis of the heterosexual family suddenly, and with comic implausibility, cedes to utopian idyll. At Loli's behest, Marijo and her baby have moved in permanently with her and Laurent, father of the baby. The last shot of the two women features them more as mothers than as lesbians. Of course the two are patently not incompatible, and prominent film scholar Susan Hayward has averred that it is precisely the combination of lesbianism and motherhood which is truly transgressive in Gazon maudit. Hayward's argument has much to commend it: the scene may be read as infringing cultural norms by showing two mothers who remain lesbians, yoking two categories popularly deemed  incommensurable due to the purported naturalness of the former and the purported unnaturalness of the latter.

However, close scrutiny of the scene may lead to doubts about whether it actually does continue to signify the two women qua [ = as] lesbians. They kiss, yes; but is the kiss enacted erotically or merely affectionately? If merely affectionately, as I would suggest (the kiss seems like a routine peck, and insignificant in comparison with the attention showered on the infant; insignificant, too, in comparison with the passionate kiss Loli has minutes before planted on Laurent), in what sense can it be taken as signifying lesbianism, if lesbianism, as is my contention, involves sexual attraction, as well as love and affection, between women? Clearly, affection and eroticism are not mutually exclusive;  but my point is that the emphasis of this last shot of the two women is not on what would distinguish them as lesbians. Occupying centre groun is love for the baby and affection for one another, rather than lesbian desire; the latter, it seems to me, has been bowdlerized, downgraded to a fondness merging into the ocean of cooing maternal love. This is in fact the only type of lesbian relationship which is enduringly  'acceptable' to a mainstream audience: one in which lesbian desire takes back seat to the  putatively more natural instincts of mothering and nurturing; and, significantly, one in which the patriarchal figure is respected (in the scene where Laurent visits his new baby before leaving for work, Marijo repeatedly directs the child's attention to its father: 'Regarde, C’est papa [...] Au revoir papa). = Look, it’s daddy [...] Bye, daddy.

So what has changed? It appears that, close to the end of the film, the heterosexual family has undergone extension rather than demolition. Its appendage is the extra mother; the husband/father figure which is its traditional cornerstone is still firmly in place, even fêted by all. It could even be argued that Loli's sexual involvement with Marijo was a mere dalliance serving as a strategy of revenge against her womanizing husband, and that the film positions homosexuality as an available choice for fully socialized heterosexual family members rather than as anything more destabilizing. By the end, the temporarily dislocated heterosexual family has been restored to its 'natural' order, with its ability to accommodate extension and appendage simply serving to reiterate its perennial strength.

The final scene, showing Laurent's move into the gay market, transfers our attention from lesbianism onto male sexuality. There is little doubt that, in the crosscutting of shots at the close of the film, it is the interaction between Laurent and the dashing Diego rather than that between the women which is the more charged and the more intriguing. The film ends with its focus on Laurent: on his having learned his lesson that family is supreme, and that if a man wishes to supplement his conjugal sexual diet, he had better do so not with another woman but with another man, homosexual flings being less serious than straight ones, and ultimately no threat to the family. It is precisely as a heterosexual père de famille  [father and head of the family] that he has the right to indulge in homosexuality, as a sideline.

It is relevant here to foreground another of Balasko's comments  during her interview in Diva  regarding the words 'gazon maudit'. Noting that the title of the film 'is itself a comment on the position of lesbians in French society. Gazon maudit  means "cursed lawn" but gazon  is also a word for pubic hair', (see note). Rodgerson quotes Balasko as saying: 'I like the expression because it's not vulgar or coarse or crude. It's poetic and it explains clearly that lesbianism has- always been more forbidden than male homosexuality'." Historically 'more forbidden' than male homosexuality, lesbianism in Gazon maudit is apparently legitimized, only to be watered down in the milk of motherhood and to be upstaged by a yet more empowered variant of male heterosexuality: one that can simultaneously maintain its pivotal position in the family and indulge in gay flings. Laurent can have his cake and eat it.

This reading of Gazon maudit  may appear ungenerous and unfair, especially in view of Balasko's laudable project to give lesbianism a long overdue cinematic representation (Alain Riou quotes her as saying: J'ai trouvé qu'au cinéma il y avait un véritable manque dans la représentation de l'homosexualité féminine. Il y a beaucoup de films qui montrent avec justesse les hommes qui aiment les hommes. Pour les femmes qui aiment les femmes, rien, sauf des mélos vaguement littéraires, ou des films érotiques faits pour exciter les mâles.  Sur la lesbienne de base, l'archétype, rien. J'ai voulu aborder la question par la comédie, bien sûr, puisque c'est ma façon d'écrire') (I discovered that there was a real lack in representing woman homosexuality in cinema. There are many films that show well men who love men. For women who love women, there is nothing except vaguely literary melodramas, or erotic movies made to excite the males. On the basic lesbian, nothing. I wanted to tackle the problem, by means of a comedy of course, since this is my own way of writing.)  Amore charitable interpretation might argue for the sexual politics of the film as kaleidoscopic: assembling diverse forms of desire, mingling and collapsing them to the point where a unitary analysis becomes impossible and irrelevant. The interest of the scene of contractual sex between the hitherto firmly gay Marijo and the hitherto 'gouine'-hating Laurent lies in its polysemy. Balasko's own attitude towards this scene has been labile [= instable]. In her February 1996 interview she insisted on its comic nature and on an absence of desire between the two contractors ('A lot of heterosexual people would expect her to sleep with the guy and then discover this pleasure. [...]  To me, it was a scene that seemed very funny. The comedy comes from the fact that they have no desire for each other and they must make love. It's a chore.' However, less than a year before she had given a very different judgment of the same scene: 'C'est une des scènes les plus érotiques du film.[...] On ne saura jamais s'ils ont éprouvé du plaisir ou non, l'ambiguïté persiste.' (It’s one of the film’s most erotic scenes. One will never know whether they experienced pleasure or not, the ambiguity remains.)  And indeed, Marijo's transition from apathetic resignation to sudden physical movement, coupled with her intense facial expression at the very end of the scene, raises the same question: has this been a revelation? Has she experienced sexual pleasure for the first time with a man? It could be argued that any sexual pleasure felt by Marijo derives from her fantasizing about Loli rather than concentrating on Laurent, who had himself exhorted that they both think hard about Loli in order to facilitate the ordeal. This is a tenable supposition, but it fails to account for the ambiguity which the scene generates, raising further questions. If Balasko intended that we understand Marijo to have experienced sexual pleasure through fantasising about Loli, why has the director chosen not to confirm this? Why did she choose to have Marijo focus intently on Laurent and to make no reference to Loli? Are the implications of the permeability and vulnerability of a veteran lesbian character to hetero-male desire merely symptomatic of the film's reluctance to accord full status to any form of homosexual relationship, lesbian or gay?

Crucial to the cultural intelligibility of Gazon maudit  in France is its implicit promotion both of the hegemonic social unit - the heterosexual family - and of the Northern/Southern European divide. The interplay between stereotypes of national/regional identity and sexual identity functions to endorse cultural myths and normative models of social organization. The Parisian dyke scene purveys an image of lesbians as one small, peripheral part of French national identity, and advertises the ability of the French to accommodate, contain, and ghettoize sexualities which do not fit into the hegemonic social unit of the heterosexual family. The centre of French national identity in this film is displaced from Paris, mediated as locus of social exoticism, to the Midi (the film is shot in Avignon, Cavaillon and Roussillon), with its constellation of traditional family-based values. This is most obvious in the figure of Loli, who at the Parisian dyke nightclub insists that Marijo and her baby come back to live with her and Laurent, thus in the South, claiming that a child needs a mother and a father: 'C'est comme ça que ça se passe chez nous', (That’s the way we do things done at home) meaning, presumably, in Spain - a country where the family is still considered to be of paramount importance. It is also discernible in all three of the other sexual players in the film: Laurent, Diego and Marijo. Laurent embodies Mediterranean macho man - a figure who is, by the end of the film, reformed in the sense that he is newly cognizant of the centrality of love for wife and children; henceforth his sexual adventures will not threaten the integrity of the family, for they will 'only' be homosexual dalliances, which have historically been permissible to Mediterranean man provided he treat them as the peripheral and necessarily discreet indulgences they have tacitly been treated as in Southern cultures. Diego, largely a feminized figure, pays tribute to phallic machismo: his Catalan utterance at the end of the film can loosely be translated as 'Power to the penis'. Finally, it is reiterated by the fact that the ephemeral threat to Loli's commitment to good Southern values is configured in a lesbian from Paris: until her recuperation within the framework of motherhood, Marijo is a sexual and a cultural outsider.

The final scenes of Gazon maudit serve to focus the drama in terms of its impact on Laurent, and on his successful emergence from the sequence of humiliating castrations he has undergone. Balasko titillates, with he kaleidoscopic inversions and reversals of normative sexual patterns, but ensures that all elements settle in their proper place by the end; ultimately her film comes nowhere near genuine dislocation of the normative family model so integral to French national identity, The philandering husband is duly punished, but his repentance and return to the family fold both restore him to his former position at its centre and grant him new scope for sexual games outside the sanctity of that family fold, with the proviso that they do not jeopardize its integrity. What better avenue than gay flings - from the heteronormative optic, the epitome of triviality?

Thus, although the traditional family has undergone two extensions to it: customary territory (appendage of Marijo as the extra mother, courtesy of Laurent's seminal powers; and Laurent's lush, exotic little conservatory of gay flirtation), its integrity remains intact, and indeed central to the film. This is all perfectly consonant with traditional French national identity though the specific model invoked in Gazon maudit  is the Southern, Latin variety, in which, as we have seen, the locus of the family and its enduring heritage within the individual is the supreme reference-point within the general moral topography. French national identity, like Laurent, is able to have its cake and eat it; the French nation is projected as strong and sophisticated enough to tolerate (and contain) a good dose of sexual dissidence, confident in the knowledge that the basic principle of social order and reproduction - the heterosexual family - will survive unscathed. No matter which extensions may have occurred, the solid edifice of male privilege will endure. Contrast this with the deviations of Northerners the Paris disco dykes, with a cultural indebtedness to American communautairisme and commercialism; and the English Crumble sisters portrayed as comical eccentrics (dressed in hippy-style attire, offering dandelion tea to the crazed Laurent) and alien nymphomaniacs. The Crumble sisters, like Diego later on, are peripheral to the family, and figure (as playthings of the film's god: Laurent.

Thus, a French film which may appear iconoclastic - spotlighting lesbianisn and apparently undermining the social configuration of the 'normal' family - turns out to be something of a sop to millennial anxieties about crises of national identity. It figures traditional, Latin France as a model for French national identity generally: tolerant, relaxed enough to have fun, but ultimately committed to preserving the two foundation-stones of its identity - the family,  and the Law of the Father, which is what, in the end, it is all about.

Far from giving a cultural space to lesbianism, Gazon maudit  exploits it the better to reinforce the strength of the legitimate social unit, the family. The film does little to make lesbian sexuality less 'floue', [= fuzzy] to recall the words of Carole Kéruzoré, president of 'Les Lesbiennes se déchaînent': the ménage à trois situation at the end of the film hardly reflects lesbian practices or aspirations, and prompts at least two questions. Why, if Balasko had genuinely wanted to give lesbianism a place in cultural representation, did she not have Loli, Marijo and children set up home together, independently of Laurent? Why must their 'alternative' family be under the aegis of the Father? A humanist reply would be: because of Laurent's natural love for his children; because of Loli's natural love for her husband. Balasko was not ready to propose a truly radical end-scenario, that of a lesbian family. This may well be due to the general unwillingness of French society, whether Northern or Southern, to support or even acknowledge minority social units, the Republican model being adamantly opposed to what it disdainfully labels communautairisme, dismissed as an American deviation. Curiously, while Gazon maudit reveals regional divisions within French national identity, on this point at least it posits a unity: Mediterranean values may be best, but Northern and Southern France unite in tacitly excluding any signs of the cultural Other - the Anglo-American model of communautairisme,  found so singularly lacking by the universalist Republic.

Note: Gazon maudit  literally translates as ‘cursed grass’. It is an outdated, familiar expression which signifies a lesbian ‘because gazon (grass) refers to a woman’s pubic hair and it’s cursed because it’s forbidden to men. The phrase had fallen into disuse until the movie restored its popularity, but is has literary credentials, having been used by Bauudelaire in a poem (which was banned on publication) about a lesbian in his masterwork Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil)’  © FCS, ix (1998) 225-237

.. Et en français ...

" Pourquoi ce sujet saphico-socio? Parce que l'homosexualité masculine est toujours traitée avec civilité au cinéma. La féminine? On tombe dans l'X majuscule, sinon, c'est toujours joué par des siliconées en porte-jarretelles. Balasko a voulu ses femmes tendres, amoureuses, quotidiennes, non caricaturales."

Dernier tabou
    L'évolution des moeurs et la permissivité n’empêchent pas qu'il reste ici ou là des sujets délicats à aborder. L'amour entre femmes, même et surtout après Coup de foudre [Entre nous  in English translation]  qui en traitait avec une pudeur extrême, reste un de ces sujets "tabou", peu représentés, qu'il est tentant de traiter par le rire pour les désamorcer. Ce qui est exactement le projet de Gazon maudit. Prenant le parti-pris inverse de celui de Diane Kurys, Josiane Balasko lance le sujet sans ménagement d'aucune sorte dans le grand public, le propulsant avec toute la force comique telle est capable d'y mettre elle-même en tant qu'actrice, dans un trio équilibré ou elle s'adjoint deux partenaires connus pour leur efficacité, Victoria Abril et Alain Chabat. Pour le meilleur et pour le pire, le sujet semble définitivement dédramatisé, assaini parce que tiré au grand jour hors des replis fétides du cinéma porno, démystifié parce que rentrant dans des clichés commodes à l'usage du sens commun.
    Le cinéma de Josiane Balasko se situe au niveau des apparences, c'est-à-dire dans un travail sur les apparences, transformations, travestissements, métamorphoses, etc. Travail qu'elle exerce d'abord sur son propre corps, comme on pouvait le voir dans un film antérieur, Ma vie est un enfer. Pour gagner en force, la réalisatrice y tirait le plus petit parti possible d'un sujet qui ne manque pas d’intérêt: les souffrances et les fantasmes de la grosse fille laide qui voudrait être belle et séduisante.
    La dédramatisation de l'amour lesbien se fait par le comique de farce, ce que l'on ne saurait reprocher à la réalisatrice, qui ne fait que reprendre la gestuelle et les situations propres à ce genre comique, échange de coups de poing sur la figure, nez tuméfiés de part et d'autre, gens qui se promènent les fesses à l'air avec un tablier de cuisine par devant, etc. Cependant les faiblesses du film apparaissent dans ses dernières parties, lorsqu'une série d'épisodes totalement gratuits l’éloignent de plus en plus de son sujet. Faute de trouver une solution à l’existence du couple à trois et faute d'accepter une fin ouverte comme le faisait Coline Serreau dans Pourquoi pas!, Josiane Balasko sature le sujet de pitreries complémentaires qui ne le font pas avancer. Alors que, dans la première partie, on sent parfois à travers la drôlerie une vérite qui passe, la fin du film nous ramène aux clichés et semble  s'y complaire. Le sens des derniers épisodes, s'ils en ont un, pourrait être que les femmes se retrouveront toujours autour des enfants à élever, tandis que les hommes rejoindront finalement leur fond d'homosexualité refoulée pour cause de virilité officielle.
     Grâce au brio des acteurs, on se dit que cette néo-pantalonnade ne manque pas d'un certain talent; il est plus difficile de savoir si de quelque manière le film représente une avancée hors des chemins battus pour ce qui concerne les comportements amoureux, conjugaux homo, hétéro, et les pratiques familiales ou sociales. Un tel résultat est à dire vrai peu probable, et le cinéma français reste à cet égard sur des positions conventionnelles. Sur ce même sujet qu'est l’homosexualité féminine, le cinéma anglo-saxon fait preuve de plus d'audace et de plus d'originalité.  Le film de la Canadienne Patricia Rozema, When night is falling ( 1995), en est un bon exemple.  © Denise Brahimi, Cinéastes françaises, p. 106-107.

Film 6  - The Widow of St.Pierre (2000) - A film by Patrice Leconte

LA VEUVE DE SAINT-PIERRE is an emotionally-charged romantic epic about an extraordinary woman poised between two extraordinary men at a pivotal moment in time. Set in 1850 on the desolate and intensely beautiful island of Saint-Pierre, a remote French territory off the coast of Newfoundland, the film is a powerful and provocative examination of grand passions and their consequences. A single twist of fate sets the plot in motion, establishing that the twin forces of character and destiny can work together to alter lives in unexpected and even unimaginable ways.

One night, a man is senselessly murdered during a drunken altercation. The immediately remorseful killer, Neel Auguste (EMIR KUSTURICA,) is condemned to death. But in remote Saint-Pierre, there is neither a guillotine (in old French slang, the guillotine was called "the widow") nor an executioner. The French government promises to remedy the situation but warns that there will be a long wait since a guillotine must be brought from overseas.

During the months that follow, Neel is placed in the custody of the island's enlightened French military commandant (DANIEL AUTEUIL). The Captain's wife (JULIETTE BINOCHE), a beautiful, wise, and empathetic woman who is worshipped by her husband and who worships him in return, starts to question the justice of the death penalty in this particular situation as she begins to understand that the prisoner is a decent man who has made a terrible mistake. She makes Neel her protégé, convinced that he can live out his remaining time productively and be redeemed by his good deeds. In time, the Captain shares his wife's compassion, insight, and faith in Neel.

Little by little, with the help of his benefactress, the condemned man grows indispensable to this tiny community, His noble and heroic acts, including a dramatic rescue, cause him to become the most popular and the most respected man on the island. Only a handful of narrow-minded bureaucrats resent Neel's new status. Determined to uphold the law, even if the law is wrong, they scheme to punish the murderer and his supporters.

When the guillotine finally arrives and an executioner is found, the Captain's wife frantically tries to stop Neel from being executed. Her passion for justice causes her to risk everything. Her husband, whose passion for his wife is the most powerful force in his life, embraces her mission, knowing that the righteous course they have chosen will lead only to tragedy.

Three reviews

1. By Stanley Kaufmann

Waiting and Changing

Opening shots of films often make promises, and almost equally often those promises are broken. A fine first shot is thus almost as much a caution as an enticement. One of the many rewards in The Widow of Saint-Pierre is that the promise of its beautiful opening is beautifully kept.

We see a long and lofty room with several large windows, a room almost bare of furniture. At the farthest window a young woman in mid-nineteenth-century dress is looking out. It's a moment in Corot. On the soundtrack she tells us--in French (subtitled, of course)--that the story we are about to see is based on real events. But nothing in the film is more real than the fulfillment of this opening, the pathos for the eye that leads to what will come.

The year is 1849, the principal setting is Saint-Pierre, a small island off the coast of Newfoundland. At the time it was a French colony. (Now it is a department of France.) At first there is fog, thick and accustomed, while low strings in the film score intensify it. Out of this fog emerge fisherfolk, stolid, sturdy, past complaint about their circumstances. The fishermen go to a tavern. Two of them get drunk and begin a trivial quarrel about a third man. They row over to a smaller island where that man lives and in a pointless altercation murder him.

The local court sentences one of the men to prison, but he is accidentally killed while being transported. The other man, Neel Auguste, has been sentenced to death--in the usual French way, the guillotine. There is one difficulty: Saint-Pierre has no guillotine. (The old French slang for "guillotine" is "widow"; hence the title of the film.) Letters are dispatched, but it will be eight months until a widow arrives. Thus in this small community a condemned man must be detained while the means of executing him is procured.

The commander of the island garrison, a captain, is responsible for the imprisonment and the care of Auguste. Since the prisoner has nothing to do but lie in his cell, the captain's wife, known as Madame La, asks her husband for Auguste's help in starting a garden and building a hothouse. The captain agrees. Auguste helps her and does other chores for Madame La. The weeks gradually disclose the man he is, the full sentient being under the drunk who committed the murder.

Any suspicion we may have that this story is going to turn into a triangle is very soon shown to be merely our vulgarity. Auguste does, in the course of time, have an affair with a woman he once knew; he impregnates her and is, by the captain's order, allowed to marry her. But among the captain and Madame La and Auguste a transaction occurs that can only be called a spiritual fusion. The captain and his wife become almost painfully aware of the humanity within the man they are holding for his death. At one point Madame La even arranges for Auguste to take a small boat laden with food and to row--he is strong--across the bay to Canada and escape. Auguste starts. But after a while he reappears in Saint-Pierre and returns to his cell because he doesn't want to get his benefactors in trouble.

But the trouble comes. (With an ironic sting. The ship bearing the guillotine arrives in Saint-Pierre harbor with its rudder broken, and it has to be towed in. Auguste volunteers for the rowing crew because he can earn some money for his pregnant wife.) The guillotine is erected; an executioner is found--not without difficulty, because an executioner automatically becomes a pariah. At the last, the captain, chiefly out of love for his wife and a wish to stand with her in her compassion, opposes the execution. But the execution occurs. The captain is sent back to France on charges of sedition and meets a military fate. (This fate returns us to the opening shot.)

All the while this film is running before us, a fragrance of great literature seems to fill the air. In its paradox, its character unfoldings, its poignancy, its brutalization of reason by the rotes of society, there are hints of Hugo and Hardy and Dostoevsky and Chekhov, all wizards of those themes. This phenomenon is far from a literary bondage in the film: it is the approach of this film to something like the evocations of great writing--transformations brought about by new definings of love, not by will. The screenplay by Claude Faraldo supports this view: it uses the means of cinema, sheer cinema, to open apertures of spirit.

This, of course, means that Faraldo provided opportunities for the director, the cinematographer, and the cast to achieve these things. The director was Patrice Leconte, whose previous films, such as Monsieur Hire  and The Hairdresser's Husband  and Ridicule, were made with the sort of neat competence that is like a door slammed on growth. Here Leconte bursts through -- to an ache of size, deploying space in the evocation of spirit. Scene after scene is unrolled before us in a manner that suggests a vow to truth, a kind of beneficial tension, a quiet fervor that lifts the whole experience far past the adventures in the narrative.

The cinematographer was Eduardo Serra, who has worked with Leconte before and who also did The Wings of the Dove. Here the seasons were at his disposal (a lone horseman riding across a snowy field) and textures were manifold (stone cottages, luxe gubernatorial interiors), and Serra made the most of them in two ways. It is as if he and Leconte had agreed that the visual beauty of the film would serve as contrast to the cruelty of the people within it, and it would also symbolize the purity, the high air, the oceanic swell of exaltation that enfold the captain and Madame La, and that in an odd way also reconcile Auguste. The fog of the opening has dissolved.

As for the cast, all the minor roles are richly cast, especially Michel Duchaussoy as the governor and Philippe Magnan as the judge. The three principals are even better. Auguste is played by Emir Kusturica, the well-known Yugoslav director (Time of the Gypsies) who here makes his acting debut. He endows the role with a blend of silent animal strength and grim resignation. Madame La is Juliette Binoche, whose recent mistakes include the saccharine Chocolat  and an ill-advised Broadway appearance in Pinter's Betrayal, but in this role, she gives us a woman raised beyond her knowledge of herself by a moral responsibility she didn't know she could accept. The captain is Daniel Auteuil, and that sentence, with the role's name changed, is becoming a complete statement. With Auteuil, we know we are going to see reality plumbed, the sort of verity that makes most realistic film acting look facile.

One minor point. When he is in uniform, which is most of the time, Auteuil never wears his cap, which the captain must have known is a breach of regulations. An actor's quirk, I suppose. Well, if it's such an excellent actor... ©  2001, The New Republic

2. By A.O. Scott

'The Widow of St. Pierre': Once Again, Binoche Battling Provincials

The French director Patrice Leconte is a filmmaker with talent to burn, and often he has been content to do just that. His movies, which run the gamut from sex comedy ("Les Bronzés") to psychodrama ("Monsieur Hire") to costume pageant ("Ridicule"), glow with a suave, adaptable incandescence that often provides more dazzle than illumination. They have a tendency to look better than they actually are, like last year's fluffy, Felliniesque "Girl on the Bridge," or worse, like the off- key but fascinating "Ridicule."

With his latest film, "The Widow of St. Pierre," Mr. Leconte seems at last to have anchored his cinematic gifts to a story worth caring about. It has the bold, earnest emotion of a classic 1940's Hollywood melodrama, and its three stars — Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil and the Yugoslav filmmaker Emir Kusturica, making his acting debut — play their close-ups with the ardor and stoicism of the great movie stars of old.

One of the chief satisfactions of "The Widow of St. Pierre" — one of the things that make it, perhaps paradoxically, so deeply entertaining — is its air of moral gravity. In a typical Hollywood action movie, characters are brutally dispatched without a sense of consequence. Beheadings and disembowelings register a visceral shock, but rarely anything like the emotional impact that death deserves.

Near the beginning of "The Widow of St. Pierre," we witness a senseless murder, carried out by a pair of drunken fishermen involved in a dispute over whether their innocent victim is fat or merely large: gros or gras. From this death more will follow, and each one will carry a full freight of horror and regret.

Most of the film dwells on the impending execution of one of the culprits, Neel Auguste (Mr. Kusturica). And just as the prospect of a hanging, said Samuel Johnson, concentrates the mind wonderfully, so the prospect of Neel's date with the guillotine — the "widow" of the title, following French slang — gives the film's spare, melodramatic plot the force and focus of tragedy.

The story begins in 1849 on St. Pierre, a wind-swept French-governed island in maritime Canada, where a population of hard-working fishermen, including Neel, his accomplice and their victim, is ruled by a gaggle of magistrates and a military garrison commanded by a dashing captain (Mr. Auteuil), whose surname is never uttered. His wife (Ms. Binoche), for somewhat obscure reasons having to do with her aristocratic background, has a similarly enigmatic identity: she is known only as Mme. La.

The childlessness of their marriage, and its evident erotic heat, occasion murmurings among the local bigwigs and their own frustrated wives, but their gossip seems like a minor annoyance. The captain and Mme. La are so clearly their superiors in looks and nobility that they seem to infuse this desolate imperial backwater with a glamour it scarcely deserves, and to make the bourgeois pretensions of the island's governor and judge appear spineless and small.

Soon, however, their union is complicated by Neel, who is imprisoned in the captain's fortress until a guillotine can be found. (The island has none of its own, and so the powers that be must make entreaties to the authorities in Paris, who permit them to borrow a secondhand apparatus from Martinique.)

From the first moment she sees him led, shuffling and shackled, into his cell, Neel triggers an intense emotion in Mme. La, which seems compounded equally of compassion, curiosity and lust. With the captain's cooperation, she adopts Neel as a protégé. He helps her tend her greenhouse and accompanies her on charitable missions to Dog Island, where the most hard-bitten fishing families, mostly widows and young children, live.

While Mme. La never does anything indiscreet or improper, her feelings lead her — or rather, everyone else — into dangerous territory. "You know that if you were to escape, they would execute my husband in your place," she tells Neel on one of their excursions. Is she daring him? Begging him? Or simply making an idle observation to pass the time?

Mr. Kusturica's inarticulate dignity and the tremor of surprise that plays across his brow provide all we need to understand the source of Mme. La's fervor. Ms. Binoche dispels all memory of the ridiculous "Chocolat." Once again she is a free spirit flying bravely in the face of provincial mores, but this time more than Miramax candy is at stake.

As the wheels of justice make their slow, implacable revolutions — Mr. Leconte periodically cuts to the ship carrying the guillotine, churning northward to the sound of ominous music — a curious triangle takes shape on St. Pierre. The captain, rather than feeling jealous of his wife's new attachment, seems positively elated by it, and the couple's sexual bond seems to grow more intense the more time Mme. La spends with Neel.

The captain, at increasing risk to his own reputation and career, chooses to aid his wife's effort to save the condemned man's life. Mr. Auteuil's performance is the key to the film. His hangdog chivalry, which he has occasionally worn like a borrowed Bogart trench coat, works perfectly here. The captain is as devoted to military honor as he is to his wife, and the implicit conflict between these commitments is less a source of agony than of exhilaration.

And even though it winds toward doom, "The Widow of St. Pierre," also communicates a heady, almost blissful sense of heroism. The capacity for grand feeling and courageous decency that the three main characters display is like a thumb in the eye of the high-minded, neutered and ultimately murderous republicanism of the island's political rulers.

Is it the left thumb or the right? It is testament to Mr. Leconte's imaginative vitality that his story, set far in the past, carries an ambiguously charged, even dangerous political subtext. Mme. La's belief in the reformability of the most abject criminal and her opposition to the death penalty express a full-bodied liberal humanism that the republican state, whatever its expressed ideals, cannot tolerate.

One of the film's most stirring moments comes when the populace threatens rebellion rather than allow Neel to be beheaded, a vision of worker solidarity to be sure. But when coupled with the captain's romantic embrace of military virtue (and with the intervention of a sympathetic priest), such populism takes on the gunpowder-sharp smell of something like fascism.

The captain's revenge after all came shortly after the events depicted in this film, when the ineffectual Second Republic, embodied by those pusillanimous governors and magistrates of St. Pierre, was crushed by Louis-Napoléon's coup d'état and soon after replaced by the authoritarian Second Empire. The film's political subtext seems relevant and troubling because Mr. Leconte sees the past as a region not of quaint mores and pretty costumes, but as a volatile frontier, a realm of artistic and moral risk. © NYT Film Review,  March 2, 2001

3. by Claudia Smurthwaite

You do the right thing because it is right, but if you do something wrong, can you be forgiven? If that wrong deed is murder, should you be given the chance at rehabilitation? Is there goodness in every man? The Widow of St. Pierre asks these questions and Madame La (Juliette Binoche) believes the answers are yes.

On the remote island of Saint-Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland in 1849, two seamen are tried and convicted for the (sort of accidental) murder of their captain. One is sentenced to life in prison and the other to death. Since the island is so remote, they do not have a guillotine, the sanctioned method of execution, and they must wait for one to be delivered.

Neel Auguste (Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica in his acting debut), the convict, is placed in the custody of the local Capitaine (Daniel Auteuil). Le Capitaine's wife, Madame La, believes that people are not all good or bad and thinks she can rehabilitate the doomed man. She puts him to work building a greenhouse so she might have a garden on the cold barren island. With this progressive approach, Auguste slowly becomes a contributing member of the community, and the locals begin to trust him. However, the island governor and officials are not so sure allowing a convicted murderer to wander freely is the example of justice they want to set. They continue with plans to acquire a guillotine and an executioner, while Le Capitaine and Madame La struggle to keep Auguste alive.

While The Widow of St. Pierre, based on actual events, raises the question of capital punishment versus rehabilitation, it is also a love story between Binoche and Auteuil who are magnetic as husband and wife?their devotion to each other jumps off the screen. As one of the upper-class ladies notes at a tea, he devours her with his eyes from across the room. Clearly, their husbands are not so magnanimous towards Le Capitaine and his wife. There are hints that Le Capitaine has had some problems in Paris that may have led to his being stationed in Saint-Pierre, and that Madame La has married beneath her station. These points, while not belabored, add a kind of dignity to the couple.

Filmed on location in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Paris, director Patrice Leconte (Monsieur Hire, Ridicule) and cinematographer Eduardo Serra capture the frigid isolation of the fishing town. Scenes of Madame La and Auguste crossing the frozen ocean are beautifully stark, and the cold is palpable.

It's been said that the French are realists and Americans are optimists. If that holds true in their filmmaking styles, then one wonders what Hollywood would have done to the spirit?not to mention the ending?of The Widow of Saint-Pierre. Most likely, they would have added sex to the relationship between Madame La and Auguste, and changed the fate of at least two of the characters, thus destroying the grace and nobility of Madame La, her husband and Auguste. As it plays in this film, though, their honesty and belief in doing what is right gives the film's climax its poignancy.   © March 2001 by AboutFilm.Com

Addendum 1

About Patrice Leconte and The Widow of St. Pierre
Leconte's labour of love
Toronto Sun - Saturday, September 16, 2000

 TORONTO -- French filmmaker Patrice Leconte speaks English quite well. He'd just rather not when talking about his work.  "Because I want to be sure I am, ah, exact," he explains.
 With the help of a translator, Leconte is talking these days about his new movie, La veuve de Saint-Pierre (The Widow Of St. Pierre), which has brought him back to Toronto for another film fest visit. He was here a few years ago with the glorious Ridicule.
 Leconte says he has made 17 movies. Or maybe 18, he can't quite remember. At any rate, North American audiences know some of his films, such as The Hairdresser's Husband and Monsieur Hire.
 Set in the middle of the 19th century and based on a true story, The Widow Of St. Pierre stars Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil as a married couple enviable for the love and trust they obviously share.
 A man condemned to die for murder comes into the care of these two, and Binoche's character works to rehabilitate him in whatever time is available before his execution. There is no guillotine in St. Pierre, so the convict has an odd reprieve until one arrives. If one arrives.


 It is through being around the married couple and particularly the compassionate character played by Binoche, Madame La, that our criminal is in fact restored to society. He is, in time, a well-loved hero in the village, but the final cost to Madame La, who has wrought this transformation with the help of her husband, is very high.
 The true story is centred on the convict, the only person ever condemned to death on the island. But, Leconte says, his interest in the tale was the intense love, the emotional relationship between the captain and his wife.
 The story has current themes, despite a 19th-century setting. "What is modern is the character played by Juliette Binoche," the director says. "In that day, women were considered wives and mothers and not much else, especially in the middle class. Her character tries to derail destiny. That is quite contemporary."
 As usual, Binoche is luminous in this film. The opening shot shows her standing by a window in a billowing white dress, and the effect is pure John Singer Sargent. Leconte says that in the course of his career, he has probably never come across anyone as photogenic as she.
 "And you know, in everyday life, she's like a regular person," he says. "If she weren't 'Juliette Binoche' and she walked into a restaurant, I don't think anyone would stop eating just to look at her."
 But, adds the director, all that changes completely when the camera rolls. "There is a complete transformation, such as I have never seen before with any other actor."
 Leconte, who celebrates his 53rd birthday this year, smiles and says, "I will soon make history," when asked how long he himself has been married: 30 years.
 He and his wife have two daughters, aged 25 and 15.
 Somehow, it figures that Leconte's personal interest in The Widow Of St. Pierre is the character of the captain, played by Daniel Auteuil.
 "I've rarely seen in film the picture of a man so in love."
 It is, he comments, the combination of fatalism and romanticism that's fascinating about the captain.
 And in making the film, on some unconscious level, he felt close to the character.
 "Maybe it's a bit pretentious of me to think this way," he says, utterly without pretension, "but he represents what I would like to be."

Addendum 2
About St. Pierre et Miquelon: The colors of St. Pierre et Miquelon

Film 7Indochine (156 min.) 1992   A Film by Régis Wargnier

The setting: Indochina in the 1930s. Loss of a French colony as seen by Régis Wargnier under the form of melodrama and viewed not as a military history but as a family history (that of Eliane Devries and Camille, her adopted Indochinese daughter) as a symbol of the colonial power structure.
"Lost in Translation"

        De Napoléon III (1852-1870) en passant par Jules Ferry (1832-1892), le pouvoir politique a toujours mis en avant la mission civilisatrice de la France pour justiifier son expansion au nom des idéaux de la Révolution française. "Il serait détestable, antifrançais, d'interdire à la France d'avoir une politique coloniale." Doumer  (gouverneur général en 1897).   "Civiliser les peuples aujourd'hui signifie leur enseigner comment travailler pour gagner et dépenser de l'argent." Tel était le mot d'ordre du président de la chambre de commerce de Lyon en 1901.
        = From Napoleon III  (1852-1870) through [the Minister of Public Education], Jules Ferry (1832-1892), France's "civilizing mission" was always put forward by power officials to justify its colonial expansion in the name of the ideals of the French Revolution.  "It would be a shameful and anti-French to forbid France to have a colonial policy." (Governor Doumer in 1897). "Today civilizing means to teach the peoples how to work to earn and spend money." Such was the official word from the president of Lyon's Chamber of Commerce in 1901.

        The significance of Catherine Deneuve in the role of Eliane, the French mother portraying the French empire as a mother, who has to reconcile herself to the loss of her colonial child because of her status as the personification of the French Republic as Marianne and an icon [symbolic image] of French womanhood. Eliane is viewed as a career woman who remains feminine, determined but a tragic mother, strong-willed but a vulnerable lover. Her voice-over states early on the film's melodramatic premise, declaring that in her youth she believed the world was made up of inseparable dyads [two units regarded as a pair]:'men and women; Indochina and France'.

       If as a colonial rubber plantation owner Eliane embodies France, Camille, a teenager gradually finding a sense of her own identity, embodies Indochina. The two are doomed to separation by the rules of melodrama as much as by political history.

       A tender and tragic mother to Camille, Eliane is also portrayed as a cruel maternal figure - a kind of imperialistic career woman - in relation to her Indochinese workers, and as a seductive yet maternal lover to the young naval officer. It is when Camille and Le Guen embark on an affair that the mother-daughter dyad is broken and the narrative takes on an epic sweep: Eiane has Le Guen transferred to a remote northern outpost, only for Camille to leave in search of him. Wargnier takes advantage of this sequence to present un brief panorama of the poverty, hunger and social unrest, which are generating rebellion against the French colonial power.

        Melodrama is privileged over history however, as Camille, captured by slave traders, is rescued by Le Guen. The reunited lovers are separated again during the uprising, but not before Camille has given birth to a son, Etienne.

        At this point the narrative frame allows us to glimpse that it is to the adult Etienne that Eliane is telling the story of the film.

        With the death of Le Guen and the imprisonment of Camille, the child is brought up by Eliane, functioning once more in her maternal role. But the division of mother and daughter (and hence of France and Indochina) is ironically confirmed at the moment of their reunion: released from prison, Camille has become a communist rebel ?‘the red princess’- and therefore rejects her mother and  imperialist power simultaneously. Her words to Eliane at this moment sum up the pattern of melodrama : “C'est trop tard, maman; je ne peux pas revenir en arrière.” - It's too late, mother, I can't go back.

        Back to the rules of melodrama, i.e. of a desired reunion as a conclusion: Having lost her lover and her daughter, and at the precise moment when Indochina's independence from France is declared, Eliane is finally granted the love she deserves and craves. The sequence takes place in Switzerland in 1954: Eliane has given Etienne the chance to be reconciled with his mother Camille, who is a member of the Indochinese delegation to the Geneva Convention, which will decide on the future of the ex-colony. By refusing this reunion, Etienne enacts another reunion, telling Eliane that she alone is his mother now. Belonging to the realm of politics, Camille has lost her place in the melodrama.

      Wargnier ends “Indochine” with a shot of Eliane looking in the distance at her own mother land, France, beyond Lake Geneva. The image is held in a sepia freeze-frame, signaling that was melodrama has now become history. A confirmation of which is given by the closing text, which reveals that the French colonial empire has come to an end: “On the following day, 21 July 1954, the Geneva Conference closed, putting and end to 15 years of division and sealing the partition into two distinct states of what henceforth would be known as (North and South) Vietnam.”

 “Eternally French. She’s Deneuve”

     There is a story about Catherine Deneuve that the French filmmaker Roger Vadim recounts in his memoir.  It was August 1962, and the two lovers were returning to Paris from an auto race in Dijon when they came upon Charles de Gaulle’s motorcade.  The director slipped his Ferrari into the left lane and passed the entourage at 125 miles an hour. Later, Mr. Vadim would learn from a presidential bodyguard that, as the Ferrari went by, de Gaulle had asked, “Who’s that blonde?”  He was told she was a young actress named Catherine Deneuve.  “If she’s always in such a hurry,” de Gaulle reportedly said, “she’ll be a star very soon.”
      De Gaulle had a sharp eye for star quality, even at great speed.  What he perhaps couldn’t imagine 30 years ago is how that blonde in a hurry would become a more enduring symbol of France than the august general himself.
     “Catherine Deneuve is France,” says Régis Wargnier.  It’s a “geographical romance,” as the director calls it  -- an epic to you and me  -- in the tradition of David Lean.  Ms. Deneuve plays Eliane, the owner of a rubber plantation outside of Saigon in the 1930’s, some 40 years into the brutal French-colonial occupation.  She is a woman of means, never married, whose greatest loves are her adoptive country and adopted daughter, the Vietnamese princess Camille  (Linh Dan Pham). Then comes the gallant French naval officer Jean-Baptiste  (Vincent Pérez), who falls in love with mother and daughter -- in that order.
      Eliane’s love affair with Indochina and its people is a mirror of France’s love affair with Vietnam.  It is a sado-masochistic relationship  (like most, Ms. Deneuve would argue), in which the price of love is complete subjugation.  Indochina will never leave Eliane’s consciousness, just as it is locked in the national consciousness of France.
        In the film, Ms. Deneuve makes the journey from jealous lover to grand-mother, but really her role is that of France itself.  The part was written knowing she would play it.
        How does an actress become a national symbol?  It is not a part one can pursue. The appointment has less to do with the 49-year old Ms. Deneuve than with how France would like to see itself, and how the world chooses to see France.  “She’s the biggest star in France ; Adjani just doesn’t have the same past,” says Mr. Pérez, referring to Isabelle Adjani.  In 1985, Ms. Deneuve replaced Brigitte Bardot as the model for Marianne, the figure representing the Republic that sits in town halls through- out the country. Last summer [1992] , the post office put her likeness on stamps.
       “Deneuve is the platonic ideal of French womanhood,”  says Annie Cohen-Solal, cultural counselor at the French embassy in New York. “She is not a femme-object like Bardot, she is a femme-subject.  She has brains. She’s in control.  She’s the Saint Laurent type  -- timeless.”  Indeed, she has been his friend and has agreemen to promote his products.
      “In France, the height of sophistication has to be minimal,” says Ms. Cohen-Solal.  “It’s a very specific, delicate level that you very seldom reach  -- that’s where she is. And that’s what makes her such a potent symbol.”
       Something disruptive happens when Ms. Deneuve enters a room ; barometric pressure changes; things accelerate. The conditions of the interviews are not exactly to her liking -- she would prefer to be photographed and interviewed simultaneously -- and she says so immediately, terrorizing her handlers.  She’s not a diva -- there’s no hysteria  -- but she’s demanding, superior, self-possessed and, at the moment, disappointed.
        From the neck down she looks like a bourgeois businesswoman in a black cashmere sweater, gray skirt and (relatively) sensible shoes.  But there’s a glimpse of her face and for a moment it is hard to breathe.  The face is perfect, serene, balanced, utterly classical.  Even with her hair stylishly short and mostly chestnut brown with blond streaks, she still looks like a Greek statue.
        It is not easy to talk to a statue. But she has a certain “that’s Madame Deneuve to you” severity that is strangely appealing, probably in that it so wholly satisfies expectations for a French movie star.  “I am not a sophisticated person,” she says, as this were too obvious to explain. “I just look sophisticated . . .  I am not social.  I’m savage.”  And she is not without humor. As a waiter at Le Bistro, at the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan, clumsily plunges the room into darkness while playing with a dimmer switch, she gazes across the table and says, “Shall we dance?”
         She is also not adverse to talking about personal matters: her bouts of melancoly, her guilty pleasure in horror movies  (“I watched them even when I was pregnant”), her love of cartoons and erotic pictures,  her foot and shoe fetishism (“As a child I drew pictures of women’s feet in high heels; Imelda Marcos has nothing on me”).  She refuses to deny having had plastic surgery, because she finds it perfectly acceptable to have it, and she feels that a denial from a woman in her position would only make it harder on women who want to be open about their surgery. “I will say that, if all doctors who my hairdresser tells me are rumored to have worked on my face had actually done it, I’d look like the daughter of Frankenstein by now.”
        She is very forthcoming.  She makes a dictinction, however, between personal and private -- a strong distinction, but unspoken. “My obsessions are private; my passions are known,” she says briskly. . .  “There is no trespassing on my soul.”  [ . . .]
        She is indeed a gloomy soul. But a second often-repeated observation about her emotional life is somewhat inaccurate.  She is frequently referred to as aloof or cold. “Ice Queen” is one common epithet. A British fashion magazine recently extended the metaphor, calling her “glacial.”
          How did she get such a reputation?  One explanation is the myth that a strong woman must be cold. Even with her famous lovers [Roger Vadim, with whom she had a son, now a 29-year-old actor,   Marcello Mastroianni, with whom she had child -- Chiara, 20, also an actress.  In 1965  she married the British photographer David Bailey, the unofficial model for the mod, swinging protagonist in Michelangelo Antoniono’s 1966 film, Blow-Up.  They divorced in 1970], Ms. Deneuve has never allowed her identity to be controlled by men.  She took the responsibility for her own life, her career, her children (she raised them both herself).  Another explanation may be that she has the kind of willpower that people mistake for chilliness, or associate with maleness. “I’m not a soft person,” she says unapologetically. “Life is too difficult.”
          There is no question that she was affected by the tragic death at 25 of her sister Françoise Dorléac.  (Ms. Deneuve, born Catherine Dorléac, uses her mother’s maiden name). “I never wanted to be an actress,” she says; “my sister wanted to be an actress -- and was  -- and actually that’s how I got involved in film.  Her sister was killed in a car crash in 1967, when Ms. Deneuve was 24.  That same year, Belle de Jour  was released, featuring Ms. Deneuve in her first, mature role.
          Mr. Wargnier was drawn to the strengh of Ms. Deneuve’s will and exploits it to the hilt in Indochine.  In fact, he hangs the film on her character’s courage.  During a difficult shoot in remote parts of Vietnam unpenetrated as yet by tourism, Ms. Deneuve proved to be not hothouse flower.  She took long solitary walks every day to local markets, bringing back small gifts for cast and crew.  Her co-star, Mr. Pérez, says: “She’s like a locomotive, taking everybody with her because she’s very fast. You have to follow her. She’s like Gérard Depardieu. Her strength and energy are incredible.”  Indeed, it was Mr. Depardieu who wrote in a published letter to her, “Catherine Deneuve is the man I’d like to be.”
        Seven years ago, the writer Françoise Sagan asked her if she had any regrets, to which she replied, “I have not yet reached the age of regret.”  Today her response is the same. She does allow that she would have loved to have been directed by Hitchcock. “We were supposed to do a film together. But he died.”
         For the briefest moment she seems lost in what might have been. But then the smile of France returns. It is elegant, courageous and -- that element that everyone seems to miss -- maternal.
         From:  “She’s Eternal. She’s Serene. She’s Deneuve”.  By  David DeNicolo, © NYT  December 20, 1992.

More on Deneuve  and Indochine

    In French town halls, two icons, one male and one female, symbolize the nation state. One is a photograph of the president, gazing down in a benignly patriarchal, or as the French might put it, avuncular, way (François Mitterrand was often referred to as 'tonton'). The other is a plaster bust of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic. But whereas the president's identity is self-evident, French mayors have a choice when it comes to Marianne. They can order, among others, the 'traditional' version, a Brigitte Bardot model, or, since October 1985, the Catherine Deneuve model.

    The recent release of Indochine, directed by Régis Wargnier, looks set to bring back Deneuve as the top female French star of our time  (the film has already won a Golden Globe award and received two Oscar nominations for best foreign film and for Deneuve as best actress).  This is noteworthy, because though Deneuve has received many prizes and her star image has shone for three decades, allowing her to command one of the highest salaries for a star in France, her film parts since Truffaut's “Le Dernier métro” (1980) have tended to be acts of symbolic presence rather than actual leads, a little like Marianne in the town halls. This discrepancy between her status and the roles she plays brings up interesting questions about the make-up of Deneuve's star image and the place of women within the French star system.

    For an international art-cinema audience, Catherine Deneuve is likely to evoke two things: French chic and 'perverse' sexuality. The first derives from the association of her beauty with prestigious French fashion houses; the second from her performances as the angel faced schizophrenic murderer of Polanski's “Repulsion” (1963) and as Séverine, the shy bourgeois wife of Buhuel's “Belle de jour “(1967) who spends her afternoons as a prostitute in a discreet and luxurious Parisian brothel.

    For French audiences, Deneuve set out in a different mode. After a few small parts with her sister Françoise Dorléac in light comedies such as “Les Collégiennes” (1956, at the age of 14) and “Les Portes claquent “(1960), she began her career proper as Virtue in Vadim's “Le Vice et la vertu” (1960, based on a novel by the Marquis de Sade), in which her bouffant hairstyle reflected Vadim's attempt to clone her, after Annette Stroyberg and before Jane Fonda, on Bardot.

    But Deneuve did not pursue the libertine line for long, and her real breakthrough came with a better hairstyle in a better film: “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” (1964), the first of Jacques Demy's sentimental, pastel-coloured musicals with all-sung dialogue. So while internationally Deneuve is associated with Polanski and Buñuel, at home she has paid tribute to the pivotal role of Demy in establishing her career. Against the background of the still repressive sexual mores of early 60s France, while Bardot continued her role as explicit sex goddess and dark-haired New Wave actors such as Anouk Aimée, Anna Karina and Jeanne Moreau embodied 'intellectual' versions of French femininity, Deneuve triumphed as a sexy but innocent blonde, a  persona reinforced by two further Demy films, the musical “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” (1966) and the costume fairy tale “Peau d’Ane” (1970)  as well as by several light comedies such as “La Vie de château” (directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau in 1965).

Messing up her hair

    The construction and perception of women’s personalities always depend on their looks. And in the case of Deneuve, those looks are defined as much by grooming as by any physical attributes. Her hairstyles, for instance, have consistently been seen as an  intrinsic feature of her persona and many writers have talked about changing her image in terms of messing up her hair. Like her hairstyle in  “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” (smoothed back in a neat half ponytail), Deneuve's  image in the film is one of smoothness and restraint, a  well-behaved middle-class girl (even if in the narrative she becomes pregnant out of wedlock). Unlike a number of prominent female European stars of the 50s and 60s who connoted unfettered, “natural” sexuality - Silvana Mangano, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Bardot - through displays of (semi)nudity in close association with nature, Deneuve was positioned as a woman whose sexuality was always under control and under wraps, her hair impeccably lacquered, her body hidden by fashionable clothes, a creature whose habitat was the salon rather than the hayfield or beach. In “La Vie de château”, a comedy set during the German occupation in which she is the object of desire of most of the male characters, the peak of her sexual display is to frolic around the château in a white nightdress. Her ordeal at the end  of the film, while the men are busy with D-day, is to be forced to wade through a lake, sullying her immaculate tailored suit.

    In this respect Deneuve was continuing a tradition of elegant French actresses modelling couture clothes, from Michèle Morgan to Edwige Feuillère, Martine Carol to Danielle Darrieux (at the beginning of her career she was even known as the new Darrieux). But whereas in the 50s such actors and their films (Adorables créatures, Mannequins de Paris) celebrated womerfs fashions, in the 60s Deneuve's clothes played a more ambiguous role, particularly in auteur cinema. For  example, Buñuel in “Belle de jour” used them as an index of bourgeois repression, and the film, which marked the beginning of a long-standing partnership between Deneuve and designer Yves Saint-Laurent, fixed her image for many years as the epitome of the soignée bourgeoise. The Saint-Laurent clothes - figure-hugging, tailored, with skirts cut just above the knee included an element of sexual display, but a controlled and class-coded one, which acted as a foil to Séverine's 'true' sexuality, expressed through her masochistic fantasies and rough sexual encounters at the brothel. A great deal of writing on “Belle de jour” has pondered where the division between 'reality' and 'fantasy' in the film lies, but  with feminist hindsight both sides of the Séverine character appear equally fantastic.

    “Belle de jour” turned Deneuve into an international star. Creating a moment of perfect fit between performer, character and image, Buñuel's film successfully combined her existing, antagonistic, personae - the proper jeune fille of “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” and the schizophrenic killer of “Repulsion” - into the ambiguous figure of the ice maiden whose intimidating beauty both covers and suggests intense sexuality. For an art film, “Belle de jour” was a box office success, and the persona it established for Deneuve  endured through Truffaut's “La Sirène du Mississipi” (1969), Buñuel’s “Tristana” (1970), and Marco Ferreri's “Liza” (1971) - and in subdued form to  “Le Dernier métro” and “Indochine”.

    Given her immense popularity both at home and abroad, it is worth pondering where Deneuve's appeal lies. One clue is that, as Simone de Beauvoir has pointed out, female 'virginity' or 'frigidity' invite male conquest and suggest the need for a man to reveal to the woman her own sexuality (the Michel Piccoli character indirectly fulfils this  function in “Belle de jour”). The young virgin (the older one is only ever an object of ridicule) is thus attractive because of her presumed incompleteness. It is not surprising to find her in the work of Buñuel, since the child-woman was a figure of fascination for the Surrealists, who wrote  abundantly on her attractions.

    There is a further, sadistic twist to this figure of male fantasy. The more immaculate and inaccessible the woman, the more she is deemed to invite profanation, which is then ascribed to her ‘masochism’. The youthful Deneuve got a lot of that: she is flagellated and pelted with mud in “Belle de jour”, has a leg amputated in “Tristana” and is treated literally like a dog on a leash in “Liza”. Later, as a vampire in “The Hunger “(1982), she is covered with blood. Many female actors have been put through  such ordeals on screen, but the characteristic specific to Deneuve is her simultaneous representation of extreme beauty and its defilement, from reverence to rape, in a single image. In a lighter vein, watching her peel potatoes in “Le Dernier métro” causes a special frisson, as does seeing her cast as an ordinary, cardigan-clad provincial housewife in André Téchiné’s “Le Lieu
du crime” (1986).

    Deneuve's mask-like face and understated performance style, her glamour and aloofness, her ice-maiden image and, as Truffaut put it, "dream element", were a throwback to the great female icons of Greta Garbo and Grace Kelly, with both of whom she has often been compared. Such qualities marked her out as different from her French contemporaries: whether the Bardot-type sex goddesses, the existential New Wave heroines, or, later, naturalistic actors such as Annie Girardot, Isabelle Huppert and Miou-Miou, or, again, the expressionist style of her contemporary rival in stardom, Isabelle Adjani.

Power and glamour

    Deneuve's international career has taken her mainly to Italy, though she has made four films in Hollywood, of which Robert Aldrich's “Hustle” (1975), in which she plays a high-class call girl, and Tony Scott's vampire movie “The Hunger” are the most notable. She has, however, long been known in the US as "the most beautiful woman in the world", thanks as much to her commercials for Chanel as to her films. The exportability of Deneuve's image gives us another clue to her appeal. The combination of classy elegance and sexuality reflects precisely the two dominant clichés attached to French women: they dress well and they are highly  sexed. Deneuve's success is linked to the way she has more or less willingly embraced these nationally coded values, both at home and abroad.

    Acting as a semi-official ambassador for French fashion on and off screen, Deneuve did nothing to contradict the high-class mannequin image which emerged from “Belle dejour” and which informs all her film roles up to “Indochine” - where her exquisite frocks are a highlight. In terms of sexuality, the fit has been less perfect. While Deneuve was idolized as the perfect jeune fille in “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg”, her private life was considered scandalous, especially the fact that she had an illegitimate child with Vadirn in 1963. Later both her screen image and public mores caught up with her. Her character in “Je vous aime” (directed by Claude Berri in 1981), for example, has a multitude of lovers and children by different fathers - a scenario not too far removed from the star's own life. And in her latest film, André Téchiné’s “Ma saison préférée”, she plays opposite Chiara, her 20year-old daughter with Marcello Mastroianni, whom she also did not marry.

    Deneuve has acted in comedies throughout her career, but though a few have been successful, including “La Vie de château” and “Le Sauvage” (1974, with Yves Montand, also directed by Rappeneau), on the whole such roles have seemed at odds with her persona (“Zig-Zag”, directed by Laszlo Szabo in 1974 and her one attempt at producing flopped). She has retained the image established by her more serious films into the 80s and 90s, and as she has aged (extremely gracefully), the ice maiden has given way to the tragic grande bourgeoise - often a heroic mother whose sedate if glamorous life is disturbed by sexual passion, usually stirred up by a younger man. Two films in  particular show the durability of the sexual (re)awakening theme: “Le Lieu du crime” (with Wadeck Stanczak as a young criminal) and “Paroles et musique” (directed in 1984 by Elie Chouraqui, with Christophe Lambert as a rock star). Both deal in the familiar screen conflict between a woman’s sexuality and motherhood. In “Le Lieu du crime”, resolution is achieved in apocalyptic fashion (the young man is killed, Deneuve’s son is estranged and she gives herself up to the police), while in  “Paroles et musique” she returns to her husband and children. in “Indochine” too, Deneuve is allowed a sexual relationship with a younger man (Vincent Pérez), only to be denied it when the young lover is paired with her adopted daughter.

    Such narratives and the way Deneuve is used within them are indicative of the unease of French film in dealing with sexually active, mature female characters and actors. But they are also attempts at integrating into film specific features of contemporary French feminism, a task for which the later Deneuve persona is well suited. Deneuve’s characters of the 80s and 90s, with their combination of glamour, independence and determination, have been much more pleasurable for female spectators than the male fantasies of the 60s and early 70s. Deneuve has increasingly been perceived as liberated (partly for the same reasons as she was regarded as scandalous in the 60s) both on and off screen, evidenced by Gérard Depardieu's remark: “Catherine Deneuve is the man I would have liked to be.” She took up overtly feminist positions when it was decidedly unfashionable in the 70s and in 1982 declared to “Le Nouvel Observateur”, “Yes, I am a feminist.” And she is one of the actresses who makes recordings of women’s novels for the feminist publishing house “Editions des femmes”.

    But Deneuve is a very French feminist, which is to say that, like Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous and other prominent French writers, her feminism is combined with glamour and elegance in a way often perceived as utterly contradictory in Britain and North America. As the discourse of overt feminism has gradually disappeared from the French political and cultural scene, one of the ways its impact has endured is through the presence in public life of professionally and intellectually powerful women who are also glamorous: examples that spring to mind include government officials Elisabeth Guigou, Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal, the charismatic television journalist Christine Ockrent (who looks not unlike the short-haired Deneuve), and successful filmmakers Diane Kurys and Coline Serreau.

    But if Guigou, Ockrent et al obey - and shape the logic of the French job market and political scene, the logic Deneuve follows is that of the French star system. And within that system, her gender and looks are a double-edged weapon. As in her youth, they are a reminder of her to-be-looked-at-ness and of the burden of carrying the nationally coded signs of elegance and sexuality. But they are also a powerful source of pleasure, and, not negligibly, of revenue. If femininity is a masquerade, then the cool elegance of these professional Frenchwomen is a sign of their being in control, rather than of being controlled as was the case back in the 60s.

Emblem of France

    Deneuve is powerful in other ways too. In the embattled financial and shifting genre structures of recent French cinema, major stars are in more important than ever, not for their capacity to attract audiences to cinemas, but as a means of raising production funds, guaranteeing television and video sales and generating media coverage. The cult television cultural chat show “Bouillon de culture” devoted a whole program to Deneuve to coincide with the release of “Indochine”, as if to prove that Wargnier could not have got the film off the ground without her, or at least not on such a scale. In return, she received a real leading part in a major production - a rare opportunity in recent years, when it has seemed as if her presence and looks were enough to signify a constellation of traits - career woman who remains feminine, determined but tragic mother, strong-willed but vulnerable lover - that allude to the changing roles of French women, but at the same time confine them to precisely this symbolic function. In films such as “Le Choc” (1981, with Alain Delon), “Le Choix des armes” (1981, with Yves Montand and Gérard Depardieu) and “Fort Saganne” (1984, with Depardieu), Deneuve featured in roles which were not cameos, but which occupied very little screen time and had little narrative importance compared to the roles of her male partners; yet the producers still claimed her as a major star.

    This is not just clever marketing, but exemplifies a traditional gender imbalance in French casting going back to the 30s, whereby female stars may get leading parts in auteur cinema, but only exceptionally in the mainstream. It is also a perhaps unwelcome side effect of Deneuve’s elevated status. Because of her exemplary career in both auteur and mainstream film, and of her perceived embodiment of the values of French womanhood, she has become the symbol of a certain idea of French cinema as well as of France (it was perhaps inevitable that it was Deneuve who was chosen to accompany the Minister for Culture, Jack Lang, to open a festival of French film in New York in 1983). Indeed in “Indochine”, Deneuve’s dominating narrative role could be ascribed as a symbolic representation of France, portrayed as the liberal colonizing force.

    It is a measure of the importance of cinematic culture in France that film stars are so strongly implicated in representations of  national identity. Jean Gabin, as the train driver of jean Renoir's “La Bête humaine”, became the key symbolic figure in the celebrations to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989, in much the same way as Bardot and Deneuve literally personify France in the  statues of Marianne. As might be expected, the male representation is historically grounded and actively social; the female one  abstract and passive. Of course Gabin could model himself on Georges Clemenceau for “Le President” in 1961, while Deneuve could only realistically be cast as a president's lover, as in “Le Bon plaisir” (1983, directed by Francis Girod). But the difference goes beyond role models, since male stars such as Gérard Depardieu are offered a far wider range of roles encompassing a spectrum of characters from French social history, whether based on real or fictional sources (for example, “Danton” or “Germinal”).  And the recently formulated French heritage genre does not seem  to have altered this pattern, in that male stars still dominate in films such as “Jean de Florette”, “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Tous les matins du monde”.

    But perhaps the success of “Camille Claudel” (with Isabelle Adjani), “L’Amant”, and indeed of “Indochine” will herald better leads for female stars of Deneuve's stature. French history, society and literature, after all, are not devoid of tough, inspiring and glamorous women crying out to be embodied by Catherine Deneuve.  Ginette Vincendeau  © Sight and Sound

Another Film Review

By Rita Kempley 

    A lethargic opium dream of colonial Vietnam, "Indochine"  looks back on French imperialism with a dramatically deadening spiritual fatigue. But, unlike similarly sprawling British mea culpas, this movie makes no apologies for those who usurp a country's culture. The world-weary protagonists of this historical melodrama don't see themselves as oppressing the Indochinese, but as nurturing them on the cream of European civilization.

    This presumptuous, if not altogether indefensible notion, is spelled out in the tight relationship between Eliane (Catherine Deneuve), a rubber-plantation owner, and Camille, her adopted Indochinese daughter. An Annam princess educated in French schools, Camille breaks the tie when she and her beloved mother become rivals for the love of a fickle young naval officer, Jean-Baptiste. Thinking she is doing what's best for her daughter, Eliane arranges to have Jean-Baptiste reassigned to the remote and scenic Tonkin Islands. But Eliane has underestimated Camille, who flees the comfort and privilege of Saigon to find the man she loves. During her hazardous journey, Camille discovers a new passion for her homeland and her people. And when finally reunited with Jean-Baptiste, she is well on her way to becoming a revolutionary.

    Her transformation from Mademoiselle Butterfly to Communist leader becomes complete when she is torn from her lover and their infant son and thrown into prison for crimes against the state. The trouble is we never see the fragile teenager undergo this surprising metamorphosis. Director Régis Wargnier seems far more interested in what the white folks are doing back on the plantation. As with other potentially enlivening events, we hear about it from the coolly aristocratic Eliane. A form of cinematic colonialism, "Indochine" commits dramatic suicide by Eurocentrism.

    Clearly Wargnier, who also co-wrote the script, has a fondness for extended metaphors, preferring intellectual artifice over character development. None of his characters is particularly complex or consistent, but Jean-Baptiste is virtually put out to stud as a sexual cynic turned romance-novel-cover boy overnight. Perhaps it was the MSG that tenderized this beefcake. Deneuve's Eliane is more interesting, but she is, after all, playing France.

    Wargnier, who learned his craft at the elbow of Claude Chabrol, does expose the geographic splendors of Southeast Asia as well as the common sense of its people, whose sly observations lend "Indochine" both energy and levity.  Madame Tam (Thi Hoe Tranh Huu Trieu), a business woman whose son is engaged to Camille, speaks for all of us when she hears of the girl's interest in her mother's paramour. "I'll never understand French people's love stories, they're nothing but folly and suffering." Our béret's off to Madame Tam.  © Washington Post.

Film 8. The Lover  - 1991. A Film by Jean-Jacques Annaud based on L'Amant of Marguerite Duras

Preceded by a clip from Hiroshima mon amour - 1959. A Film of Alain Resnais. Original script by Marguerite  Duras. Starring: Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada.

     Hiroshima mon amour tells of a French actress whose brief affair with a Japanese architect prompts memories of an earlier unhappy love, for a German soldier during wartime in provincial France. In the  film Resnais and Duras explore the workings of the woman’s memory. Initially it is simply the movement  of her Japanese lover’s hand that recalls the past. Then the horrors of Hiroshima, when she comes to feel them deeply, lead her to remember her own personal loss, humiliation and madness at Nevers. As past and present become one, the Japanese  and the German lovers fuse into one being. To relate this narrative the authors devised a quite novel flasback pattern. The images of Nevers rise up and the past is revealed not in a logical order but only as it imposes itself on the woman. As the memories grow in intensity, so the flashbacks reach greater length and the music of Giovanni Fusco serves to unify the film by a repetition of its principal themes.
     Visually the film is always exciting: the first enigmatic shots of embracing bodies; the tracking shots through the museum in Hiroshima; the neon-lit  harshness of the modern riverside café; the softer light of Nevers and the scenes of young love. Hiroshima mon amour  is a remarkably ambitious film. It comprises a documentay on Hiroshima past and present, and an indictment of our forgetfulness of the atomic horror. It deals with human situations of  rare complexities and, discarding conventional notions of plot and story development, it invents a new narrative technique of balancing image and text, uniting the various elements by a highly original use of music and recitative.


    The Lover is director Jean-Jacques Annaud's adaptation of Marguerite Duras' minimalist 1984 novel, a book translated in 43 languages. Set in French Indochina in 1929, the film explores the erotic charge of forbidden love. Jane March plays a French teenager sent to a Saigon boarding school, while Tony Leung is a 32-year Chinese aristocrat. They look at each and they both see a blinding white flash; it's kismet. He offers her a ride in his limousine and soon they meet in his "bachelor room" where they revel in a wide variety of creative sexual encounters. However, they both realize their love is doomed. She comes from a troubled family that includes a mentally-disturbed mother (Frederique Meininger) and drug-addicted brother (Arnaud Giovaninetti). It also appears that her family would not approve of an interracial tryst. But then neither would his family, since in order to inherit his father's wealth, he must not break from a traditional Chinese arranged marriage.
    “The uncut, unrated European version that was initially rated NC-17 by the American rating classification board. The Lover, made by Jean-Jacques Annaud released in 1991  --  from the novel by Marguerite Duras, L’Amant, a book translated in 43 languages.
     If time permits, it would be interesting to compare two love scenes at some 30 years of distance with the same voice of a Jeanne Moreau, playing the a-moral Jeanne in The Lovers  of Louis Malle, a film that in 1958 shocked audiences with its sexual intensity  and in The Lover of Jean-Jacques Annaud, where you will hear “her voice of tobacco and love” (Annaud's words)  narrating Marguerite Duras’s own love story:  “We were lovers”. Marianne Gray, a British critic, wrote the following review: “It’s a slim story handled with great style, rather like a very beautiful commercial for bare buttocks. . . The Lover has scandalised France, yet is by no means a scandalous, she says,  - a lot of the sex scenes  -- it’s actually a third of the film -- are far too long to provoke.”  (Film Review, July 1992)
    Two quotes from Annaud himself:  “Filming love scenes is always difficult [...]. In a novel, the words have the potential to evoke the subjective. In the film, I wanted to have sufficient immodesty to show that which is not shown, yet to have enough modesty not to provoke rejection.”  The second quote from Annaud is important in terms of today’s view of sex.  It presents female sexuality as a glorious given. Annaud refers to “the legitimacy of desire, the marvel of pleasure, the abandoning of onseself to the flesh and, ultimately, the consequences of that pleasure and the pain of love.”

    Marguerite Duras wrote her own account of the story of her youthful affair with a wealthy Chinese man after she decided to cooperate no longer with the production of the film 'The Lover.' The film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud lessens the girl's power over the man.
     “Jean-Jacques Annaud filme du point de vue de l’homme. De la violence sur l’autre plutôt que du désir réprimé-exprimé de la très jeune fille. De l’esthétique plutôt que de la traduction par l’image de la magie des mots féminins. Du sexe plutôt que de l’effroi du sexe.”  Claire Clouzot
    (My approximate translation) Annaud makes the film from a man's point of view. From the violence on the other rather than from the repressed-expressed desire of the very young girl. He films from an aesthetic point of view rather than from the image translation of a woman's magic words. He films from a sexual point of view rather than a fear of the sex.
     More than to the novel, Annaud is faithful to Duras’s itinerary. The film opens with the pen of the writer running on the paper and stops on the silhouette of Marguerite’s back, receiving, 50 years later, a telephone call from her Chinese friend. And throughout the film, it is Jeanne Moreau who, with her spell-casting voice, makes “the little Duras music” sing, together with the writer’s abrupt change of subject, her false repetitions, or when she switches, for example, from “I” to “she” to signify the change in point of view or that the heroine escapes her.  [...] The actors play the story without any romanticism, with an extreme tension that is emphasized by the fantastic music of Gabriel Yared. Tony Leung, a star in Hong Kong although unknown here, is perfect in the skillful composition where the oriental mask and western passion are contrasted.  No need to be an avid fan of Duras or a nostalgic of the colonies of yesteryear to appreciate this film by Annaud, who knows how to show, as no one else can, passion in the rough, cleared of the falbalas of psychology.

Film Reviews

1By Rita Kempley  © Washington Post (November 13, 1992)

2. By Lawrence Russell Vietnam Mon Amour

Ladies... you know you had another life, one in which romance and desperation were your fate. You're 15, almost 16, a loner in a lonely land. You're on a small ferry, just about to cross the turbid waters of the Mekong... yes, you're in Vietnam, French Vietnam, back before the colonial dream all went to hell. You're leaning on the rail, one foot hooked on the scupper, a girl dreaming of being a woman. As the peasants swarm aboard with their bicycles, carts and livestock, a large black Citroen C 6 limo eases itself slowly onto the deck. Already you're being observed by its hidden occupant.

    And what does he see? A French girl in a cotton dress, a school girl with a loose girdle and rhinestone cabaret shoes... her pigtails partially concealed by her favorite hat, a man's Fedora. Forget the pouting mouth and slim adolescent figure. Think of dream, think of Freud.

    As the ferry starts moving out, the chauffeur steps down, opens the rear door... a man emerges, an oriental man in a white suit. He leans on the railing nearby. He glances your way, takes a gold cigarette case from his jacket, flips it open, offers you one... naturally, you don't smoke... and just as naturally, you know this routine is merely a prelude....

    And so it starts... although, actually, we've been chauffeured into this action by the writer, an older woman who is sitting somewhere in Paris writing this story. Based on the "autobiographical" novel by Marguerite Duras, The Lover lingers somewhere between the sentimentality of doomed love and the flesh-eating horniness of sexophilia. Behind this, though, is a political gestalt of the French and Chinese colonialists in Vietnam. Prejudice is cultural, destiny ancestral. Recall that Duras wrote the script for Resnais' famous deconstructivist paen of western guilt, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), where again we see her familiar story of forbidden love in an interracial context. A grim montage of nuclear anxiety, Hiroshima is more like a photo-essay than a drama. But......not so The Lover.    and scenarist Brach never allow the background politics to overwhelm the sensuality... or the landscape the characters. Yet The Lover is a beautifully photographed film, where the surrounding squalor simply heightens the exotic elegance of the lovers. Fact is, we can never rest easy in anyone's arms after seeing the superb skin of Tony Leung and Anne March. Is it pornography? If pornography is sex that we watch, then yes. Is it art? If art is the sexual perception of an object, then yes. Can pornography be art? If you've ever made love in a dream....

    The black car is speeding along the dykes and dusty roads towards Saigon. You're in the back with this stranger. He's twice your age... and Chinese. This is dangerous stuff. But what the hell... you're young, starting to crank. You have breasts, legs and hands... and you want to use them. You have no father, your brother is a sadist, your mother a doting old schoolteacher in a swamp up country. You exchange banalities. He confesses he has no job, no prospects... his father is an opium addict who hasn't left his bed in ten years since the death of his wife. Do you care? No. You dream of writing novels in which you revenge yourself on your brother, your brutal, psychopathic brother. You watch the landscape flow past... villages, rice paddies, needle forests, horizons. His hand moves timidly to meet yours... first a finger touch, then a hand... finally, like a full sexual embrace, his fingers interlock with yours.

    Gérard Brach got his big break as a screen writer working with Polanski... and The Lover is the sort of film we would expect Polanski to make. The Lover seems an odd project for Annaud [Quest For Fire, Name Of The Rose, et. al.], especially when viewed in tandem with his follow-up, The Bear (1994). As Brach wrote the screenplay for this too, we might wonder if there are any similarities. Ludicrous? The Bear is about an orphan grisly pup trying to survive in the British Columbia wilderness when hunting was a career and environmentalism non-existent. Stripped of setting, though, both stories are the same: survival of a young free spirit in a dangerous world.

    While there is no mention of the crash of '29 and the subsequent world-wide economic depression, both characters are affected by bigger events in the bigger world. Perhaps the pivotal scene is where the lovers discuss their hopeless situation at a ruined plantation on the edge of a mud desert... perhaps the former property of her parents. "My mother was killed by the land registry agents and robbed by government officials," she says, looking towards the mountains and the sky of Siam. The dawn wind moves the palms. Yes, he went to his father, told him the situation. His father said, "I would rather see you dead than know you were with a white girl." His father, the opium addict. His father, a financial patrician from the 1 million Chinese minority in Vietnam.

    The Vietnamese are merely background in this movie... rickshaw runners, market vendors, paddy workers, servants... landscape. The lovers represent the two competing colonial cultures. The Chinese, of course, ruled Vietnam for a 1,000 years ("Indo-China")... and financed and supplied the communist Vietminh in their fight with the French. The French divided Vietnam into two (North & South) in 1954... to little avail as history as shown. Now they only go there to make movies.

    The Chinaman, though, has his problems. His family was displaced by the Japanese in Manchuria. While his father profited by selling his lands and jewels to them, it seems this led to his mother's death. We're not directly informed of the circumstances, must infer them from conversational fragments. We know, of course, that Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931 following years of meddling and fighting with Russia over domination in the region. Trapped by the Buddhist code of ancestor worship, he can do nothing but follow the dictates of his father. While this seems absurd in today's mobile, secular society, things were much different then. As a character, he presents a curious paradox of cultural passivity and animal vitality. His manners are, yes, impeccable. His generosity outstanding. His integrity... well, the seduction of a young school girl might be distasteful, yet the historical and cultural context is quite different from, say, the lavicious paedophilia of H.H. in Lolita. As it turns out, it's quite possible that he is the one who was seduced.

    Your boarding school is like an orphanage, where little French Madelines and their half-caste sisters cluster in mosquito tents within long, humid dormitories. Your friend Helene walks naked, a model without an artist, joins you in your tent, tells you about Alice, a classmate who has been slipping over the wall in the evenings, prostituting herself with the passing men. You smile, say, "It's always appealed to me... going with someone you don't know."

    You pass through the gate, leave the school, briefcase in hand. You're walking below palms in the dusky light... and there he is, the big black car, parked. What is there to say? He takes you to "the Bachelor Room", a street-level apartment in a rough Chinese district. Slatted windows, green deco armchair, table... and the bed. The ruckus of the street is close, immediate. He says he can't do this, you're too small... but you, working with the intuition of an ancient talent, help him get past his charming apprehension.

    This film is about sex, make no mistake. It's about sex and the politics of sex... and politics are in some measure about the manufacturing of lies. Lies only exist when we are afraid of some raw, defining truth. The ease with which the French girl lies to her family is typical of sexual hunger and the need to conceal its ritual. Brother Pierre knows better, of course. When he sees the diamond ring, he knows. Why would this Chinaman give his sister the diamond belonging to his dead mother? Sex. He grabs her discarded panties from her bed, sniffs them, says, "Smells of Chinese..." The humour here slides past in the black absurdity. They fight, as hate is a condition of poverty. His mother can never give him enough money, and now his sister is the provider.

    We see only brief moments of this unhappy family as they struggle to exist on the income of a rural schoolteacher. The mother favors the brutish elder son in an unreasonable and pathetic fashion. Why this is so, she doesn't know. When the family is invited to dinner at a restaurant in Saigon, the crux of the matter is clearly defined. The affair must not be mentioned. Call it pride, call it racism, call it dumb... but for some, identity can only be maintained by taboo. The impoverished French get drunk, behave badly. The brutish brother challenges the Chinaman to fight... but he merely defers, like a monk with no regard for the material world. Yet the material world is where they are.

    Afterwards, the lovers retire to the Bachelor Room. It's now time for some grudge sex. He's angry, because good manners and Confucious can only take you so far. He backhands her, rips her panties off, goes straight to work. As we watch, we have to admit this young girl is quite good at the art of whorish detachment.

    She: How much would this cost you in a brothel... what we just did, I mean.
    He: How much do you want?
    She: My mother needs 500 piasters....
    To pay the boarding school, apparently. When is a mistress a whore, or simply a lover? The power in the relationship is constantly shifting. Her mother, in a moment of truth, asks her, "Do you only go with him for the money?" and she replies, "Yes." Her mother nods, although her expression reveals that she knows otherwise.

    The monsoon rains hammer down... and in the blue Bachelor's Room he tells her that he is to be married. He's now smoking opium, just like his father... imprisoned and desexualized by convention, astral travel is his only means of escape. What's the bride like... is she pretty? "She's rich," he says. "Covered with gold and jade and diamonds...." He could be describing a temple idol. The French girl takes this all in stride, has only one request, that he meets her one final time one week after the marriage. Does he show up? Or does the rigid racial lock of ancient culture still hold him hostage.... Well, this can be said: a lover always has a way of reappearing.

    If you believe Marguerite Duras.

    Throughout, the cinematography/visual design is superb. The symbolisms are always oblique, subtle details in the action. For example, the woman in white [the Administrator's wife, another pussy fatale] in the back of another limo, always travelling in the opposite direction, boarding the ferry when the French girl is disembarking... or vice versa. Or when the French girl puts her lips against the glass of the limo window, forms a kiss to which he responds... two people reaching out from different solitudes, different cultures. Or the failed plantation, with the broken dams....

    The moods, too, are very sympathetic to the emotional core of the story. The rains internalize the action, mythologize the sex. The dusky light, the sense of memory, things remembered, fantabulized. As characters, the lovers act almost in contradiction to their gender: he, fashionably dressed, the trembling lover; she, casually dressed, the ambiguous lover. She seems older, almost cynical. He was in love... but was she? The ocean liner moves out of frame, leaving a contrail of black smoke above the waves, which gradually fades... time, memory, reality.

    Yes, you're a writer, living in Paris. You smoke cigarettes now, your lizard eyes masqued by heavy glasses. You'll win a big prize for this confession, the Prix de Goncourt. You'll do it the old way, pen on paper:

    "One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: "I've known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you're more beautiful now than then. Rather your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged."  © Lawrence Russell  5/02

3. Main article:  "Redeeming Features" of Annaud's adaptation of L'Amant of Marguerite Duras or  how the film overturns certain assumptions about racism and the role of the French in Indochina. Pour un Amant rédimé?  Duras et Annaud ou le mensonge possible de la littérature et l’évidence des images

        This is a controversial, not to say  a steamy movie : some twenty  minutes of it are passionate couplings  between a fifteen and a half  year-old white girl and her 27 year old Chinese lover, which pictures the story told by Marguerite Duras in her slim book, L'Amant, translated in English as The Lover,  a book that has sold more than one million copies in 43 different languages, a book she hated, she said after Annaud's film was produced (and after pocketing a good amount of money for selling the rights of the book to make the movie - the woman loved men and money, in that order.) I said loved, for she died in 1996.  Here is what she said of the book itself.   I'll say it in French to sound less vulgar: "L'Amant, c'est de la merde! C'est un roman de gare, je l'ai écrit en trois mois quand j'étais soûle."  ( The betrayal she felt was that Annaud  had told a story that she didn't recognize.  In her own words:  "He (Annaud) thought it was an autobiography when it was a translation." However on can never fully trust what she says.   Annaud  knew that such an adaptation would be difficult. "I was aware, he wrote, that to undertake the writing of a psychological film was not as easy as writing a visual novel."

    What needs to be emphasized at the outset ? this is my first point - is the following:   In both film and novel, it is the wealth of the Chinese man that propels the girl (Marguerite Duras) into his arms.  She trades her body for money -- enough to pay off her punk of a brother's opium debts and buy them passage back to France, when she was 18, from Saïgon to Marseille, on an ocean liner.  The possibility that she may love him is only entertained at the very end of the story as she notices him hidden in his car when her ship sails away.  However, the significance of the affair for her lies not in sexual passion but in what it produced: Duras as writer, a sacred monster of French letters, a novelist, dramatist, scriptwriter and filmmaker, with countless doctoral dissertations written about her work.

    In fact, Marguerite Duras always rewrites the same story. In 1959, her own first film with Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour, was already the story of a brief love affair between a Japanese architect and a French actress visiting Japan to make a film on peace. It has been variously described as a poetic love story, an anti-war picture and one of the most authentic screen portraits of man's inhumanity to man.  It is truly a classic of French cinema in which Resnais and Duras work hand in hand.

    As for The Lover, it is a perfect illustration of what the American film industry does. I don't need to ask you nor to tell you:  sex sells,  and the French are supposed to be good at it! Where do you think the word "voyeur" come from?  Fascinating English language! Whereas a "seer" is synonym of prophet, a "voyeur" is a peeping Tom!  If you go to a video store, your choice of French films seems to be mostly on love and sex. I quote from the tape cover: "This uncensored, unrated international version of The Lover contains over 12 minutes of footage considered too explicit for the film's general release in the US."  And true, the French object less to explicit sex scenes than to violence on the screen.

    My second point is that Americans do not like films with subtitles.  So, what did Jean-Jacques Annaud do, with a keen eye on the box office?   He literally betrayed the original French and made the film directly in English, with the role of “the girl” given to Jane March, a British model who had never acted before.  I did not want a face with a history, he said. "This is the story of the first time."  By this he meant - I'll use the French word "défloration", which English again borrowed from the French, defloration, - the act of deflowering, literally to strip of flowers.  Tony Leung is a well-know actor in Hong Kong with an excellent command of English.  Jeanne Moreau, who does the voice over, thanks to her British mother, is bilingual. Like Marguerite Duras, she had in real life many lovers and is known to be a chain smoker. She was specifically chosen by Annaud for what he calls “her voice of tobacco and love”. In fact, as contradictory as it may seem, the French dubbed version of the film sounds more true than the original English in which Moreau does the voice over in her native French.

    I may want to point out that Louis Malle has produced in 1958 a shocker  of a film titled Les Amants with Jeanne Moreau as the a-moral lover.  Anyone with some familiarity with French cinema would make the connection between the two films, The Lovers and The Lover.  It must be said also that despite misogynistic laws and all its traditions, French culture prizes and respects sexual appetite and daring in women and, as these women age, values their prowess and wisdom.  A good example of this is the interview that Mike Wallace did a few years ago with Jeanne Moreau (who is now 78) for CBS 60 minutes, a proof that it would have some appeal with American viewers.

    My third point is that Annaud uses Duras's Lover  to construct for western audiences both a nostalgic spectacle of the colonial past and, again with a keen eye on the box office, a fetiche-like spectacle of inter-racial and under-age sex. By fetiche, I mean an object of unreasonably excessive attention or reverence. You will see how the camera focuses on certain parts of Jane March's body. A typical example, at the beginning of the movie,  is the shot where the girl is leaning on the rail of the ferry and the hood of the lover's car is visually aimed at the space between her open legs.

    As in Indochine, there is also for the French the fascination that they have retained for their colonial past, when all of West Africa spoke French, when Tunisia and Morocco were French Protectorates, when Algerians were - on paper -  equal French citizens, when todays' Vietnam as well as Cambodge and Laos where under French rule.  Fascination for exoticism, and in particular for the Orient (a word more poetic than the Far East) and naïve conviction that the French had a superior culture.  All this changed in 1960 when most French colonies regained their independence thanks to the vision and determination of De Gaulle. However, the French had already been defeated in Indochina at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and it is the victory of the Indochinese that gave the impetus to the Algerian rebellion or Algerian war that started that same year, in which yours truly was in 1959-1960 a non-glorious participant.  If you allow a personal note: on my first night of duty as a young lieutenant in Oran, I had to find coffins for the 17 of my compatriots killed in an ambush on the Morrocan border.

     Back to Indochina and to Annaud, who also wrote a book on the making of the film. Here is what he said in my own translation:  "In Indochina in the 30's, a white girl belonged to the governing race, and the Indochinese were not considered French citizens but French subjects.  Not understanding the country,  the colonial system thought is was colonizing that it to say bringing along its own culture, religion and knowledge. It acted in an absurd manner, while showing a complete scorn toward other races. Similarly the white girl felt the same scorn toward her Chinese lover. While perceiving that this very rich man could give her access to material pleasures, she knew that the racial difference constituted a safeguard for her independence: she could use him and then reject him, thus remaining free."

    If there are some redeeming features in The Lover, what are they? The dysfunctional white family can be seen as representative of French national culture.  Yet, the mother, a school teacher, is somewhat crazy. The older brother Pierre, is a violent opium-addicted thief, a real punk, the younger brother, Paulo, is slighted retarded, while the girl has become a slut in the eyes of everyone. The wealthy Chinese lover, on the other hand, is shown to be educated (in France of course), sensitive, polite, sincere and generous. And in the two scenes which bring the Chinese man into direct contact with the French family first in the Saigon restaurant and later on, especially at the nightclub, a scene shot largely from his point of view, his self-control and quiet anger contrast positively with the overt violence and sexual display of the French.  In that scene you will undoubtedly perceive how well Annaud has rendered the refined elegance and composed manner of the Chinese man who casts a look of disdainful compassion on that family, which, if you know already something about Annaud's cinema, will remind you of his own amused and satirical look in his 1976 film Black and White in Color, where he ridiculed the pretentious and paternalistic attitude of the military in the French colony of Cameroon.
© Joseph E. Garreau

Some questions:
• In what ways was the love between the young girl and the  Chinese man in The Lover  an impossible love?
• Do you see the rebelious nature of the young 15 year old “L'Amant” as a positive feminine image?
Ajout à L'Amant & Annaud:

Film 9  -  Story of Women (Une affaire de femmes)  A film by  Claude Chabrol

     Story of Women is a semifactual version of the life of Marie-Louise Giraud, an actual abortionist, who was executed by the Vichy government.  The film is a well-crafted account of a dark period in French history.  Chabrol’s economical control of cinematic narrative stands him in good stead, lending his depiction of the nightmare of the Occupation the kind of melodramatic tension that has characterized his tales of minor crimes among the provincial bourgeoisie, v.g. Madame Bovary.
    “What I was interested in, said Chabrol of Une affaire de femmes, was to make a truly pathetic movie about a woman, who is alone and is completely unaware of what’s happening to her.”  In Chabrol’s view, Marie is beyond the realm of good or evil.
    “Ni Pasionaria de la sainte cause des femmes, ni salope opportuniste du malheur des autres, Marie Latour est une femme bien de son temps et de sa classe. Une femme libre aussi, qui se refuse catégoriquement à son époux revenu vaincu de captivité pour se taper un jeune libertin, vaguement gigolo-collabo, lui aussi hors-la-loi à sa manière”  writes Gérard Lefort  in Libération.  = Marie Latour is neither a hard-core feminist nor a slut taking advantage of other people’s misfortunes, she is a woman of her time and of her class. She is also a free woman, who wants nothing from a husband who has just returned, [ill] and defeated from a German camp, and takes as a lover a young “collabo”, he too an outlaw in his own way.

La fin de la Seconde Guerre mondiale consacra la victoire des forces démocratiques sur les puissances nazies et fascistes. Cependant, le bilan était lourd. En ce qui concerne les pertes humaines, la guerre provoqua la mort de 40 à 60 millions de personnes : 17 à 26 millions pour l'Union soviétique ; 4 à 6 millions pour la Pologne ; 4 à 5 millions pour l'Allemagne ; 2 millions pour le Japon ; 1, 6 million pour la Yougoslavie ; plus d'un million pour la Chine. On compte 400 000 tués au Royaume-Uni et dans l'Empire britannique, et 400 000 aux États-Unis. La France déplora environ 550 000 morts, dont 350 000 civils.

= The end of the Second World War marked the victory of the democratic forces over the nazi and facist powers. However, the toll was heavy. In terms of human losses, the war was responsible for the death of 40 to 60 million people: 17 to 26 million for the Soviet Union; 4 to 6 million for Poland; 4 to 5 million  for Germany; 2 million for Japan; 1.6 million for [former] Yougoslavia; and more than 1 million for China. It is estimated that 400.000 people were killed in the United Kingdom and the British Empire, and 400.000 in the U.S.  France suffered from the loss of approximately  550.000 dead, among whom were some 350.000 civilian people.

Story of Women  - A Reading Aid to Michel Cadé’s Film review: “Le fait divers comme métaphore de la lutte des classes...”
(The News Item as A Metaphor for Class Struggle)

• Impossibility for Marie Latour to find happiness in a collapsed world, i.e. during the nightmare of the 1941-42 occupation of France by Germany

• Description of life conditions: first images of Marie with her two children, against the background of the Atlantic Ocean: metaphor of impossible escape

• Her only outlets?  Go dancing in a French café.  Her  own dream? To be a singer someday...

 • Harsh realities:

- having to feed two young children;
- seeing her own friend Rachel (Jewish) deported;
- having to put up with the greediness of French peasants, etc.

• Without thinking of committing any harm or any crime, she helps a neighbor to abort, simply because helping each other is a law of nature. Laws are made for criminals not for those who try to survive. Abortions are just a means to survive financially; the same goes for the renting of a room to a prostitute in her house.

• For health reasons, return of her husband from Germany where he was held prisoner. Feeling contempt and repugnance for him, she even takes a young lover, who happens to be a young “collabo” (collaborateur) i.e. someone making illicit money by dealing with the Germans.

• The first abortion scene, which, in Marie’s mind, is just an act of solidarity between women, constrasts in its reserve with the following ones, when she has become “a pro”, in particular when she is “working” on a prostitute, pregnant from a German soldier and asks her maid, Fernande, to finish the job...

• From then on, Chabrol uses a cartoonist-like approach to signify the passage of Marie into a world of wrongdoings, the outcome of which is made quite clear.  Her actions are followed by a series of desasters:  death of Jasmine, suicide of the husband...

• We were already in a non-believable situation when Marie met Lucien, her lover, at the goose lottery  (to be understood as symbol of her own fate) where we see, side by side, a French mayor and a German officer.  Their juxtaposition is to be seen as another symbol of French collaboration with the Germans.

• This was also at a time when, in France, anonymous letters of denunciation were all too common.  Hence, this is the method that Paul, her husband, is going to adopt to become an informer.

• Same cartoonist approach for Marie’s trial and her “crime against the State”  (whose motto was “Travail, Famille, Patrie” (Work, Family, Homeland). We witness the hypocrisy of a society too harsh on poor people, examplified by the cowardice of the lawyer. The Vichy governemnt, borrowing from a Hitlerian law, intent on maintaining a high birth rate to compensate for war casusalties, has decided to make an example of her death.

•  Conclusion:  Marie did not die because she refused follow the right path nor because she had erased the distinctions between right and wrong, she died because she wanted to change her woman condition and for her dreams  of wanting to be free.

Two Reviews

1. by Linda Lopez McAlister

     Her crime?  Performing abortions.  It's something she more or less happened into by helping out neighbors who got pregnant, some by German soldiers, during a time when the French men were in prisoner of war camps or had been sent to Germany to work.  Her own husband returns from such a camp, but cannot keep a job and the money she earns from performing abortions allows her to feed her children and move to a better place to live.  In a truly brilliant performance, Isabelle Huppert1 shows us clearly how greed and ambition, not compassion and sisterhood, begin to take over as her motivating forces.  She branches out into renting first one spare room and then another to prostitute friends, to make more money; she hires an assistant; she takes a lover who has Gestapo connections and gets her special privileges; she begins singing lessons and dreams of a career after the war as a singer. While she is always a loving mother to her children, she is in a loveless marriage and refuses to have sex with her husband.  It is he who, after finding her is bed with her lover, turns her in to the police for performing abortions.  In life as in films under patriarchy to transgress the law of the Fathers is to require punishment.  Perhaps at some other time she would have gotten off with a fine or a short prison sentence.  But the Vichy government was preaching the "restoration of morality" and they needed to make an example of someone.  So Marie Latour was moved from the provincial courts to Paris and was tried, convicted and guillotined

    The portrayal of this woman and her story in the film through the flash-back narration of her now grown son, is strangely distant and removed.  The film does not sentimentalize. All of the characters are multidimensional, neither heroes nor villains but just people with their needs and desires, joy and desperation, their hurt and their revenge.  Hollywood would have turned this material into a "weepy."  In Chabrol's hands one sits horrified as the story unfolds, but without the emotional identification with Marie Latour that would make us weep for her. Nor does the film moralize, instead it raises moral dilemma after moral dilemma which continue to haunt us long after we have left the theater.  Because the film doesn't try to manipulate your moral position, I suspect that there is room for a wide variety of readings of this film, depending on your own sexual/political views.  A pro-lifer might see it as showing that Marie Latour had gotten her just reward, for example.  For feminists, it is a vivid reminder, at a time when many people seem anxious to criminalize abortion, that the mind set that sent Marie Latour to the guillotine is very much still with us and needs to be opposed with all our strength.

2. by Brian D. Johnson  "Women on the edge: Two tragic French stories reach the screen”

    They both died in 1943. One of the last women to be executed in France, Marie-Louise Giraud was guillotined for conducting abortions. Three months later, artist Camille Claudel, the abandoned mistress of sculptor Auguste Rodin, died at 78 of natural causes after spending 30 years imprisoned in an insane asylum. Her crime was madness, the result of unrequited love and unheralded genius. Generations apart, Giraud and Claudel belonged to different worlds. But both women were punished for defying male society and asserting their independence. Now, they are the subjects of two highly acclaimed French movies being released in North America. Story of Women is an intimate and profoundly affecting psychological drama in which Isabelle Huppert portrays Marie Latour, a character closely based on Giraud, with unflinching realism. Camille Claudel is a handsome but overwrought epic, a romantic melodrama featuring Isabelle Adjani as a beautiful and helpless victim.
    Immaculately directed by veteran film-maker Claude Chabrol, Story of Women has been named Best Foreign Film by both the New York City and Los Angeles critics' associations. Chabrol's depiction of Latour is shrewdly ambiguous--unflattering and sympathetic at the same time. Her motives for performing abortions have little to do with compassion or principle. She is simply a resourceful opportunist who needs the money and enjoys the freedom that it buys. Latour is a feminist heroine only by default--which makes her martyrdom all the more harrowing.
    The story begins in 1941. A mother of two children, Latour lives in a grim apartment in a small town near Dieppe, where she struggles to survive on the proceeds of her knitting and dreams of becoming a singer. She becomes an amateur abortionist after catching her next-door neighbor taking a mustard bath--a primitive attempt to end a pregnancy. Latour's technique is not much more sophisticated, but it works. And she is delighted when the neighbor rewards her with the gift of a phonograph.
    Unexpectedly, her soldier husband, Paul (Francois Cluzet), comes home from the war. He is a defeated man with no future, and Latour resents his presence. As their marriage crumbles, her secret sideline turns into a lucrative venture. She finds a soul mate in a prostitute named Lucie (Marie Trintignant), who agrees to pass her name on to working girls with unwanted pregnancies. And soon, Latour is able to move her family into more spacious quarters. She even rents Lucie a spare room where she can entertain her clients. Meanwhile, she takes in a lover who turns out to be a Nazi collaborator.
      Occasionally, Latour has moral qualms about abortion, but her doubts are fleeting. She is just another entrepreneur in the black-market maze of occupied France. In the end, Story of Women is not really about abortion--now covered by French health care--but about the lingering shame of the Occupation. Latour becomes a scapegoat for a collaborationist government presiding over a shattered nation. After her arrest, a fellow prisoner spells out the hypocrisy: "How could men understand?" she asks. "They spend the war sitting on their ass, then they pick one woman out of the blue."   © Maclean Hunter Ltd. (Canada) 1990.

About Isabelle Huppert2 : Huppert acts on inventive instinct

[...] As if the 40-plus films to her credit didn't already prove she's a trouper, Isabelle Huppert's composure during a photo shoot after she had just tipped off a trans-Atlantic flight signaled the presence of a star.
    Huppert was in the Boston area over a year go for an Advance preview of "La Cérémonie (The Ceremony)," her fourth film with director Claude Chabrol. The wry thriller will open at the Kendall Square Theatres in Cambridge and the ine Arts in Maynard today
    The actress arrived at the theater accompanied by producer Marin Karmitz. The "La Cérémonie" preview kicked off a retrospective of Karmitz-produced films at the Museum of Fine Arts. The visit by the celebrities was co-hosted by the French Library and Cultural Center in Boston.
     The sleek, petite Huppert, her strawberry blond hair piled on top of her head, presented a serene but unsmiling expression to the camera, making one wonder whether adjectives such as "remote" and "sphinx-like" applied to the woman as well as many of the characters she has played. But as soon as the possessor of one of the most famous faces in French cinema settled into a theater seat for a chat, she was relaxed and friendly. Her delicate, youthful features (she's now 41 years old) contrasted with the projected image on the movie screen of the portly, owlish Chabrol.
    "It's nice to do a photo shoot in a movie-house, with Claude Chabrol on the screen," says Huppert in easy-flowing English (her mother was an English teacher.)
     Although the actress has worked with maverick filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard ("Every Man for Himself" and "Passion"), Bertrand Blier ("Going Places," "My Best Friend's Girl"), Michael Cimino ("Heaven's Gate") and Joseph Losey ("The Trout"), her works with Chabrol have been touchstones in her busy career. Her 1978 portrayal of a 1930s teen-ager who murdered her parents in "Violette Nozière" was an early triumph. Her wartime abortionist in Chabrol's 1988 "Story of Women" stands as her best performance. In 1991, Chabrol chose Huppert to play one of the best-known women in literature, Flaubert's "Madame Bovary".
    In "La Cérémonie," which recently took the best foreign film  honor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Huppert plays her first contemporary role for Chabrol, and teams for the first time with French star Sandrine Bonnaire  ("Vagabond"). And although each actress plays a woman with a secret in this dark comedy based on a novel by Ruth Rendell, Huppert is anything but sphinx-like and Garboesque. Her provincial post-mistress Jeanne is a motormouth busybody with the survival instinct of a tigress. Jeanne's friendship with Bonnaire's outwardly meek maid Sophie escalates into what Chabrol has called "folie à deux." Suffering the consequences of their resentment is the upper-middle-class family for whom Sophie works. It's as if "Cape Fear" invaded "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie."
     "For me, it's always fun to work with Claude Chabrol," says Huppert with a smile. "It was a very easy film to make, in a nice part of France. The weather was mild. And for me it was a funny role to do, quite quirky. A talkative woman. And aggressive. I had to invent."
      Huppert's sly chuckles bring back visions of her more mischievous characters, whose laughs usually come at the expense of someone else.
      "I think I'm a comic actress," she maintains, also citing her work in Hal Hartley's "Amateur," in which she played a former nun turned pornography writer. "Even if these two performances are completely different, I found my own specific way of being funny. In "Amateur, " it was in a deadpan way.
      "I think it's more difficult to find your own identity as a comic actress than as a dramatic actress. Most of the time, in comedy, it's a caricature. It's far from your persona, so it's more difficult to find the truth of it. Dramatic roles are always more of a fantasy. You don't live like this in life." Not that she endorses Jeanne's excesses, but in "La Cérémonie" Huppert says she sees a more intimate part of herself on the screen.
      Jeanne's justification of her past behavior, revealed in a monologue toward the end of the film, rang true to Huppert. Besides, she notes, Chabrol doesn't want his actors to make moral judgments about their characters.
       "The world is a jail. At least that's what Chabrol likes to say about our world. Everyone is somehow closed inside, in their own world. And of course, in his films, everyone wants to break out of it."
      Unlike most American actresses, Huppert seldom has to settle for a second-fiddle role of wife or girlfriend. In European films, she says, "women's roles are more interesting [than men's] because they're more provocative and more telling and more subversive. They are more political in the deep sense of the word."
       Huppert has often worked with women directors. Her sister Caroline directed her in "Sincerely, Charlotte," her close friend Diane Kurys in "Entre Nous" and "Love After Love," and  comic actress Josiane Balasko directed her and costarred in the 1984 "Sac de noeuds." That film was in some ways a forerunner to Balasko's recent "French Twist": "Her character was an aggressive homeless woman, and mine was like a little doll, platinum blonde, wearing pink, like a piece of candy."
       As a complement to her film work, Huppert seeks out stage projects. She performed a monologue of "Orlando" in collaboration with director Robert Wilson and sang the "Jeanne d'Arc" oratorio at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and on tour. Last year, Huppert made her debut on the London stage as Schiller's "Mary Stuart."
        She responds to an observation that French actresses give consistently daring performances by explaining, "It's a very instinctive way of acting. For example, I never prepare for a role. I just decide that I want to do it, and that's it. Then I do it without thinking about it. I know that the American actors have a heavier way of working, of preparing. Of course, you work to do a role, but you work before. You work with your emotions, with your fantasies, your dreams. And when you do a role, you just gather all these things and deliver them. That's my way of acting. And maybe that's what gives an easiness to my performances. There is no construction. It's not built. It's simple."
       Even for a role set in another era, she says. "I only believe in my imagination. Who knows, really, what the people were like in the 16th century? Of course, you have a certain idea, but you'd better find it in yourself and not try to find it in books.”  By Betsy Sherman © The Boston Globe, Friday, January 3, 1997.

 Film 10 - Camille Claudel, 1989. A Film by Bruno Nuytten
Cast: Isabelle ADJANI,  Gérard DEPARDIEU

     The tragic life of French artist Camille Claudel. Born in 1864, Claudel demonstrated talent early. At 20, she met sculptor August Rodin, who became her mentor and lover. Their 12-year liaison was an artistically fertile time for Claudel, but the affair’s disastrous outcome caused the already high-strung Claudel to deteriorate further emotionally to the point of becoming an impoverished recluse, and in 1913 she was forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital.

    Based on the tumultuous love affair of the sculptor Auguste Rodin and his pupil, the sculptress Camille Claudel, this is a tragic love story that merges art and love. While the artists’ passion for one another inspired some of their finest work, one artist’s temperamemt was better able to handle the heart ache.

     The film is a portrait of an artist so obsessed with love that she loses all hold on reality and on her art. In his directorial début, Nuytten breathers great life into his meditations on artists’ passion for ther art and their loves. He uses Rodin’s and Claudel’s works to deepen their portraits. The photography plays beautifully with darkness and light to emphasize Camille’s state of mind. Adjani reportedly came up with the idea for the movie, ans she plays a famous woman insane with passion, not unlike her role in The Story of Adèle H.

On Camille Claudel

      Biographical Data (From the bibliography Camille Claudel by Reine-Marie Paris, published by Gallimard in 1984, and the collection of articles in the specia issue of Claudel Studies, Volume XIX, No. 1 & 2, 1992, entitled Camille Claudel)

    Camille Claudel was born in 1864, the oldest of three children. When she was growing up Camille had to contend with her mother's rejection, whose first-born boy had died, and whose wishes for another male child Camille had disappointed Her sister Louise was a dutiful middle-class daughter and her mother's favorite, her brother Paul became the famous poet and playwright, while at the same time pursuing a brilliant career as a diplomat of France.

    At an early age Camille showed an unusual talent and drive for sculpting. When she was 19, she started working with Auguste Rodin as his apprentice. Rodin was then 44, he had a common law wife, Rose Beuret, and an illegitimate son. From a passionate letter found in the attic of the Rodin museum and written by Rodin to Camille in 1883, it is clear that Camille and Rodin became lovers soon after they met, and that he was spellbound by her youth and beauty.

    By 1890, the relationship had deteriorated. Camille left Rodin in 1898, after he refused to marry her and she underwent and abortion. She rented a separate studio and resigned from the National Fine Arts Society (Société Nationale des Beaux Arts), of which Rodin was president. The break had been long and painful.Camille had trouble selling her works, found herself beset with financial problems, became a recluse and took to drinking. An exhibition of her works organized by one of her only supporters, the collector Eugène Blot, was not a success. On March 10, 1913, a few days after the death of her father - the news of which had been kept from her - she was forcibly taken from her studio and placed in a psychiatric hospital. Her brother Paul, by now an acclaimed poet and a successful diplomat, signed the papers to commit her. Camille was 49 years old. She remained interned in various asylums for the next 30 years, despite her doctors' certifying that she was well enough to be released, despite her desperate letters to her mother pleading to be allowed to come home. She died in 1943.

Camille Claudel's Work

    Art historians generally recognize a mutual influence in the works of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, all the more so that the theme of the couple appeared simultaneously in the works of both. Since Rodin had many assistants and often signed their sculptures, it is believed that Claudel actually produced some of the pieces attributed to Rodin. There is agreement that many of the figures featured on The Gates of Hell were created by Camille, and that Rodin entrusted her with the hands and feet of most of his statues. Art criticism concerning Camille Claudel does not seem to be free of gender bias: many male critics consider her to be only a minor sculptor, highly influenced by Rodin, while fernale critics acclaim her as an artist in her own right, who influenced Rodin and contributed to his fame, and whose own work is imbued with a spiritual aura absent in Rodin's more sensuous renditions.

    In 1988 the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C . presented a major exhibit of Camille Claudel's work. In Paris her sculptures are exhibited in one room in the Rodin museum, and in the Musée d'Orsay, next to Rodin's.

Click here to see a snapshot of Camille Claudel
Click on the site of the Musée Rodin with specific info on Camille Claudel's works
Sculpting the Life of Camille Claudel Into Film (by Rebecca Spolarich)

The Film

    This film came out in 1988, co-produced by Isabelle Adjani who also stars as Camille Claudel, directed by Bruno Nuytten, with Gérard Depardieu as Auguste Rodin and Madeleine Robinson as the mother, Louise Athanaïse Claudel.
    It has been criticized by some as being too concerned with the stardom of Adjani, rather than with historical accuracy. Often cited is Adjani’s youthful appearance as she is driven away to the mental hospital, while in real life Camille was 49 when this happened. Critics have also objected to the length of the film, [although 30 minutes less than the original in the English subtitled version], the overstatement of the drama, and the music. They point out that director Nuytten, who had revealed himself as a gifted photographer in Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, pays little attention here to Claudel's sculptures, which are worthy of more pictorial emphasis.
    Other critics have hailed Adjani for her brilliant performance and her total identification with the role, and Depardieu for his convincing portrayal of Rodin.
    Unquestionably, the film succeeds in bringing Camille Claudel's tragic story to the attention of the public.

En français
    « Ma très bonne à deux genoux devant ton beau corps que j'étreins ». Lettre de Rodin à Camille Claudel (fin 1884 - début 1885).
    Ces quelques mots enflammés, qui évoquent l'érotisme de l'Eternelle Idole, traduisent parfaitement la passion qui unit les deux sculpteurs. Née d'une famille modeste, soeur du célèbre écrivain Paul Claudel (1868-1955), Camille (1864-1943) décida très tôt de devenir sculpteur ; elle s'établit à Paris en 1881, sûre de son destin et de sa beauté : « Un front superbe, surplombant des yeux magnifiques, de ce rare bleu si rare à rencontrer ailleurs que dans les romans », notait Paul en 1951.
    En 1883, elle rencontre Rodin et entre dans son atelier l'année suivante. Très vite l'élève douée devient la maîtresse de Rodin, alors en pleine maturation de la Porte de l'Enfer et des Bourgeois de Calais. Les deux artistes s'influencent mutuellement ; la Jeune Fille à la gerbe de 1887, annonce la Galatée de Rodin, et les Trois Faunesses sont à l'origine des figures féminines de la Vague de Camille Claudel
    Ce n'est cependant qu'au début des années 1890 que Camille donne toute la mesure de son art, alors que les relations avec Rodin commencent à se détériorer comme en témoigne la cruauté des dessins charges que Camille consacre au couple Rose-Rodin, le Système cellulaire, le Réveil, le Collage. Camille s'aperçoit qu'elle ne sera jamais madame Rodin et qu'elle n'arrivera pas à évincer Rose Beuret ; les deux amants rompent définitivement en 1898, et la blessure de cette rupture fut à la mesure de l'amour incandescent que vécurent, même irrégulièrement, les deux artistes pendant plus de dix ans. Camille ne s'en remit jamais, même si son art commençait alors à s'affranchir de l'influence de son illustre maître avec la Valse de 1892, reprise en 1895 et éditée à de nombreux exemplaires par Eugène Blot après 1905, la Clotho de 1893, les différentes versions de la Petite Châtelaine commencée en 1893 ou l'Age mûr de 1895, repris en 1898 et en 1907, cruel constat de l'abandon, Rodin laissant Camille qui l'implore à genoux pour rejoindre Rose. La part la plus profondément originale de l'oeuvre de Camille se situe au tournant de ce siècle quand, avec entre autres les Causeuses (1897) et la Vague (1900), elle aborde un nouveau style issu du japonisme alors en vogue et profondément ancré dans l'Art nouveau. Utilisant l'onyx, matériau rare, elle fonde ses compositions sur d'élégants jeux de courbes ; Camille est alors un sculpteur en phase avec l'art de son temps. Hélas, les prémices de la maladie de la persécution commençent à se manifester.
    A partir de 1906, la folie s'accentue et elle détruit. C'est ici au musée, avec quinze sculptures, que l'on peut voir la sélection la plus représentative de l'art de Camille. Rodin le voulut ainsi, et il n'est qu'à citer ce qu'il écrivait en 1914 à l'ami Morhardt, alors que son projet de musée était enfin en train de prendre forme : « Quant à l'hôtel Biron, rien n'est encore fini. Le principe de prendre quelques sculptures de Mlle Say (pseudonyme phonétique de Camille Claudel, Mademoiselle C.) me ferait grand plaisir. Cet hôtel est tout petit et je ne sais comment on fera pour les salles. Il y aurait quelques constructions pour elle et pour moi ». A la suite de l'exposition de 1951, Paul offrait au musée la Clotho en plâtre, l'Age mûr en bronze et Vertumne et Pomone en marbre. En 1963 entrait la version des Causeuses en onyx, rejointe tout naturellement en 1995 par laVague, le chef-d'oeuvre de bronze et d'onyx, également acheté par le musée. C'est donc dans la maison même de Rodin que l'on peut apprécier au mieux l'oeuvre de Camille, dans toute la force et l'originalité de son génie propre, débarrassé des oripeaux médiatiques qui ont eu trop tendance à le déformer.  (Extrait de l'ouvrage Rodin - Le musée et ses collectionsaux éditions Scala, Paris, 1996).

Private space in Camille Claudel  By Guy Austin,

    Like Van Gogh, Bruno Nuytten's Camille Claudel (1988) is the lengthy biopic of a troubled artist, but a biopic watched by three million spectators. The popularity of the film is above all attributable to the presence of Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu as the leads. For Adjani this was a personal project, directed by her ex-partner Nuytten and co-produced by herself amid accusations that she had abused her position as president of the commission d'avances sur recettes. The film may also have benefited from the publicity surrounding Adjani at the time, whose public declaration that her father was Algerian and her mother German was followed by a rumour in the press that she was dying of Aids. As she noted later, the two events were not unconnected: 'the French have long regarded foreigners as an infectious body within the nation, and of course that's like Aids. So to the right-wingers like Le Pen, I became a good target'.

    Camille Claudel has been termed 'the climax of a long period of art-historical rehabilitation' inspired by feminist reassessments of cultural production. The sculptor had previously been known, not as an artist in her own right, but as pupil, assistant and mistress to Auguste Rodin in the 1880s and 1890s, and also as the sister of the poet Paul Claudel, who was in fact responsible for her incarceration in an asylum for the last thirty years of her life. Three biographies of Camille Claudel had been published in France in the early 1980s, initiating a revision of this reductive image. Anne Delbée, having written a play and a biography about Camille which were critical of her treatment by her family, planned to make a film too. This project was scuppered by the Claudels, who granted access to personal documents and letters to Nuytten and Adjani instead, since their version was based on a much more favourable biography by Camille's grandniece Reine-Marie Paris. The resultant film relates how Camille (Adjani), an ambitious young sculptor aged nineteen, meets Rodin (Depardieu) in Paris and becomes his model and assistant, ultimately subordinating her own work to his so that he even signs what she has sculpted. Despite her family's disapproval, and the fact that Rodin has a long-term partner, Camille becomes his mistress. Later she leaves him and tries to establish an independent career, which is jeopardised by her drinking and an increasing paranoia about Rodin. After a disastrous exhibition at which she appears drunk, she destroys many of her sculptures, and on her father's death her mother and brother have her taken to an asylum.

    Authentic in terms of setting - as in the shot of a half-built Eiffel tower - and costume, the film is less persuasive as an account of the creation of art, which is seen 'only in snatches, so the drawnout sequence of steps from concept to finished work [...] is never fully documented'. This could be said of Pialat's Van Gogh and of the heritage genre's approach to art in general, and is in contrast with the extensive exploration of the creative process in Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse (1991). As one might expect from a cinematographer turned director, Nuytten shoots Camille Claudel effectively in brooding nocturnal colours and with intricate camera work. But although Rodin's visit to the Claudels' house in the country is the cue for an impressionist-inspired mise en scène, the compositions are often intimate and gloomy, and thus unusual for a heritage film. The predominance of interiors over public spaces can be related to Paul Claudel's definition of his sister's art as an 'interior' sculpture, 'proscribed from public square and open air', but also to François Truffaut's claustrophobic period drama L'Histoire d'Adèle H. (1975), a clear influence on Camille Claudel. Adjani received Oscar nominations for both performances, each time for her role as a troubled woman seeking independence from a dominant father figure only to end up in an asylum. Unlike L'Histoire d'Adèle H., however, Camille Claudel does at times feature those clichés of the costume drama - such as carriages pulling up in front of houses - which Truffaut had excised from his film, making it altogether shorter, sparer and more psychologically convincing than Nuytten’s.  © Contemporary FrenchCinema, p. 152-156.

Some questions:
• What function did Rodin play in the development and evolution Camille Claudel's art?
• What were the societal obstacles that stood in the way of Camille Claudel's acceptance as an artist?

Film Reviews By Roger Ebert,

     She is above all a lonely woman, because she chooses to do with her life what her society says no decent woman should do. She choose to love who she will, and she wants to be an artist - to create sculptures out of clay, just as if she were a man. It is hard to say which of her choices is the most offensive. And when she goes mad, itis impossible to say whether the seeds of madness were there from the beginning, or whether she was driven to madness by a society that could not accept a woman who lived for herself. Camille Claudel has until now occupied only the footnotes of late 19th century art. She was one of the mistresses of Auguste Rodin, the willful sculptor who is known to everyone, if only for "The Thinker." She was often his model, and for a time she worked as his collaborator. She left behind many sculptures, which can be seen here or there, not much remarked, while Rodin's work has been enshrined in the pantheon. She spent the last 30 years of her life in a madhouse.

     The film "Camille Claudel" is more concerned with her personality and passions than with her art, and so it is hard to judge, from the evidence on the screen, how good a sculptor she really was. This is not a movie about sculpture. Those who have seen her work report that some of it has a power that is almost disturbing - that there is an urgency in her figures suggesting she was not simply shaping them, but using them to bring her own emotions to life. Certainly the pressures against an independent woman artist were sufficient in her late 19th century Paris that she would not have bothered to be a sculptor unless she absolutely had to.

    The first time we see her, she is grubbing in the dirt of a Paris construction site, down there in a ditch like a burrowing animal, looking for good clay that she can use in her work. She straightens up and as she rubs the sweat from her face with a filthy hand, we see her as a very young woman with eyes that see more than this ditch she stands in: She sees, already, the figures she will mold from this clay. She is played by Isabelle Adjani, who has been nominated for an Academy Award for her work, and one of the mysteries of this performance is how Adjani, now in her 30s, is able so convincingly to  span this woman's lifetime and seem to be the right age at all times. She is certainly convincing in the early scenes as a young, open, determined woman who has somehow got it into her head that not only men should be sculptors. As an Academy student seeking a new teacher, she meets Auguste Rodin (Gérard Depardieu), who looms like a colossus over the art world of his time, not least because of his ability at self-promotion. Rodin was one of the inventors of the artist as celebrity, rejecting the myth of the lonely recluse in the wretched garret and consciously occupying the spotlight. At first he pays little attention to her, even though he has a reputation as a womanizer. She observes his longtime mistress, Rose Beuret (Danièle Lebrun), and wonders if they are married. She works on a piece of marble he has given her and creates a foot, a wonderful foot that he acknowledges as well-made. Then they fall into  each other's orbit, he is bewitched, they make love, she becomes pregnant, he will not leave Rose, and she begins the long descent into madness.

     Rodin is simply not capable of being faithful to one woman. Nor is he much interested in a woman who dares to think of herself as his artistic rival. Such a woman can only be allowed to grow so far, to be encouraged so much, before she must be slapped back down into her place in his bed. Is this rejection what drives Camille mad, or is it the fundamental contradiction between what she is, and the time she lives in? We follow her gradual decay, as she moves into shabby lodgings and goes without food or fuel to pay for her art. This behavior concerns her parents, who begin to wonder if she has lost her senses, especially when she begins to drink and to neglect the impression she makes on people. Adjani is possessed in this movie. It is not one of those leisurely costume dramas in which people in beautiful costumes move through elegant rooms. Her eyes always look haunted, and even in the moments of luxury and romance there is the suggestion in her body language of that feral creature down in the ditch, grubbing for clay.  She makes sculptures because she must - because the figures in her work are trapped within her, and if she does not release them she will burst.

     Depardieu plays a Rodin who is genial, assured and malevolent. He will go only so far for a woman before he must pull back and he sure that his ego is served. Has there ever been another actor, in any language, who seems so unself-conciously assured in such a variety of roles? Depardieu works all the time, always well, and just within the last few years he has been not only Rodin but also the hunchback peasant of "Jean de Florette" and the love-struck car salesman of "Too Beautiful for You."

     Artistic biographies are notoriously difficult to film, because what an artist does takes place within his mind, and the camera can see only the outside. Sculptors are at least a little easier to deal with than writers or musicians; instead of Balzac or Mozart furiously scribbling on a piece of paper, we can at least see the knife shaping the block of clay. But "Camille Claudel" is not really about sculpture anyway. It is about a woman who tried to place sculpture before everything, until she met a man who did the same thing.  March 9, 1990. © Chicago Sun-Times.

Another Review By Hal Hinson,
     "Camille Claudel," Bruno Nuytten's new film about the French sculptor who studied with Rodin and became his lover, has a tempestuous, romantic spirit. About midway through, its ardent young heroine (Isabelle Adjani), dressed all in black, returns from the funeral of Victor Hugo. Finding her master (Gérard Depardieu) in his studio, she crawls, without words and heavy with sadness, onto the platform he uses for his models and, after unbuttoning her jacket and blouse, flips her black hair over her head and, pressing her forehead to the floor, reveals to him the long alabaster line of her neck and shoulder.

     It's a gesture of elegant fervor, perfectly in keeping with the tone of this darkly sensuous, intensely passionate film. With it, Camille surrenders herself, at 20, to the 44-year-old sculptor, as his mistress and muse, and begins their long, ultimately tragic affair.

    A gifted artist in her own right, Camille worked mostly in Rodin's shadow, both as his first female apprentice, who sculpted under her master's signature, and as an artist under his influence who put his revolutionary ideas into practice.

    "Camille Claudel," which was written by Nuytten and Marilyn Goldin (from a biography by Reine-Marie Paris), is an attempt to establish Claudel's own claims to greatness. And though there is certainly a temptation to proclaim her an early heroine of feminism and a victim of a male-dominated, art-world hierarchy (both of which are true), the filmmakers have chosen instead to concentrate on the young sculptor's single-minded hunger to express herself, her romance with the mud.

     For this they have picked a great actress as their star. Here, as in "The Story of Adèle H.," Adjani shows not the slightest trace of restraint. This is a performance full of spirited, feminine turbulence from an actress with great stores of violent emotion at her disposal. There's a fierce light coming out of her eyes. When she has her climactic confrontations with her lover and mentor, she delivers the kind of rage that comes from deep in the gut, the kind that pushes you back against the wall -- the rage of the ages. But the deep absorption in her character is there in the quieter moments too, when, for example, she and Rodin sit in his carriage, with the sounds of the horses moving outside, and talk about their art and, indirectly, their desire for each other.

     This is a movie of miraculous moments; even when you're uncertain about the thematic point of scene, you can feel the pulses of the actors. In the film's first scene we see Adjani's ability to demonstrate Camille's ravenous appetite for her work, as she struggles in freezing pitch black before dawn at river's edge filling a suitcase with clay, all to the racket of protest from her family. Depardieu is the perfect embodiment of  Rodin's monumental energy, and he captures the declining spirit of the man who desperately needs the inspiration and fire that Camille brings to him.

     The truly rare and great accomplishment of the film, though, is that it manages to express the impulses that drive artists in their work. Because of its kineticism, sculpture is an ideal form for this, and watching Adjani in the throes of creation, ravaging her clay with a combination of frustration and furious love, we see how  much a product of emotion these works are.

    Admittedly this is in some ways a gross romanticization, but it functions as a useful metaphor, even at its furthest limits. Camille Claudel's last show, in 1905, was not a success, and having broken off with Rodin and grown estranged from her brother, the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel (Laurent Grevill), she lived alone, impoverished and nearly mad. In 1914, after a year in a psychiatric hospital, she was transferred to the asylum near Avignon where she lived until her death in 1943. Her story is a tragedy, but Nuytten transmutes it into something more complex -- a life burned up in art that, nonetheless, burned intensely and grandly and left its mark  --  December 21, 1989. ©The Washington Post

Film 11. Thérèse - 1986. A film by Alain Cavalier

    Alain Cavalier's acclaimed film follows Thérèse, a 15-year old girl from provincial France, as she becomes a Carmelite nun and battles with determination, pains and the doubts of her faith in the convent. Based on Thérèse's journal L'histoire d'une âme,published as Story of a Soul.

    Thérèse Martin, a fifteen-year old girl from provincial France (Normandy), has an overwhelming desire to join her two older sisters as a Carmelite nun. Both her aging father and the local priest try to discourage her, fearing she is too young to face the harsh realities of convent life. At her insistence, her father takes her to visit the Pope, who intercedes on her behalf, and she is "wedded to Christ." A few years later, she contracts tuberculosis; and battles with cheerful determination against the severe pain and the doubts that assail her faith. Thérèse Martin died in 1897. Characterized as the greatest saint of modern times by Pope Pius Xl, she was canonized in 1925 and became known throughout the world as The Little Flower of Jesus."

    The objective ot the film, states Alain Cavalier, a confessed agnostic,  is to talk about Thérèse as an unknown person; no question then to erect a monument to a saint, an endeavor she herselt would not have appreciated. For me, says Cavalier, it is the story of a little Carmelite, somewhat strange, exceptional when compared to her peers, who dies trom tuberculosis at the age ot 24, leaving a 1ittle notebook she was forced to write. What took place after her death [her canonization by the Catholic Church] concerns the action of the Church rather than Thérèse herself..

   Cavalier adds: " I prefer the little Thérèse and her life made up of a minimum ot events. There are always too many things in films. Thérèse—and for me she was right in this respect - put all her energy in little things. This search for perfection in what we call details, we find it, for example, with the Japanese. Details being for them a succession of essential things. This is how Thérèse finds this kind of “little way.”

Sur Thérèse
    La vie de Thérèse de Lisieux, une jeune fille exaltée qui a lu les Évangiles et est devenue amoureuse du héros. Une vision fascinée, agnostique et respectueuse, de la brève existence de la jeune Normande dont l'Église a fait une Sainte.
    "J'aime l'ombre. Les Carmélites se mettent à l'ombre. J'aime le secret. Je n'ai pas le goût du spectacle, ce qui est drôle pour un homme de cinéma. J'aime les acteurs qui ne parlent pas beaucoup. Quand j'étais enfant, j'aurais voulu être un oiseau, un oiseau invisible. C'est ce qui m'a amené à la mise en scène, un point de vue d'où on ne vous voit pas regarder. Thérèse, c'est aussi un moment dans l'histoire des visages de femmes que j'ai filmés. Avec Thérèse, pour la première fois, le regard de la caméra n'est pas érotique, même si mon regard est moins innocent qu'elle et ses compagnes. Mais j'ai eu l'impression d'avoir découvert des petits territoires inconnus."  (Alain Cavalier, Le monde, 24 septembre 1986)
    L'aventure d'une jeune fille qui « en pince pour un type mort il y a deux mille ans ». (...) Cavalier tourne le dos à l'imagerie sulpicienne, voire à l'apologue édifiant et lénifiant. il ne prend pas parti : il montre. Et que nous montre-t-il ? Une petite provinciale douce, vive et têtue, folle d'amour pour Jésus, qui va rejoindre dans le no man's land du Carmel de Lisieux ses trois sœurs qui l'y ont précédée.(...) Art minimal servi par le dépouillement du décor (ni portes, ni cloisons, ni plafonds) et les ellipses d'un récit construit en brèves séquences coupées au noir, sans souci d'une quelconque progression dramatique. Film aussi grave qu'enjoué, Thérèse possède cette vertu miraculeuse : la grâce cinématographique et peut-être la grâce tout court, comme si chacun de ses plans était littéralement inspiré. Michel Boujut, L'événement du jeudi, 25 septembre 1986.

1873:  January 2, in Alençon (Normandy), Marie-Françoise-Thérèse MARTIN, the ninth child of Louis Martin, clockmaker, and Zelia Guerin, lacemaker. Four children, among them two boys, died at a very early age. Are left five girls.
1877:  Death of Zélie Guérin
1882:  Pauline, one ot the Martin sisters, enters the Carmel ot Usieux
1886:  Marie the elder sister, Joins Pauline in the convent
1888:  April 9, Thérèse enters the Carmel after overcoming the objections of her family and local clergy.
1894:  Death of Louis Martin
1897:  Death ot Thérèse, who had been seriously ill for more than a year with tuberculosis.
1898:  Publication of Story of a Soul, Thérèse's  autobiography
1925:   May 17, Thérèse de l'Enfant Jésus de la Sainte Face is canonized by the Catholic Church and becomes known as The Little Flower of Jesus

Quelques repères chronologiques
1873:  Le 2 janvier, naît à Alencon (en Normandie) Marie-Francoise-Thérèse Martin. Elle est le neuvième enfant de Louis Martin, horloger, et Zélie Guérin, dentellière. Quatre enfants sont morts en bas âge, dont deux garcons. II ne reste que des filles.
1877:  Mort de Zélie Guérin
1882:  Pauline, l'une des soeurs Martin, entre au Carmel de Lisieux
1886:  Marie, la soeur aînée, rejoint Pauline
1888:  Le 9 avril, Thérèse entre au Carmel après avoir vaincu les réticences de sa famille et du clergé local.
1894:   mort de Louis Martin
1897:  mort au carmel de Lisieux de Thérèse, gravement atteinte par la tuberculose depuis plus d'un an.
1898:  Publication de l' Histoire d'une âme, le journal de Thérèse.
1925:  Le 17 mai, Thérèse de l'Enfant Jésus de la Sainte Face est canonisée.

A propos du film d'Alain Cavalier
    Au cours d'un entretien avec les Cahiels du Cinéma, Alain Cavalier déclarait: "Le parti pris du film est de parler de Thérèse comme d'une inconnue; il ne stagit donc pas de construire un monument à une sainte, ce qu'elle n'aurait certainement pas apprécié. II s'agit pour moi de l'histoire d'une petite carmélite, un peu bizarre, exceptionnelle par rapport aux autres, qui meurt de turberculose à 24 ans en laissant un petit cahier parce qu'on 1'a obligée à l'écrire. Ce qui s'est passé ensuite concerne le ministère de la propagande [ou plus exactement l'action de l'Eglise catholique qui l'a canonisée des 1925] plus que Thérèse."
    Cavalier s'est attaché à un visage, à des mains, à des mots pour donner à voir, pas à comprendre ou à juger, la vie de Sainte Therèse.  Le désir de Thérèse, s'il est illuminé, n'est jamais puéril, vide, de même qu'il n'est jamais extraordinaire. Thérèse est touchante, amusante, passionnante, parce que toujours dynamique et surtout attachante car décrite avec sensibilité, humilité aussi.  Cavalier ajoute: "Je préfère la "petite Thérèse", et sa vie, composée d'un minimum  d'événements. Je trouve qu'au cinéma, il y a toujours trop de choses. Thérèse, et là elle avait raison, mettait tout son talent dans les petites choses. Cette recherche de la perfection dans ce que nous appelons les détails, on la retrouve chez les Japonais. Les détails étant pour eux une succession de choses essentielles. C'est là où Thérèse trouve cette sorte de "petite voie". Et cela m'a naturellement éloigné de l'abus, de l'entassement de faits dramatiques et de sensations."

Reading Assignment: An Example in Film "Deconstruction"

T1TLE: The simplicity of the title, indicates that Cavalier's film, based on old photographs and the young woman's diary is not a sentimental hagiography nor even a biography per se.

CLOSE-UPS: The time of Cavalier's film: the late nineteenth century, which coincides with the invention of cinema. Along with photography, this new technology set the stage for the diffusion of the close-up, a major narrative device. Thérèe is a film literally made of close-ups, and it is also a film primarily based on old photographs, many of which were taken by Céline, Thérèse's sister, who brought a camera into the convent, just as Thérèse left home with one souvenir, a pencil box.

SCRIPT:  The elimination of acting goes hand in hand with Cavalier's narrowing of casual dialogue and the unconventional script written by Cavalier's daughter, Camille de Casabianca. Except for a few playfully irreverent remarks about love and Jesus exchanged by Thérèse and other nuns, complete silence, whispering, and the formal recitation of prayers, prevail inside the convent over ordinary language.

PROPS:  Like acting and spontaneous dialogue, architecture too is hardly present. In Thérèse there are no doors, no windows, no separate rooms, or no corners. There remains one crucial architectural element: the grill, which - along a dark curtain, a kind of huge veil - separates the nuns from their visitors. The grill allows outsiders to glimpse into Carmel, while it helps to define the nuns' separation from the rest of the world. The grill stands for contrast and opposition, not only between inside and outside the convent, but also between the values of science and spirituality. For example, called in to diagnose the young woman's illness, the young doctor expresses his condemnation of convent life: "They ought to burn this place down!" Behind the grill, with her face veiled - hence resisting the gaze of science - the Mother Superior proudly responds: "We are the salt of the earth!"

REVERSALS: Thérèse is a film built on reversals:

• Cavalier flouts the conventions of commercial cinema: it is not the woman, but the man -- Jesus, a "significant [though absent] other", who assumes shifting personas - child, father, spouse, lover -- and is the ever changing object of female desire. If Jesus is absent as a body, he is vividly present in the nuns' imagination. He is an absent presence that Thérèse can sense so acutely that she fans a little crucifix placed on her pillow. Likewise, the nuns have no trouble accepting that a wooden statue of baby Jesus can cry.

• Thérèse's father acts as a Good Mother (he warms up his children's beds every night) whereas the Mother Superior, "Good Mother" by name, dislikes Thérèse. She so disapproved of Thérèse that she denied the young girl medicine during her struggle with tuberculosis. (Marie de Gonzague, the Mother Superior, had many reasons to dislike Thérèse: she was one of the four Martin sisters who had joined the order, and by virtue of their influence, the Martin sisters were able to support the election of Pauline, Marie de Gonzague's rival.)

• The gender role reversal explains also the feminine behavior of Thérèse's father, who literally surrenders his position as authoritarian patriarch and, in Céline's words, becomes a sort of helpless baby. This transformation becomes most apparent when, like his daughters, Monsieur Martin takes on the veil, by placing a piece of cloth over his face.

• During the Christmas party, the rigid vow of poverty is overturned during the  span of a waltz by Offenbach, with a plethora of little gifts: candeholders, embroidery, cards, decorations. The nuns dance, handling around a life-size wooden figure of the baby Jesus. This exchange of gifts and festive atmosphere indicate that underneath a façade of bareness, life in the convent thrives on love.

• For many nuns struggling with a life of renunciation, there is a void they secretly try to fill. For example, an old sister treasures a forbidden portrait of her husband, who died before she entered the convent; Thérèse cherishes the tear gathered on a scrap of cloth from a dead nun's cheek; another nun, sensing Thérèse saintliness, rushes to acquire relics from her: a bit of fingernail, a lock of hair. Lucie flees the convent after having collected as many as possible of Thérèse belongings: the silver-paper shoe of armor she wore for a photograph in the role of Joan of Arc; the bouquet of flowers she held during the wedding with Christ; the ivory checkers Céline and Thérèse used to play with.  In contrast to the other Carmélites, Thérèse becomes a saint precisely because she thrives on the small things that punctuate a life based on an absence. Her method for sainthood came to be known as "La petite voie" ("The little way").

• Like many other women mystics Thérèse practices anorexia, not as a form of self-torture, but as a way of gaining control over her own life. By refusing to drink the hot milk offered by one of her sisters, she makes the Carmelite regimen even more rigid for herself with the happy single-mindedness of an athlete in training. As a mystic, Thérèse does avoid food but stills enjoys the warmth of the human touch: she gives a kiss to an older nun and nudges her nurse's cheek with the tip of her foot. It is only when she feels lost in the face of death that a hysterical blockage defeats her anorexic strength. Thus, devastated by tuberculosis, she chokes upon the communion wafer.

• Shortly before her death, Thérèse becomes a child whom Jesus will be able to hold in his arms. This process of infantilization is marked by an attachment to sweets: Thérèse asks for a pastry, an éclair, wondering whether this might be too expensive a treat. This hesitation about price underlines how the rules of the world outside the convent threaten the nuns' innocent pleasures.

• "Men vs. women".  Except for Catherine Mouchet, the professional actress who takes the role of Thérèse, Cavalier hired non professional performers, namely two dozen women who lived near the studios of Billancourt, a Paris suburb, where the film was shot with a small budget. This group of ordinary women constituted most of Cavalier's total cast of 33 people. The male gender is represented by a few authority figures, such as doctors and church officials, competing with each other to secure a monopoly on women's souls.


•  During her "wedding" to Christ, Thérèse steps into a dark area outside the halo of candles. This brief absorption into the unknown (darkness) conveys the excitement as well as the danger of such lifelong choice.

•  Thérèse repeatedly is about to leap into a place "beyond", just like the panting green frog a visiting sister holds in her palm next to Therese's deathbead.

•  Through death, Thérèse walks into a new state of being: this is why the film ends with a close-up of her shoes reminiscent of Van Gogh's "Shoes with Laces".

• A whole episode is built around a tin cup that has fallen to the ground, showing us that, in the convent, values are antithetical to the world outside. Thérèse's nurse comments on the waste of precious and expensive water from Lourdes (known for its miraculous power). Here, what is cheap or free (water) becomes expensive because it is "holy".

• After dressing Thérèse as Joan of Arc, Céline stands behind the camera ready to take a picture of her sister. With its mixture of strength and weakness, Thérèse's costume, a paper-armor, reminds us that mystics and hysterics alike turn their marginality into a source of power.

• Portraiture, photography, death: all these elements accumulate into a heightened awareness of Thérèse's sheer corporeal weight. It takes three nuns to lift he inanimate body from the ground and carry her to bed. It is as if the photographic portrait had made visible all her mortality.

• The episode of Lucie's behavior, a nun of sexually ambiguous desire, who fixes on Thérèse, dipping her finger into Thérèse's infected sputum, can be linked to the disgust hysterics typically feel toward the body, seen as an  accumulation of corruptible flesh as well as to common practice among women  mystics for whom the drinking of pus was a common practice. By doing so, they reminded themselves of the nourishing powers of Christ's open, bleeding wounds.

• In the same vein, the subtext of the episode of Lucie and Thérèse gutting fish is the mystical "transverberación" (transfixion) of St Theresa of Avila, traditionally represented in iconography by an angel with a flaming spear reaching into her entrails. This episode is dominated by a  mysterious lobster: perhaps this animal from the ocean's depth, with the color of blood and passion, embodies the feminine desire that the convent nourishes and society condems.

•  In order to escape from the convent, Lucie uses a twisted sheet that not only functions as a rope but even looks like an umbilical cord - a negative reminder of the convent/womb - she is eager to severe.

SYNTHESIS: The film is not the hagiography of Thérèse, yet Cavalier's pictorial style with the painterly aura of his "tableaux" brings to fruition the attributes attached to the name of Thérèse after her canonization: Saint Therese of the Holy Face and the Infant Jesus.

Source: "Still Life and the Close-Up as Feminine Space: Cavalier's Thérèse", Film Criticism, Vol. XVIII, Nº1, Fall 1992

Review - By Paul Attanasio,
    The hardest, and for some the highest, calling of film is the suggestion of transcendence, and such is the achievement of "Thérèse." In the hands of director  Alain Cavalier, this film thrills, seduces, befuddles and sometimes wallops you wit beauty. "Thérèse" tells the story of the young French Carmelite nun whose diary  became a best seller, and who later became a saint. When we meet Thérèse, she's similar to any lively adolescent girl, but with one crucial difference - she has a crush not on her teacher or Billy Jones, but on Jesus Christ. And though she's too young for the rigors of the cloister, she soon enough joins her sisters in the Carmelite order.
    As Thérèse progresses within the order, Cavalier walks you through the rituals and daily chores of the Carmelites - simple tasks such as laundry, or cleaning fish; others more arcane, like scourging the flesh with nails or rough corsets.  Visually, "Thérèse" is stripped down, with items of furniture set against a plain photographer's backdrop, but it's in no way meager or penurious. In fact, what strikes you most about "Thérèse" is how sensuous it is.
    With spectacular control, Cavalier lights "Thér``se" so that the contrast of the nuns' habits fills your eye, as visually rich and joyous as a gala formal ball. His camera enjoys the surfaces of things, the slime on the fish or the texture of linen or the feel of sheets newly warmed by a brazier; on the sound track, scrapes, crinkles and crashes jump out at you. Rarely has a film been so alive to the possibilities of the senses, and the way Cavalier sensitizes you also involves you in the Carmelites' way of being -- for Cavalier, their self-denial only heightens their perceptions of ordinary things.
    For his subject is not just the religious life, but the pleasure of worship, the rapturous domesticity of it -- Cavalier takes the Carmelite metaphor of marriage to  Jesus and makes it palpable. His Thérèse is that most entrancing species ~ the happy newlywed ~ in its most heightened form. Which isn't to say he's uncritical. The bitter words of a yeoman jilted by one of the sisters, and the harsh curses of a doctor who comes to treat Thérèse when she contracts tuberculosis, lend the film an outsider's perspective (as well as, in the yeoman's case, leavening it with humor). But these glints of objectivity only accent the movie's marvelous intimacy with its subject.
    For without the shocking excesses of "Hail, Mary," Cavalier has adopted the same tack as Godard, garnishing the experience of transcendence with the sort of ordinary trappings that make it available to all. This goes beyond the nuns involvement with their own bodies -- it involves Cavalier's gorgeous meditation on the landscape of the human face. As he examines the physiognomy of an old woman who entered the convent when her husband died, or dwells on Mouchet,  her eyes alive with animal vitality, her features simple and a little off-center,  Cavalier quite literally puts a human face on the abstract conceptions of religion.
    The centerpiece of the film's approach, though, is the way it changes your sense of time. From the very outset (a collage of short blackout sketches), each tableaux, each sound, each object is held separate and revered. As the film progresses, it accumulates into a slow reverie of quick moments. We see it as we se God -- in glimpses.  © The Washington Post. January 23, 1987.

Another Review - By Roger Ebert
    "Thérèse" is such a strong, pure, apparently simple movie that there's a temptation to let it carry us along. We don't want to ask questions. And yet at the end of this movie there are so many unanswered questions that we realize the movie is one long question:  What was the secret of Thérèse Martin's joy?
    She was known as "The Little Flower of Jesus." As a girl, she wanted to enter the strict cloisters of the Carmelite nuns, and when she was refused admission she went all the way to the pope to finally obtain it. Inside the walls, she struck everyone with the openness and sweetness of her disposition, and after she died in 1897 she became famous through the publication of her journal. She was canonized in 1925.
    The movie focuses on the depth of her passionate love affair with Jesus. The nuns are figuratively wed to Christ in the ceremony that admits them to the order, and in Thérèse's case she seems to have taken the wedding not only seriously but literally. In a way, "Thérèse" is the story of a girl who dies on her honeymoon.
    The story is told with stark visual simplicity by Alain Cavalier, who shoots against plain backdrops and includes only those costumes or props that are needed to make sense of a scene. His real visual subject is the human face. And after Thérèse is admitted to the closed convent, where a vow of silence is usually enforced, the faces themselves seem to speak.
    We become familiar with the other nuns: an old woman of great saintliness, a wise mother superior, a young nun who has a crush on Thérèse and with Therese herself, who is played by Catherine Mouchet with a kind of transparent, low-key ecstasy. There is a real sense of the community of the convent. In one of the movie's best scenes, a man comes from outside to bring gifts of food to the nuns, who cover their faces and flutter around him like blinded birds.
     "Thérèse" is not like any other biographical film of a saint - or of anyone else. It makes a bold attempt to penetrate to the mystery of  Thérèse's sainthood, and yet it isn't propaganda for the church and it doesn't necessarily even approve of her choice of a vocation. Perhaps the local bishop was right in saying Thérèse was too young for the strenuous life of the convent. Perhaps her devotion to Jesus was indeed, as Andrew Sarris wrote in his review of the film, "displaced sexuality and transubstantiated fetishism."
    This movie is so deep and so subtle that we cannot ever be sure just what the filmmaker thinks about  Thérèse Therese. That's one of the reasons I found it so disturbing and provoking. What avalier gives us is a portrait of the externals of sainthood, and just those internals that can be glimpsed and guessed through the eyes of a gifted actress. He makes no statement about his material. After we leave the movie, we ask ourselves what it was that motivated  Thérèse, and whether - perhaps it was good even though it violates modern notions. We also ask ourselves why she was so happy. We would not be happy living her life. But then, we are not saints.  © Chicago Sun-Times Inc.

Film 12 - La Femme Nikita (1990) A film by Luc Besson,  and its remake Point of No Return (1993)

L'histoire de Nikita  - Synopse en français
Elle a dix-neuf ans, ne s'entend pas avec ses parents et n'aime pas ce monde. Cette jeune fille surnommée Nikita est une "ado"  [adolescente]  comme tant d'autres, un peu plus désespérée peut-être... Et puis tout bascule très vite dans sa jeune vie: c'est la  rencontre avec une bande de copains, avec eux elle boit, fume, essaie la dope et la descente commence.  En quelques mois, Nikita est en manque, détruite, prête à tout.  La voilà mêlée à un casse de pharmacie qui tourne au drame. Sans même s'en rendre compte, elle descend un flic d'une balle dans la tête. Tribunal. Peine maximale: trente ans. Prison. Là, on lui administre une piqûre. Pour se débarrasser de cette ado enragée? Au contraire, pour l'utiliser, pour canaliser cette rage et la mettre au service des basses besognes de l'Etat! Au réveil, Bob est à son chevet, il lui propose cette "chance." Nikita n'a pas le choix, elle accepte.  A partir de là, trois années durant, les missions s'enchaînent, toujours plus difficiles, plus violentes. Trois années qui vont faire d'un chat furieux un berger allemand robotisé, prêt à obéir aux pires ordres d'un Bob qui a su séduire la rebelle...  Nikita tient le coup. Mais enfoui tout au fond d'elle-même, il y a encore un coeur de femme, qui va battre un jour pour Marco, le jeune type très doux qui l'aime et l'accepte telle qu'elle est. C'est peut-être ce qui va dérégler la belle mécanique mise au point par Bob:  Nilkita prend conscience petit à petit de l'absurdité de sa situation, du chantage dont elle est l'objet et du cynisme du système qui la piège. Alors elle se révolte. Mais sa seule vraie chance de s'en sortir, c'est une solution radicale: quitter à la fois Bob et Marco."  Tiré de:  L'histoire de Nikita,  Paris: Bordas, 1993.

or in English

She is nineteen, does not get along with her folks,  and hates the world.  This girl, nicknamed Nikita, is liked any other adolescent, just a bit more desperate perhaps... And then, everything takes a suddden turn in her young life: it's the encounter with a gang.  With them she drinks, smokes, tries dope, and her fall begins.  In the space of a few months, Nikita is in withdrawal, destroyed, ready for everything.  There she is involved in the break of a pharmacy that turns into a tragedy. Without even realizing it, she shoots a cop with a bullet in the head. Condemned, she is given thirty years (maximum penalty -- there is no longer capital punishment in France.)  Jail. There, she is given a shot. To get rid of that enraged adolescent?  On the contrary, to use her, to chanel that rage and put it at the  most vile services of the State!  Upon awakening, Bob is at her bedside. He offers her  this "chance". Nikita does not have a choice, she accepts.  From then on, for three years, the missions follow each other, always more difficult, more violent.  Three years that are going to turn a mad cat into a robot-like German shepherd, ready to obey the worst orders of a Bob who knew how to deal with the rebel... Nikita held on.  But buried deep down inside, there is still the heart of a woman, which, one day, will  beat for Marco, the very sweet fellow who loves her and accepts her as she is. This is perhaps what is going to mess up the beautiful machine finally tuned up by Bob : Nikita progressively realizes the absurdity of her situation, the blackmail she is the object of,  and the cynicism of the system that entraps her.  So she rebels. But her only chance to get out of the situation requires a radical solution: to leave altogether both Bob and Marco.

Addendum: A ten-minute video clip of the American remake of La Femme Nikita, Point of no Return (John Badham, 1993) focusing on the respective treatment of Nikita (Anne Parillaud) and beauty consultant, Amande (Jeanne Moreau) with their American counterparts, Bridget Fonda and Anne Bancroft. "Deux choses sont sans limites, la féminité et les moyens d'en abuser." "Two things have no limits," advises Amande,  "femininity and the means of taking advantage of it."

La Femme Nikita vs. Point of No Return

Synopsis of Point of No Return

She is society’s worst nightmare. A scruffy, antisocial misfit, she’s been convicted of murder and sentenced to die. But a covert government agency may be able to transform her into ...: learn to kill on command - or die as the courts have declared.
    Bridget Fonda stars as Maggie is this thriller directed by John Badham. Maggie is dressed to kill, trained to survive and set loose in a deadly world - where unexpected romance can complicate things even more. This stylish hit costars Gabriel Byrne, Dermot Mulroney, Anne Bancroft and Harvey Keitel.

              Film Review
     In the new French movie La Femme Nikita, the Pygmalion legend takes on a perverse twist: a sexy, scruffy, homicidal waif goes as a secret-agent charm school and comes out as a high-heeled government assassin. A box-office hit in France, Nikita reaffirms the ability of French directors to make preposterously stylish movies about untamed women. Ever since Roger Vadim made sex symbols of Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda in the 1960s, French film-makers have been playing with the hemline between art and exploitation. Nikita is a  thriller about a wild child of the streets who is turned into a gamine killing machine.  In the guise of an action movie, it unfolds as thinly veiled sexual fantasy about a seductive slave--a punk Pretty Woman with a licence to kill.

    The story opens with a bloody shoot out as police intercept a gang that is robbing a pharmacy.  Nikita (Anne Parillaud), a junkie desperate for a fix, crouches in a corner.  As a cop comforts her, she shoots him in cold blood. The courts sentence Nikita to death.  But the police fake her execution and offer her a new identity--if she agrees to be trained as a hit woman for the state.  At first, she lashes out at her instructors like a vicious animal. But her ruthless supervisor, Bob (Tcheky Karyo), breaks her rebel spirit and teaches her discipline.  Meanwhile, Amande, a make-over artist played by veteran actress Jeanne Moreau, schools her in the feminine graces.

     After years of incarceration, Nikita goes out into the world as a professional killer.  She falls in love with Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a benign supermarket checkout clerk.  She tries to keep her job a secret from him.  But as she gives in to what Amande calls feminine fragility," she finds it increasingly difficult to carry out her assignments.

     Nikita's sexual politics are outrageous. Director Luc Besson, 32, makes an amusing fetish of putting huge guns in his heroine's delicate hands. Sometimes, however, the degradation gets all too literal.  In one scene, sheathed in a black mini-dress, Nikita escapes a gang of killers by slithering down a restaurant garbage chute into a trash bin. Weeping, she walks home barefoot in the rain, her high heels in her hands, her stockings artfully laddered and smeared with blood.  Despite the movie's cartoon-like sexism, it is hard not to be dazzled by Besson's technique.  The action scenes are rivetting.  The director's visual  flair makes Nikita the most stylish French thriller since Diva (1981).  And Parillaud performs with startling intensity--even when Besson treats her less like an actress than a model being put through her paces.  Both avenger and victim, Nikita is the latest prototype in France's search for the ultimate femme fatale © Brian D. Johnson, Maclean's, April 8, 1991.

Another Film Review - By Ann Marlowe  - Why Can’t a Woman Kill Like a Man?

    Violent psychopaths are an American obsession. Presidential assassins, serial killers, and mafiosi lure our attention with the clarity, and fierceness of their passion. National treasures, they're one product we turn out better than anyone else. And they're almost all men. There are hardly any celebrated American killers who are women ~ only Lizzie Borden comes to mind, and that was a long time ago. Or Valerie Solanis and Squeaky Fromme, if near misses count. Women don't seem to kill to fulfill an abstract pattern or amass a large number of corpses or do funny things with body parts. They kill for reasons, good or bad, and on a small scale; they can't be depended on for good copy.

    Women who commit violence tend to be an embarrassment, maybe because they don't usually do much harm. We aren't really afraid of them, were afraid for them. This is evident in rock and film, our most vital arts. No woman musician has taken on her demons with the violence that has been claimed by a dozen men. And in the movies, female characters who take pleasure in violence are either relegated to exploitation films or eventually punished with death.

    Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita gives us a woman star who kills for the joy of it and survives; it comes to us from France, where these things are ordered differently. At the start, Nikita appears as a feral child. Despite her vulnerability, she projects menace. When a cop enters the drugstore her friends robbed, we're scared for him as soon as we see her gun. Contrast this with our feelings for Clarice in Silence of the Lambs; she trembles as she stalks Jame, and we fear for her. Both films are conservative beneath a progresive veneer. Demme gives Clarice "appealing" frailty, lest we see a woman on screen who doesn't fear violence and death, and Besson "humanizes " Nikita as she is trained to kill. In the beginning, Nikita is a junkie desperate for a fix, so it's understandable if she murders. As Nikita learns to modulate her behavior, Besson feels obliged to grant her an implausible growth of conscience. If she’d continued to kill without remorse, we would be faced with an unacceptable contradiction: a heroine who chooses violence with her eyes open.

    Women are generally denied access to psychopathic experience, particularly of a violent nature, and they acquiesce in this limitation, even find it a badge of honor. How many women were quoted during the Persian Gulf war as saying that  "if society was run by women, we wouldn't have wars"? How many stopped to wonder why, if nonviolence were so great, men were happy to let women keep it for themselves? I was skeptical when male soldiers objected to placing women in the front lines on the grounds that it would be demoralizing if they were wounded or killed. After all, if one of four women will be raped in her lifetime, and plenty more are merely beaten up by their fathers, husbands, and boyfriends, the prospect of women experiencing violence can't be  such anathema to a substantial number of men. It's not violence to women, but the male fear of women being violent, particularly enjoying it, that keeps women out of combat positions. It’s not their deaths, but their access to death that is taboo. And who objects? Women are afraid of the possibility of violent expression, and for men know well that what power on earth does not come from love comes from the death drive and its sublimations.

    Psychopaths like Nikita awe us with the fearlessness with which they live out their "alien" desires and their eagerness to pay any price for satisfaction. There is something about paying the price and in public, that’s part of their desire: Nikita shoots the cop point-blank though she is not in danger and can’t get away with it. (Other recent cinema psychos show the same pattern. Silence’s Hannibal Lecter continues to attack everyone who comes within range, so he is kept under the most stringent security; and Robert and Caroline in The Comfort of Strangers plan a murder painstakingly but allow themselves to be caught.)

    These characters aren't seeking punishment so much as recognition of what they take to be their authentic being. They illustrate on a more lurid canvas the human need for self-revelation, for the declaration of truth. Precisely because this is a rare privilege (and one for which, under the guise of psychoanalysis, people have been known to pay a great deal), the psychopath' s violent disclosure of her being fascinates us. That’s the source of her undeniable beauty. If she only wanted what everyone is allowed to want, she would attract no attention pursuing it. A humanized psychopath is no inspiration to anyone.

    Nikita's development of a conventional ethical sense rings false. Where would it have come from? Wisely, Bob did not try to teach Nikita ethics: anything she could have learned would have destroyed her value as a killer. It's because she can't get any distance from her actions that she has extraordinary reflexes and resources. Such as Nikita don't judge themselves. Nor do they judge others  ~ it's one of their appealing characteristics. The film's weakest scene is Nikita's confrontation with Bob at an elegant restaurant; wearing a funny hat, she tells him, that his job is a "sewer" that’s destroying him. (We should be thankful she isn't babbling about codependency.)

    Are we I to believe that Nikita’s relationship with her fiancé Marco ~ unrealistic as it may be ~ is enough to reform her character?  When Nikita cries as she takes aim at an assassination target on their engagement trip, you'd think Besson believes loving Marco is teaching her to love everyone. As though there weren't plenty of career soldiers and professional criminals who are affectionate spouses. The psychology is wrong. The Nikitas of this world are not ruthless because no one has ever cared for them. It's the Nikitas who are easiest to care for. But they never change. They are what they are and hardly even know it.

    The gun and the phallus are linked by long tradition, and Nikita is a gunwoman. There are guns in many scenes in Nikita, but the camera avoids lingering on them, restrained by a mysterious shame. When Nikita hides the M16 in the hotel bathroom just as Marco walks in, it’s as though she’s been caught playing with her cock, something the decidedly un-phallic Marco doesn’t have. (A fine thing to show your husband on your honeymoon.) Later, when Nikita is involved in a bungled mission, she’s caught impersonating the diplomat her associate killed. La femme becomes un homme for the benefit of the closed circuit TV camera making a film-within-the-film watched by embassy security.

    Nikita’s sexuality is fundamentally unreal. She doesn't have the anticipated affair with Bob and picks up Marco as if he were another can of food to be acquired at the end of what seems her first ever visit to a supermarket. (Especially in France, a woman who doesn't even know how to buy food is no woman at all.) For such a visceral, physically direct character (for hours after the movie, she made me feel like smashing things), Nikita's sexuality is surprisingly tame. With Bob rather than Marco things might have been different, but it’s somehow important to Besson that his heroine have no real sexual connection with anyone. For Besson, Redemption by Love only includes puppy love, or perhaps it's too scary to imagine what Nikita’s sexuality would look like unleashed.

    Nikita begins the movie acting like a child, attacking everyone within range, seeing the simplest solutions to problems.  A privileged prisoner whose jailers offer her surprising latitude, Nikita in the training institution, like Hannibal in his cell, succeeds in reconstituting the self-centered world of childhood around her. What’s disgusting about Hannibal isn’t his cannibalism, but his monstrous, infantile ego. What’s disgusting about Nikita’s murder in the drugstore isn’t its violence, but its disregard for the equal subjective importance of the policeman’s life. Nikita and Hannibal are lit with the splendor of desire unabashedly pursued, yet one thing desire can teach, but they cannot learn, is humility before the desire of others. The psychopath’s passion is inspiring only up to a point. As the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett has a character put it, “People do not like to lose their lives. That’s the reason why they should not take other people’s. © The NYT.  May 7, 1991.

About "American Quilt" and Anne Bancroft : Do women’s movies have a common thread

Main article: Nikita  as social fantasy

By Alison Smith

Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990) has retained a reputation as one of  the most stylish exponents of what has come to be known as 'le cinéma du look' of the 1980s and 1990s.'(1) In fact, insofar as that title, corresponds to a definite genre, Nikita  could be said to be the peak which, perhaps, preceded its dissolution. Jean-Jacques Beineix, who inaugurated the genre with Diva in 1981, had already passed the peak of his popularity, and his last film to date, IP5 (1992), drifted from brief notoriety to semi-obscurity. Even the explosive Les Amants du Pont-Neuf  (Carax, 1991), which Guy Austin (1996) considers the apogée of the genre, has not exerted such a lasting hold on the imagination as Nikita. The film, however, was coolly received by the French critics, who by and large accused Besson of a kind of  populism, and of playing to a notional 'youth-market' in his choice of theme and style. Audience figures soon bore out Besson's belief that he was indeed able to engage the imaginations of a cinema-going public in France, and the film's subsequent career has shown that the effect is durable. Besson's critical reputation has, however, always been higher in Anglo-Saxon countries than in France, and it was partly in response to this that, after Nikita,  he moved his centre of  operations more clearly across the Atlantic to make Léon (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997).

The French cinema of the 1990s has tended - in broad terms - to divide its attention between relatively traditional blockbuster fare, such as costume dramas and comedies, and a renewed interest in social realism.  The urban fantasy which characterised the cinéma du look has in the 1990s found  expression mainly in the BD-inspired creations of Jeunet and Caro (Delicatessen  (1991), La Cité des Enfants Perdus  (1995)), in  whose hands the labyrinthine worlds which Beineix, Besson or Carax delineated in a still identifiable Paris have become wholly imaginary.

By 1997, with the appearance of The Fifth Element, Besson seemed  to have moved definitively into the elaboration of baroque futuristic fantasy. In Nikita, however (as in Léon), his imagination is still restrained, visually and contextually. The film's world is recognisable, almost credible, and it is this which gives the fantasy its force. For Nikita  is undeniably a fantasy, and the spectator certainly receives it as such, and it is with Nikita  as fantasy that this [essay] will be primarily concerned.

Any fantasy involves a representation of the world which corresponds to the desires, or the fears, or most likely both, of its author. This is of course true - to some extent - of any film, and one could perhaps claim that all films are more or less fantasies; where the genre is openly espoused, however, this definition and the questions that it imposes becomes central to understanding the functioning of the film.

These questions are threefold: firstly, they concern the content of the representation; secondly, the identity of the author, for a fantasy must imply a fantasising mind; thirdly, the way in which the fantasy acts upon its audience. This chapter will thus seek to explore the world of Nikita  from the following angles: What is being represented?  Whose representation is it? Or, in other words, is there an approximation to an authorial position contained within the film? What is the function of the representation, both for its author and for its audience?

These questions have to some extent been evoked by Susan Hayward in her extremely erudite study of Besson's work (2), to which this article is much indebted. Hayward has shown how the film's delineation of a society based on surveillance-systems, where the young protagonist is representative of youth in general as an alien and distrusted class, can convincingly be related to perceived developments in French society in the 1980s. She has also discussed in detail the complex gender issues which the film expresses. Nikita,  in fact, tells the story of the development of the protagonist from genderlessness to a gendered identity, through the mediation of a 'father-figure' Bob. Hayward has shown how the film can be related to the Oedipal scenario, and the difficulties which arise from the lack, in Nikita's development, of a credible mother-figure. In fact, femininity in Nikita  seems to be presented as a form of masquerade, with the protagonist being encouraged to put on the costume, make-up and names associated with it in order to fit into society and also to attain a form of manipulative power. Apart from Nikita herself there is only one female character, Armande, who is the spokesperson for just this attitude to gender. Nikita is kitted out with a selection of costumes for her various assignments which correspond to different imagined constructions of femininity until, in the final assignment, she 'cross-dresses/transgresses', a move for which, in Hayward's analysis, her final failure and disappearance is a punishment.

In this essay I have elected to concentrate on the elaboration of Nikita's story as an expression of the functioning of order in society, and the issue of gender will be considered only insofar as it is directly relevant to this. Tile reader is referred to Hayward's work for a detailed analysis of some of these issues.

What fantasy?

Given, then, that Nikita is a fantasy, what is the content and how is it represented? From the start it is defined as an urban fantasy, and as we shall see its concerns will increasingly prove to be with the organization of society, a distinctly urban preoccupation.

The first images, in a rainy, unidentifiable city, present a group of teenagers marching purposefully along the street. They are fairly distant and therefore unidentifiable, but visually coded, by clothing and manner, as aggressive, and when we do at last see them closely, they are shown at a low-angle, which again creates a sense of menace. Throughout the first, exaggeratedly violent, sequence, the group remains menacing and incomprehensible - a series of stereotypes of 'delinquent youth' incarnated in the four characters. They are junkies: they turn to violence as the first solution to even the most simple obstacle (Zap); they indulge in it for - or at least with -  pleasure (Rico); they are totally divorced from any sense of family (Coyotte) while able to use other people's sense of it to their own advantage when menacing the innocent small businessman (Rico, briefly); they are exhibitionist (Zap again), and inconsequent (everybody). The climax of the anarchic violence which they unleash - even if the police then take over - is the shooting of a policeman by the only member of the gang left alive, the woman, who is hiding in a corner.

If the gang members are never more than names and stereotypical behavior, the 'forces of order' are even less individualised, being nothing more than a faceless front of firepower until one of their number uncovers Nikita. In the seconds before lie is, literally, blown away, we see him in close-up in a shot-countershot sequence with Nikita. He is thus humanized; we are also allowed to retain an indistinct but definite image of him, and we may assume that this is also true for Nikita. It will be of significance later that both we and she should have retained the image of this anonymous face.

Nikita, however, becomes individualised as for the rest of the  film she alone represents the 'danger' which she and her gang at first embodied. The rest of the film depicts the way in which society extracts front her - what? Justice? Or vengeance? Or advantage? Or, finally, proof that complete socialisation of such anarchic elements is either impossible, or at least, very dangerous.

My argument will be that Nikita  presents itself as a fantasy about 'justice', seen as the neutralization of a danger to all the values of an ordered society, a danger constructed by the film in the first sequence. This fantasy, however, is not unequivocally endorsed by the film at any time, and indeed is more and more clearly shown to contain within itself elements which negate it.

The narrative explicitly presents Nikita's fate as a process of justice, or rather as a sequence of alternative processes, all of which have strong connotative power. The sequence begins with the conventional judicial scenario (trial and sentence), but this is almost incidental. The next scene - apparently - substitutes a hidden, primitive, justice of a life for a life in which, due service having been paid to the forms, she is to be killed by lethal injection. Not, as we know, always a fantasy, but in societies where capital punishment is not part of the system its possibility remains a powerful collective fantasm which is always resurfacing. The scene proves to be a red herring, however. Nikita awakens in a cell and for the rest of the film will 'serve her sentence' as a state killer.

However, the scene of her 'death' is not so easily forgotten. Firstly, she is indeed officially dead, and the way in which this is covered up indicates that there is no safeguard in the system which ensures that she is not so for real. Secondly, there is the manner of her awakening.

If we allow ourselves to imagine, for a moment, that the execution has been for real, and that the scene which follows takes place in 'the afterlife', we find that many of the visual clues are appropriate; there is a blinding fight, a white room, a figure sitting in judgment, and when Nikita asks the figure 'Am I in heaven, sir?  (Suis-je au paradis, Monsieur?)  the question seems not unreasonable. Neither, in fact, do Bob's answers provide any real denial, although I presume most spectators instantly reject this possibility which, if acceptable, would irremediably weaken the film.

Nonetheless, such strongly coded images can hardly be innocent. I would argue that they increase the tendency to read Nikita's subsequent fate not only as a fantasy, but as a fantasy which bears a direct relation to her previous existence. They add, by connotation, another layer to the sequence of systematic judicial recriminations with which Nikita has been faced - the concept of heaven and hell, after all, is only another fantasized process of justice.

Such a reading is further reinforced by the appearance of the Judge. Certainly his dark clothes, his position, hi stern face and discreet stubble make of him a phallic father-figure and a representation of authority, but that face and that stubble bear more than a passing resemblance to another face already seen, that of the doomed policeman of the first sequence. A comparison of the two stills bears this out, although detailed study and the credit list seem to confirm that the policeman is not Tchéky Karyo. Thus the controller of Nikita's rebirth, and process of socialisation, is, at least, very similar to the victim of her previous violence, a similarity which, if we perceive, we may assume that Nikita, too, is aware of.

Thus the answer to our first question - what is being represented  - may be said to be a fantasised process both of retribution and of neutralization of the kind of anarchic violence which constitutes a disturbance to 'normal' society and kills its agents. The neutralization, however, will take place not by denying the violence but by disciplining it and turning it against the 'enemies of society'. That sentence should not be read, however, as implying that the disciplined violence is to be turned against itself (or its own earlier form). The 'enemies' against whom Nikita is used are coded, inasmuch as we can give any character to the targets at all, not as the anarchic, frightening, but finally vulnerable youth of the first scenes, but as highly organized, socialized, yet strangely 'foreign' beings. This is certainly true of the ambassador at the end, and apparently of the somewhat Oriental-looking VIP at the beginning, while one might perhaps argue that the woman in Venice is 'foreign' to the corridors of power that she presumably moves in simply by her sex. The violent elements in society, tamed, are to be used not to repress  violence, then, but difference.

However, the film does not allow a full engagement with this representation. The issue of the name is enough to make us wary. Briefly - the protagonist when she first appears, outside all socialization, a danger and a desire (j'en veux'), nothing else, has no name; but when one is demanded of her, she provides it. The name Nikita has many connotations. There is its source in (a very established form of) popular culture, its genderlessness, its three sharp syllables which make it sound like a martial arts war cry when Nikita first uses it. Most importantly, it is quite probably a name she has chosen herself and which has not been given to her, and it comes to represent the part of her which is not controlled by Bob (who uses it when speaking to her at the moment of separation when she is most clearly an unpredictable love-object and when he therefore cannot feel control).

It is also the title of the film, and thus applies to the whole of it - the protagonist never ceases to be Nikita, even when everyone calls her either 'Marie' or Joséphine', she is thus never quite neutralized or incorporated into others' images.

Whose fantasy?

We now turn to the issue of the authorship of the fantasy. That is, who is the author of the representation of justice above described, and to what extent is it shared, subverted or even rejected by other intervening voices - and, finally, by the audience?

Issues of authorship in Nikita  are complex, but the first central question, is whether there is a place for an 'author within the narrative of Nikita? The very fact that, as mentioned above, the film provides strategies to prevent us engaging fully with the fantasy, indicates the presence of what might be called a 'meta-author', who is outside the author of the fantasy and can cast doubt on it, and that usually implies that one way or another the author on whom doubt is cast has to be wrapped up in the text somewhere. The question is - where?

There are several layers to this question. Firstly, one has to ask whether Bob, or indeed Nikita herself, can be positioned as the author of the fantasy. Superficially, one is tempted to reject Nikita's candidacy out of hand, and to see strong arguments for that of Bob. Nikita is so clearly in the object-position throughout - gazed at, disguised, constructed according to the images created by various controllers - that the whole film seems to do nothing but manipulate her. However, her position is not perhaps so powerless as it seems with regard to her own image. Neither, of course, is the suggestion that the fantasy involves her own punishment an argument against her authorship of it, and her position contains considerable ambiguities, recognized by Hayward in her discussion of the difficulties involved for a female spectator in identifying with Nikita.

Bob, on the other hand, has a strong claim to be the 'author' of the revamped Marie/Joséphine character that Nikita becomes. He is apparently a father/authority figure - he is certainly the authority which Nikita quite quickly recognizes. He initiates her training and provides (and is seen to provide) the ideals on which she is to model herself - be they a judo tutor, Armande, or a poster of a ballerina. In the famous sequence where, after her 'release', he comes to dinner with Marco and Marie, he becomes, literally, her author, and as he recounts her reconstructed childhood, the film gives us long frontal views of Nikita's face listening enthralled to her own story being written, and then being obliged to hide her fascinated interest when Marco looks at her. His place in her life is infinitely more central than that of Armande, the only credible 'mother', who is no more than an appearance (and says as much; she is there to teach Nikita not to be a woman but to act as a woman), and, of course, his link with her is justified by his apparent pre-destination as the victims who therefore has the right to exact retribution.

However, there is no sense in which Bob occupies the authorial position in the film. Technically, he does not enjoy the 'point of view' particularly often - rather less, in fact, than Nikita herself - neither are his emotions revealed (through close-ups) more often than Nikita's. Narratively, his control stops with Marie/Joséphine (not even, really, Nikita) over whom he has been able to gain some ascendancy because of his fulfillment of some of her personal desire for direction. Bob is under the control of an immediate superior, faced with whom the film reduces him to a state of infancy comparable to the infantile state to which Nikita is reduced in front of Bob (in these  sequences as in earlier ones with Nikita, this is effected mostly through angle shots and an impressive use of shadows ? menacing silhouettes are a recurring symbol in this film of Power-Which-Cannot-Be-Argued-With). In a sense this superior acts as Bob's conscience in the same way that Bob gradually appears to gain a status as Nikita's 'conscience', reproaching him for indulging in the pleasure of a presence that he cannot discipline. Bob's response is to increase the discipline. In the sequence before his interview with his superior, the film shows him watching Nikita's defeat of her judo teacher - which is totally against the rules - with obvious enjoyment; in the sequence after we see him rejecting Nikita's progress to date. It is worth noting that in the sequences prior to this episode, she is dressed in the punky clothes which she came to the Centre in, and her walls are covered with rebellious scrawls. The first reading of this tends to be that is not quite 'tamed' yet - but it needs to be taken a little further; we have quite enough information to know that she is in a totally controlled environment, and therefore her possession of the clothes and the paint represent choice on the part of someone. Until Bob's interview with his boss we have no reason to suppose that he is not in total charge of this building, and, after it, it still appears that Nikita is his responsibility, that he regulates her. Her residual rebelliousness is certainly with his indulgence then, and apparently gives him pleasure - but, when the boss says so, it has to stop!

However, there is no suggestion in the two sequences where the superior appears that he, personally, controls the point-of-view - and he does not ultimate control of the centre either. 'If it had been up to me,' he says to Nikita when she is about to graduate, 'I'd have let you croak' (S’il n’avait tenu qu’à moi, je t’aurais laissée crever).

The fact that these two apparent authority figures (and there are no others of anything like comparable status) do not wield the point-of-view, how, does not mean that a central point-of-view cannot exist. In fact, the implication throughout is that Nikita is living in a controlled environment, and this control and surveillance (which is of course the prerogative of the camera from whose eye she is scarcely ever absent, and when she is it is always to someone waiting for her, looking for her or talking about her: we will return to this) is exercised within the narrative space (the self-contained world in which any story takes place. An author puts her/himself within the narrative space whenever s/he appears as a character able to interact with other characters.  Clearly, in this case, Besson does not exist within the narrative space, but the Centre does).

The evidence of this seems to be even more widespread than has  usually been recognized. Not only does Marie's mission consist in a complex web watching and being watched, and not only is this watching taking place in time and all the time, as we understand through the commentary on her mission in Venice, when the voice in her headphones scolds her for dallying -, she does not immediately get a perfect aim on her target, but the final scene after she returns from the botched mission to the embassy throws doubt on the most private part of her private life.

This is not simply in the sense that Hayward suggests 'in her private life with Marco the camera may not be there (but who is to know?)'(1998:93) - if she is watched as she aims out of the bathroom window, then the came almost certainly there at other times, but even more menacingly, by implicating Marco himself.  His revelation that he knows all about he secret life stake-outs, the tailings' ('les planques, les filatures')  - is, on reflection, inexplicable, unless he has either been informed or has been following her consistently himself. Although our first reaction tends to be relief that Nikita is spared the need for explanation, it is an ambivalent relief. Also, just before this revelation, Marco makes a comment on the career which is too hard for her, which holds considerable significance. He focuses on her hands - 'these little hands ... they mustn't age'. (Ces petites mains, il ne faut pas qu’elles vieillissent).  This immediately recalls Armande's comment long ago in the Centre -'Is it my hands you're looking at? they were beautiful, you know - now they give me away' (C’est mes mains que vous regardez?... elles étaient belles, tu sais ? maintenant elles me trahissent).

There is no narrative reason to make this connection, but the recollection helps to create the (paranoid) conclusion that everybody around Nikita is part of the central plan. If, then, no one person is given the point-of-view, this is because all the characters are contained within the purview of a single all-embracing surveillance system, contained within the narrative space. 'Le centre'  is presented as all-seeing and all-controlling, and can therefore realistically placed in the position behind the camera. When Nikita disappears from the control of the centre, she goes out of frame and become invisible. 'The Centre', then, takes up the authorial space, and allows for the incorporation into the narrative of a very nearly omniscient narrator - which is an interesting feat.

We began by saying that Nikita  presents itself as a fantasy of social justice. By placing 'the Centre' in the position of the author within the narrative, the filmmaker also attributes to it the elaboration of this fantasy of justice, and insofar as the Centre is identified with (organised/civil) society, to make it a social or communal creation. This allows any individual, filmmaker or spectator, to attain a degree of detachment from the fantasy, although at the cost of rejecting that society which, it is suggested, formulates it.

Such detachment allows us not only to find it potentially terrifying - identification with the author would not preclude that - but to make sense of the destructive elements contained in the film and formulate some kind of critique. It is through this degree of detachment that the position of the spectator, and more especially the female spectator, with regard to the film is made viable - we are, certainly, 'positioned as male, the  State even' (Hayward 1998: 111) by the camera, but that position has at once a clear identity within the story and no  thoroughly human face - we can therefore recognize the existence of a subjective element in the telling of the tale without having much encouragement to identify with that element. This may well he even more true of the female spectator recognizing her implication in the destiny of the woman Nikita, although it seems that the tendency to identify or not with Nikita is not governed purely by the gender of the spectator concerned.

The means of disposing of Nikita

The actions of the Central Control seem aimed at the destruction of Nikita, the 'dangerous' element (the danger does not stem from her violence, as we shall see, but perhaps from her ability to exist outside the social structures presided over by 'the Organization', an ability which remains latent in the character and is often expressed through gender). Her destruction will be achieved, however, not by annihilation (ruled out by the boss of the Centre as impossible) but by absolute incorporation, the destruction of her capacity for independent action.

It is in this way that the final mission should be read. Although  Nikita is told that she is acting independently, the sequence of action is designed to prove that, in fact, she is unable independently to arrive at the appropriate result; the Organisation will always know more than she does. The voice which in her previous missions has controlled her at a distance, through radio or telephone, (and which, like the point-of-view, is fairly clearly not Bob, despite his role as the 'face' of the Centre for most of the film) informs her that 'surveillance' has informed 'it' (or 'him', as it is always male, or 'them' as it frequently adopts the 'we' which indicates that it speaks for the Centre) that her information is inadequate. Her abilities cannot match those of the anonymous Organisation; and, in the following scenes, she is more and more directly culpabilised for this inevitable failure. It is implied not only that an independent individual cannot survive fighting against the Organisation (of social authority), but that  s/he cannot even effectively fight with it. The individual is inadequate and must be subordinated to the whole. The fascistic overtones of this are underlined by the 'solution' presented to Nikita: the chilling figure of Victor - absolute violence, nothing else.

Here it becomes very clear that the threat which must be eliminated by the social fantasy has nothing to do with violence. Until this point it might, just, have been supposed that the ideal was to assimilate the anarchic violence represented by Nikita and her gang and train it to restrict itself to the minimum necessary - one quiet shot, if all goes well - but Victor kills quite as unnecessarily as Rico. What has disappeared is the autonomy, and the pleasure. Victor is more or less a programmed robot, unable to think independently, unable to react to what he is doing either in revolt or in enjoyment, and his violence is entirely subordinate to the narrow immediate needs of the Organisation. He seems absolutely closed to any discussion - and yet Nikita does in desperation succeed, through a brief use of the technique of 'femininity' taught her by Armande, in persuading him to  compromise very slightly and give subtlety a chance. Perhaps even in Victor all spark of autonomous reaction is not lost (and this brief flicker no doubt suggests Besson's desire in his next film, Léon, to explore this absolutely dehumanised character and to give him a vulnerable side).

However, at the end of this mission it seems fairly clear that Nikita's future with the organisation can only pass through a total renunciation of all pretence at independent action as a punishment for her initial attempt at complete, if desperately inadequate, independence. In this sense Victor represents her possible (probable, inevitable) fate, and it is  clear that it is not a fate that she is capable of accepting. Faced with Victor she experiences a physical revulsion which indicates the extent to which her personal reactions are still an integral part of her. She also shows a degree of independence of thought which enables her, even in panic and without a clear plan, to manipulate Victor and  inflect his programme slightly.

The flaws in the fantasy

As Hayward points out, the logic of Nikita is that the  independent, anarchic element cannot be integrated into society and must disappear. This is the fantasy of justice represented by the film - which seems really to be closer to a fantasy of revenge, since the rogue element is to be annihilated slowly; but perhaps the two things are indissociable.

However, rather than complete annihilation, the film opts for, precisely, disappearance. That is to say, Nikita - and the impulses and desires which she represents - simply leaves the screen, or the viewpoint of the camera. She still exists, but out of view. Hayward's interpretation of this ending seems to evolve in the course of her work, from an initial entirely negative reading to a more empowering one:  'there is considerable power in Nikita's disembodied powerlessness because she no longer functions as an assertion of male power - she marks through her absence' (1988: 157).

I would like to emphasise this latter view. When Nikita disappears from the field of vision, it is as if the camera has, with her concurrence, pushed her out of view. Effectively, then, she has been repressed, pushed into the social unconscious (in Freudian psychoanalysis, this refers to functions of the personality which we cannot be aware of but which influence our action without our knowing it. The concept tends to be presented as being 'situated' in a 'place' in the personality - hence, in the unconscious); and, of course, to be pushed into the unconscious is not in any sense the same as being definitively annihilated. The content of the unconscious has all sorts of effects and it seems that to take the logic of the fantasy to its fullest extent is to  accept that the film's conclusion is that, much as society (constructed as the organised, ever-threatening, Centre) might like to annihilate the menace which threatens its security, it is able only to push it out of sight, and therefore once again out of control.

Further, the film proposes that this is not only the inevitable, but the desired result, even if this is far from fully admissible. Throughout the film, the visible - and therefore the  human - face of the Organisation, Bob, who is also equated with the individual directly wronged by Nikita, has a  scarcely-veiled attraction to her. Certainly, lie takes pleasure in his ability to control her and to infantilise her, but he also takes pleasure in her rebelliousness. In the scene where she returns furious from her first test mission, a scene which is central to the portrayal of their relationship, her attack on him is highly sexualised (by the film, not the characters) and ends in a kiss; she is the initiator both of the violence and of the sexuality, but his response is decidedly positive. Faced with Nikita, Bob's whole attitude seems to lie tinged with regret - she is ill some way forbidden. Such a prohibition clearly springs  from the demands of the Organisation, and it is perhaps this willing - even pleasurable - submission to its restraints  which lies behind Nikita's words when, after her Venice trip, she accuses Bob of 'sickness'.

In the last words of the film Bob expresses regret at her going: 'we'll miss her' ('elle va nous manquer'). Given that her disappearance, one way or the other, was logically the aim both  of Bob's Organisation and of the film, it is remarkable that the anarchic 'threat' which Nikita represents should be so clearly desired even by the elements of society most at risk from it. Bob, in fact, states his willingness to 'protect'  Nikita, provided, presumably, she does not resurface into the organisation's consciousness.

Marco's role in this last scene is also interesting given that the previous sequence has apparently implicated even his private role in the functioning of the Organisation. Here he attacks the logic represented by Bob, apparently from all independent position: 'Do you only count them [killings] when it  suits you? [est-ce que vous ne les comptez que quand ça vous arrange?]. Bob's response is a wry smile, which suggests that the accusation neither surprises nor confuses him:  he is prepared to take the charge on board, as if he was expecting it.

Bob and Marco, it appears, are on the same wavelength in many ways. They understand each other's point-of-view, and their negotiation takes account of the other's aims. They agree also in their ambiguous attraction to Nikita (and here I do mean Nikita, and not Marie or Joséphine), and their wish that she should go on existing within their consciousness. In this, Bob diverges from the central line of the  author-of-the-fantasy, although he has throughout the film been  the agent of 'the Centre' which is that author. Marco, more openly independent  than Bob although still socialised, acts as an
encouragement to Bob's tendency to protect Nikita.

To put this together, Bob and Marco represent, within the ambit of the Centre and therefore within the social fantasy, ambivalent elements, and intermediate positions, between that of absolute social authority - the position which monopolises the point-of-view, thereby watching both Marco and Bob, and which cannot accept the visibility of  Nikita - and that of complete rebellion or escape from the control of authority, represented by Nikita herself - but not, of course, Marie or Joséphine. The fact that the point-.of-view in Nikita is identified with a universal social agency allows room for the individual (extradiegetic author or spectator) to appropriate the instincts and opinions of any of the characters, and to position him or herself anywhere along the line between the Centre and Nikita.

As far as Besson's own position is concerned, at the conclusion of the film it seems to be that the social fantasy of neutralisation of the threat, and/or of justice/vengeance for the affront to order, is not effective, because even within the socialised and ordered sphere which it is presumably intended to protect (and even within itself) the Organisation encounters ambivalent attitudes to the attractive danger of asocial freedom, and also because the kind of total organisational control - with no independent elements - which seems to be the central aim, implies the use of an unthinking, undiluted violence, represented by Victor. This is  presented as radically undesirable, unattractive, and to be rejected physically - we share Nikita's reaction of  physical revulsion at the methods employed - and, additionally, it is actually inefficient because Victor is unable
to compete against greater force.

As regards the composition of the social psyche, the same elements remain at the end of the film as at the beginning, but further layers of complication have been added. The anarchic element, Nikita, has been brought into contact in the course of her training with various disguises  which will, we may realise, enable her to pass within society without necessarily accepting the reality which the disguise implies, and which notionally allow her to be simultaneously visible and invisible,  once a (temporary?) invisibility has allowed the Centre to lose track of her. In one of Besson's proposed endings to the film, Nikita returns to her punk dress before her disappearance, but with the knowledge that this is only one  of many possible disguises. In fact, the attempt at neutralisation has resulted in a multiplication of the  possibilities available to Nikita in her interactions with 'Society', and the repressed threat may indeed, in the logic of  the education which it has received, re-appear as something quite unrecognisable.

I would read this ending as an affirmation of the indestructibility of Nikita, but at the same time of her inassimilability. She cannot be eliminated by Society, but at the same time she cannot be accepted into it without losing the radical unconventionality which is, effectively, her identity. Whether we read this as positive or negative will no doubt depend firstly on the extent to which we have identified with Nikita and therefore wish her to remain herself; secondly on the importance which we place on social existence. Nikita pays for her anarchism by the loss of everything that constitutes happiness as it is usually perceived -  a lover, a home, a domestic life - but on the other hand she ends the film in a position in which she cannot be controlled, in which she exists, unpredictably, within the social unconscious, which as we have seen is a place of considerable, perhaps fundamental, influence.


(1) The name 'cinéma du look' has been given to a number of films made in the 1980S and very early 1990s, characterised by their preoccupation with striking stylistic effects, and their improbable plots usually based on permutations of the urban thriller genre. The main  exponents of the cinéma du look, which openly derived inspiration from advertising films and  video-clips, were Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson and Léos Carax.
(2) Susan Hayward, Luc Besson: Filmmaker. Manchester University Press, 1998

Film 13. Chaos (2001)  A film by Coline Serreau

As a way of introduction to Coline Serreau

Maternal men in Trois Hommes et un couffin

Coline Serreau's Trois Hommes et un couffin (1985) is one of the greatest domestic box-office hits of recent French cinema. Over ten million people saw the film in the year of release, rising to twelve and a half million within three years, making it by far the most pop-ular French film of the 1980s, and the most successful home product since Gerard Oury's La Grande Vadrouille in 1966. Moreover, the budget - recouped ten times over - was only 9.7 million francs, and the three leads - Roland Giraud, Michel Boujenah and André Dussolier - relatively unknown. Serreau was subsequently asked to direct the Hollywood remake but pulled out, leaving Leonard Nimoy to direct Three Men and a Baby in 1989. In Serreau's film, three bachelor buddies -Pierre (Giraud), Michel (Boujenah) and Jacques (Dussolier) - live together in Paris. While Jacques is out of the country - he works as an airline pilot - Sylvia, an ex-girlfriend, sends him baby Marie to look after. Although Jacques is Marie's father, he is unaware of her existence. It therefore falls upon Pierre and Michel to act as surrogate fathers and, more pertinently, surrogate mothers too. Their attempts to care for Marie are complicated by a sub-plot involving stolen drugs which, like the baby, are thrust upon them. Jacques's arrival is followed by Sylvia's reclaiming of Marie but she proves a less able mother than the three men, and the baby is returned to Jacques, Pierre and Michel.

Serreau had considered the cultural difficulties fatherhood raised for men ten years previously in her first film script, On s'est trompé d'amour, which she resumed in feminist terminology as follows: 'On écrase les hommes sous leur propre phallus et on leur inculque qu'il est au-dessous de leur dignité de partager avec leurs femmes les prparatifs de la venue du bébé [Men are crushed under their own phallus, and taught that it is beneath their dignity to share with their wives in preparing for a new baby]. But by contrasting the caring male trio of Trois Hommes et un couffin with female examples of 'bad' motherhood, she gave rise to accusations from American feminist critics that the film was misogynistic, and subverted French feminist theory's emphasis on the importance of biological motherhood. Trois Hommes et un couffin may not be a feminist film, but it does present - like  much of Serreau's work - an optimistic response to a genuine social question (the role of men in bringing up children). The film also presents a fairly realistic picture of domestic routine - via the shots of nappy-changing, washing feeding bottles, and so on - which recalls the importance of representations of domesticity in feminist cinema, most famously in Chantal Akerman's real-time study of a house-wife's existence, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles (1976). Not only do Pierre, Michel and  (eventually) Jacques thus inhabit a 'female' domestic space, and carry out 'female' domestic chores, they are feminised by their love for baby Marie which, as Françoise Audé has observed, is maternal rather than paternal. This is most evident when Marie is temporarily taken away by Sylvia: in a drunken maternal fantasy, Jacques puts a cushion up his jumper, claiming that he is pregnant, and bemoans the sterility of men compared to the life  giving creativity of women. The question of gender roles also informs Serreau's manipulation of genre in the film, with the two plots deriving from genres traditionally encoded in gender terms:  the drugs plot belongs to the 'male' thriller genre, the baby plot to female' domestic realism. The confusion between the two packages - the baby and the heroin - 'introduces narrative rivalry between a male story of opposition to law and order, and a female plot of compliance with societal norms and values'.  The two plots are integrated when the baby herself (her nappy) is used by Pierre and Michel as a hiding-place for the drugs,  and in a parody of the macho thriller genre, the archetypal set-piece in which bags containing drugs are switched involves not two briefcases (serious, 'male', business-like), but two nappies. As in Serreau's subsequent films, Romuald et Juliette (1989) and La Crise (1992), the apparently banal narrative of Trois Hommes et un couffin thus mobilises an examination of conventional roles and contemporary social problems. If in the latter it is gender typing whic is addressed, in Romuald et Juliette it is racism and class snobber and in La Crise a crisis of masculinity in the face of divorce, unemployment and loneliness, while all three films are characterised by Serreau's use of parallelism in plotting and montage, and of frenzied, repetitious dialogue. © Guy Austin - Contemporary French Cinema, p. 89-90

En français

Trois hommes et un couffin

C'est avec Trois hommes et un couffin que la réalisatrice obtient en 1985 son plus grand succès, mais loin que celui-ci soit un heureux hasard il est au contraire l'aboutissement admirablement maitrisé d'une recherche menée par la réalisatrice depuis plusieurs années. Cette recherche est celle de procédés efficaces à mettre au service d'idées qui globalement sont une fois de plus celles de Mai 68 (puisque de toute manière ce mouvement n'envisageait rien moins que de changer toutes les pratiques sociales). Pour Coline Serreau qui vient du théâtre et qui peut donc s'appuyer sur des exemples concrets, la plus grande efficacité est celle des différentes formes du comique- c’est d'ailleurs l'une des leçons développées dans le Molière d'Ariane Mnouchkine. L'autre principe est que le comique ne saurait aller trop loin, puisqu'il ne joue pas le jeu du réalisme- il joue son propre jeu.
.Avec Trois hommes et un couffin, Coline Serreau va stattaquer a un "vrai" sujet de société: qui doit élever les enfants, les hommes ou les femmes? un sujet sur lequel il vaut la peine de lancer les moyens du comique le plus déchaînés, pour compenser l'afflux inévitable de (bons) sentiments.

Changer les rôles

Réussite incontestable, Trois hommes et un couffin est le premier film de femme vraiment populaire, sans être jamais trivial et sans s'appuyer sur des idées reçues sinon réactionnaires comme il arrive dans le cinéma dit "grand public". I1 ne suffit pas pour expliquer ce succès d’invoquer le choix d'acteurs tels que Michel Boujenah, André Dussolier, Roland Giraud pour les trois hommes, Dominique Lavanant et Marthe Villalonga pour les rô1es secondaires. A cet égard mieux vaudrait dire que la véritable révélation du film est un bébé, la petite Marie, qui est supposée passer de six mois à un an et plus, et qui joue admirablement son rôle de petite créature exquise, indispensable au bonheur de ses trois pères: ils fondent littéralement quand elle leur jette des regards d'amour. S'il n'y avait qu’une réussite à signaler pour le cinéma des femmes, ce serait une certaine manière de montrer les enfants, et ce dès le plus jeune âge: la preuve!

Les acteurs adultes sont des personnages de comédie au sens classique du mot, c'est-à-dire des types: le colérique, le gourmand, le coureur de jupons- tous confrontés au rôle paternel qui leur échoit. Par ailleurs Coline Serreau, une grande professionnelle venue du théâtre, sait qu'il faut nourrir l'action par une intrigue secondaire, ici l'histoire du paquet de drogue qui s'est croisé avec le couffin dans l’appartement des trois garçons. La seconde intrigue entre en contact avec la première, au sens propre du mot, puisque la drogue est cachée dans la couche culotte de la petite Marie! Ce type de collusion ou de croisement vient directement du vaudeville et entraîne une progression géometrique du délire extravagant qui s'empare de l'action.

Cependant, à la différence des auteurs comiques traditionnels, qui dénoncent par le rire et la satire les petitesses d'une société, Coline Serreau veut inventer une situation qui bouleverse et mette en cause les jeux de rôle sur lesquels cette société est fondée. Qu’en est-il de la maternité comme rôle féminin? La malheureuse petite Sylvia mère de Marie, lorsqu'elle rapporte l'enfant à ses "pères" dans la scène finale, va subrepticement se coucher elle-même dans le berceau du bébé, montrant par là qu'elle est encore infantile elle-même et qu'il est inhumain de la condamner au rôle de mère. Les trois hommes, et d'abord parce qu'ils sont trois, s’en tirent infiniment mieux, peut-être parce qu'ils ont dû apprendre à tenir leur rôle, au lieu qu’il soit considéré comme naturel de leur part, et se sont appliqués à trouver - rien de moins "naturel" - la distance de l'adulte à l'égard de l'enfant. En mélangeant audace et bon sens, Coline Serreau joue sur les deux tableaux et démontre par la comédie traditionnelle la nécessité de changer les rôles sociaux.

Serreau and Varda :  Examples of Women Filmmakers Taking Risks

Coline Serreau réalise encore un film à succès pendant cette décennie, c’est Romuald et Juliette en 1988. Malgré son titre, on ne peut dire que le film reprenne une tradition classique; en revanche il emploie une série de procédés qui eux le sont, au service d'un conte merveilleux qui ne parvient pas toujours assez clairement à se dégager de la description réaliste. Le problème du film est sans doute d'avoir une trop grande multiplicité d'objets successifs: il s'agit d'abord de dénoncer les infâmes "magouilles" entre cadres dirigeants d'une entreprise - ce pour quoi la transformation des dits cadres en traîtres de mélodrame, chafouins, visqueux, etc. convient assez bien; puis on passe au développement d'un paradoxe humoristique, consistant dans le fait que Juliette, la femme de ménage noire au service de cette société, parvient beaucoup mieux à  démêler les embrouilles que son PDG; viennent alors les aspects plus ou moins moralisateurs, l'égoïsme et l'ingratitude du PDG, puis un nouveau paradoxe humoristique, quand le PDG amoureux veut combler de biens Juliette et sa famille et qu'elle s'y refuse. Jusqu’au mariage final qui termine le conte de fées, ainsi que l'annonce d'un enfant à naître, qui s’ajoutera aux cinq autres que Juliette a eus de ses cinq maris. Cette grande diversité donne le sentment que le ton du film change souvent, à moins qu’on ne soit tente de penser que le film a du mal à trouver et son ton et son rythme. Alors que la première partie valait par la férocité de la satire, les derniers épisodes, totalement non corrosifs, paraissent longs et moins amusants. Seule la personnalité souple et mobile de Daniel Auteuil permet qu'on suive cette ligne sinueuse entre le réalisme et le merveilleux du conte. Toutes les tentatives ne sont pas suivies de succès; on aura encore l'occasion de s'en apercevoir avec la série d'exemples suivants, empruntés au cinéma d'Agnès Varda, que l'on verra suivre la même courbe, du grand succès à l'échec relatif, pendant la même décennie. Ces alternances sont valables pour tout cinéma, cependant il est possible que le cinéma des femmes y soit plus exposé, parce qu'elles prennent plus de risques, hors des chemins battus.

About Coline Serreau

Réalisatrice, Actrice, Compositeur, Scénariste française. 
Fille du metteur en scène de théâtre Jean-Marie Serreau et de l'écrivain Geneviève Serreau, Coline Serreau est baignée dès sa plus tendre enfance dans l'univers du spectacle.

Son baccalauréat en poche, elle se révèle la digne fille de ses parents : parallèlement à ses études de Lettres, elle entre au Conservatoire de Musique (orgue et musicologie), tout en suivant des cours de trapèze à l'Ecole du Cirque d'Annie Fratellini, et en apprenant la danse (classique et moderne). Artiste polyvalente, ce sont finalement les Arts dramatiques qu'elle choisit sous la tutelle d'Andreas Voutsinas (également professeur de Jean Réno). Après l'Ecole de la rue Blanche, elle devient stagiaire à la Comédie-Française et joue pour la première fois sur scène en 1970. On la retrouve également sur les planches du Café de la Gare aux côtés de Romain Bouteille, Coluche ou Patrick Dewaere.

Après s'être illustrée dans des registres aussi divers que le café théâtre ou les pièces classiques du répertoire, notamment celles de Shakespeare (Othello, Le Songe d'une nuit d'été, Comme il vous plaira au Festival d'Avignon en 1976), elle se lance dans l'écriture et signe son premier scénario en 1973 (On s'est trompé d'histoire d'amour réalisé par Jean-Louis Bertucelli). Deux ans plus tard, elle passe à la réalisation avec un premier court métrage destiné à la télévision le Rendez-Vous. Puis c'est un long métrage documentaire Mais qu'est-ce qu'elles veulent ? présenté au Festival de Cannes de 1977 grâce auquel elle se taille d'emblée une réputation d'artiste engagée et féministe. La même année elle réalise son premier long métrage de fiction, Pourquoi pas !. En 1979 c'est à la télévision qu'on la retrouve tournant coup sur coup un documentaire sur les femmes et l'Islam (Grand-mères de l'Islam), et une captation de spectacle vivant, Oedipe Roi de Sophocle, pour la RAI.

Après le peu remarqué Qu'est-ce qu'on attend pour être heureux ? en 1982, c'est la consécration avec le triomphe mondial de Trois hommes et un couffin (1985) dans lequel un trio d'hommes en mal de paternité est confronté (avec quelques années d'avance sans doute) à l'ère de la femme et de la parité (au foyer). En 1989, son cheval de bataille est la tolérance inter-raciale avec l'histoire d'amour improbable d'un PDG et de sa femme de ménage noire (Romuald et Juliette). Puis ce sera La Crise et de nouveau le succès grâce à cette peinture sans concession (mais pleine de dérision) du désarroi de toute une époque marquée par le chômage, le divorce, l'éclatement de la famille...

Dans son film suivant La Belle Verte, elle se met elle-même en scène dans un rôle d'extra-terrestre découvrant une planète saccagée par les excès de la société de consommation. Si le public se révèle peu concerné par cette fable aux accents écologiques, il est cependant de nouveau au rendez-vous, cinq ans plus tard pour le féroce Chaos, dénonciation musclée d'une société sans courage, six foix nommé aux César 2001. Deux ans plus tard (2003), elle renoue avec la comédie qui avait fait son succès en réunissant 18 ans après son trio originel Michel Boujenah, André Dussollier et Roland Giraud.

Les rapports hommes/femmes vus par Coline Serreau

" Les rapports entre les hommes et les femmes aujourd'hui se compliquent. Ce sont deux mondes qui ont toujours eu beaucoup de mal à se rencontrer à part de la sexualité, mais je crois que le fossé s'agrandit entre eux. Autrefois, les unes et les autres menaient des existences distinctes. Ils se rejoignaient peu, ou dans des circonstances codées. A présent, hommes et femmes, nous avons les mêmes droits civiques, professionnels, économiques (ou presque). Nous allons dans les mêmes lieux, nous avons les mêmes métiers, les pères s'occupent plus des enfants, même bébés. Et pourtant tout se passe comme si l'inconscient n'avait pas encore intégré les changements survenus. "

Men/women relationships as seen by Coline Serreau

" Relationships between men and women are getting more and more complicated. These are two worlds which always have had a hard time, sex excluded, to coincide, and I believe that the gap is getting wider between them.  In the past  men and women led separate lives. They rarely coincided, or in well-defined occasions.  Nowadays, men and women have the same (or almost) political, professional and economic rights.  We go to the same places, we have the same type of jobs, fathers more than before take care of children, even of babies. And yet, everything takes place as if the unconscious had not yet integrated these changes."

Coline Serreau, politiquement incorrecte

" Il y a un certain nombre d'années que je veux parler des femmes du Maghreb et recentrer le débat là où il se trouve vraiment. J'ai voulu en finir avec le discours politiquement correct qu'on nous sert à ce sujet et que je ne supporte plus. Ce n'est pas être raciste que dire qu'en France deux cultures s'affrontent : l'occidentale et l'islamique. D'ailleurs, ce n'est pas l'Islam qui est en question, mais l'oppression des femmes dans un Islam mal interprété. Les femmes maghrébines sont opprimées, maltraitées par les hommes de leur communauté. Mais elles n'ont pas le droit de le dire, pas de lieux ni de médias où le dire, car ce n'est pas politiquement correct de le dire. "

"For a number of years I have been wanting to talk about women from the Maghreb and re-focus the debate exactly on where it's at.  I wanted to separate myself from the politically correct discourse which is fed to us on the subject and that I can't no longer stomach.  It is not to be racist to say that in France two cultures are confronting each other:  the Western and the Islamic. Besides, it is not Islam that is questioned, but the oppression of women in an wrongly-interpreted religion.  Maghrebin women are oppressed by the men of their community. But they don't have the right to say so, they have no places or no media where to express it, because it is no politically correct to say such things."

Chaos - A film review by Nicholas Schager

Coline Serreau’s Chaos is never quite sure of what it wants to be. The story of a Parisian woman who becomes involved with a prostitute fleeing a gang of pimps, the film could easily be summarized as a cat-and-mouse thriller. On the other hand, it’s also the comical story of the same woman’s bumbling husband and son, who ? once she takes off on the lam with her new hooker companion ? can’t perform even the simplest household tasks without female supervision. And yet, more than anything else, it’s a social drama about seemingly powerless women fighting back against a male-dominated society that physically and psychologically beats them into submissive roles. Wildly careening between crime drama, French farce, and woman’s picture, the film frequently seems to be on the verge of splitting at the seams. But even if Chaos is hampered by a desire to be all things to all people, Serreau’s nimble touch bestows this schizophrenic genre pastiche with an infectiously zany verve.

Hélène’s (Catherine Frot) loveless marriage to Paul (Vincent Lindon) comes to a head when, while returning home from an evening out on the town, a hysterical hooker (Rachida Brakni, in a mesmerizing debut performance) throws herself on the hood of their car while attempting to escape a trio of savage attackers. Instead of trying to save the woman, Paul instinctively locks the doors, thus allowing the men to finish dishing out their brutal beating. When the assailants are done, Paul ? a paragon of twenty-first century male insensitivity ? is more interested in cleaning his windshield of prostitute blood than tending to the savagely beaten girl lying next to his shiny new sedan.

Paul’s callous inaction, however, is the last straw for Hélène, who promptly abandons her husband and son Fabrice (Aurélien Wiik) - chauvinists who believe that women are primarily useful for sex, cooking, and ironing (in that order) - and takes up residence in the hospital where the injured streetwalker, Noémie, now lies comatose. Hélène dedicates herself to nursing the girl back to health, but soon finds that the men who brought Noémie to the brink of death are intent on finishing the job. Desperate to protect her newfound charge, Hélène helps Noémie escape the clutches of her pursuers, and the two take temporary refuge at the seaside home of Paul’s oft-neglected mother. Once she is fully recovered, Noémie recounts her miserable life story to Hélène, a tale that includes her father’s attempt to sell her to a wealthy Algerian, her strung-out time on the streets trading sex for money, and her use of stock-market savvy and feminine wiles to con a dying millionaire out of all his money. Noémie and Hélène, although forced to endure different types of male-propagated suffering, are clearly kindred spirits.

As the two women plot their revenge against those who have done them wrong, Chaos’ elaborate story begins to resemble Serreau’s anxious digital video camerawork and frantic cross-cutting, which reaches an apex of high-flying nervous energy during the extended flashback sequence in which Noémie narrates her ludicrously convoluted past to Hélène. But the recurrently absurd shifts in tone, rather than sabotaging the narrative’s cohesiveness, instead give the film a dissonant, madcap energy that does much to smooth over the screenplay’s two-dimensional characterizations of women as victims (or sly feminist avengers) and men as egotistical dolts whose subjugation of women masks a desperate reliance on them. Serreau takes pleasure in launching into narrative flights of fancy -  there’s nary a plausible moment in Noémie’s stock-trading escapades - and it is the film’s greatest asset that the story doesn’t tidily conform to the rigorously logical demands of reality.

Still, for all its inspired lunacy, Chaos can’t stop harping on the narrow-minded idea that the only relationships between men and women are functional business transactions, where the pimp/whore dynamic is synonymous with that of husband/wife and boyfriend/girlfriend. As a result, the film’s commentary on women’s secondary position in modern society holds no resonance; it’s as unbelievably cartoonish, and yet not nearly as pleasurable, as the film’s humorous subplots (the best of which involves the two-timing Fabrice getting his just deserts at the hands of his fiancé and paramour). The unreasonably drawn out finale finds everyone getting what they deserve (for good or ill) and learning some pat lessons about life and love. But the fun isn’t in Serreau’s heavy-handed affirmations of estrogen power,  it’s in the story’s restless, realism-be-damned chaos. - Copyright © 2003

Additional Films:

01. A Film by Louis Malle:  Viva Maria!

Two of France’ s most famous bombshells, Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot, set off a few bombs of their own in this rollicking, unhibited comic romp that “explodes with fun”. Bardot plays the daughter of an Irish anarchist, as swift with a burning fuse as she is naïve in the ways of love. On the lam in Mexico circa 1910, she hides out with a touring carnival troupe, where she joins singer Jeanne Moreau in a dance hall act. When an involontary ripped skirt leads to the voluntary invention of the striptease, the two (both named Maria) become such a hit that widly enthusiastic audiences sometimes strip right along with them! But the action gets even hotter when Moreau falls for a handsome revolutionary  (George Hamilton) and the two women find themselves at the head of an armed peasant revolt. Director Louis Malle along with his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière manage to satirize everything from American Westerns to revolutions, the church, the priesthood and, yes, even sex itself.

What was Louis Malle thinking about when he put forth this gem of a movie? It's a tale of comedic revolution in a fictitious country south of the border, and it happens to be led by a couple of gorgeous carnival entertainers, namely Bardot and Moreau. This French/Italian production is certainly off beat when the girls, leading their little band of performers have to finish a revolution begun by George Hamilton (listen to his voice in French!). A little anti-church, anti-establishment, a little strange, this film will delight the curious. And of course, Bardot is as cute as can be. Don't miss this one, for the delight of it all.

Pay particular attention to the musical score -- composed by Georges Delerue (1925-1992), most of whose work was for the European cinema but he was, from time to time, commissioned to compose for American and British films. He had a particular talent for evoking the nostalgic longing inherent in mediæval and renaissance themes. In fact, in a radio interview, Delerue once indicated that, where most film composers would start to experiment with tunes on a battered piano, he would often wander into archives of ancient music to get his inspiration. In the opening credits to Viva Maria!, a French ballad of the young heroine is picked up by the orchestra in a delightful example of Delerue's skill. (By the way, the film's credits do not seem to name the singer, but whoever he is, the man's diction is so clear that even an anglophone "retard" ought to be able to follow the French lyrics

Film 02.  Vagabond / Sans toit ni loi,1985. A film of Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda’s bleak account of a young woman’s death and life. Sandrine Bonnaire is Mona, a waif who drops out of Parisian society to wander the southwest French countryside, exploring the open spaces and implicit freedom absent in her life. In the opening scene, her body is discovered frozen. Varda expertly recounts her life, carefully dissecting French society.

For Mona, the freedom that she gains as she wanders through the French countryside in wintertime has its moments of glory and its troubled times. She lives with David for a few days in an abandoned chateau, then is picked up hitchhicking by a professor, then stays with an old lady and her maid, and finally with a Tunisian migrant grape picker. After her dead body is found in a ditch, her story is told in flkashback and in interviews with the people who met her along the road.

 This is one of Varda’s best films, if not her masterpiece. Vagabond  is a portrait of a very untraditional young woman. Filmed in part by pseudo-realistic interviews, Mona is a woman, who like the director, wants to see and to experience, but refuses to judge. She is charting the outer edges of society; and in exposing her life on the road, Varda brought attention to the lifestyles of those society tends to ignore. This was one of the first films to look atb the growing problem of homelessness, which hit Western nations in the 1980s.

 Critics admire this film and the public slowly heeded their advice to see it. “Mona isn’t set up to be a hero or a victim. nor are the people who make up ‘society’  monolithic in their response to her. . .  They are human. And, through this tough, memorable film,  Ms. Varda reaches for our humanity with a force that vey few movies can muster,” wrote Julie Salamon in The Wall Street Journal.

Tracking towards death: Sans toit ni loi

Agnès Varda has declared: 'I make auteur films ... I am always very precisely implicated in my films, not out of narcissism, but out of honesty'.  Like Duras, she speaks of her work in literary terms, calling it cinecriture, a writing of films in which editing, camera angles, and the rhythm of the shoot are equated with the choice of words, sentences and chapters in the work of a writer. She also shares with Duras a concern for death as a central theme. Varda inaugurated the nouvelle vague with La Pointe courte in 1954 , and cemented her reputation with Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961). But the commercial failure of Les Créatures (1966) resulted in a ten-year gap before she made another feature film in France. She continued to work in the documentary field, however, and has combined fiction and documentary throughout her career. An avowed feminist, Varda's work reflects upon the women's movement, at times obliquely but nowhere more explicitly than in the feminist buddy movie L'Une chante, I'autre pas (1977). Consistently undervalued by American critics and feminists, Varda was attacked in the American media for making a Iyrically optimistic film about feminism: Pauline Kael found that in L'Une chante, I'autre pas 'Varda brings a Disney touch to women's liberation'. Like her colleagues from the nouvelle vague - Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer - Varda enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s, although she continued to suffer more problems than her male counterparts in financing her films. Sans Toit ni loi(1985), her major critical and popular success of the decade, was initially refused the governmental funding known as the avance sur recettes, before being granted direct aid from the Ministry of Culture. When released, the film was greeted with critical acclaim as a rejuvenation of auteur cinema, which had been perceived as flagging in the mid-eighties.

Varda's own voice introduces the episodic narrative of Sans toit ni loi. Over the image of a woman's corpse found in a ditch in the middle of winter, she remarks: 'She had died a natural death with-out leaving a trace. [...] But people she had met recently remem-bered her. Those witnesses helped me tell the last weeks of her last winter.' But during the course of the film this woman proves to be an enigma. Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a hitch-hiker who has been passing through the Midi region. In a complex series of flashbacks, the film records her journey, largely through the eyes of eighteen people she meets on the way. As these characters reflect on what they thought of Mona, they reveal as much about themselves - they come from various walks of life, and according to Varda represent 'la France profonde' - as they do about the taciturn hitcher. Although there are long sequences concerning Mona's relations with Madame Landier, a biologist, and Assoun (Yahiaoui Assouna), a Tunisian vineyard worker, she remains an enigmatic figure, resistant to easy interpre-tation. At the end of the film, exhausted and starving, she is caught up in an aggressive folk ritual before falling, dazed, into the ditch where she dies.

The synthesis of realism and mythical symbolism which charac-terises Varda's work is evident throughout Sans toit ni loi. The primary myth alluded to is that of the goddess of love, Venus/Aphrodite, when Varda's voice-over - 'I know little about her myself, but it seems to me she came from the sea' - introduces an image of Mona emerging from a swim in the Mediterranean. The pictorial reference here is to Botticelli's painting of The Birth of Venus, an icon of classical female beauty. But, ironically, we soon learn that Mona is 'the opposite of the female [...] icon: she is dirty, unkempt, overweight, repulsive in her personal habits and her moral practices'. The Venus/Aphrodite myth ties in with the folk ritual at the close of the film, in which Mona is attacked and daubed with wine dregs, since in legend 'the goddess [...] yields to Dionysus the god of the vine'. Thus a mythical narrative underlies Varda's realistic depiction of the Midi region in winter, and her documentary-style observation of life on the road. The other major mythical structure underlying Sans toit ni loi is that of the road movie. The narrative traces Mona's journey from her emergence out of the waves until her death. But Varda subverts the genre, since the road movie is a traditionally male form, and a variant on the buddy movie - as in Bertrand Blier's 1974 film Les Valseuses - while Mona is a woman, and alone. Viewed from the outside by those she meets, Mona makes no self-discovery, undergoes no rites of passage, and is unfathomable in terms of psychology. Even the temporary couple of Mona and David (Patrick Lepczynski) subverts generic expectations. Whereas the lovers on the run in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Terence Malick's Badlands (1973) are self-mythicising, Mona and David are self-effacing: when Mona writes their names in the dust David rubs them out, wanting to leave 'no trace' of their passage. Of course Sans toit ni loi does rely heavily on the imagery of the road movie, and principally on the tracking shot. There are in fact fourteen tracking shots in Sans Toi ni loi, most of them accompanied by Joanna Bruzdowicz's bleak string music. But contrary to convention, 'in all these tracking shots [Mona] and the camera [...] move from right to left', so that her journey 'is filmed going backwards down the road' while providing a recurrent visual 'metaphor for both the flashback, and, even more significantly, death'. The contrast with the left-to-right tracking shot - which usually denotes progression from the past to the future - is emphasised by the relation between the beginning of Sans toit ni loi and the ending of François Truffaut's Les 400 Coups (1959). In that film, the young protagonist Antoine Doinel (JeanPierre Léaud) escapes from a detention centre and, in a famous and lengthy left-to-right tracking shot, runs to the sea. The direction of the movement in this sequence signals that Antoine is embarking on a journey of self-discovery, and that further adventures await him (the story is continued in four more films about the same char-acter, the 'Doinel cycle'. The first tracking shot in Sans toit ni loi reverses this pattern, with Mona emerging from the sea and heading right to left towards no other destination than her own death (which has already been shown in the opening sequence of the film). Varda thus inverts the inherent optimism of the road-movie form, and of Truffaut's nouvelle vague vivacity.

A Film Review by Stanley Kauffmann

Since the beginning of her career in 1954, with short films, Varda has been trying to make a cinema that is uniquely, identifiably hers, yet that is empirical and non-repetitive. With her first feature, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), she showed that she was not quite an orthodox member of the heterodox New Wave. (Note the wry reference above to Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her.) Sometimes her liberation has been license for self-indulgence, as in Le Bonheur (1965). Sometimes the self-indulgence has inflated to the vapid, as in Lions Love (1969). But always she has been trying to make her films respond to her experience of the world and of imagination, as in the short film Uncle Janco (1967). In One Sings, The Other Doesn't (1977) she used her early experience as a still photographer to launch a chronicle of two women achieving womanhood. Besides her purely aesthetic concerns, a strong interest in radical politics has also been clear in her work. We might have expected this interest to color Vagabond, but it does so only to the extent that politics can never be completely absent from the work of anyone with eyes. Centrally, in this best Varda film that I know, she does exactly what she promises above: she accompanies a character; she doesn't explain.

Varda begins with the body of a young woman, lying in a ditch in southern France, frozen to death, splotched with wine stains. Then, with a series of flashbacks, each one launched by a statement of someone whom Mona encountered, Varda traces the last weeks of the life, not to explain the death but to confirm that it will not be explained. When Vagabond was finished, I remembered the gendarmes at the start photographing the body, measuring the width of the ditch. Those photographs and measurings crystallize the futility of explanation. The only hard information that society will ever have about Mona is the police file of data on the location and cause of her death.

The structure of the film itself is ironic. So many films begin with a corpse and flash back to unravel the causes of the death that we expect the same here. But Varda calmly deceives us: she uses the form but omits everything we expect from it. (I thought of Pinter's The Birthday Party, which has all the attributes of a mystery play except the clues and explanations.) We hear statements--almost given as testimony, addressed to the camera--by people whom Mona met, worked briefly for, hitched rides with, bummed around with, slept with, but we are never even sure that we know her real name. During one sequence she answers the questions put to her by a woman who gives her a lift, then says that she always gives the answers that she thinks the questioner wants. All we know is what we see: a very young woman with a pack on her back, dirty and unkempt. Several people mention her stench (though in our first flashback view, we see her bathing in the sea). If we want to infer spiritual dislocation, inner-directed social protest, post-1968 anomie, we are free to do so; but Varda, who as usual wrote her own screenplay, is rigorous in implying none of these things. All we know of Mona is that she is responsive to some people--most of whom we also find attractive--and repelled by others. She has no purpose in her vagrancy other than to have no purpose. Even that is too programmatic, as if she were a Thoreau derivative, resenting the world's busyness. She does not bother even consciously to have no purpose: she simply moves along. She washes a car when she needs a few francs; she bunks where she can; she sleeps with male derelicts when she chooses; she eats and drinks what comes her way. Even rape doesn't seriously distress her. One night, when she is camping alone in the woods, she is raped, and though she strenuously resists, the next day we see no effects of it on her.

She arouses interest, even affection, in some people. A professor, a woman, gives her a lift, takes her along for a day explaining her work with trees, feeds Mona, gives her money when they part, and later feels a pang at having let her go. Through a meeting with a man, Mona comes to know an 84-year-old woman who lives in a big house. She and the old woman get tight together on cognac, laughing at the nephew who inquires after his old aunt's health when she knows he's eager for her to die so that he can have the house. The ancient woman, lingering on one edge, and the young woman, lingering on another, sit together on a sofa, tipsy and hilarious. Then Mona lives with a soft-eyed Tunisian laborer and works with him in the vineyard where he's employed; she leaves only when his coworkers return from North Africa and force him to evict her. (And in all the posthumous "testimonies," the Tunisian is the only one who doesn't actually speak. He faces the camera as the other "witnesses" do, but he says nothing. After a moment he presses to his face a red scarf she left behind.)

Varda shows us that Mona doesn't even fit into conventional categories of difference. One of the posthumous "witnesses" is a goatherd, obviously a man of some cultivation who has apparently opted out of the rat race for the simple life; and this dropout deprecates Mona's mere wandering as withering. At one point we see Mona wander into a village whose streets are being emptied of people, whose shutters are being closed. Suddenly she is attacked by men in antlered masks and is smeared with the lees of the wine harvest in an old ritual. She hates it: she screams in fright. So neither is she an abandoned pagan. She is a paradox: someone who doesn't care enough either to be a dropout or to be wildly abandoned.

Every actor in the film is good, especially Macha Méril (the heroine of Godard's The Married Woman, 1964) as the tree expert, Yahioui Assouna as the Tunisian, and Yolande Moreau as an exploited housemaid. But the picture depends on the performance of Mona, and Sandrine Bonnaire is quietly, grimly perfect. Bonnaire was 18 when she played the role in 1985. She had first appeared in Pialat's A Nos Amours three years earlier and subsequently made four films, not shown here. Under Varda's direction, Bonnaire achieves something extremely difficult: she makes an apathetic character fascinating.

She has the advantage--this is far from a joke--of starting dead. Our first view of her frozen face is the image toward which everything we subsequently see is heading. It's not a novel device, but it's often used cheaply, heart-tuggingly. Here her death, which we know lies soon ahead, becomes an essential counterpoint to what we see of her life. Bonnaire, with high cheekbones, a straight mouth, a small stubborn chin, is like a hound on the scent, dead set for disintegration. In its tacit, contained way, this is acting of great intensity.

Varda has placed her at just the right distance from us throughout. I can't remember one large close-up; most of the film is in medium shots and fairly long shots. Varda's camera seems studious much of the time, as if trying to understand, as we too are trying, but realizing, as we too realize, that no explanation will be found: the course must simply be run until it is over. Often, after Mona leaves a shot, Varda holds the camera there, then moves it slightly to focus on a concrete tower or a pile of sacks or a tractor--reiterating the objectivity of Mona's experience, the mere thingness of the things she sees.

Mona is a human being whose only reason to live is that she is alive and, with the bluntest animal instinct for survival, wants to remain alive. That instinct is everyone's ultimate reliance, but she is at that point already; and that is why her odyssey, wrapped in a taciturn poetry, is at the last frightening. © The New Republic, June 2, 1986  - Stanley Kauffmann.

Another Film Review

The unremittingly bleak Vagabond, whose French title, Sans toit ni loi, translates literally as "Without Roof or Law," reconstructs the story of a young woman named Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) who, in the film's opening sequence, is found frozen to death in a ditch. Made in 1985, twenty-three years after Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond reveals the director's continued preoccupation with the dialectics of the narrative film versus the documentary. Vagabond, for instance, is dedicated to French 'new novelist' Nathalie Sarraute, and one sequence in the film, in which a young man and his wife pay a visit on the young man's very aged aunt, whose house they hope to inherit, may very well be an homage to Sarraute's 1959 novel Le Planetarium.

In the film's second sequence, which in many ways seems unrelated to the rest of Vagabond, we hear, for the only time, an unidentified voice-over speaking in the first person about the dead woman. The presence of this voice suggests the possibility of the film to follow being either a narrative film done in a documentary style or, if one knows that the voice is Varda's, even a straight documentary. Yet the voice also ends this verbal introduction by stating that, "It seems to me that she came from the sea," against which we see a long shot of Bonnaire emerging from the ocean. Both the verbal and the visual image suggest the artistic creation of a character from degree zero. Against expectation, Varda's voice remains only a memory as the film progresses.

The story of Mona, who has left a job as a secretary and dropped out of society to wander around the French countryside, is recreated largely through cutting back and forth between the fictional incidents of this last phase of Mona's life and the retelling and/or discussing of these incidents by people involved in them. But because Varda rarely makes it clear whether these conversations are before or after the fact, we rarely know from the start whether a given scene is part of the primary narrative or the retelling of it within the film. Further, the various characters who cross Mona's path and who talk of their experiences with her are played by a combination of professional actors and various inhabitants of the many tiny villages through which Mona wanders. And just when the viewer begins to find a certain consistency in the structure of the film, one of the characters will tell his or her story to the camera.

Varda also has an intriguing, quasi-cinéma-vérité habit of allowing her camera to wander away without narrative justification from a particular set-up. As Mona enters a bakery in Vagabond, the camera, instead of entering with her, moves back and follows an anonymous little girl in a red coat. In Cleo, Varda actually swings her camera to the right during a cafe scene between Cleo and her companion to pick up a bitter spat between two lovers.

Over and above Varda's classic narrative/documentary ambiguities, however, Vagabond brilliantly reverses ingrained habits both of viewing images and of experiencing narrative. The dead woman - as an image, as a plot trope - is one of the classic generators of patriarchal narrative (see the opening sequence of Dirty Harry, for instance, and listen to the vocalizing, female voice on the music track), setting up a situation in which the male can prove his heroic mettle by solving a mystery. Vagabond, on the other hand, steadfastly keeps the viewer out of the heroic mode. Those who would help Mona - the domestic helper Yolande, a philosopher turned goatherd, a college professor with a specialty in plane-tree disease (Macha Méril), a Tunisian migrant worker (Yahiaoui Assouna) - inevitably have their do-gooding undone either by their own priorities or/and by Mona's refusal to fit into any mold.

While Varda cheats a bit to the degree that Bonnaire never in the film looks (or appears to smell) as disgusting as others describe her, she remains throughout a character whose behavior makes it difficult to identify with her, and whose body repulses the gaze rather than attracting it. One in fact suspects ironic intentions when Varda satisfies the voyeuristic needs of the patriarchal gaze by giving us nude shots only of bourgeois women (the college professor and the nagging wife of her assistant). Complementing the writer-director's stark but unpolemical vision are the bleak landscapes, nonetheless strikingly captured in Patrick Blossier's color cinematography (beautifully reproduced by Criterion), and the cold, dissonant, but strangely poignant string-quartet musical score by Polish-born Johanna Bruzdowicz.  © Cinéaste, Fall 1998  - Royal S. Brown

Addendum: Le double regard du cinéma de Varda
Hans Baldung Grien's Eros-Thanatos

Film 03.  Artemisia - 1997 - A film of Agnès Merlet

The provocative, true story of Artemesia Gentileschi. As the daughter of one of Italy’s greatest painters she is forbidden to pursue her own passion for painting until she finds an unconventional artist to tutor her.

Several Film Reviews

Artemisia is an interesting meditation on the life of 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first women in the Western world to forge a successful career as a professional artist in a male-dominated field. Her story, though individual, is also a universal story about a woman who defies society's strictures and follows her own instincts. This French film also has a lot to tell us about the world in which Artemisia lived: the roles of sexes, the power of the Church, the Baroque period's breakthroughs in art, and so on. This feminist reclamation of a historically important female art figure, however, is overshadowed by the film's bodice-ripper tendencies that conflate the realms of art and passion into the same indistinguishable blur that has hindered the understanding of women's creativity over the centuries. Although the film is eminently watchable and informative, it would be wrong to mistake Artemisia for a study in art history. Too many aspects of the film diverge with the known historical record. Played by Valentina Cervi (best known for her performance as John Malkovich's daughter in Portrait of a Lady), Artemisia is a single-minded young woman whose desire to paint knows no bounds. Moreover, she's driven to paint anatomically correct male nudes, subject matter which is totally forbidden to women of the time. (That most of the subjects in her surviving paintings are women and not men, however, is the kind of art-historical fudging that pops up all over the place in Artemisia). The movie seems to make the case that Artemisia's desire to view naked men is as much a sexual impulse as an artistic one. As the daughter of the famous painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia was already in a privileged position by having a father who understood and encouraged his daughter's proclivities. Trouble arose when Orazio allowed Artemisia to study with the painter Agostino Tassi, an acclaimed painter from Florence who was Orazio's colleague, rival, and emotional opposite. Because of the physicality of her portraiture, Tassi (whom we see carousing in orgies with prostitute/models) assumes that Artemisia has more sexual knowledge than she does. The two begin a sexual relationship that is portrayed in the film as a loving affair. Artemisia's sexual appetite fuels her artistic appetite and Tassi's ardor seems spurred in part by the recognition that Artemisia is unlike any woman he has known before. Orazio learns of the affair and brings the matter to an ecclesiastical court, accusing Tassi of rape. The transcripts of the trial have been published in recent years, and according to those who've viewed them, the film strays from the transcripts in numerous ways. Yet it's probably misleading to interpret these transcripts from the vantage point of the modern day and age in doggedly literal terms. Modern viewpoints seem to shape a lot of what is portrayed in Artemisia. While that opens up possibilities for understanding, it also presents a skewed perspective for biography. Still, Artemisia poses the age-old question for women artists: Is anatomy destiny or is destiny anatomy?  © The Austin Chronicle - By Marjorie Baumgarten  (11-09-98)

'Artemesia': Agony and Ecstasy. Especially Lots of Ecstasy

Movie biographies of artists tend to promote the romance-novel proposition that most great art has its inspiration in tormented love. In this simplistic view, art is essentially passion poured into pigment, and to "feel" what's happening on the canvas you have to "feel" the agony and the ecstasy that inspired the work.

"Artemisia," Agnès Merlet's high-toned bodice-ripper about the early life and times of the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, fits right into the mold. This handsomely photographed film, whose indoor scenes recreate the heavy chiaroscuro of Caravaggio paintings, takes a decidedly '90s view of a woman whom feminist art historians rescued from obscurity in the 1970s. If the central character emerges as a feminist heroine for flouting patriarchical taboos, she also happens to be a tantalizing sex kitten whose artistic curiosity smacks of voyeurism.

As portrayed by Valentina Cervi, Artemisia is two distinctly different entities. One is a gorgeous early-17th-century Lolita. The other is a fearlessly ambitious teen-age prodigy who is so sure of her talent that she breaks the rules of female decorum and dares go where no "nice" woman of her time and station has gone before. These two Artemisias don't really fit together, but they make for a ripely sensuous portrait of the artist as a saucy but virtuous siren.

In convent school, Artemisia secretly sketches her nude reflection by candlelight. Later, determined to draw the male body, she persuades a handsome young neighbor to pose naked for her. She learns about sex from spying on a couple making love outdoors under some rocks and from peering through the windows as her scowling, bushy-browed art teacher, Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), and his friends engage in orgies with the local prostitutes who double as artists' models.

The movie has already raised some hackles by building a largely undocumented love story around a rape trial. When Artemisia was 17, Tassi, who was her father's friend, collaborator and sometime rival, was brought to trial for raping his nubile star pupil. In Merlet's version of events, Artemisia isn't so much raped as impetuously and abruptly deflowered by Tassi, who wrongly assumed from her drawings of the male anatomy that she was no virgin. By then, the movie suggests, the two were already in love.

In the movie, Tassi emerges as a callous, brutal womanizer who falls deeply in love with Artemisia while concealing his marriage. Artemisia, who is madly in love with her teacher, remains utterly devoted and unrepentant despite the social stigma of an illicit relationship. One of the movie's nastiest moments shows a brutal physical examination by two nuns to determine whether she is still a virgin.

The movie is especially good at portraying the intensity (with undercurrents of rivalry) of an all-consuming teacher-student relationship. One element of the almost mystical bond Artemisia forms with Tassi has to do with a keen visual memory that allows them to describe scenes to each other and share mental pictures that have a photographic precision. When Tassi produces a wire grid for teaching Artemisia perspective, you feel the excitement of her discovery of a scientific method for gauging visual distance. Other revealing scenes show the laborious preparations and lighting arrangements necessary for the creation of a large-scale allegorical work.

The acting is satisfyingly full-blooded. Cervi conveys Artemisia's burning ambition as forcefully as she evokes her devotion to her lover. Michel Serrault, as her initially doting and eventually distraught father, and Manojlovic's Tassi convey the heaving anguish and confusion of powerful men coping with moral and social issues that challenge their fundamental values.

When all is said and done, "Artemisia" is still essentially a bodice-ripper. But it is one that also happens to have a brain.  © NYT -  Stephen Holden

Portrait of the artist as a young woman

First paid female painter Artemisia Gentileschi is a feminist's dream. She was the first female painter known to have her work commissioned. This is not to say that women weren't drawing and painting long before the 1600s, but by the all-important standard of receiving remuneration for creative work, she leapt a hurdle.

As indignant as contemporary little girls who were told they couldn't be fighter pilots, Gentileschi, the heroine of Agnes Merlet's "Artemisia," decided painting pictures was perfectly reasonable work for a woman. With her talent, she persuaded her father, the Roman painter Orazio Gentileschi, to teach her what he knew (not that much - he hadn't figured out perspective yet). And with her passion, she persuaded her father's more famous colleague, the Florentine Agostino Tassi, to become her mentor.

As played by the plucky young actress Valentina Cervi, Artemisia is competent, self-confident and just arrogant enough to buck the system that forbade women from studying at the academy and from painting live nude male models. That the 17-year-old is wily enough to con a male friend into posing undressed for her so she can better understand anatomy is just one example of her one-mindedness.

Unfortunately, these drawings get her into trouble later, when they surface during an inquisition-like trial. Apparently, art is a torrid subject when the teacher is a handsome rake and the student is a lovely girl, and soon Tassi (Miki Manojlovic) falls deeply and lustfully in love with his pupil. Their love blooms as the lessons continue, but when Orazio finds out about the affair, he has Tassi arrested for rape. The lovers, who were happy until the parental intervention, won't testify against each other, and the one who loses the most is Artemisia's father, played beautifully by Michel Serrault.

For all the feminist indignation that director-writer Merlet is able to muster, the movie somehow lacks the oomph to make us care much about what happens to any of these characters. Apart from their hearty lovemaking, the scenes between Artemisia and her teacher-lover Tassi seem lackluster. The music rises in dramatic whines when Tassi explains how to paint a landscape, but none of the dialogue rises to an equally exciting pitch.

And as for the lessons to be learned from this, they are something like, A: an exchange of knowledge can be a seductive thing, and B: women can do anything men can do, including get into trouble.  © Barbara Shulgasser, Examiner Movie Critic  (Friday, May 15, 1998)

Artemisia - A Film Review by James Berardinelli

For its first two-thirds, Agnès Merlet's Artemisia is a fine examination of the process of creating art and the inextricable (if sometimes tenuous) link that binds it to sexuality. However, while the movie's final half-hour is adequate as a melodrama, its conformance to certain expectations of the "historical romance" genre robs it of the vitality that characterizes the early portions of the film. As a result, although Artemisia is an engaging and occasionally fascinating motion picture, it is not a landmark cinematic biography.

Born on July 8, 1593 in Rome, during and era when many professions were forbidden to women, Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the first female painters to make a living as an artist. In the immediate centuries following her death, her work was largely-forgotten, only to be re-discovered in the last forty years. Her best-known painting, "Judith Beheading Holophernes," was completed in 1612, and has often been cited as one of the most passionate and proficient works of art crafted by a woman during the seventeenth century. Today, Artemisia's surviving canvasses are recognized throughout the West, and several of them reside in the Louvre.

Merlet's speculative treatment of a chapter in Artemisia's life (many of the actual details from the period are unknown, so the film maker is able to fashion her own interpretation of the historical record) begins in 1610, the year when her artistic urges become too powerful to suppress, and ends in 1612, after a rape trial separates her from her mentor and lover, Agostino Tassi. Tassi, an artist working with Artemisia's father, Orazio, in painting a series of religious frescos, agreed to teach Artemisia after the girl's request for admission to the males-only Academy of Fine Arts was rejected. Their relationship, which improved Artemisia's understanding of the technical aspects of painting, eventually turned sexual, and led to Tassi's arrest on rape charges.

Italian-born Valentina Cervi plays the lead character with the right mix of innocence and sensuality. As essayed in this film, Artemisia is a brilliant, headstrong, passionate woman whose tribulations made her a better artist. Cervi's portrayal is stunning, giving us another young international actress who is as talented as she is beautiful. Appearing opposite Cervi is Miki Manojlovic, whose interpretation of Tassi is that of an older man hopelessly enraptured by a woman who should remain forbidden to him. Rounding out the main cast is veteran French actor Michel Serrault (La Cage aux Folles, who brings an air of quiet dignity to his performance as Orazio.

It's debatable how accurate Merlet's treatment of Artemisia's affair with Tassi is (the surviving court records of the rape trial indicate that it was a somewhat less romantic liaison than is presented here), but it makes for a compelling story. Especially noteworthy are the scenes in which Tassi instructs Artemisia about the techniques of art, reigning in her natural passion and allowing her to harness a burgeoning talent. Tassi is presented as a volatile man who loves his student as much as his craft. Artemisia's fascination with sex and the naked male body leads to an ever- present subtext about the relationship between eroticism and art -- a subject that has fascinated scholars and laymen alike throughout history. In the context of this film, it not only impels the narrative, but captures and holds the viewer's attention. With Artemisia, Merlet paints a beautiful and intriguing, if somewhat incomplete, picture.  © 1998 James Berardinelli

A Note on Filming the Arts

The heritage film often takes its subject or source from the 'culturally respectable classicisms of literature, painting, music' (Higson 1993: 113). Painting is obviously the most important of the three in determining the imagery of the genre, usually by means of the static tableau shot. In Eric Rohmer's mannerist la Marquise d'O (1976) the mise en scène replicates Fuseli's painting 'The Nightmare', later imitated in Ken Russell's Gothic (1986). Outside the heritage format, Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda deconstruct the tableaux of famous classical paintings in Passion (1982) and Jane B par Agnès V. (1987) respectively. But the essential precursor for the painterly images of the genre is Jean Renoir. Renoir's homage to impressionism began with the short, unfinished masterpiece Une Partie de campagne (1936), set in the 1880s, in which a Parisian family spend a day in the country. In this film - and later in French Cancan (1954) and, to a lesser extent, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1959) - Renoir founds his imagery on the impressionist paintings of Monet, Manet, Degas and his own father, Auguste Renoir. Within the heritage genre of the eighties and nineties, impressionism is evoked in a similar manner in Bertrand Tavernier's Un Dimanche à la campagne (1984) and Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh (1991).

Mobilizing the tableau in Un Dimanche à la campagne and Van Gogh

Based on a novel by Pierre Bost, Un Dimanche à la campagne details a day in the life of an elderly painter at the turn of the century the film is clearly a homage to the cinema of Jean Renoir as much as to the paintings of Monet or Renoir père. The opening sequence, like the title, establishes an analogy with Une Partie de campagne which runs throughout the film. Renoir had characteristically made use in Une Partie de campagne of the depth of field and painterly frame afforded when a window is opened to reveal action in the background (in this case, the impressionist scene of two women on the swings in the café garden). Tavernier begins Un Dimanche d la campagne with a similar composition, although mediated by a slow tracking shot (another device typical of Renoir). The camera moves slowly from a shadowy interior towards a sunlit garden, framed in a doorway. Crossing the frame, the camera reveals the garden bathed in the morning light, before the screen fades to black. This simple painterly sequence initiates the narrative as a story of changing light, from morning to nightfall (an impressionist concern) and of varying depths of field (a Renoirian concern). It is moreover repeated at the film's close, and thus acts as a frame for the narrative.

Monsieur Ladmiral (Louis Ducreux), a widower and painter who lives in the country, receives a visit from his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. They are joined later in the day by the old man's favourite, his daughter Irène (Sabine Azema). During the course of the day, family conversations and arguments are punctuated with flashbacks as Monsieur Ladmiral and others recall idyllic family scenes from the past, to a sound-track which features elegiac music by Fauré as well as occasional passages from Bost's novel read in voice-over by Tavernier. After his visitors have gone, Monsieur Ladmiral's impending death is heralded by nightfall, and thus the opening (and closing) sequence functions as a microcosm of the film's narrative: the movement from morning to night, from life to death. Nostalgia, the basic emotion of the heritage genre, dictates the nature of the film in four ways: on a narrative level, as the family's nostalgia for the past (when Madame Ladmiral was alive), and also as Tavernier's three-fold nostalgia, historical (for the turn of the century), painterly (for impressionism), and filmic (for Renoir). During the course of the film, Tavernier repeats the camera movement that reveals the garden through a doorway or window frame, a composition suggestive of Matisse as well as of Jean Renoir. But the most explicit reference to impressionist art is made when Irène and her father dance at a riverside café - a guinguette - which recalls Auguste Renoir's paintings 'The Luncheon of the Boating Party' and 'Dance at Bougival'. Knowingly, Irène even tells her father that he should have painted the scene. The image of the dancers is, unusually for Tavernier, a fixed shot and one viewed from the front in a classic tableau format. (Maurice Pialat includes a very similar image in Van Gogh, but one mobilised by a camera which dances with the characters (see below).) Typically in Tavernier, as in Renoir, the tableau is not static but explored by a moving camera. Most often in Un Dimanche à la campagne this involves a slow tracking shot into the painterly image, be it the garden, a portrait of Madame Ladmiral, or the white table cloth spread like a blank canvas on the grass. In Van Gogh, meanwhile, Pialat varies between fluid camera movements and lingering, still tableaux to reproduce almost exactly Van Gogh's last paintings.

Such a painterly concern marks a development in Pialat's work, which has been more notable for the use of improvised dialogue, hand held camera and seedy locations to create a documentary style, as in the urban love story Loulou (1980) and Police (1985), a naturalistic thriller. The commercial success of the latter allowed Pialat to use bigger budgets and consequently to modify his style, paying more attention in his next two films to production values and establishing a stylised mise en scène. Sous le Soleil de Satan (1987), taken from a novel by Georges Bernanos and influenced by Robert Bresson's Le Journal d'un curé de campagne (1950), is a rather uneasy combination of naturalism and spectacle. The interior shots in the church, especially the image of Mouchette's body on the altar, are lit and framed like sumptuous tableaux. In Van Gogh (1991) the composition of tableaux at times detracts from a lengthy account of the final months of the artist's life, By far the most expensive film Pialat has made, it was perhaps fittingly (given the subject) a commercial disaster.

The subject of numerous biopics in the United States and Europe, Van Gogh also inspired Alain Resnais and Gaston Diehl's black-and-white documentary Van Gogh (1948), in which 'camera movements across the surfaces of canvases were increased in speed until the paintings became unreadable, focus was also pulled to create blurs, and montage was accelerated as the film neared its end', such distortions aiming to symbolise the artist's growing mental turmoil. Pialat's representation of the paintings is by contrast tame imitation, but he does integrate them with the circumstances of Van Gogh's life by including compositions in the course of the narrative, ostensibly by chance, and sometimes in the background. The film begins with the arrival of Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc) in Auvers-sur-Oise in May 1890, and follows his deteriorating relations with his host, Doctor Gachet, Gachet's daughter Marguerite, and his own brother, Theo. Drinking heavily and in despair, the artist shoots himself in the chest and dies two days later. Photographed largely in melancholic blue tones, although at moments imitating the palette of Van Gogh's canvases, the film is reminiscent of Pialat's earlier work in the unsteady, restless camera movement and the absence of sound-track music. Although the seemingly improvised dialogue and the harsh, unsentimental tone are far from the conventions of the heritage film, the composition of impressionist tableaux demonstrates a desire to reproduce the 'authentic' which is fundamental to the genre. Among the paintings by Van Gogh reproduced here are the portraits of Gachet and of Marguerite and the views of wheatfields and of boats on the Oise; Renoir père and Degas are also alluded to in the long Parisian cancan sequence and the scene at the riverside guinguette. And again, Jean Renoir's Une Partie de campagne and French Cancan are visible influences on this painterly enterprise.

Film 04. La cérémonie, 1995. A Film by Claude Chabrol

Click Here if you want to know more about Chabrol (en français, bien sûr!)


A young woman named Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is interviewed for a housekeeping position at the country estate of Catherine Lelièvre (Jacqueline Bisset) and her family. Sophie is enigmatically succinct in her answers, but her references are highly complimentary, and she is immediately offered the job. However, from the onset, it is evident that there is something odd about Sophie's behavior. She has an instinctive, patent response of "I don't know" to most questions, even when the answer does not apply. She refuses to dust the books in the library, despite keeping the rest of the house impeccably clean. She prefers to wash the dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher. When she is given the opportunity to take driving lessons, she claims to have poor vision and declines the offer. Georges Lelièvre (Jean-Pierre Cassel) sends her to an optometrist for an eye examination, but she avoids the appointment, and spends the afternoon shopping around town. One day, she is left a note on the kitchen table, and truth becomes evident - Sophie cannot read. In attempt to conceal her illiteracy from everyone, she becomes increasingly withdrawn from her employers, and the deception and lies compound. Inevitably, her friendship with an eccentric, interfering postal worker named Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a woman of dubious character, grows unnaturally close, and the relationship leads to an incomprehensible act.

Claude Chabrol explores the themes of isolation and loneliness in La Cérémonie. The film's opening credits roll against the landscape shot of Madame Lelièvre's car traversing the empty road leading to the remote estate. In essence, the geographic location is a reflection of Sophie's alienation from the Lelièvre family, as she attempts to keep her illiteracy a secret. Sophie's long walks to town and her affinity for watching television serve, not as pleasant diversions from the emptiness and boredom of the house, but as a means of distraction and evasion. Her relationship with the disreputable Jeanne stems from a mutual sense of maladjustment and disaffection. La Cérémonie is an elegant, haunting, and tragic tale of a woman driven by personal insecurity down a path of destruction and despair. It is the road to ruin.

ou ... en français:

Les Lelièvre habitent une maison bourgeoise près d'un village breton. Sophie, la nouvelle bonne à tout faire, est efficace mais un peu étrange. Elle se lie d'amitié avec Jeanne, la postière du bourg, les deux filles s'introduisent dans la maison des Lelièvre. Leur alliance devient une révolte sauvage, au delà du bien et du mal.

S'il y a bien un génie du fait divers chez Chabrol, c'est justement parce qu'il le saisit dans toute sa puissance de désorganisation, dans sa façon d'installer du doute dans les certitudes les plus grégaires, ce que Roland Barthes dans un texte fameux (Structure du fait divers) appelait " les troubles de la causalité ". Par un magistral effet de suspens à l'envers, Chabrol filme le temps à la fois séduisant et effarant qui sépare un événement de sa cause. Mais bien qu'il chausse pour ce faire les bottes d'un ciné-polar classique, ce temps n'est surtout pas celui d'une enquête. Aux antipodes de bon nombre de (mauvais) cinéastes qui usent de leur temps de cinéma en se faisant les détectives, voire les flics, de leur sujet, Chabrol ne perd aucune des 111 minutes de La Cérémonie pour se faire au contraire l'ami de son sujet. Plutôt que de domestiquer le terrible pourquoi des choses, il l'accompagne, l'encourage et pour tout dire le pousse au crime (...). Ce qui est estomaquant dans le carnage final, ce n'est pas tant sa crudité que le fait qu'avant et après leur crime, les deux jeunes femmes se comportent à l'identique, et se quittent en se faisant la bise comme on se sépare après une bonne soirée.  Gérard Lefort, Libération,30 août  1995.

Film Reviews

French filmmaker Claude Chabrol in a macabre mood [has made] a film based on one of Ruth Rendell's mystery novels. It's a dark and compelling story of two working class women in their 30s, both of whom have things in their past that eat quietly away at them, though there's little on the surface that calls attention to their troubled inner lives. But when they meet and, over time, become friends and gradually share with one another their innermost secrets, their mutual influences on one another are such that their smoldering resentments burst out into violent deeds with a vengeance. I suppose this, like so many recent films, counts as a "comeuppance film." But here the vengeance wreaked is against those perceived as class rather than gender oppressors, though, of course, the afflictions of these women at the bottom of the economic heap are gender specific, those of a daughter forced to care for her sick and demanding father and of a single mother working two jobs to support her daughter.

But we don't know these things about Sophie and Jeanne at the beginning of the film. Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a very reserved and serious-seeming young woman who takes a job as cook and housekeeper with a well-to-do family in a remote area of France. The Lelièvre family consists of Catherine and George (Jacqueline Bisset and Jean Pierre Cassel) and their two late teen children Melinda and Gilles. The family is self absorbed but seemingly harmonious enough; they are patronizing about Sophie but not portrayed in any way as monsters or villains. Melinda is the social conscience of the family and constantly throws it up to them when they treat Sophie in demeaning or thoughtless ways, but, on the whole, they think of themselves as good people treating their help kindly. Nothing seems out of the ordinary here. Except....

Except for the skillful ways Chabrol has of creating a sense of ominousness over the whole business. He's so good at the little tiny thing that gives you this feeling of uneasiness (even when you can see what he's doing and how). A good example is the scene where Catherine goes to meet Sophie's train on her first day of work. There is nothing at all in the images on the screen of a woman waiting for a train and the train coming slowly into the station and people getting off that should be scary; but the musical score tells you something's amiss. Needless to say Sophie does not get off the train. But the camera finds her in a long shot, standing on the next track silently watching Catherine watch for her, and a little tiny ominous chill runs down your spine. Great suspense building!

Later it seems we've found the clue to Sophie's oddness. It's something that she herself would never on pain of death reveal to anyone, so Chabrol has an interesting task in figuring out how to convey this information to the audience and he succeeds brilliantly, though the audience has a little work to do to figure it out. But, as we learn after Sophie becomes acquainted with the preternaturally pert postal clerk, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), there's more to Sophie's story than what we have discerned so far. And more to Jeanne's too. Something else that clues us in to what makes these women tick is the scene in which they each tell what they know about the other (which I won't reveal, so I won't spoil the plot for you). It's their reaction to these revelations-- so matter of fact and even joyous--that intensifies the sense that these are very strange women, indeed. The shared knowledge makes them partners, somehow, though not lovers in a physical sense. In fact, Jeanne's ability to leap up and cheerfully head off to do good works after the revelations have moved them to embrace and kiss one another while lying on her bed then becomes yet another in the growing list of strange reactions these women evince.

This film has variously been compared with "Thelma and Louise" and a Hitchcock film. I don't buy the first comparison because these women never, even for a moment, transcend their oppressive situations; their crimes are not, except in their own minds, a just payback for offenses committed against them. But it does rival the best of Hitchcock as a psychological thriller, especially the moment of supreme irony at the end. This is a real treasure of its genre, beautifully constructed and superbly acted, and I recommend it highly.  © Linda Lopez McAlister

From Claude Chabrol, a French "Thelma and Louise"

Claude Chabrol is one for making overtly political movies, but he could not resist adding what he calls a touch of Marxism to his latest movie, "La Cérémonie." Not that anything immediately resembling politics is present. It is just that this veteran French director thought it rather topical to remind audiences that social resentment is alive and well despite the end of the cold war and the oft-proclaimed death of ideology.

"I have heard rich industrialists saying that class warfare is over, but, it's really not up to them," said Mr. Chabrol, 66, [now 73] who looked every bit the political science professor as he puffed on his pipe in his producer's office here. "It's up to the workers to say it's over. And, in truth, the happier the industrialists are, the more worried I am. People's frustrations have to go somewhere, and if they don't go into dreams, they explode."

In "La Cérémonie," they explode, not in revolution but in a way that is evidently satisfying to Sophie, an illiterate maid played by Sandrine Bonnaire, and her friend Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), an angry young woman who works in a village post office. Loners, underprivileged, social outcasts, they have as class enemies the deeply bourgeois family of Georges Lelièvre (Jean-Pierre Cassel), his wife, Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset), and their two children. And they eventually have the last word.

"La Cérémonie," which opens in New York on Friday, has been acclaimed by French critics as one of Mr. Chabrol's best film in years. Adapted from Ruth Rendell's novel "A Judgment in Stone," it won Ms. Bonnaire and Ms. Huppert best actress awards at the 1995 Venice film festival; Ms. Huppert also won a César, a French Oscar, for best actress.

The film, Mr. Chabrol's 48th in a career that stretches back almost 40 years, marks the fourth time he has cast the diminutive and wan Ms. Huppert, 41, in a major role. He is again working with her on his new film, "Rien ne va plus," which will carry the English title "No More Laughs."

More than many of his recent movies, "La Cérémonie" carries Mr. Chabrol's film noir stamp. That is, it is a psychological thriller in the Hitchcockian mode built around women, his favorite subject. In this case, he even wrote the screenplay with a psychologist, Caroline Eliacheff, who is married to the movie's producer, Marin Karmitz. Ms. Eliacheff has worked professionally with children who have difficulty learning to read, an experience that proved enormously helpful in shaping the character of Sophie, who is central to the movie.

"Illiterate adults develop amazing skills in order to hide their problem," Mr. Chabrol said.  "In Sophie's case, she could recognize the letter 'p' and the letter 'e' but she could not join them to say 'pe.' "

This in turn becomes a metaphor for the relationship between Sophie and Jeanne. "On their own, each is a victim of no importance," Mr. Chabrol explained. "But when you bring them together, they become a dangerous weapon. Jeanne is the vowel and Sophie the consonant. Psychologists know this phenomenon well. Each individual is harmless, but together they create an explosive chemical reaction. It's like Bonnie and Clyde, like Thelma and Louise."

In "La Cérémonie," Sophie and Jeanne are lost souls, but they bond when they discover they are both fleeing a dubious past: each was suspected of murder and, although acquitted in court, neither seems certain of her own innocence. Jeanne is the stronger of the two, if only because she can read. Yet without Sophie, her suppressed need, to wreak vengeance on society would never have taken form.

Despite the dark roles he gives them in his films, Mr. Chabrol likes to say that he likes women. Certainly, "La Cérémonie" confirms that he remains absolutely fascinated by women after a lifetime of moviemaking that began in 1958 with "Le Beau Serge" and has produced such acclaimed films as "La Femme Infidèle," "Le Boucher," and "Violette Nozière" and" Story of Women," both with Ms. Huppert.

More recently,' Mr. Chabrol made his version of Flaubert's 19th-century shocker "Madame Bovary" (also with Ms. Huppert), the story of young woman trapped in a boring marriage who dreams of a life of passion. He then cast Marie Trintignant in "Betty" as a married women who flees home to escape her life of promiscuity. And in "L'Enfer," a woman named Nelly, played by Emmanuelle Béart, has a husband who is crazed with jealousy for no apparent reason except that, well, she is Ms. Béart.

In a review of "La Cérémonie" in Le Figaro, the critic Claude Baignères noted that Mr. Chabrol was once again in his element. "Women are in general at the center of all the tumult," he wrote, "because he likes them for their cunning, their whims, their instincts, their obsessions, their contradictions, their fear of nothing. He loves their unpredictability." (The movie, which opened here two years ago, did well in French theaters.)

The director had a more solemn explanation. “Women are more worthy than men," he said. "They live in a world that is still very macho. So to be heroines, they don't have to do extraordinary things. It's enough for them to be women to have very real problems. And they are much stronger than men. They're more realistic. They have their feet on the ground. Which is why I think it's outrageous that women don't run countries."

So does Mr. Chabrol, now on his third marriage, understand women?

"Yes, he does," Ms. Huppert said. "He doesn't idealize women in the way people do in most films. He just shows them the way they are. Not victims, not fighters, somewhere in between. I like his way of portraying women."

She also enjoys working with him.

"I think with him I have the best relationship with a director that an actor could dream of," said Ms. Huppert, who has made some 50 films. "It's a combination of feeling completely free and creative and imaginative and yet feeling completely controlled by him. He gives you the chance to create your own character yet he has a precise idea of what he wants. But he doesn't tell you. He just lets things happen, so you never feel limited by him."

Mr. Chabrol said that he invited Ms. Huppert to choose between the roles of Sophie and Jeanne and was glad when she picked Jeanne. He was also delighted when she suggested that Ms. Bonnaire play Sophie; he was already in touch with Ms. Bonnaire, with whom he had not worked before. And, he added, the two women worked together as the perfect team.

"I was more open, more alive, more vivid than I seem to be in most of my parts with Chabrol," Ms. Huppert said. "I have never found such an interesting role in the sense that I explored things which seemed new to some people yet were very close to me. The part was very close to my nature, to what I am really like." She laughed at the thought. "Except for the end, of course," she said, referring to the unexpectedly violent dénouement.

Mr. Chabrol in turn said that he continued to be attracted by rather tortured stories about women because he believed that most people were consumed by pessimism.

"I am perfectly happy," he said, and that's what's so horrible. If I'm happy, there's no reason why other people can't be happy. But I sometimes think that if God exists, He must be a bit perverse because He has made humans slightly inferior to the level they need to live happily. That's why people go to the movies, to escape their lives. My idea is not to distract them. Rather, it's to try to clarify a thing or two.  By Alan Riding © The NYT, December 15, 1996

Film 05. Marie Baie des Anges   (1997)

Director: Manual Pradal, Writer: Manual Pradal
Cast:Vahina Giocante, Frédéric Malgras

 Marie Baie des Angesis the tale of one summer in the life of two tempestuous adolescents on the shimmering, sun-drenched Riviera.  Marie (Vahina Giocante) is 15 and the Lolita of the beaches. You only live once, and she's resolved to make this the summer that she does it all. Strutting through the streets of the bay she turns the heads of the local boys, but sets her sights on a group of American sailors. They take her in, feeding and entertaining her, and these conquests fulfill her dreams of nightclubs, champagne and older men. Orso (Frédéric Malgras) is a 17-year-old delinquent, capable of anything. He roams the forests and beaches of the Baie des Anges, the bay of angels, with gangs of other lost boys, lawless and wild in a violent world. But Orso stands out from the groups of other kids with his fierce and menacing air. After a hesitant first meeting, Orso and Marie realize they are drawn to each other. They run away together to a hidden, idyllic island, but their refuge in this secluded paradise can't last. Orso's thirst for danger nags at him, and they return to his rough and tumble life, where they are engulfed by a giddy spiral of crime that has only one way out.

Vahina Giocante (Marie) was born in 1981 near Orléans, but grew up in Africa in Benin and Johannesburg, where her father worked in the emerald business. Her family later moved to Amsterdam when her father opened a jewelry story there.  She trained as a dancer and was amember of the company of the Opéra de Marseille when the casting director for "Marie Baie des Anges"  discovered her at a beach on the Riviera. For the present, she has put her dancing career on hold to focus on acting. She recently completed shooting "Voleur de Vie," a drama directed by Yves Angelo ("Colonel Chabert") set on an island on an English Channel, which also stars Emmanuelle Béart and Sandrine Bonnaire, who plays her mother.

Marie Baie des Anges

“Fallen Angel” - A Film Review by Robert Horton

 In 1963 Jacques Demy made a film called Baie Des Anges,or Bay of Angels, a lesser-known classic of the French New Wave. Released a year before Demy created the international hit The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (the wondrously peculiar musical in which all the dialogue, no matter how quotidian, is sung), Bay of Angels is musical in its own way, a sun-dappled ode to the Riviera, to youth, and to the playful anything-goes spirit of the New Wave.

 Now, in 1998, a young French director named Manuel Pradal has made the similarly-titled Marie Baie des Anges, another look at youth, wildness, and the Mediterranean. The movie may even be set in the same period as Bay of Angels, though it's hard to tell exactly; Pradal keeps many elements of the film unexplained. The similarities with Demy's film end there, however, as Marie Baie des Anges  creates a troubling, dark, violent portrait of the youth culture that clings to the edge of the sea. The sun still shines on the Riviera, but the shadows are longer.

The central character is Marie, a 14-year-old played by Vahina Giocante, a long-haired Lolita who inevitably conjures up memories of the young Brigitte Bardot. Marie splits her time between two worlds: She hangs out with friends her own age, the wharf rats and homeless kids, and she also flirts with the American sailors stationed in the area. Her dalliance with the Americans has the taint of betrayal about it, as though she were collaborating with the enemy. Eventually she falls in with one of the scruffy, inarticulate orphans, Orso (Fréderic Malgras). They steal a boat and paddle off to an island, where they enjoy a brief, sunny idyll, a kid's version of Eden. Then the story comes to a bad end, as we suspected it might.

 It takes a good while for any of this to become clear. For that matter, it takes a while just to be able to tell the kids apart. Pradal provides no introductions, no exposition, no comforting signposts to help us decipher the characters or their stories. What he does provide is  wide-screen, color-saturated series of tableaux, some lyrical, some harrowing. The storytelling might be exasperating at times, but Pradal's eye redeems the static scenario.

 The real difference between Marie and its New Wave predecessors is the new film's lack of joy. Even during the island interlude, when we are clearly meant to enjoy the sight of Marie and Orso chasing around and playing practical jokes on each other, it's hard to shake the somber, depressed tone of the rest of the movie. If Pradal doesn't catch the ecstasy of adolescence, at least he gets the energy right: He knows there is something poignant about these penniless teenagers occupying the same heady real estate as the world's wealthiest high-rollers. The kids may not be all right, but they are weirdly free.

Writer-director Manuel Pradal's début feature is part of an intriguing wavelet of French films; like La Vie de Jésus,it's a raw, semi-improvised story of feral, small-town teens, told with a cast of largely non-professional actors. In a world apparently bereft of parents, 14-year-old Marie (Vahina Giocante) makes her way in her Riviera resort town by flirting (and sometim more) with American sailors. Similarly, 17-year-old Orso (Frédéric Malgras) stays afloat via petty crime, roaming with a pack of wild boys. Marie and Orso approach each other like wary dogs, finall letting their guard down and enjoying a brief, idyllic romance, but the implicit, omnipresent threat of violence in their lives is ultimately realized. The actors are astonishing, particularly in their willingness to be unlikable in ways that polished young American actors wouldn't dare. This is a striking, heartbreaking film about kids who've mastered the physical, strutting sophistication of adulthood without attaining the emotional maturity necessary to survive in the grown-up jungle.

An Interview with Manuel Pradal

Q.: What is the legend of the "Baie des Anges?"
A.: The bay around Nice is called the "Baie des Anges," the bay of angels, because it was used to be the home of a species of shark called "anges de mer" (angels of the sea). The legend says that the two huge rocks that are shaped like fin once protected the bay from invasions from the sea. But eventually invasions became so rare that the angel sharks turned on their masters to satisfy their need for blood. To maintain the peace, the princes of the bay agreed to sacrifice a child to them. I wanted the characters in the film to have the same grace and cruelty as the sharks of the legend. I also liked that the legend is an allegory for the idea of apolished, beautiful Riviera that hides a troubled, chaotic interior.

Q.: It's a very surprising picture of the South of France...
A.: In the film there's a combination of the natural beauty of the region, the Riviera as Garden of Eden, and then grafted onto that paradise is a sort of criminality. Not criminal in an urban way, but in the way of drifters that exists in the South, where you come across numerous recent immigrants, from Eastern Europe for example--Yugoslavians and Albanians arriving on the Riviera and wandering through this picture-postcard setting. It's that combination that interested me. I wanted to reinvent the legendary South. The film revisits the myths of bad boys and the dream of the Riviera, it's a sensual encounter of these two worlds. I wanted the film to a have a timeless, mythic quality, to have the appearance of a fairy tale. Soccer stadiums, the Grand Prix, Carnaval, the American sailors, are all legendary elements of the Mediterranean that the film incorporates. Every element is chosen to recreate a Riviera that never really existed. We had to build a very complex puzzle and shot all along the Mediterranean coast from Marseilles to Rome, not just within the Riviera. Sometimes in a single scene the shot would show Nice and the reverse shot would be of Marseilles. .: The film paints the Riviera as a very lush natural world. I wanted to recreate a profound sense of nature, the lightness of the beginning of summer, like the South in Matisse's paintings, very pure. Christophe Pollock, the director of photography, and I studied the way the sun hit the settings at different hours. We made a sort of map of the light and the colors. We organized our shooting schedule accordingly--we ran after the light. It was like an open-air movie studio, where every detail was controlled. But at the same time we were constantly fighting against the elements since nature is essentially uncontrollable--we even had an earthquake at Portofino. I wanted the film to have that particular feeling of being on the run, the strangeness of the air and of colors and sounds, that at times approaches the fantastic. When you're on the run, the world has an extraordinary color: you notice everything, you're part of the world, there's a sense of great lucidity, beauty, solitude; your experience of everything is heightened and at the same time you feel like you're about to be swallowed up in it.

Q.: This is the first time any of your actors have performed on screen. How did you find your cast?
A. :The casting was actually the most work we had in preparing the film. The casting directors, my assistants and I spent a year in the streets searching for our young actors--around France and abroad, in the streets and the stadiums, on the beaches, around the toughest housing projects, in gypsy camps. We met 15,000 kids! I loved that part of the work. I wanted to find kids with the vigor and the sense of being outsiders that only comes from the street, kids who were fiercely proud. We didn't start out with any sociological aim, but we quickly realized that the kids who interested us, who had something wild or indomitable or antisocial about them, were all under the supervision of the courts. So we went directly to juvenile prisons or correctional facilities in France and Italy to find our cast. For the Americans, we used a similar method: since we couldn't pay actors or bring anyone over from the US, we had to find them too, in the streets and the bars. We even brought back some tough Irish guys from Dublin for nothing, so they could give us the necessary atmosphere for our American base. Frédéric, who plays Orso, comes from just north of Paris, he lives in a caravan of Russian gypsies in the middle of the woods with eight other people. He's a poor kid from the country, with a lifestyle from another century--no water, no electricity, no money. Nicolas, who plays Goran, is from the city, but also extremely poor. In his fifteen years, he'd spent ten of them in foster care or social services, and was an inveterate thief. He had the face of an angel, but at the same time he was a tough kid. So here were two kids with hard childhoods who the film took in, and who were helped out by being in the middle of this lush, benevolent natural world of the South. When I watch them in the film, I can almost see it happening in their faces. Nicolas grew eight inches during the shooting, and Frederic was transformed too: he grew more assured, became more socialized, and both of them started to learn to read.  Vahina Giocante is a real discovery. The casting director, Marion Gervais, spotted her on a beach at Marseilles. I had her do some screen tests which were incredible. She was thirteen and a half and knew how to act anything. She had a rare beauty, the real character of a girl from the South, and she was also a dancer for the Marseilles Opera. We had already seen 7000 girls and then she showed up, like an extraordinary reward for our work. I wrote and improvised a lot of scenes with Vahina during the shooting because there, surrounded by the Americans and by all the tough guys of the Bay, she became unbelievably cheeky and imaginative.

Q.: Did your conception of the two main characters change after the parts were cast?
A.: At the beginning, Orso was supposed to be older, more of a developed criminal. But the choice of Frederic, who was fifteen, and of Vahina, only thirteen and a half when we began production--both still very much children--made me modify their characters. In the end, however, that was the right direction to take, and their childlike qualities helped light up the film.  Orso is very secretive, he comes from an unknown place, crossing the Bay of Angels looking for a gun, but he's betrayed by another kid like himself. Marie plays with her seductiveness. She's the "little sister" of the gangs, but she wishes she weren't so young, she wants to meet older men. The American sailors, Larry, Jim and the others, are a sort of dream of Marie's, like the young woman in the villa is for Orso. Like any 15 year-old girl, Marie wants to hone her charm--the more she exercises it, the more "famous" she'll become. One person isn't enough for her, she wants to be unanimously desired. But each new conquest only leaves her more bored or disenchanted,  until she meets Orso. With him, she takes off her mask of seduction for the first time and can be herself. Marie and Orso live a kind of uncertain, tentative love story--they meet, push each other away, find each other again. Orso is arrested and put in a detention center, and Marie is rejected by the Americans. They're like two wounded, fallen angels and it's through this that they come to understand each other. They realize they're like brother and sister, they're similar.

 I wanted to show a kind of adolescence that is free, wild, animal, one where attachments are just as quickly formed as broken, speechless, without psychology. Some teenagers seem to have a kind of natural cruelty, a casual insolence that they're free from love, yet at the same time they are constantly seeking love. I find very young couples to be very touching, and I wanted to explore that with Orso and Marie in their life on the island: the playing at life as a couple, the clumsiness of situations where their youth disturbs their attempts to be adults. The film takes place in an unspecified time, an eternal adolescence of sorts. Through these characters I think we're also speaking about today's youth. I wanted to touch on the things that don't change, for the Riviera as much as fo the characters. Adolescence expresses itself through a difficulty in loving, in connecting with people. Marie and Orso are practically never in the same scen together, which explains the dyslexic aspect of the style of the film. I wanted to capture a real vitality that belongs to adolescence, and in the South there is a physical vigor that is even more pronounced. Even if you don't have any money, you always have the privilege of the ocean, you can take over the bay and the beaches and the grand villas in the off-season. The scooter rides, swimming, singing on the way to the stadium--I wanted to show something different than a picture of depressed adolescence. These kids who have awful pasts have an incredible optimism and love of life. I wanted to show the beauty that's in their pride. Their families have fallen apart, but they've made their own new families, which gives them something that's very independent, and ultimately, very adult. They don't ask for anything from anyone.

Q.: "At fifteen, you can do anything," like Marie says.
A.: Exactly. Something I didn't realize, but the kids made me aware of, is that, because the film never shows the world of adults, it creates a sort of kingdom of adolescence. It shows adolescence triumphant.  The film doesn't follow a standard form of narration--the editing and structure emphasize disorder. It captures fleeting emotions in the heat of the moment, as if you were looking through a teenager's diary.  For this first film I was very excited by the stylistic possibilities of cinema and I wanted to seize the emotions of the story without using a classical, reassuring sort of narration. There had to be an impatience at the heart of the scenes, a kind of joy, a game of confronting the characters and their lives in motion, in the rush, with a sort of drunken editing so that one scene would recapture the imbalance of another scene. I wanted to make a puzzle of a film with several overlapping stories, to play with visual effects that would open a panorama of emotions and feelings, even if it made the film difficult to follow. You have to watch this movie in a more emotive way than other films. I also wanted to return to a kind of cinema that could, through the purely visual, capture raw emotions through sensuality, colors, beauty and lyricism. The film moves quickly because the kids were impatient, they had moments of concentration and sudden bursts of violence, and we had to work like that. I attempted to copy their language of noises, colors, shouts and emotions. "Marie Baie des Anges" has a rhythm of violent scenes followed by gentle ones, fights next to kisses. We did this through the improvisation of scenes, the euphoria of  filming scenes cut short, without transitions, since the kids' patience had its limits and after a few hours of concentrating, they were going off in all directions. I let myself be carried along by the drunkenness of scenes and moments like that, and I wasn't afraid when I'd lose track of the storyline for a moment. I felt like you'd come back to the story in a bit, and you'd be enriched by the confused but real emotion of those moments of freedom.

Film 06.  Queen Margot - A Film of Patrice Chéreau

Back to European History: A Note the Reformation and the Wars of Religion

The Protestant Reformation

The Sixteenth century was a time of powerful religious vitality that culminated in the development of Protestantism in the Age of the Reformation, a period of momentous changes in almost all aspects of society. It mainly saw the abolition of the religious status quo. Grievances against the catholic Church grew in number and bitterness. It was criticized for its worship of saints, for its wealth and above all for granting indulgences.l04 Spiritual Reformers and preachers believed that the Church and society were cor-rupt and that a return to true piety was necessary. The Conciliarists and Humanists were less rigid, but they too demanded a reform of the Church from within, and the knowledge of the Bible. They thought that if men were educated, since they were basically good they would improve. The "Dean" of Humanists was Erasmus, born in Rotterdam in 1466. He thought that education was the supreme key to a changed world and a change in the ethics of men. He even wished that every plowboy could whistle the Psalms while furrowing the soil. Erasmus' wisdom certainly touched many among the elite, but education is a slow process, so he did not touch the hearts or beliefs of the masses. However, Luther and his disciples did. In Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin in Geneva, William Farel and Pierre Viret in France'•s had one purpose: to challenge the Church of Rome. After the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes (Edit de Nantes) in favor of the Huguenots, the Catholic Church started to take steps to stop the Protestant tide. During the period called the Counter Reformation, Catholic bishops met at the Council of Trent (1545-1564) seeking to redefine Church dogma. Catholic missionaries were also sent all over the world to make converts, and the Jesuits, a new strict order of priests, started to teach and preach. A new set of churchmen began to rule, strong and severe Popes like Paul IV. Under the guidance of these Counter-Reformation spiritual leaders, and afraid of their ire, Catholics began to embrace more humble, pious lives. Monks no longer could keep concubines and bishops were expected to be more frugal. It was in 1547 that the confessional boxes that can still be seen today were introduced so that the priest had less opportunity to be tempted by women penitents.

Both the Renaissance and Reformation movements contributed to the . most incredible revolution in letters. The major contributions of the six-teenth century letters were made in France as well as in Spain and En-gland. The Reformation movement caused the reexamination of the early versions of the Scriptures and the Renaissance rediscovery of Greek and Latin Classics. Aside from Erasmus,'06 whose Bible was translated into German by Luther, the French monk Francois Rabelais was a brilliant second, ridiculing the indolence, the greed of the clergy, while at the same time calling Calvin "a mad devil" and "the impostor of Geneva"! Rabelais' main contribution was surely to confront the new humanistic trends with the old medieval ways. He rejected the pessimistic views of Reformers, declaring that far from being sinful, men could be good through learning and pleasure. Montaigne, like Rabelais,'07 contributed to France's resis-tance to Protestantism. Erasmus, Rabelais and Montaigne are just the first string of many other great thinkers, philosophers of the Renaissance such as Machiavelli in Italy, Cervantes in Spain, Edmund Spenser and Shakespeare in England.

Interestingly, the cultural revolution of the sixteenth century ended with the waning of Greek and Latin learning and the rise of vernaculars. By the close of the Renaissance and the Reformation, letters were no longer the sole privilege of scholars, the clergy or the very rich. They were more and more accessible to the people and the development of printing largely contributed to this swift dissemination of ideas to a larger public.

The Wars

The introduction in France of the Protestant religious movement called the Reformation unleashed a series of fierce religious civil wars. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Church faced many problems, the main one being the Great Schism, but there were many others, the corruption, the luxury of great Church leaders, the Church's sale of indulgences, etc. The Reformists claimed that drastic changes and a renewal of faith were necessary. Martin Luther, a monk like Rabelais, believed that a new faith supported by strict values was needed. The Reformation movement therefore was to religion what Humanism was to arts, letters and philosophy. Conceived as a new freedom for man, the Reformation soon turned out to be something different, veering away from freedom and joy. Papal authority was totally rejected and the Bible replaced the Church as a rule of faith and life. In other words, austerity and Puritanism became the new moral and religious codes. The Huguenots were not seeking a new freedom, they demanded a righteous life. While Humanism sought a new freedom for thought, Calvinism that invaded France with the publication of Calvin's Institution chretienne, preached the infallibility of the Scriptures and condemned free will. It preached Christian simplicity and required the elimination of all superfluous sacraments. The result of the Huguenots' unbending tenacity was both war and misery. The reaction of the Catholics was just as violent as that of the Huguenots. The Protestants were considered as rebels against the Church and State, and Calvinism was perceived as a threat and even a heresy, and as such condemned by severe edicts.

While François ler was a rather tolerant king, his successors were not, and from 1560 to the abjuration of Henri IV in 1593 France knew no rest from the religious wars. Henri II fought the Protestants without mercy, chiefly under the influence of the Guise clan, and neither Francois II, Charles IX nor Henri III were able to put an end to the conflict. In fact under the last Valois, Charles IX and Henri 111, France was ravaged by civil discords. Catherine de Medicis at first tried to maintain peace between the two factions and played the two parties against each other, but in 1572, seeing that it was impossible and fearing the growing influence of Gaspard de Coligny over the king, she decided to strike a major blow against the Huguenots. Taking advantage of a great gathering of Huguenot leaders in Paris to celebrate the marriage of Henry of Navarre, Catherine de Medicis decided to rid herself of the heads of the Huguenot party at a single blow. In the resulting massacre of St. Bartholomew some thousands of Huguenots were dragged from their beds after midnight and brutally murdered. On August 24,1572, Coligny was taken out of his house, castrated, decapitated and torn into pieces. Similar massacres were perpetrated across the country and only a few Huguenots escaped, with the exception of those who converted to Catholicism, a sword to their throats. These outrageous murders aroused the fury of the Huguenots and led to a renewal of the religious civil war, with ever increasing atrocities on both sides. Companies of foreign mercenaries were hired: Spanish troops, at the invitation of the Guise clan, invaded France, and Protestant towns like Rouen and La Rochelle appealed to England to invade France. But England had other problems, and in the long run neither side seemed able to win. Consequently, there were many truces that always expired into further wars because the Huguenots felt no security and the Catholics did not want to recognize what they considered heresy. The Huguenots' cause would have been desperate, but 24-year-old Charles IX died on May 30, 1574, sick with remorse for having been too blind and too weak to prevent the St. Bartholomew slaughters. The Crown then passed to the Duke of Anjou, Henri III, who was to be stabbed in the stomach by a Dominican monk on August 1, 1589. His last words were to exhort Henri IV to convert to Catholicism. Henri de Guise, the Catholic party chief who was trying to depose Henri lll, was also assassinated by a Protestant fanatic. The throne then became legally vacant for the Huguenot chieftain Henri de Navarre, who assumed the royal name of Henri IV.

Before Henri IV sat on the throne, Catherine de Medicis was still in power, but more interested in astrology, poetry, music and ballet than in crushing heretics, so she decided to lean toward moderation and accepted the Peace of Beaulieu in 1576. That gave back the Huguenots their right of worship. However, Henri lll questioned the right of worship and thereby stirred more violence. The civil war did not stop with the accession of Henri IV. The Huguenots, although a minority, were a minority determined to survive, but on the other hand the majority of the French people had no desire to accept Calvinism. The Catholics of Paris, the majority, could not accept a heretic king within its walls. So, Henri IV decided to abjure the Protestant faith and to convert to Catholicism on July 23, 1593, in the St. Denis Basilica, promising a fight against the heretic Huguenots. Henri IV is reported to have said at this occasion: "Paris vaut bien une messe." "Paris is well worth a mass." The Huguenots, naturally, who were elated to have one of theirs king, felt betrayed and alarmed for their own safety. Henri IV tried to reassure the Huguenots, and to bring peace between the two factions, he promulgated the Edit de Nantes on April 15, 1598. The Huguenots were thereby granted freedom of cult, conscience, worship and equi-table justice. The Huguenot minority, somewhat reassured, became less rebellious, but the rest of the French viewed the Edit de Nantes with suspicion, and some towns even refused to recognize the edict as the law of the land. Henri IV then decided to impose the edict and succeeded in reducing Catholic opposition by granting favors to the Jesuits. Thus, the Huguenots were protected by the king, but certainly not accepted by the people. Having appeased the religious controversy, Henri IV brought an end to the wars by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis that granted full liberty of religion to the Protestants. He also did everything in his power to help the country recover from the civil wars and he is said to have wanted for every French family "la poule au pot" (a chicken in the pot). Henri IV worked hard putting back together the ruined government; he collected taxes, disciplined the army and supervised carefully the administration of justice. He can be said to have laid the foundation of the future royal absolutism of the Bourbons. But, on May 14, 1610, a crazed fanatic, Francois Ravaillac,ll5 who thought that Henri IV was a menace to the Catholic Church, assassinated the king. Henri IV was remembered by most Frenchmen as the "good king Henri" because they recognized his personal kindness and that he tried hard to improve their life by repairing the country's economy and launching great construction projects (bridges, roads, canals).

Unfortunately, all the efforts of Henri IV to settle the Protestant problem proved to be intolerable to the Catholic majority. Under the king's widow, Marie de Medicis, the nobility and the upper Catholic clergy grew restless again and forced the summoning of the Estates-General. But Marie, seeing nothing but distrustful and conflicting interests among the partici-pants, dismissed the Estates in 1615. In fact no meeting of the Estates-General took place until the French Revolution. It was therefore the king alone who conducted the affairs of the national government  © Guy Mermier - Historical Survey of the French Nation , p. 49-53

AT HER MAJESTY'S PLEASURE: Vincent Perez and Isabelle Adjani are furtive lovers in Queen Margot

A Film Review by Lisa Schwarzbaum

There are moments in Queen Margot  that are as horrifying as any I have ever seen on film. Heads are cracked open, guts are gouged, bodies are smashed and split and dumped into pits in scenes that bring to mind images of Holocaust slaughter. Blood spurts everywhere; there's so much spilled that the palette of this production is not even crimson -- it's a thick, matted maroon. What would be outrageous in any other context is, however, mesmerizing in the hands of French director Patrice Chéreau: It's 16th-century French history he's telling, and Chéreau excels at making the dirt and rot and lusts and hatreds of 400 years ago come to life so vividly you can practically smell the unwashed bodies in the court of Catherine de Médicis, where this brutal chapter takes place.

The story, adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, is that of Catherine's Catholic daughter, Marguerite of Valois (Isabelle Adjani), called Margot, who is married by her mother (Virna Lisi) to the French leader of the (Protestant) Huguenots, Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil), in a disastrous attempt to ease the ongoing fighting between the two religious factions and to protect her family's throne.

In a plot dense with historical characters whose names and loyalties may not be immediately distinguishable, Chéreau does something fresh: He dives in with momentum going going going so that you can feel the fury that fuels this insane holy war, letting individual heroes and villains emerge out of the muck, then sink back into their larger hell again. Margot's emotionally frayed older brother, Charles (Jean-Hugues Anglade), for instance, who barely registers as the king for half the movie, becomes an extraordinary character by the story's climax. (In contrast, Steven Spielberg builds the power off Chindler's List, a movie of similar large, tragic scope, on a slow, step-by-step march to horror, introducing each character patiently and precisely.)

But within his dark canvas, Chéreau also beams points of light: In an alley littered with bleeding men, he creates a bold, arousing scene of anonymous sex between a prowling Margot and La Môle (Vincent Perez), the Huguenot who becomes her lover. In the most fetid of settings, he caresses the faces and bodies of his actors with a sympathetic lens so that even a bit-part valet or lady-in-waiting projects real life. And Chéreau contrasts the cool, mysterious, velvety beauty of Adjani -- last seen here, much too long ago, in 1988's Camille Claudel -- with the beaky, contained style of Auteuil, and again with the sensual energy of Perez. There are nightmare scenes here, and you can't take your eyes off them. There's a monster mother here, and you are thrilled by the skull-head stare of the magnificent Virna Lisi the way you thrilled at the schemes of Sian Phillips' Livia in I, Claudius. History has rarely been so gorgeously, electrically, sensuously portrayed. You'll want to go home and bathe.

Queeen Margot - La reine Margot (France, 1994) ** 3/4.  Directed by Patrice Chéreau. Written by Daniele Thompson & Chéreau from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, Sr. Produced by Claude Berri. Photography, Philippe Rousselot. Production design, Richard Peduzzi & Olivier Radot. Costumes, Moidele Bickel. Editing, Francois Gedigier & Helene Viard. Music, Goran Bregovic. Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Vincent Perez, Pascal Greggory, Julien Rassam, Virna Lisi, et al. A Miramax release. 143 min. Rated R (sex, full frontal male nudity, strong violence).

When the French think of massacres in their country, they start with the night of St. Bartholomew's (August 23 to 14, 1572), and the Nazi reprisals at the village of Oradour in 1944.

During the religious wars in France between Catholics and Protestants, a shaky peace was signed in 1570. Queen Mother Catherine de Medicis (Lisi), worried about the loss of Catholic power and the future of her sons, married her unwilling daughter Marguerite de Valois, familiarly Margot (Adjani), to the Protestant leader King Henry of Navarre (Auteuil). That was in 1572, in Paris. Several thousand Protestant followers came along with Henry for the ceremony.

A week later, Catherine extracted from her son King Charles IX the order to massacre the Protestants. More than 3,000 of them were killed in Paris alone. "Peasant" Henry, forced to renounce Calvinism, became the Court's captive until 1576, when he escaped, renounced Catholicism and took charge again of the Protestant forces.

Separated early from Margot, in 1589 he became Henry IV, the most popular French king ever. "Queen Margot" covers 1572-76 in a story of non-stop intrigues, plots, coalitions, betrayals, fights, poisonings, executions, somber deeds and love-affairs. The will of God is variously invoked by all as a reason, an alibi, or an excuse for a lot of bloodshed.

The main romance is between Margot and Protestant Count de la Mole (Vincent Perez, the handsome but dim Christian in "Cyrano de Bergerac"). Hovering over this and all else is politically able and, in fact, religiously tolerant Catherine. To the film's credit, she is not merely the Borgia-like monster of popular history but a dour, complex, tortured personality.

The 1845 novel the book adapted was by the prolific, imaginative and most readable Alexandre Dumas. It came out just one year after his "The Count of Monte-Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers." Essentially, like the other Dumas books, it is well-researched, complicated, full of side-plots, and overall not unlike an Errol Flynn swashbuckler.

Since even long movies cannot reproduce faithfully big books, the solution in Hollywood adaptations is to pare down scenarios to a degree that makes them simplistic. Here, however, the writers tried to keep as much as possible of the novel, and added a great deal of graphic mayhem and sex, flamboyantly handled by stage and opera director Chéreau. The result was the opposite of Hollywood productions. But if this film is not simplistic, it can be disorienting.

The original cut at the 1944 Cannes Festival lasted 164 minutes. With an eye to American impatience, the imported version lost 21 minutes. In part these were replaced by dauntingly long explanatory texts at the start of the film. I doubt that any spectator can digest all this so quickly.

Some reviewers claim that the cuts make for more clarity, yet at the same time they still get a number of facts wrong -- and the editing is occasionally awkward. Although I was brought up on French history and the novels of Alexandre Dumas, I had to stop a preview video more than once in order to check reference works. The novel is far easier to follow.

Nonetheless the film can be fascinating, especially for its splendid photography, costumes and sets, unabated action and un-Hollywoodian approach to people and mores. But there are many times when you get disoriented with what's what and who's who.

Multi-character "historical" movies are no-win propositions. Hollywood tries to solve this not only via simplifications but by making the actors very distinct from one another -- a technique that produces stereotypes.In other genres however, it can work beautifully. Think of "The Maltese Falcon" or "Casablanca."

In "Queen Margot" the confusion comes in part because many characters, from La Mole to the King, wear long, stringy, filthy hair. Historically this is correct. Esthetically it is grungy. And if you remember that only in rather recent times people have washed regularly, and that before this the rich hid their odors behind heavy scents, you're grateful that movie is not in Smell-O-Vision.

Dumas' enormously popular books were so "clean" that their adult readers also encouraged kids to take up those novels. Most children would skim over the gooey amours and focus on the sword fights. The movie, much more naturalistic and true to the ways of its period than other films in its category, does not hesitate to "modernize" itself with a great deal of sex and gore.

Margot not only had lovers, but is often described in French history books as a nymphomaniac. The film makes no bones about it, also hints broadly at incest between Catherine and her beloved sons, is verbally explicit about Margot and her brothers, and shows that at the Court sex was as casual as in the singles bars, pre-AIDS scene.

The actors do well by their roles, from Auteuil to Adjani. He, the ugliest star in French cinema today, puts his non-looks to good use. She, even though overloaded with ho-hum passionate scenes, generally convinces. The film too is overloaded, with villains that is. This is a plus, a radical change from the hundreds of historical frescoes with too-nice heroes.

At Cannes '94 , Virna Lisi received the Best Actress prize for what is basically a big supporting role in this, her 63rd movie. Lisi , seen mostly in very forgettable Italian pictures, is known in thie USA primarily for her American comedies "How To Murder Your Wife" with Jack Lemmon and "Not With My Wife You Don't" with Tony Curtis. The award was a surprise, but it is quite justified. ©  By Edwin Jahiel

Film 07. “Will It Snow For Christmas?  Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël? 1997 - A Film of  Sandrine Veysset

In Will It Snow For Christmas? (Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël?) a mother's love holds everything together in the face of poverty and despair.  By Liz Braun
    As that mother, [Swiss] theatre actress Dominique Reymond serves the film in the same way she serves the narrative.
    It is her performance that makes this small but nicely crafted French film so effective.
    Set in the French countryside and in the unspecified past, Will It Snow For Christmas? is the story of a woman and her seven illegitimate children.
    They are tenant farmers and under the thumb of 'Father' (Daniel Duval). He is a tyrannical boss, parent and lover.
    Father often reminds our heroine that he has given her a beautiful family, all the while using the children as his field laborers and personal servants.
    And Father has another, 'legitimate,' family living in a nearby town.
    The film opens with scenes of the children working in the vegetable fields. At lunch, father cautions mother not to give the children too much cheese, not to turn on the lights and waste electricity. His meanness is physical, as well -- he roughs up Reymond's character in front of the children.
    He says and does things to turn the children against each other and against their mother. All the while, the children are taunted and called bastards by their neighbors and classmates.
Sounds grim. But whenever Father is not on the scene, Will It Snow For Christmas? is an idyllic family tale about happy children and their gentle, calm mother.
    Their poverty -- there is no indoor plumbing, among other problems -- is no particular hardship, so long as their mother is there with them.
    The passage of time in this story is captured by the changing seasons in the countryside; at the beginning, Will It Snow For Christmas? is bathed in the sunlight of summer, and as fall and winter approach, the light gets slowly colder.
    Thanks to an untrammeled narrative and what you might call languorous camera work, Will It Snow For Christmas? slowly but surely draws a viewer into the emotions of the picture.
    Writer/director Sandrine Veysset makes her feature debut here, and it is an auspicious one. The film winds up with a giddy Christmas celebration at home for mother and her children. Things swing very close to despair, but hope prevails.
    Will It Snow For Christmas? is a charming film. It was presented at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals this year and was awarded a special jury prize at the Paris Film Festival. Toronto Sun

Will It Snow for Christmas?
    This striking portrait of rural family life marked Sandrine Veysset’s remarkable directoral debut.  The film was widely acclaimed in France, winning Veysset a César and the prestigious Louis-Delluc Prize in 199.
    This is not a comfortable film to watch, and the lack of coherent narrative does make the film appear slow and overly long.  It is much closer to a documentary than a conventional film drama, but the quality of the photography and Dominique Reymond’s emotionally charged performance as the struggling mother gives it a distinctive artistic quality.
    The first part of the film is perhaps the most moving, with the hardship and stress of rural life being gradually exposed amidst the halcyon beauty of the sun-soaked French countryside.  As the film sinks further into gloom and doom, mirroring the change in the seasons, it becomes a little repetitive and tedious, and the final note of optimism which ends the film has a slightly false sense of sentimentality about it.
    Despite some obvious faults, the film is worth watching, mainly for the artistic flair Veysset demonstrates in telling this moving and highly relevant social drama.
    Despite its title, Will it Snow For Christmas? is not a seasonal film for the whole family - and thank God for that. The first feature by 29-year old director/screenwriter Sandrine Veysset, it's a story about the good things that can grow out of bad soil.
    In southern France, a woman (Dominique Reymond) and her seven kids live on and work the farm of her lover and their father (Daniel Duval); he has a wife and family on another, larger property. His feelings for his bastard brood work in reverse proportion to their ages: he dotes on the baby boy and pats the children on the head while he snarls at the teens and works them hard. It's as though he sees them as boMike D’Angelo  nds. When they reach maturity he treats them as property, to use as he wishes.
    The mother recognizes her helplessness - and Veysset is careful to keep reminding us of their mutual attraction - but when he makes a move on their eldest daughter, she shuts him out. Or tries to.
    What's remarkable about the story - the time period, like the parents' names, is not specified - is its matter-of-fact narration. The film doesn't plead for our sympathy on behalf of the mother and children. It treats its characters and audience with respect. Like the mother, we don't need to see what the father did to the daughter to know that something's wrong.
    From the depiction of farm life to the cowed indifference of onlookers, it's intensely realistic in every way but one: the mother never loses her patience with her kids, let alone get mad at them. What saves her from saintliness is Reymond, an exceptional Swiss stage actress; you have no choice but to believe she is the mother of these seven kids because she so obviously loves them. In a season of mind candy this is a root-vegetable sort of movie, remarkable not for what you see but what you get out of it. You don't need to see it because it's good for you, but because it's good.
© Denis Seguin

Another Review - By Mike D’Angelo
    Sandrine Veysset's stoic Will It Snow for Christmas? doesn't use the methodical, mundane tasks performed by its characters as a counterpoint to a traditional movie plot involving dangerous criminals and unexpected redemption; here, the work that people do defines their lives, which are about little more than harnessing the strength required to get up tomorrow and pick up the hoe again. In other words, it's a movie about sheer survival, which means that I often found it as frustrating as I did fascinating; my empathy for The Mother (sturdy Dominique Reymond) -- who's being used, along with her seven illegitimate children, as slave labor by the brood's jerk of a father (Daniel Duval), whose "real" family lives in relative comfort -- battled my impatience with her weary sense of resignation. Indeed, I often found myself wanting to shout helpful advice at the screen ("pack up the kids and get the hell out of town!") -- a temptation I usually experience only during horror movies ("put down the phone and get the hell out of the house!").
    In a sense, Will It Snow for Christmas?  is a pastoral horror film, complete with bogeyman and faintly moralistic sexual subtext (this is a picture in which Mom comforts her little ones by telling them about a dream in which their existence in her life is a punishment meted out by God). Its pleasures, such as they are, tend to be incidental rather than cumulative; Veysset's aesthetic and emotional rigor occasionally gives her tale a plodding quality, and what little narrative there is gradually appears to be building towards an obvious, distressingly fatalistic finale -- it's like Fassbinder's idea of a family film. (Alliteration unintentional.) Happily, the movie doesn't quite get there, but nor does it truly arrive anywhere else -- it has what playwright Christopher Durang calls a "dot dot dot" conclusion, in which it's clear that nothing fundamental has changed, or is likely to do so anytime soon. (If the film were to continue for another hour and a half, I can't imagine that the second half would be demonstrably different from the first.) The lack of closure is entirely redeemed, however, by an exquisite, heartbreaking final shot -- it may amount to nothing more than a respite, but it's achingly beautiful all the same.
    The most amazing thing about Will It Snow for Christmas?, though, is that it was reportedly a commercial hit in France. The American remake will undoubtedly involve a group of cherubic, precocious kids from Central Casting seeding the clouds from a hot-air balloon in order to ensure that the town's annual toboggan race isn't cancelled.  © Rotten Tomatoes

ou ... en français
    Pour son premier long métrage, Sandrine Veysset nous raconte l'histoire d'une femme, ou plutôt d'une mère de sept enfants, qui vit et travaille dans une ferme du sud de la France. La situation familiale est difficile car le père de ces 7 bâtards (comme on les nomme au village) n'est en réalité que l'amant - qui vit avec sa vraie famille à Cavaillon. Exerçant un diktat terrible, le père ne visite 'les autres' que pour vérifier leur travail dans ses champs...
    Apportant un vent résolument nouveau dans le cinéma français, Y AURA-T-IL DE LA NEIGE A NOEL, quoique construit comme une fiction, ressemble plus à un documentaire. Le combat quotidien de cette mère pour éduquer ses enfants, garder la tête froide face à l'homme au camion rouge (le père redouté) tout en travaillant comme une forcenée, est un exemple parmi des milliers de combats identiques - et très actuels - menés par des milliers d'autres femmes à travers le monde. Ce film est avant tout un hommage à la maman, un remerciement à chacune d'entre elles pour la force de leur amour qui, à lui-seul, nous pousse à grandir. A grands coups de tendresse.
    Le film de Veysset n'est pas lent. Telles les saisons qui passent, il prend le temps d'être. Par une mise en scène très réaliste et très sobre, Veysset réussit à captiver son public en entraînant littéralement chaque spectateur à participer au labeur quotidien de cette femme et de ses enfants. Ils ne sont pas seuls à nettoyer les radis, à trier les salades, à planter les pommes de terre... Nous trimons avec eux. Mais c'est avec eux également que nous profitons du chaud soleil d'été à la fin de la journée, que nous partageons la veillée de Noël avec ses petites surprises et que nous nous émerveillons devant les premiers flocons de neige... A travers tous ces petits morceaux de vie, l'émotion peu à peu s'installe et devient reine. On ne l'a pas senti arriver, car Veysset a eu la noblesse de ne pas fabriquer les sempiternelles scènes artificielles qui nous auraient fait rire .. ou pleurer. Chaque émoi, chaque frisson éveillé chez le spectateur est totalement spontané et personnel.
    Dominique Reymond qui joue le rôle de la maman est une actrice-perle. Etonnante de justesse, elle incarne sublimement cette femme à la fois forte et fragile, soumise et révoltée, triste mais jamais méchante. C'est une âme nue qu'elle offre à la caméra. C'est pourquoi elle fait de cette maîtresse-femme, qui tel le roseau de La Fontaine plie mais ne rompt point, un personnage bouleversant... Et pour l'aider à porter ce film sur ses épaules, les 7 enfants font un boulot épatant...

et encore
    On ne peut pas dire de ce premier long métrage de Sandrine Veysset que c'est un conte. On ne peut pas dire non plus que c'est un "drame social", ni même que c'est un truc entre les deux. C'est une sorte d'ovni en demi-teintes, une petite perle bizarre, à la fois réaliste et imprégnée d'imaginaire, un film à ressentir, à vivre véritablement pendant sa projection.
    L'histoire dure le temps de trois saisons dans le sud de la France. Au début c'est l'été et on découvre une famille nombreuse qui vit à la campagne des travaux des champs. Les enfants son sept, comme les nains de Blanche-Neige ou le Petit Poucet et ses frères. Ils sont beaux, ils vivent dans toute ce belle nature, ils se roulent dans la paille... Mais dès les premières images, on pressent qu'on n'est pas dans un remake de La petite maison dans la prairie. On éprouve cette impression, de plus en plus tangible, qu'un ogre n'est pas loin.
     Et de fait, avant la fin de l'été, le père des enfants nous est montré sous son vrai jour: c'est un homme tyrannique et colérique qui traite ses enfants comme des ouvriers corvéables à merci. Pas de vacances pour les petits: quand ils ne vont pas à l'école, ils bossent dans les champs.
    Heureusement, une bonne fée veille sur eux: leur mère. Cette mère qui console, protège, réchauffe et comprend tout d'un seul coup d'oeil est le personnage central du film et de la vie de cette famille en-dehors du monde. Elle est l'amour, la compréhension, le courage. C'est une mère idéale dans un univers dur et triste, presque barbare.
    Car la famille d' Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël? est une mini-dictature où chacun doit se plier aux ordres et caprices du père tout puissant. Avec pour seule alternative: une vie moche dans un HLM de banlieue...
    On pourrait voir dans ce film une évocation des noirceurs qui rôdent autour de nous par les temps qui courent: l'argent de plus en plus en dur à gagner qui transforme la vie en combat pour la subsistance, l'autoritarisme et sa brutalité.  Les seuls échappatoires possibles: la tendresse, les jeux ou la magie des flocons de neige qui transforment une nuit glacée en conte de Noël...

Y aura t-il de la neige à Noël ?
    Dans une ferme miteuse du sud de la France, une femme élève seule ses sept enfants. Pour les nourrir, elle travaille aux champs, été comme hiver, sur l'exploitation du père, un homme fruste qui a délaissé cette partie bâtarde de sa progéniture, et vit avec sa famille officielle.
    Par son amour, son attention de tous les instants, la mère, qui assume et endosse tous les rôles, réussit à préserver l'univers de ses enfants de la dureté paternelle, de la rudesse de l'hiver.
    Ce premier film de Sandrine Veysset ne se raconte pas : il faut le voir, comme on regarde un tableau d'été qui virerait progressivement à l'hiver, saisons & sentiments mêlés.
    Une belle image parmi d'autres : le mauve du châle de la mère (Dominique Reymond) assorti aux radis qu'elle ramasse dans la lumière automnale. Et peut-être une morale : la première neige qui tombe, n'est-ce pas pour rappeler à la mère que c'est la grosse femme qui a gagné la course ?
    « Face au diktat, à l'autorité brutale, la mère et les enfants se soudent, se resserrent autour de leur richesse propre, la profusion d'activités à la campagne.
    Ils sont en train de se fabriquer sous nos yeux des souvenirs heureux, qui sont bien sur ceux de Sandrine Veysset elle-même. La cinéaste s'attache à décrire la beauté, l'abondance et la force de leur vie collective.»  Pascal Richou.

Un film en hommage à l’amour maternel - Une fin en forme de conte
    Ces sortes de géorgiques de la culture maraîchère dans les environs de Cavaillon forment un cadre attachant à ce qui est le ressort central du film: le courage entêté et vigilant d'une jeune femme qui tente de concilier l'impossible: sa vie amoureuse et l'intégrité du nid familial, sa dignité de mère et la menace que fait peser sur cette dignité un compagnon irresponsable plus que pervers.
    Une des grandes qualités du film c'est qu'il ne fait appel à aucun miserabilisme et que, grâce à une direction d'acteurs très bien maitrisée, le spectateur finit par se laisser prendre au charme doux-amer de cette lente chronique en forme d'hommage à l'amour maternel et au courage au quotidien le film est dedié par Sandrine Veysset à sa propre mère). Et lorsque, la nuit de Noël venant qui aurait pu être une nuit tragique, la neige se met à tomber, on pense tout à coup à Jean Renoir et à la féérie de La petite marchande d'allumettes, ce qui n'est pas un mince compliment.
    Le style, ctest autre chose. Au réalisateur de l'apporter. Parfois en bricolant des trucages enfantins, façon Cocteau. Parfois avec l'aide - mais l'aide seulement - de quelques techniciens. C'est le cas de Sandrine Veysset, qui a raflé plein de prix (prix Louis-Delluc 1996, César du meilleur premier film, prix spécal du jury et prix d'interprétation féminine au XIe festival du Film de Paris) avec Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël ?; un premier film dont le charme ne tient qu'à l'entêtement de son auteur. Contre vents et marées, Sandrine Veysset a tenu bon et fait exactement ce qu'elle voulait. Ce qui n'a pas été facile pour une petite campagnarde qui, après des études de lettres modernes et d'arts plastiques à Montpellier, travaille, un peu par hasard, sur les décors des Amants du Pont-Neuf que Leos Carax tournait a Avignon. "Ce qui me fascinait, raconte-t-elle à Claire Denis, c'était cette idée que je voyais Paris pour la première fois, mais reconstitué à la campagne... " Un peu plus tard, elle découvre Paris "en vrai", au volant de la voiture de Léos Carax, à qui elle sert de chauffeur. Et c'est lui, au cours de ces allers et retours quotidiens à Joinville, où il monte son film, qui l'encourage à écrire un scénario "à partir des choses que je traînais dans ma tête" dit-elle. On est en 1991. Elle a 24 ans. Deux ans plus tard, elle dépose son scénario à l'Avance sur recettes et l'obtient. A la tête d'un tout petit pécule, il ne lui reste plus qu'à convaincre un producteur.
    Parcours typique d'une aventure atypique. Car Sandrine Veysset ne sort d'aucune école de cinéma et n'a travaillé sur quelques films que comme accessoiriste ou, selon son expression,  "petite main" sur les décors. Imaginez la tête d'un producteur à qui cette inconnue sans références apporte un scénario lui-même atypique: ça se passe à la campagne, sur trois saisons, avec sept enfants, et on ne peut pas dire que l'action soit échevelée. Alors, naturellement, s'il ne vire pas d'emblée l'inconnue, il commence à pinailler:  "Trois saisons, trois saisons... Rien n'est plus compliqué que ces tournages à épisodes ! On ne pourrait pas tricher ? Et puis, sept enfants... pourquoi pas trois ? D'ailleurs, ne serait-il pas plus raisonnable que tu commences par faire tes preuves en réalisant un court métrage ? Et, de toute facon, pas question de tourner le film sans vedettes: que penserais-tu de Nathalie Baye et Richard Bohringer ?

Note: Le parcours normal pour un jeune cinéaste aujourd'hui est d'être passé par l'Idhec (Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques) ou, plus récemment, par la Femis. (Fédération de la mise en scène). Dans les années 50, il n'était pas question de devenir réalisateur sans avoir été assistant pendant de longues années. Obligation à laquelle s'est immédiatement soustraite la Nouvelle Vague.]
    Non. Sandrine Veysset dit non à tout. Et puis, un jour, elle rencontre Humbert Balsan, qui, lui, est d'accord pour prendre les risques. Tous les risques. I1 aime cette histoire d'amour entre une mère et ses enfants, un amour si fort qu'il parvient à illuminer leur vie. Elle est pourtant terrible, cette vie, sous la férule d'un padre padrone, un père patron, qui utilise sa maîtresse et les sept bâtards qu'il lui a faits comme main-d'oeuvre gratuite pour son exploitation agricole. Cette chronique des travaux et des jours, au fil des saisons, évite tous les pièges du naturalisme. Elle n'est même pas vraiment néorealiste - ou alors à la manière de Miracle à Milan, ou, par le seul miracle de l'amour, le réalisme devient féérie.
    Mais les miracles, chacun le sait, n'ont lieu qu'une fois. Comment se débrouiller sur un plateau quand on ignore tout de la technique ? Eh bien, en sachant exactement ou on veut mettre sa caméra et non moins exactement ce qu'on veut voir à l'écran. Aux techniciens alors de se débrouiller, avec leurs objectifs et leurs filtres, pour obtenir les cadrages, les éclairages, les couleurs demandés. "Certains, dit Sandrine Veysset, ont voulu rouler des mécaniques en jouant les pros face à la débutante que j'étais. Ça s'est mal passé. Je ne suis pas quelqu'un a qui on impose des choses. Les choses, c'est moi qui les décide."
    Elle décide, par exemple, de commencer son film dans la paille et de le finir dans la neige. Elle décide aussi de confier le rôle principal, celui de la mère, à une comédienne de théâtre, quasi inconnue à l'écran: Dominique Reymond. Un choix formidable. Née en Suisse, ancienne élève de Vitez, qui lui fit interpréter La Mouette au théâtre de Chaillot, Dominique Reymond travailla aussi avec Sobel, Lassalle et Gruber. Elle a la force intérieure d'une Magnani, dans un corps apparemment fragile.
    La caméra de Sandrine Veysset voit tout par les yeux des enfants. Un peu comme si elle était elle-même un huitième enfant qui participerait à leurs ébats. Et comme l'action n'a rien de spectaculaire, pour créer une tension dramatique, Sandrine Veysset exige notre participation: nous ne découvrons que peu a peu, à force de patience et d'attention, les liens qui existent entre les personnages.
    La réussite du film est à la mesure de l'entêtement de son auteur: extrême. D'avoir tenu bon pour tourner en été, puis en automne, puis en hiver, elle atteint à une vérité qui ne doit rien à l'artifice: "J'aimais, dit-elle à Claire Denis, cette idée de la transformation des lieux et des êtres. Surtout des enfants qui grandissent très vite. [...]  On allait les retrouver à chaque periode du tournage. Qui aurait perdu une dent, lequel aurait le plus grandi, etc. Quand je vois le film, c'est quelque chose qui me fait vraiment plaisir. Tous ces changements qui se sont faits sans moi, tout ce qui est de l'ordre de l'incontrôlable et qui ne passe pas par le maquillage ou le trucage.
" Ce film, ajoute-t-elle, c'était soit le faire avec cette liberté totale, soit ne pas le faire ! Je crois que je ne l'ai pas fait pour les autres. Je l'ai même fait contre les autres. Oui, je crois qu'au départ c'est égoïste. I1 fallait que le film me corresponde... après, tant mieux s'il va vers les autres. . . "
    Voilà, c'est ça un auteur. Quelqu'un qui n'atteint les autres qu'à force d'être fidèle à lui-même. Le cas de Sandrine Veysset est d'autant plus frappant que la plupart des réalisateurs sont des citadins qui font un cinéma urbain. La campagne, à l'écran, se fait rare. Mais, en fin de compte, peu importe les lieux. L’essentiel c’est d’être soi.  © Les enfants de la liberté  par Claude-Marie Trémois,  p 44-45.

Film 08:  Faces of Women  - Visages de femmes - 1985.  A Film of Désiré Écaré (Ivory Coast)

     Eugénie Cisse Roland, Sidiki Bakaba and Albertine N’Guessan star in this vibrant, adventurous film about contemporary Africa. Two women try to balance the demands of tradition and modern life in their changing world. It’s a sensual, joyous combination of raucous comedy and pulsating African music.
    Constructed in two autonomous parts, this award-winning film, which took twelve years to complete, was shot in French and in such Ivorian dialects as Baloué, Jula, and Bété. Visages de femmes is notorious for having Africa’s steameast erotica. It was the first film to be prohibited in Côte d’Ivoire for its explicit love scenes and nudity.

Film Synopsis
    A lively, adventurous film, Faces of Women combines raucous comedy and pulsating African  music in  two intriguing stories about women in today's Africa. In the first, a .young woman is unhappily married to a jealous husband. Attracted to her visiting brother-in -law, she  decides to give her husband something to worry  about. In the second story, a successful businesswoman tries to open a new restaurant, but runs into difficulties that only her daughter's traditional wiles can solve.
    Linked by vibrant festival scenes of dancing crowds and a chanting female chorus, these stories explore the lives of two women trying to balance the demands of tradition with the modern world.

Essential Reading  - From Cultural Context of Black African  Cinema
    If oral tradition, as is argued by the notable traditionalist of African culture and specialist in oral tradition A. Hampate Bâ of Mali, is "a great school of life" that serves "to create a particular man to sculpt the African soul," then this philosophy has prevailed in black African film practice where the impulse to combine particular visions is an intra-continental strategy that suggests dialogic links between various African cultural practices. In this vein, Visages de femmes by Désiré Ecaré, makes a different contribution to black African film aesthetics through oral tradition. Ecaré's innovative use of song and dance, here functioning as a vital narrative element, holds the film's structure together while other significant cultural oral traditions come into focus. Constructed in two autonomous parts, this award-winning film, which took twelve years to complete, was shot in French and in such Ivorian dialects as Baoulé, Jula, and Bété (with English subtitles in the American prints). Visages de femmes is notorious for having Africa's steamiest erotica. It was the first film to be prohibited in Côte d'lvoire for its explicit love scenes and nudity.
    Visages de femmes begins with ten minutes of song and dance. Beautifully composed and shot mostly in close-up with a few medium shots, it begins with two drummers dexterously providing the exhilarating music that draws a large village crowd in colorful traditional attire together, happily dancing the two-step. This wonderful scene, masterfully choreographed, catches the gay exuberance of the denizens of Lou-pou, in a sequence so compelling that J. Hoberman noted that "one would be proud to show [it to] a Martian as evidence of life on earth." There is no dialogue omnisciently telling the viewer what is happening. The visuals are self-explanatory, providing an introduction to the African culture. This leads us to the first of two stories, filmed ten years apart (the first shot in 1973 and the last in 1983) and differing in tone.
    The first story is set in a small village. Brou (Kouadio Brou) and his wife N'Guessan (Albertine N'Guessan) are working on the communal farm together with Affoué (Mahile Véronique) and other villagers. Brou's brother, Kouassi (Sidiki Bakaba), wearing a leisure suit with zippered pockets, has recently arrived from the capital to visit. He prefers smoking cigarettes and standing around flirting with his sister-in-law N'Guessan and her lascivious friend Affoue. Brou chastises Kouassi for this, calling him a "smart ass intellectual." Brou suspects his wife of being attracted to Kouassi, and the situation is aggravated by town gossip when Brou is told that his wife was seen holding hands with Kouassi. However, at this point it is not N'Guessan that Kouassi compromises. One day, Kouassi follows Affoué into the woods where she has gone to fetch water. They end up frolicking naked among the trees and making love in the quiet, cool, easy-flowing waters of the shallow river.
    We then shift to the second story, which concerns an enterprising woman named Bernadette (Eugénie Cissé Roland) who lives and works in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire. She owns a fish-smoking business and is by nature a very industrious person. Making a good living, she nonetheless spends most of her earnings on the parasites around her—her husband and uncle, who claim "women and money do not go together," her daughters, who are in college, and her nephew. Bernadette wants a bank loan so she can expand her business to include a restaurant but encounters an obstacle when an uncooperative bank manager tells her that, even though she makes a lot of money, her house is only worth three million French francs—not enough collateral to secure her the requested loan.
    Employing satire and comedy, Ecaré puts Bernadette in the role of a superwoman, a domineering character who wants either to see the power of men curtailed or women doing everything possible to be powerful and aggressive like the men. In the beginning sequence of this second story, Bernadette is shown preaching this message to one of her daughters, saying that after her exams she should go to military school and get tough like a man. (Her daughters are sophisticated in their ways and have their own ideas about how to get along in a male-dominated society.) With this type of attitude, and with the widespread public and official corruption, Bernadette is aware that no meaningful economic project can prosper in a sociopolitical climate such as that of Côte d'Ivoire and, therefore, Africa. She has no choice but to be a hard worker and disciplinarian; undeterred by her sex, she is equal to the implied male-dominant African environment.
    Like other filmmakers mentioned, who base their creative approach on oral tradition, Désiré Ecaré, actor, dramatist, and filmmaker, who studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris, also believes oral tradition to be a mainstay of African film language. In his work, oral tradition functions as a way of conceiving cinematic structure, a way of seeing, a view of the cosmic universe, and a way of articulating political and cultural possibilities. This means that, while the structural underpinnings in his films revolve around this cultural precept, his work is also based on an ideology that seeks to debunk rigid methodologies. Like Kaboré, Ecaré favors multiple narrative structure, as opposed to, for instance, Sembène's linear narrative style. But where Kaboré and Sembène clarify through simplicity and meticulous attention to detail, Ecaré uses an elliptical film style reminiscent of Hondo, where character delineation and situations are provided without full detail. In Visages de femmes, evidence of this can be found in the song and dance sequence in which various characters intermingle and disappear at will without ever signifying structural deficiency or impeding understanding. In Hondo's Soleil 0, for instance, there is no real story line—only juxtaposed images of oppression and resistance. Continuity is no real factor; rather, it is the imaginative use of sound and music which provides the sense of unity in a manner similar to that in Visages de femmes, in which dancing and singing constitute the narrative thread that holds the apparent disparate themes together.
    Maintaining and then expanding upon the type of structural rhythm and the aesthetic and thematic concerns found in Ecaré's previous films Concerto pour un exil (Concerto for an exile, 1968) and A nous deux, France  (Beware of France, 1970), Visages de femmes is crafted around excellently choreographed dancing and singing. As in grammatical construction, where a punctuation mark breaks a sentence, the dancing and singing sequences play a similar role in the story line. Both are elements of form and content reinforcing the structure without breaking the flow of the diegesis; both also function as well-intended transition devices. In traditional African cultures the reason why oral tradition has had such an enormous impact on communication is its reliance on one of the most powerful elements of culture, the indigenous language, for its exposition. Since the employment of the oral tradition reflects patterns of everyday life, the narrative trajectory is easily understood. This sensitivity to a particular cultural heritage promotes a greater level of self-awareness and suggests avenues of social change. In Visages de femmes, one of the principal elements influencing the construction of its structure is song and dance. Before we explore how song and dance in the structure of this film, it is necessary to delineate their cultural significance within African oral tradition.
    From the marvelously well-orchestrated opening sequence of this film, one is immediately struck with the conviction that African music, as the adage goes, can emerge from African dance steps, lyrics can take their cue from oral poetry, and live performances can be a re-assemblage of African rituals and folk opera. In the oral tradition, music and dance serve as bridges to the animating forces of nature, which is why in traditional cultures they are inextricably linked with aspects of every-day life. In this function, every rhythm generated is associated with particular activities, where rhythmic complexities serve to differentiate one particular African song and dance from another and one function from another. The rhythm of African music and dance is inspiring in its sophisticated and intended form. lt evokes and manifests the cadences of creation, life and death struggles, and generally accompanies ordinary ceremonies usually requiring a group of musicians and dancers who perform communally with no strings attached. Contrary to the negative anthropological misinterpretations of African song and dance in Western films and television, which usually emphasize the exotic, for Africans, song and dance are not just accessories to life, they are transmitters of culture, indispensable to African existence.
    I noted earlier that Visages de femmes intersperses ritual performance along with song and dance in the film's narrative to form a web that binds the stories together. This narrative pattern is an invocation of cultural imperatives symptomatic of the African way of life. In this tradition, for instance, it is common practice for peasants working collectively or individually to interrupt their speeches with song in the same way that in the African storytelling tradition main narratives are interrupted to allow interconnecting stories to be sung or danced. In the style of cinematic flashback and flash-forward, the song emerges out of what has happened, what has been said or done before, drawing attention to what follows and what may later develop. In this respect, the songs and dances highlight the continuity and the progression of the action. Let me illustrate by examining the instances in which such musical sequences are used in Visages de femmes. After Brou succeeds in convincing Kouassi that he should leave in two days' time to visit their grandmother who lives in the village of Broukro (in an apparent attempt to send him away from his wife,  N'Guessan), we learn within a short time that N'Guessan also plans a trip during the same period of time to visit her mother in a town less than one mile away from Broukro. Before this, the visuals have already established N'Guessan's and Kouassi's intimacy and intentions. At one point during one of their clandestine meetings, N'Guessan asks Kouassi, "What will I do if you leave?" Both of them run to the bush in  a jubilant mood; the scene is interrupted by village women singing:

So they left
Kouassi for his village
N'Guessan for her mother's.
But the two villages were very close.
Less than a mile apart, they say.
So, it's in Kouassi's arms that she spent most of her time.
And her husband heard about it.

    It is clear from the song what has already happened, and more important, that Brou is aware of all. The question now is, what is he going to do about it? (Notice that gossip here assumes an important role as in the well-dramatized earlier scene in which men playing the isha game gossip about N'Guessan's and Kouassi's relationship.) In subsequent scenes Brou engages N'Guessan in incessant squabbles and accusations, followed by N'Guessan's perennial denials of an affair with his brother. Ecaré has broadly emphasized contemporary women's contempt toward male domination in this film and shown their liberationist inclinations. This attitude is obviously slanted to correspond with the mood typified by the next sequence of song and dance, filled with pre-monitory lyrics with which the village women fire their rhetorical salvo:

Men never trust us.
And there are so many honest women.
Oh, yes, so many honest women.
Men can't appreciate honesty.
They see the worst in everything.
Especially when there's nothing to hide.
Oh yes, when there's nothing.
What does a man deserve who cannot trust?
He deserves one thing only.
And what is that?
To be deceived.
Yes, to be deceived.
Let me tell you what I do to my man,
my husband who is always spying on me,
suspicious of me.
Follow me! And you'll see the life.

    (Notice the repetition of lines, an essential feature of oral storytelling; in film it becomes repetition of scene, used for emphatic purposes.) Inthis sequence, in verse, chants, and gestures, the women warn about future consequences, and the touting expression of the first song graduates from moralist gossip and innuendo to a call for action and finally rebellion. As the next scene shows, the film's images of sexual exploitation and vehement denial negate the moralist tendencies. In a protracted ten-minute sexual encounter, it is Affoué (not N'Guessan, whose flirtatious overtures had earlier received extensive coverage) who makes love in the river with Kouassi. Functioning more as a flash-forward of what the possessive and distrustful husband should expect from a liberated African woman, the all-woman chorus in the next scene explains this motive:

You'll see if the husband suspects anything.
He'll believe everything he is told.
Everything. Everything . . .
But do you think that will teach him a lesson?

    In the next shot, Affoué is returning home, Kouassi following behind. When her husband asks where she has been for such a long time, she refers to the basin of water she has fetched from the river. Affoué's husband does not seem to distrust her. He is not suspicious, like Brou, who continues with the surveillance of N'Guessan's relationship with his brother and finally triumphs in the end when he catches N'Guessan one night waiting for Kouassi at their regular meeting place under the branches of a big tree.
    Let us consider some other cultural and symbolic configurations of African storytelling employed in the structure of Visages de femmes, notably body language emanating from music and clothing, and humor, an important additive. In African culture, body language and clothing communicate in the same way as art—sculpture, song, dance, and story-telling. As stated earlier, African music is one of the art forms that reveals the expression of the black soul. In this film, drumbeat and hand clapping are the cultural components of oral tradition that illuminate the musical sequences. In the opening scene, for instance, the inner feeling of an entire community is expressed by the rhythm of drumbeats, which not only transmit messages but also move the feet to pound the ground as, in Francis Bebey's words, "the rhythm of the music whose notes are in turn transformed into dance steps.'' Thus, just as drumbeats in the traditional pastoral village signify dissemination of news or the sending of messages to adjoining villages, when the drums in Visages de femmes begin to throb and the circle of dancers in colorful traditional garb begin to two-step into action, cultural context is tested and af-firmed. There is no doubt that the drumbeat epitomizes the strength and influences of African music—"a music that speaks in rhythms that dance," to borrow Bebey's felicitous description. Although the function of the drum, which produces the music, is the same in terms of information dissemination and entertainment, we know that the drums themselves differ from region to region, culture to culture. But everywhere competence in handling them is required. The ability to drum different messages that people will understand demands a special tech-nique. (While Visages de femmes demonstrates this type of dexterity, the Nigerian film Parcel Post [1982] by Segun Oyekunle illustrates a different kind of drum where the griot, using a two-headed Yoruba "talking drum," reproduces nuances of the spoken language.)
    In the second, third, and fourth song-and-dance numbers, in which the drum does not produce the music, Ecare's emphasis shifts to the women's gesticular movements and gait; here body language takes the cue from the reflections of absorbed drumbeats. This omnipresent characteristic of the drum in the African musical world is highly esteemed—as these sequences show. Even when the drum itself is not directing the rhythm or the dance steps, "its presence is reflected by hand clapping, stomping, or the repetition of certain rhythmic onomato-poeias that are all artifices that imitate the drum beat.''
    In West Africa, for example, art and life are interwoven in the same fashion in which Ecaré's characters illustrate the inseparability of cloth-ng and body language—attire as creative language. The men and women in the dance sequences are gaily dressed in African print fabrics, the ankara. The vibrant colors and patterns of the stylistic African designs match the unique way wrappers are artistically tied to the shoulders of the men and to the waists of women with matching blouses and head-ties. The clothes worn here reveal information about the people and their culture. We see a cultural response to the interpretation of traditional life, and the information given also illustrates an understanding of nature's lines of demarcation such as age and marital and economic status, all attesting to the dignity of African men and women.
    The importance of humor in oral art is immeasurable, too. Since it is the duty of the oral artist to demonstrate his artistic ingenuity, it is common practice that he add certain flavorful details to entice the audience. While some artists employ this strategy to cover up structural flaws, it may also be used to address politically sensitive issues that African leaders may otherwise find objectionable. Utilizing the latter strategy, Ecaré believes that "one can remain pleasant while being subversive . . . and say terrible things with a disarming style.''  One such application concerns the second story of Visages de femmes. When Bernadette relates how badly she was treated at the bank manager's office where she went to seek a loan to expand her business, her older daughter, T'Cheley, a sophisticated woman with an appetite for Western fashion, offers her own view of life in contemporary Africa:

"Our bank is in our thighs, our breasts and our ass; with these we have got all the power; with my backside, Mother, I can get the government toppled tomorrow if I want. I can get a new Ambassador appointed to Paris, to Peking and even to the Vatican. The Pope won't twig, God and women always see eye to eye. For that you've got to be twenty and good looking."

    Bernadette shrugs to herself in disbelief. But this sequence touches on the corruption and economic impotence that is indicative of the administration. Sembène has effectively used this kind of caustic humor and satire to deal with such societal inefficiencies and decadence. In Ecaré's case, however, this political message loses its grip owing to hyperbole.
    Finally, oral tradition also influences the theme of the extended family system in Africa which is in part a contributor to the sub-Saharan economic quagmire. Under this system, as shown in the second story of the film (and also touched upon in Henry Duparc's Abusuan and Oumarou Ganda's F.V.V.A.), any member of the family who commands an average income or by rank is head of the family, is expected to shoulder the responsibility of relatives—brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, and in-laws. In the form of oral narrative, Visages de femmes creates this kind of atmosphere and makes one look at it as a preternatural African affair. Visages de femmes ends as it began, with a chorus of singing and dancing villagers. We hear the director's voice-over narrate, ''You've too many plans, too many for a woman, your brothers say, 'Money is for eating.' So let's eat what's left, let's join the others, let's do as they do, let's dance with them."
   I have shown how filmmakers in search of personal style invert or subvert aesthetic codes. Returning to this topic it is necessary to relate it to Ecaré's virtuosity. It is obvious that Ecaré's protracted sex segment is rather lurid, which, to some critics, makes it an extreme act of iconoclasm far removed from African respectability. It is one thing, in search of independent film style, to subvert or invert the chronological parameters of oral storytelling technique, as in Wend Kuuni, but it is quite another to subvert traditional moral codes, especially if there is a suspicion of an ulterior motive for doing so. Visages de femmes exhibits an unrestrained indulgence in eroticism. It is not nudity per se that most violates the traditional African moral approach to the private areas of the human body, but the dramatization of the various techniques of sexual intercourse, a sequence that shows Kouassi and Affoué in the river, "squishing and splashing," as J. Hoberman puts it, "in the original waterbed if not the amniotic fluid itself." The traditional African moral code does not permit such public exposure or even reference to certain parts of the body by their real names.
    This sequence, if judged by this standard, takes on a grotesque, almost parodistic garishness, so completely at odds as it is with established tradition. Tight editing and two or three shots as opposed to its present ten minutes would have sufficed to curtail the emphasis on sexual exploitation. Similarly, medium and long shots as opposed to tight close-ups would have made the visual less plastic especially with regard to body contact and suggestive ecstasies. Ecaré could have chosen to use suggestive shots as in the beautifully orchestrated love scene of Touki-Bouki, where a woman takes off the top part of her clothing (her complete nudity is not shown), a clenched fist grasping a Dogon cross (a symbol of fertility from Mali) hanging on a motorbike indicates sexual encounter, while a cut to a powerful wave suggests an orgasmic burst.
    How much external influence contributed to this overt exposure is hard to discern. Although the director received financial help from France, it is too minimal to influence ideological and aesthetic decision. But considering the hard times the director had gone through trying to raise money for this film, it is possible that in the interest of future productions Ecaré thought he should explore new possibilities. With such defiance, Visages de femmes may not have been intended for extensive public viewing in the hard-to-find African exhibition houses that may have found a "genuine" excuse to shut their doors against it, except of course, in clandestine screening. It may well have been intended primarily for the foreign film market.
    Ecaré may argue (but perhaps not publicly) that this love scene is only a ten-minute nude sequence tagged for export and thrown in for the titillation of his Western audiences. The fact is, if you take this sequence out, the film is completely African. The differences between African and Western concepts of love and lovemaking and their abuses in dramatic forms have been elaborated in an article by Joseph Okpaku entitled "African Critical Standards for African Literature and the Arts."  The author notes that the African believes in "implicit or understood love" while he sees the Westerners' notion of love "explicit and dramatized." For the African, "kisses, hand holding in public amounts to a show-off aimed at a third party," which, in aesthetic terms, he considers "superficial and melodramatic." This explains why kissing, explicitly suggestive scenes, and public display of erotic matter are not common features of "genuine" black African cinema.
    In a sense, Ecaré can be seen irreducibly moving with the times by willingly applying antitraditional posture to the analysis of modern Africa, but the method used, it may be argued, does not provide a careful examination of social mores. Films before Visages de femmes, such as Sembène's Xala and Ceddo and Cissé's Den Muso and Finye have all inverted aspects of social mores to create a dialectical process of looking at African traditions. By implication, they suggest a reexamination of such structures and possible changes relevant to our modern times, but with clear intentions. How do these assumptions manifest themselves in Visage de femmes's structure, particularly in the characters of Kouassi and Affoué? It is possible to interpret the nude sequence as a feminist squeal or a phallocentric construction in which the woman's body no longer "holds the look" or "plays to and signifies male desire" —to reverse Laura Mulvey's and other feminist film theory assumptions—with the implications bouncing against the two characters. Both bodies can be considered sexual objects coded for erotic spectacle and the gaze of both male and female spectators—she for her body and he for his penis. This flaw notwithstanding, Visages de femmes is a good film. What it lacks in social mores, it gains in mise-en-scène, thematic and stylistic reliance on oral tradition in its quest to give definition to indigenous artistic possibilities. © Cultural Context of Black African Cinema

Film Review

En français
    Après Concerto pour un exil ( 1968), A nous deux, France (1970) et un long silence dû à de multiples difficultés financières, Désiré Ecaré, avec beaucoup d'obstination, est enfin parvenu à produire et à réaliser son premier long métrage. Visages de femmes repose sur un système de narration construit à partir de chants et de danses collectives qui vont rythmer et ponctuer l'histoire en deux mouvements. Au premier temps (la partie brousse) correspondent les relations de tendresse entre une femme et son beau-frère, sous l'oeil critique et vindicatif du mari. Le deuxième temps la partie urbaine) se déroule à Abidjan où l'on voit une Mama-Benz (selon la savoureuse expression africaine) se lancer dans de multiples entreprises commerciales pour se heurter au pouvoir des banques, c'est-à- dire des hommes et de l'argent.
    Mais, finalement, dans leur thématique même, les deux temps se rejoignent et se fondent dans ce film plus construit qu il n'y paraît. Désiré Ecaré procède par juxtaposition de tableaux complémentaires, empreints d'une tendresse ironique pour ses personnages. En ville, comme au village, les femmes changent. Signe à un retour aux sources, au matriarcat primitif. Elles s'unissent dans une complicité bon enfant mais farouchement déterminée, à l intérieur de ces "confréries" ou, en chantant et en dansant, elles raillent la pseudo-supériorite du mâle. Celui-ci, d'ailleurs, n'est guère gâté. II apparaît jaloux, stupide, soupçonneux à tort (mais aussi, parfois, à raison!), fainéant et exploiteur.
    On parle beaucoup d'argent dans Visages de femmes. L'argent est devenu une valeur symbolique et idéologique. En effet, le problème essentiel est que la société africaine est passée, avec la colonisation, brutalement, d'une économie d'échange a une économie monétaire. Phénomène que ne peuvent maîtriser les Africains en général et les femmes en particulier, confondant profit et recettes, refusant de prévoir l'avenir en investissant à long terme.
    Malgré des défauts techniques partiels (photo surexposées, hiatus de montage), le film de Désiré Ecaré surprend par sa richesse d'analyse jamais dénuée d'humour et un sens très personnel de l'image. Telle la splendide scène d'amour dans la rivière d'où se dégage un panthéisme primitif et quasi onirique. C'est une scène, plastiquement très belle, éloignée à cent lieues de toute pornographie, qui fait que la censure ivoirienne veut interdire le film... A travers cet hymne à la femme africaine (on peut penser à Sembène Ousmane, à Safi Faye), Désiré Ecaré nous donne à voir l'Afrique.

In translation
    After Concerto for an exile  (1968), Beware  of France (1970), and a long silence due to multiple financial difffculties, Désiré Ecaré, with much obstination, has finally succeeded in making and producing his first long feature. Faces of Women  is based on a system of narrative constructed from collective songs and danses that give its rhythm to the story and ponctuate it in two movements. In a first part (set in a small village) correspond the relations of tenderness between a woman (N'Guessan) and her brother-in-law (Kouassi), under the critical and vindictive eye of the husband (Brou). The second part takes place in Abidjan, in which we see a Mama-Benz (as they're called in Africa) launching herself into several business enterprises and being confronted to the power of the banks, i.e. men and money.
    Désiré Écaré proceeds by means of the juxtaposition of complementary tableaux filled with an ironic fondness for his characters. The two parts of the film are joined together by a principal theme: in the small village, as well in the city, women are changing. Is this a sign of the return to the primitive African matriarchy? The women unite in a kind of good-natured but fiercely determined complicity, and singing and dancing together they scoff at the pseudo-superiority of the male: a male that is shown as jealous, stupid, wrongly (but also rightly!) suspicious, lazy and an exploiter.
    There is a great deal of talk about money in Faces of Women. Money has become a symbolic and ideologic value. In fact, the essential problem is that African society, too abruptly, with the end of colonization has moved from a bartering economy to a monetary economy. This is a phenomenon that Africans in general and women in particular cannot overcome, confusing profit and returns, and refusing to plan for the future with long-term investments.
    Despite partial technical flaws (over-exposed pictures, lack of smooth editing), Désiré Ecaré's film surprises with the richness of its analysis and a very personal sense of the image. As for example the splendid love scene in the river from which emerges a primitive and quasi onirical pantheism. From the point of view of form, this is a very beautiful scene, miles away from pornography (although Ivorian censure wants to forbid the film! . . . Through this hymn to the African woman (which makes us think of Sembène Ousmane or Safi Faye), Désiré makes us see Africa.  Jean-Claude Pouillaude - Positif.

Film 08 - Satin rouge - 2002 - A film by Raja Amari

Starring Hiyam Abbas, Hend El Fahem, Monia Hichri, Maher Kamoun


Lilia est pour tous une "femme rangée" une mère ordinaire. Elle vit à Tunis, avec sa fille Salma, adolescente, qu’elle élève seule depuis la mort de son mari.

 Par un concours de circonstances et pour protéger sa fille qu’elle croit à la dérive, Lilia se rend un soir dans un cabaret. Un monde nouveau s’ouvre à elle, attirant et inquiétant à la fois, celui de la nuit, de la danse et des plaisirs. Elle ne peut s’empêcher d’y retourner et se retrouve au fil des nuits "danseuse de cabaret". Par la danse, elle redécouvre ses désirs enfouis sous des années de devoirs. Elle va basculer de l’exemplaire mère de famille qu’elle n’est plus tout à fait à la femme de la nuit qu’elle n’est pas encore vraiment.

"Satin Rouge" is a Tunisian film about a youngish widow with plenty of juice left, who's living a life of loneliness and sexless domesticity until she starts belly dancing at the local cabaret. That's how Lilia gets her groove back -- by refusing to stay within the limits placed on her and by embracing something vaguely scandalous.

In the Western world, such stories are routine, but Tunisia is a Muslim nation. Even so, director Raja Amari (a woman) doesn't soften the message and injects no note of ambiguity in presenting as a worthwhile endeavor, a woman's effort to reclaim her sexual identity, autonomy and power. This makes "Satin Rouge" both curious from a cultural perspective and refreshing.

At the start, it looks like a bleak life. Lilia is, essentially, her teenage daughter's maid. The child is always out, while Mom mends, cleans, cooks and knits. Lilia gets into the cabaret scene accidentally, showing up one night half-expecting to see her daughter (Hend El Fahem). She soon becomes friends with one of the dancers, who encourages her to get out there and strut her stuff herself. Next thing she knows, strange men are ogling and throwing cash at her.

Actress Hiam Abbass expertly traces Lilia's journey from old-before-her- time to suddenly-young-again. Downcast at the start, we watch her opening up like a flower in stop-motion photography, a heartening and at times fascinating process. In "Satin Rouge," when Lilia is able to get up and, with no embarrassment, flaunt her womanly power in a room full of relatives and friends, that's a victory -- over expectation, convention, and the familiar and all-too easy patterns of self. Mick LaSalle © San Francisco Chronicle

Three other reviews

1. By Stephanie Zacharek

Middle-aged mom turns belly dancer in this Tunisian delight, a sweet and sexy celebration of real women's real bodies.

Aug. 30, 2002.  "Satin Rouge," the debut feature of Tunisian-born filmmaker Raja Amari, has already received -- and will continue to receive -- attention because it's a movie set in an Arab country that deals directly with the sexual experiences of a middle-aged woman. And it's easy to see why, particularly at this juncture in history, audiences would be interested in its relevance as a sociopolitical snapshot of attitudes toward women in Islamic countries.

And yet all politics start with the skin we're in, and Amari, to her great credit as a filmmaker, understands that. "Satin Rouge" is only partly a movie about the misogyny of certain Islamic cultures. (Even if Islam as a religion doesn't necessarily preach misogyny, if one of its cultural interpretations is that a woman should be sentenced to death by stoning for having a child out of wedlock, there's no other word to use.) "Satin Rouge" is mostly about the experience of one aging woman that reflects, to some degree, the feelings of aging women everywhere.

Even the most progressive of moviegoers -- maybe especially them -- tend to watch movies made by non-Westerners from behind a comfortably thick window: There's often something self-congratulatory about the way We (Westerners) watch movies about Them (everyone else) with the sense that we're well on the road to a deeper understanding of other cultures. But "Satin Rouge" works on another level altogether. Its "us" and "them" aren't divided so easily along cultural and political boundaries. In this film, the most complex and difficult boundaries are the nebulous air space between men and women, and the stealthy passage of time that all of a sudden, without our realizing it, separates our youth from our old age.

That's not to say "Satin Rouge" is an apolitical picture. You can't watch it and not be aware of the political implications: In the movie, Lilia (played by Hiyam Abbas) is a 40-ish widow whose face is lovely, if a bit careworn, and whose body has taken on the curvy, ripe-fruit weightiness of middle age. She's devoted to her sullen, rebellious but basically decent teenage daughter Selma (Hend El Fahem) and to keeping their small apartment beyond tidy. Suspecting that her daughter is sneaking off to a nearby cabaret, Lilia sneaks off herself to investigate. Her initial feelings of revulsion turn to curiosity and then to fascination, until one night, along with some of the belly dancers she has befriended at the club, she takes the stage herself. Eventually, she even embarks on an affair with one of the men she meets at the club.

Amari, who lives in Paris but returns home to Tunis often, has said that the picture was attacked by the conservative press in North Africa -- surprisingly, less for its forthrightness about sex than for the way it "desecrated" the image of motherhood.

But in terms of the way Amari treats her middle-aged protagonist, "Satin Rouge" would be unusual even among Western movies about women. Anyone who has picked up a magazine in the past 10 years knows that our culture reveres youth, but the upside is that even without plastic surgery, we're all able to stay younger for much longer than we ever have before, thanks to better healthcare and more awareness of the roles diet and exercise (not to mention plain old youthful thinking) can play.

Strangely enough, though, few filmmakers have figured out how to make interesting movies about middle-aged people. We need fewer wretched comedies about 50-year-olds hanging on for dear life to their sexuality ("Never Again") and more pictures like "Sexy Beast," in which the existence of sex past 40 -- or, more specifically, women's attractiveness past 40 -- was never an issue at all. You simply got  it, thanks to the way director Jonathan Glazer and cinematographer Ivan Bird captured the essential beauty of lead actress Amanda Redman, with her gently rolling tummy and luminous, lived-in skin.

Amari (who is just 31) [2002] approaches both the story and her lead character with a similarly light touch. When we first see Lilia, she's wearing a frumpy cotton wrapper as she dusts, at least once and sometimes twice, every inch of the family apartment. But there's music playing, and she stops briefly in front of the mirror, where, slowly and almost in spite of herself, she begins to dance. You can barely see her rounded outline beneath that rectangular cotton dress -- she's all circles in a world of squares -- but her slow, tentative movements give us a sense of the heart of the woman beneath.

2. by Megan Turner

Feminism, Tunisian Style

EVEN though her homeland of Tunisia is more permissive than other Arabic nations, young writer-director Raja Amari still pushes the envelope with her debut - a female empowerment film featuring a pretty explicit sex scene.

Consider the scene involves a widowed belly dancer coupling with her teenage daughter's lover, it's even more surprising.

Envelope-pushing is always to be encouraged, and Amari does a fine job of showing a woman emerging from a self-imposed chrysalis of loneliness and boredom.

(Of course, we've seen the phenomenon of the attractive woman transformed by literally letting down her hair and swapping dun-colored tent dresses for shimmering dance costumes, oh, about a million times before.)

The stunning Hiam Abbass plays the widowed Tunisian seamstress Lilia, who stumbles upon the exotic, nocturnal world of the cabaret while spying on her daughter (Hend El Fahem), whom she suspects of having an affair with a cabaret musician (Maher Kamoun).

A veteran belly dancer (Monia Hichri) befriends Lilia, and soon she is shucking off her inhibitions nightly to undulate and sway.

A sensual performance from Abbass buoys the flimsy story, but her inner journey is largely unexplored and we're left wondering about this exotic-looking woman whose emotional depths are only hinted at.  © New York Post

3. By Stephen Holden

Belly Dancing as Solace for a Demure Arab Widow

One way (the crass Hollywood way) of looking at Raja Amari's sweetly upbeat film "Satin Rouge" might be to describe it as a Tunisian answer to "Dirty Dancing." The story of a beautiful widowed seamstress from a proper family who rediscovers her sexuality through belly dancing has the same gung-ho vision of the swiveling body as a vehicle toward personal liberation as that sexy 80's hit, in which Patrick Swayze partnered Jennifer Grey into womanhood.

But because "Satin Rouge" is set in an Arab country, the social hurdles that the heroine, Lilia (Hiam Abbass), must overcome to achieve her self-discovery are much more formidable than the barriers of age and class dividing the lovers in "Dirty Dancing." Lilia, who lives in the same house with her strait-laced in-laws and rebellious teenage daughter, Salma (Hend El Fahem), feels compelled to keep her evening activities a secret and maintain the facade of a grieving widow who has left her erotic life behind.

That Lilia succeeds in leading a double life for as long as she does isn't especially believable. But the movie, the first feature written and directed Ms. Amari, a Tunisian-born former belly dancer in her early 30's who studied filmmaking in France, is a feel-good feminist fable that in its quiet way is almost as giddily optimistic as "Dirty Dancing" or "Flashdance."

Lilia's transformation begins when she observes Salma at a belly-dancing class and suspects her of having a romantic attachment to one of the musicians. Investigating further, she visits a cabaret and discovers a sensual underground culture where scantily clad women in sequined costumes dance seductively for wildly appreciative, mostly male audiences.

One of the dancers, Folla (Monia Hichri), befriends Lilia, invites her to try on her costume and shows her a few moves. Before long, Lilia is leading a double life, acting the sober, grieving widow by day, and in the evenings working as a costume designer and part-time dancer at the club, where her underlying demureness lends her an air of mystery that makes her all the more alluring.

Salma, meanwhile, is having a passionate, secret affair with Chokri (Maher Kamoun), the club's handsome percussionist, whom she desperately hopes to marry. But from the moment Lilia begins dancing in the club, Chokri, who has no idea that Lilia is his girlfriend's mother, has eyed her hungrily. When he makes his move, Lilia, against her better judgment, surrenders.

At this point, the movie makes some daringly unexpected choices. Instead of building to one of those screeching confrontations familiar from "The Jerry Springer Show," in which a mother and daughter turn out to be sleeping with the same man and fly at each other in a fury, the story takes a more dignified turn.

The movie, which opens today in New York City, remarkably refuses to pass judgment on any of its characters. Even the two-timing musician is spared its moral condemnation. The movie's attitude toward belly dancing is similarly kindhearted. While acknowledging that many, if not most, of the dancers in the club also work as prostitutes, it focuses on their sisterhood, vitality and humor. Lilia is happy to be a member of this mildly bawdy sorority, in which the philosophical Folla (who resembles a younger Cher) presides as a wise, affectionate den mother. Folla even cheerily accepts that her dancing days are numbered and her enforced retirement looms.

The movie rides on Ms. Abbass's serenely confident performance. As Lilia metamorphoses from a shy housebound widow into a woman calmly rejoicing in her body and her sexuality, Ms. Abbass marks her character's every blush and hesitation in the process of letting go with a winning delicacy and sweetness. "Satin Rouge" quietly but unambiguously applauds each tentative step on her path to a fuller life.