Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

The French have their reasons


Spurned woman Maria Casares seeks revenge in Robert Bresson's "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne."
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The heart has its reasons that Reason fails to comprehend, at least that's what the French say. If you have a heart, it might enjoy going out to see some old French films that'll surprise your cynical American expectations. There are subtitles, not entirely reliable but close enough. Mostly there are complex narratives, tense gender relations, cobblestones, cafes, and ruins underscored with "le jazz hot" or accordion, con men, gangsters, and ex-pats Hazel Scott and Eddy Constantine. Thirteen black-and-white features packaged as double bills over a four-day weekend as "The French Had a Name for It" start Friday at the Roxie Theater.

Maria Casares (1922-96) is an international queer icon for her moody performance as the black-leather dominatrix Death in two films by Jean Cocteau. In "Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne" (1945), her obsessive love object is a man. Extended close-ups allow the connoisseur to marvel at her malefic Spanish face and appreciate her classically theatrical phrasings. In the guise of bourgeois benevolence, tender hearts are maniacally manipulated to sadistic ends to slake her thirst for vengeance. Inspired by a story by Diderot, the erotic politics recall the frissons of "Liaisons Dangeureuses." (11/5)

Arletty (1898-1992) is a performer whose impeccably maintained dignity reads as both plain and glamorous, statuesque and beanpole, comic and sorrowful. She's at her most ambiguous in "Gibier de Potence" (1951) as a woman in love with a younger man she pimps out as a gigolo. Simultaneously possessive and asexual, ascetic and jealous, she seems very queer, very French, very unreasonable. Not to spoil it, but her death makes this a tragedy or at least a very dark fairy tale in which the negative feminine must be routed if the alchemical marriage of opposites is to succeed. (11/5)

Danielle Darrieux died on Oct. 17 at age 100, after an eight-decade career. She's not a classic beauty, her eyes are comically large, but she's the perfect Frenchwoman: chic, cold-blooded, inscrutable. You might have seen her in a wheelchair playing Catherine Deneuve's mother in Ozon's "Eight Women" (2001). In "Le desordre et la nuit" (1958), she's got a rich, sickly husband in a mansion and a dead gangland ex-boyfriend in a parking lot. When detective Jean Gabin (1904-76) drops by her marble foyer, it's the battle of the deadpans. They stand their ground, lock eyes, and exude carnal knowledge. (11/4)

Jeanne Moreau (1928-2017) graces two films. In the mindless-fun crime caper "L'etrange Mr. Steve" (1957), she divides her attentions between a gang leader and a cute young up-and-coming thief. In the pretentious "Mademoiselle" (1966), she's an avatar of metaphysical claptrap envisioned by Jean Genet, scripted by Marguerite Duras, directed by naughty Brit Tony Richardson. Echoing de Sade, the evil Mademoiselle's unexpressed sexuality masquerades as piety, while she sneaks around crushing bird's eggs in the nest, poisoning cattle, and literally barn-burning. (11/7)

Director Claude Chabrol (1930-2010) has his own double bill. "Le Beau Serge" (1958) sees a sickly Parisian bourgeois return to the village of his schooldays, where his old pals are working-class and pregnant. There's a bitter tinge to this study of country life with a life-affirming finish. Not so for "Les Bonnes Femmes" (1960), a study of sexual politics in a group of fun-loving Parisian shop girls. Future Chabrol muse Stephane Audran belts an uncharacteristically goofy number as a farcical Italian chanteuse, distracting you from the dreadful surprise M. Chabrol has been preparing all along. (11/4)


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