Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Luxury of Desperate Gamblers: Andrzej Zulawski's "L'Amour Braque" (1985)

Niche film fans of all nations and genres can rejoice with the release of three borderline hysterical (in all senses of the word) Andrzej Zulawksi films onto DVD, via the amazing Mondo Vision. The first of them I've seen is 1985's L'AMOUR BRAQUE, an insane, coked-up little miracle which prefigures the anarchic Joker scenes in LE CHEVALIER NOIR (below), including the maniacal burning of mass amounts of money and gleefully lysergic/anarchic assaults on the conventions of the bourgeoisie and capitalism! Did Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger see this movie? Or are they and Braque's director Andrzej Zulawski birds of a feather? Or is Zulawski way beyond even BATMAN? I'd normally never mention Batman and Zulawski in the same sentence, but times have changes. Post-modernism has erase the borders of high and low, regardless of what the petit-bourgeois may think. Also, the Ledger Joker is, like Hannibal Lecter before him, something new -- almost legitimately dangerous, threatening to grab us and pull us into the screen at any moment. Being European, an ex-pat Parisian out of Poland (?), Zulawski seems a slavering psychedelic/crystal meth poet, known for either hypnotizing (or maybe drugging?) his actors and driving them to and beyond the brink of madness for their performances. L'AMOR BRAQUE is kind of an 'if an ensemble of meth-addled actors from Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty crashed into a Luc Besson French crime film, thinking they were still doing Artaud's adaptation of Dostoevsky's THE IDIOT and that the crime film mise-en-scene around them must be 'the drugs talking'. 

Or  to put it another way, is Zulawski's yen for heedless kineticism, surfeit de style and spastic physicality rooted in something, or did someone just dump LSD into the Parisian water supply?

Any way you slice him, what a real treat to find such a worthy yet under-explored canon, all presented so lushly we can go excavating in air conditioned style. A whole catalog of Zulawski's awesome films-- few of which (other than POSSESSION) have been seen at all here in the US-- are coming our way on beautiful DVDs. MondoVision plans on releasing nine in all! Jokers, start your burning!

Though L'AMOUR BRAQUE carries a 1985 French action movie glossy punk style (ala the violent late-80s/early-90s nocturnal neon decor of films you might know like SUBWAY or LA FEMME NIKITA) it's actually an art film, or a drug film, Brechtian... of course, with great gobs of classical Russian literature references that, I don't mind saying, were partially over my head. Tcheky Karyo stars, or co-stars! SUBWAY! It may look on the surface enough like a normal 80s French action movie movie, but it would probably weird out a whole room of relatively un-intoxicated bros if they were expecting Luc Besson-ish linearity in addition to the Luc Besson-ish glamor, especially with the subtitles off. And action fans who wondered--as I did--if Karyo was just a dud actor with his stone-faced performance in NIKITA can now know for sure, as his character in BRAQUE is wayyy out there. Not even the same guy, if I can paraphrase William Demarest in THE LADY EVE. 

I glean what I can get, and figure I'll finish the Karamazovs when I can. Until then, those cheesy 80s synth stabs and and Mondo Vision's lovely transfer and well-written subtitles all fuel the rush of Zulawski's poetic post-structuralist approach in a way that echoes the accidental poetry of old HK movies, the old kind of fractured English subtitles and plots so rapid and crazy that to even think about what's going on for a half a second means to be lost for the next two minutes, but if trust your instincts, stop reading the subtitles and 'hear' the dialogue (using the subtitles in tandem with the language) and let go of the rails, you just may experience a giddy and unique cine-high. See, Zulawski has a weird way of feeding you his movie plots subliminally. Somehow or other, you're pulled along by the scruff of your neck. With no time to get your bearings, you realize that, if you don't think about it too much (as with the aforementioned HK films), you know what's happening on an unconscious level if not a conscious one. This is especially true if you had to read Dostoevsky's The Idiot once. Or even did intentionally. 

Francis Huster is the hero, a down-for-whatever Czech refugee named Leon, who finds himself spontaneously adopted by the drunken (coked up?) Mickey (Karyo) and his gang of laughing, joking, Nietzsche-quoting Arab terrorists on the run after robbing a bank dressed in Disney masks. Huster and Karyo bond on the train, but then beautiful Sophie Marceau shows up as Mickey's--and soon Leon's--obsession, ensuring neither man can ever leave the other alone for a minute for the rest of the film, lest he gain ground in the race to her bed. 

A perennial 'lost soul" rich girl using Micky and his terrorist friends as dupes; acting coy and lost and doomed so they practically kill each other jostling to be the one to wipe out her enemies; cockblocking and seducing right and left; the two men chase, and are chased by, and adore each other as Marceau proves more and more sociopathic and manipulative. 

And then there's Leon's only slightly-less-hot-than-Marceau (who isn't) cousin Aglae (Christiane Jean, below) who competes for Leon's attention while performing in a version of Chekhov's "The Seagull".

Zulawski loves the Russians, even if they indirectly ruined two years of work on his would-a-been masterpiece On the Silver Globe. 

Meanwhile, a strange cop follows the gang around, and in one sun-dappled grilling scene, notes that Mickey and company carry on with the "luxury of desperate gamblers", a telling phrase I bothered to write down and thought a most clever title, because it describes most of the film--indeed most of Zulawski's blade-running / hot tin roof-dancing output. There's very little stopping to regroup or fortify positions here. If you've ever been on a manic high for any length of time--basking in a spiritual awakening, blessed with an almost supernatural level of good fortune--you know implicitly that if you to go to sleep or nurture negative thinking, your luck will change; your whole holy mindset will crash into nothingness and despair (and hangover). So you drinking, gambling and laughing like a maniac, desperate to keep the the wave alive enough to surf upon, even after it breaks and recedes along the shore. Until there you are, standing on your surfboard on the beach while kids make sandcastles around you and the tide goes out. Finally you've no choice but to pay the kids to dig you a hole, then crawl inside and sleep the rest of the day, until the evening tide comes in and mercifully drowns you.

If things get rough with this film, may I suggest good way to get through the weirdness of the onscreen action (if you're not going to 'roll' along on the last of your Pervatin stash) is to ground it in other movies you may be more familiar with, like bizarro world remakes in a vein of post-modern ultra-violent satire we Americans have hardly seen except for Kathryn Bigelow.  When you see the robbers in their Disney masks knocking off a bank in the opening sequence you might think of POINT BREAK, but when you see them horsing through an impromptu number on their getaway route, they're like a dozen Harpo Marxes on a blood bender or the Groucho-guerrillas in the films of Emir Kusturica. But these names just locate the onscreen insanity in some kind of loose contextual framework, because otherwise, goddamn it, this stuff is so fucked-up in its deconstructed avant garde madness, so far ahead of the Luc Besson curve, even your bourgeois art film expectation of a night of modernist subversion may be frustrated. Just where do you situate Zulawski and his panic-attack-meets-ecstasy-overdose clenched jaw freak-out in the canon of 80s filmmaking?

Also, it's very long: two hours of nearly nonstop shouting, kicking over vases, affronting the mores of capitalism and frothing at the succulently lipsticked mouth. You'd think it would grate on one's nerves, but Zulawski is such a master of pace and rhythm that he never gets you too worn out or cranky. And what works too is that, though these guys are all insane--and maybe this is just the French way--all the passers-by and authority figures go along with their gags, like it would be rude not to, the way the bourgeoisie in Bunuel movies look upon their children's destructive savagery with bemused tolerance. Etiquette dictates that when a crazy Marxist sticks a gun to your temple after crashing your dinner party, it's considered declasse' to panic or plead. One must do the right thing and smile and pat the man's hand in encouragement and calmly ask if he would like some wine. When sudden gunfights erupt, cars get smashed and people run around throwing smoke bombs and breaking windows, all it gets from the gendarmes is that famous Parisian shrug. They crowd surf into total candy-coated confusion; they roll around on tables laden with food and the waiters don't bat an eyelash; they spazz out and sing at the top of their lungs while being chased by cops in riot gear; and it would all just be posturing if Zulawski didn't capture a realistic sense of Parisian hustle and bustle like he's a freakin' Oscar-hungry auteur riche. When you're wading deep into a well-crafted, lit, Parisian street corner, man, you're into some fucked up architecture. If you're seeing it on a good HD screen, you can see right up into the cobwebbed corners between the gargoyles. 

One of my biggest regrets as an actor/filmmaker was in QUEEN OF DISKS (2007), when a Clare Horgan as the Queen of Disks stuck a knife to my throat as I was drinking coffee I missed a chance to do a spit take! My innate decency and worry about spilling coffee on my ratty jeans stopped me from doing one and/or dropping the coffee cup, just letting it spill all over me and crash to the floor and break. You know how impossible those things can be to do intentionally? Like when someone pays you to pee in your pants, and you just can't do it, no matter how hard you try?

These guys in this film? They don't have that problem.

It all makes you realize that while someone like Godard's a great one for deconstructing genre, he's a bad one at capturing the momentum of genre itself-- poor Jean Pierre Leaud or Belmondo, for example, always seemed to carry an inherent decency that stops them from peeing on people's trousers or throwing grenades into dining rooms or dropping coffee cups full of coffee on themselves and letting the cup shatter on the linoleum floor. If they did, it was often just to a picture of a comic book "Bang!" or riot footage that exploded. Not in this film, baby. That's action like Van Damme! Zoot alors!  A+


  1. Thanks for the link and kind words Eric!

    As far as Zulawski goes, I've only seen Possession, which I of course found wonderfully idiosyncratic and wild in the best possible way. He's been a director I've kept in the back of my mind since, and the type of gleeful lunacy you describe here ups my curiosity to nearly unavoidable heights. In fact, this:

    "When you see the robbers in their Disney masks knocking off a bank in the opening sequence you might think of Michael Mann or someone, but when you see them dance an impromptu number on their getaway route, they're like a dozen Harpo Marxes on a cocaine bender, or the Groucho-guerrillas in the films of Emir Kusturica."

    makes me want to drop everything I'm doing and seek this out at once!

  2. Richard Doyle25 March, 2010

    You mean "The Dark Knight", don't you? "Batman Returns" is the Tim Burton flick.

  3. God DAMN IT! I hate that movie. Yes, Richard. Thank you. The Dark Knight.


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