Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Sorrows of Softcore are the Joys of Art: L'IMPORTANT C'EST D'AMIER (1975, Andrzej ZulawskI)

The French love their neuromantic triangles. What's up with that? Well, I dated a Swiss-French lady and I can tell you; they love what they call a cinq à sept (like Cleo, it means from 5-7): a pre-set tryst with one's lover on the way between work and home for dinner. Participating in this convenient and marvelous alternative to a conventional relationship can ruin you for all other kinds, specifically the "I can't understand why you don't like my friends" American variety. The 5-7 is very, very French and variations can be seen in everything from Jean Renoir's La regle du jeu (1939) to Le Mepris (1968) up through to Last Tango in Paris (1970). Andrzej Zulawksi's third feature, the 1975 romantic tragedy, L'important c'est d'aimer ("The Important thing is to Love")  carries this torch of Gallic perversity with knowing references to all three of those aforementioned films, right up to having Georges Delerue do a kind of sequel to his unforgettable orchestral Le Mepris score. That's to say nothing of the film's intertextually ill-fated production of Richard III that centers the action, and off-the-cuff references to Miriam Hopkins (see: 'la reine de Menage a Trois').

In a career-capping self-reflexive performance along the lines of Norma Desmond's in Sunset Boulevard (1950), or Sylvia Miles in Heat (1972), French actress Romy Schneider plays Nadine, a B-list French actress, hanging on by her nails in softcore (?) sex films. She can still look stunning in the right make-up and lighting, but Zulawski keeps her aging face ravaged by strange, pale, orange glows; we can see the lines of anguish in the corners of her eyes; gravity and the ravages of unfeeling exploitation film crews drag on her cheeks. Further, she's burdened by the knowledge that she'd still be neck-deep in a world of prostitution and smack addiction if not for the "Zorro-like" rescue of her otherwise ineffectual husband, Jacques, an autograph collecting cinephile played with intentionally irritating impishness-cum-starry-eyed self-loathing by sometimes-chanson singer Jacques Dutronc.

Joe Gillis en verso: Jacques rescued Nadine from the garage sale of aging female fallen idols, cleaned her up, and now stores her in amidst all his stacks of LPS, stills, and film books. The walls around his bright studio apartment are garish with Hollywood movie posters. It's the kind of pad that DVD collectors may recognize as approximate to their own, but in Zulawski's vision it carries a stale, empty, even claustrophobic ennui. It's the den of a consumer, not a creator. Reflected within the sad disconnect on Schneider's face and her husband's oblivious oppression, the posters become like prison walls; the gaze expanded into some approximate escapist aesthetic arrest is still male.

We see all this through the depth-focused eyes of handsome, ever-so-tortured photographer Servais (Fabio Testi), who falls for Nadine after he sneaks into her Eurosleaze film shoot on his way to shoot gay porn for his deceptively dapper smutmeister uncle, Mazelli (Claude Dauphin).

But Mazelli is the corrupt one, the purveyor, not the noble Servais, who's just paying off dad's gambling debts. Each a slave to desire on one side of the camera or the other, Servais and Nadine fall in love through the pain and emptiness they find in each others' eyes; they're bonded by their moral disgust and sense of self-degradation. They are two prudes inextricably immersed in the sleaze business, so they spend most of the film circling each other, bound by fidelity to their spouses -- a fidelity that is so un-French it needs special reasons to exist (Servias stole his current wife from another man who's since been drinking himself to death, etc.). Meanwhile Delerue throbs on the soundtrack like Contempt's kinkier younger brother, egging them on to the inevitable hook up.

Let us take a moment to remember that Paris (and Rome, as per The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) has always been more cultured in the ways of non-marital, financially-rewarding love than America, and the figure of a houseboy/stud who depends on his looks and weak scruples for drug money needn't carry the same repellent currency it has in the States, where pretty rent boys are expected to suffer more operatically even than Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8. William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, Gene Kelly in An American in Paris, and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's, to name but three examples, all feel the need to censor their enjoyment of their special situation. They take the cash of their rich sponsors and no doubt provide certain services but the censors don't let us know what those services specifically are, and either way they aren't allowed to enjoy their positions and keep our sympathy. They have to squirm like every dollar hurts their pocket. Mon dieu! Les hypocrites!

Zulawski seems to be sending up this kind of self-loathing and torment with d'amier, albeit in a post-Sirkian way ala Almodovar or Fassbinder. There are also echoes of Midnight Cowboy's Joe Buck in Servais in that both are pretty, relatively unspoiled punks clinging to the delusion that they can call the shots without any cash to back said shots up. Adrift in a midnight world of sordid desire, in love with the sadness he catches in the newer porn performer's faces, Servais would like to forget that he borrowed big bucks from Mazelli to co-finance a a performance of Richard III just so that Nadine can play Lady Anne. Ever the noble, he insists the producers not let her know he put up the money. Yawn-ement! But luckily for us, that's where Klaus Kinski enters, and cuts through la merde del martyr like a knife through water.

As with the other Zulawski films that have recently appeared in beautiful editions from Mondo Vision, L'important c'est d'aimer's style is form-fitted to the subtexts: voyeurism, cinema, the insanity that true art both requires and instills, and the spiritual purity of over-acting to the point of surrealism. The camera moves in an around actors, leering over their shoulders like a pesky reporter. Often, the actors seem to be trying to get away from Zulawski's camera, just to breathe. They don't really acknowledge the camera directly, but they feel it watching, like a starlet on set might ignore a leering gaffer. Who knows if this is what's happening? Is Zulawski deliberately annoying his actors to the point they're always about to storm out of the room? He'd still chase them.

Escape is futile.

In Zulawski-ville you can have you cake, eat it too, store it in the fridge, throw it away in a fit of pride and self-will, fish it out later and freeze it for future generations, all at once, but it's still not going to satisfy your cake craving. Rabid foaming mouth hungry ghost insanity is yours no matter how much you eat. And that is why, for Zulawski, the image is always stronger than the reality it services, like neo-realism reversed, and reversed back and forth atop, until it becomes raw blood, guts and modernism. As consumers of these images, we're forced to reckon with the inescapable idea that baser arts such as smut make the higher arts possible and even 'high' by definition. Was not even Shakespeare once considered a 'low' art? It's only the dumbing down of already dumbed-down dumbness and the changes in linguistic structure that has made Shakespeare a "higher" art, just as flowers can't blossom without the gritty, ugly, muddy soil and the leering gaffers who pat it down. It is what it is because of what it isn't (on this rocklessness, structuralism doth build its church). Thus artists are always courting the bourgeoisie for grants in order to make art that criticizes artists for taking grants from the bourgeoisie. No wonder Kinski has to kick so much ass just to get an orgy going!

The importance of Kinski has still yet to be fully gauged, there is yet no meter with which to measure it. So when he hears that the RICHARD III will get the last part of the funding if they cast Nadine as Lady Anne, he suddenly remembers her from her last film, Nymphocula! (a Jess Franco film title if ever there was one!) which he remembers as "the one with two dykes in a castle with a dwarf. "She was fantastic," he cries, "amazing!" That sounds like Franco, all right. Kinski's own appearances in Eurosleaze titles are not only too numerous to measure (he was in Nymphocula too, whether it exists or not) but intrinsic to the genre. He's the crucified, screaming scarecrow at the crossroads between genius and insanity, art and exploitation, raving anger, and complete detachment. Both creepy and sexy, he's never a full hero or villain: half debonair intellectual aesthete, half wild orangutan, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde swirled together like soft serve. Somehow, when he does these low-rent high art 'man on a wire' flicks, his insanity keeps him grounded and he emerges unscathed from the carnage.

The sane, however, to judge by Zulawski's moping protagonists at any rate, remain permanently traumatized. They wanted to do Shakespeare and wound up in Eurosleaze; they're despondent about their failure but Kinski knows better: he brings the Shakespeare to the porn and the porn to the Shakespeare.

The key Richard III meta-scene is in act 1, scene 2, wherein Richard woos Lady Anne as she mourns by Edward's coffin. Romy's not putting it over too well, so the director asks her husband (Dutronc) to lie in the coffin, hoping Nadine will perhaps get some extra emotional punch from seeing him in there. Tellingly, Jacques comments during the five-minute break: "I thought I did pretty well, no?" And of course, he will do even better--and help Nadine even more--very soon, for real this time, as his cheerful disregard for the druggy emotional nakedness of real theater heralds his own 'real' death. His flippancy here is a punch-in-the-gut reminder to us viewers that we are standing on the sideline, watching other people act or sing and quietly judging them. We like to think we're secret kings who could do this all super well if we bothered to try. We hate to be reminded that we're just watchers in this world, already dead, looking up from our coffins at the faces weeping down on us. Cue Delerue!

It's that sense of sacrifice and death that makes up a woman's picture in the classic pre-code Hollywood version of the term: fantasias of women running up and down the pole of financial success via a series of men they've manipulated and ruined. Or they slavishly throw it all away on some handsome bounder with no bread. Or they fall from grace and sleep with everyone in sight, except the man they truly love -- he, this one man, alone, must stay a perfect memory, untouched by her corrosive caresses. On his side, however, that's crap. Why should he stay a virgin because she hates herself?

Thus, the ideal lover for such a weepy self-righteous martyr is dead and so can't cheat or steal or grow tired of said martyr's incessant sobbing. The dead lover is a lover whom no amount of licentious rubbing can denature. You can pine for him and think he was "the one" and hopefully, for your sake, he's not going to come groveling back from Hollywood in two years with gray hairs and gambling debts, wanting a "mommy" to make it right. And you, dolefully glancing at your one true love in the shadows, would probably take him back, because of your wedding vow.

Any less than three people in a marriage is a mockery of the Trinity.

Where Zulawski takes a self-reflexive step back from all this is with Jacques' possessive insecurity taking on a horrifically babyish form: he's being forced to admit he never learned to fight back or to "care" enough about the living, the people he knows (photos and film memorabilia are a different story). Take it from me, it's very difficult to know what to do, how to be graceful, when one is being cuckolded, or cuckolding, or breaking up a home. I've played all the parts once or twice over my romantic lifetime, and that's what Jacques doesn't quite realize --it's an act. I played the parts - the jealous old lover, the tactful new one, and the two-timer trying to oil the hinge between them - but they are interchangeable in the end. Nothing is real. Resorting to violence is pointless for any sensible or educated man, no matter how badly cuckolded, so all he can do is make snarky comments, bitter veiled threats, and--as I used to do -- spill wine on the other guy's stupid hippie sandals "accidentally."

Another thing you can do is just dig that it's about post-modern Baudrillard simulacrum deconstruction -- i.e. romance inside a mirror --but that doesn't make it any less painful.

In the end, Jacques offers a quietly unflattering portrait of a fan who hides behind images and record albums as if a mother's skirt, afraid to look life in the eye. Servais, on the other hand, is a photographer and Nadine a model; they actually create the images that Jacques worships. They feel validated by the act of leaving their mark for better or worse on eternity, superior to the consumers of the images they make, even if their destiny hangs by such abstract threads as an early morning edition theater review in the local paper. The critics! baisez tous les critiques stupides!

Meta-riches are to be found in this film's DVD packaging, which invites you to luxuriate in fine design and cultivate your inner collecteur as you watch a film that savages the collecteur instinct. Consider the image above, wherein Jacques waxes ecstatic over an old glossy of Miriam Hopkins while his ex-movie star wife languishes stoically next to him, leaving her left flank exposed to the sympathetic gaze of Servais on the right. Her hair pulled back to resemble Hopkins' in the photo, Nadine is radiating a docile calm which Jacques entirely misses, instead talking aloud as if to a rapt audience, announcing of the photo: "This one is going in the safe," indicating his preferred treatment (isolation) for all his pretty prizes. Poor Jacques!

But not poor Erich! I still have my memories and now, thanks to Mondo, a very cool DVD for the top row of my bookshelf--right next to Godard, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Romero, Argento y Fulci? N'cest pas? Do you feel my self-loathing? Ach, wohin ist Klaus Kinski!!! Klaus, kommen Sie hier, bitte! Wir verrotten in der Hölle ohne Ihre Verrücktheit!  

PS. 3/13/16-- Romy's name just turned up in a WWII documentary I was watching. As a kid she played with the high ranking Nazi's children as her mother was a big German star under the Goebbels-managed German cinema! I went back over this to figure out how to slide that bit in like I knew it all the time, but non. It's too perfect as is... though knowing this makes her defeated calm extra resonant 

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