Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hey Betty Blue, Come Blow Your Mind!

Beatrice Dalle: few other women have created such affectionately crazy characters. And I don't mean affectionately crazy like rom-com Sandra Bullock tangled up in wedding dress crazy, I mean batshit tear your jugular vein out with her teeth while on top of you in bed crazy. That she can make such terrifying characters affectionate attests to her charisma and fearlessness; she's like Asia Argento's SCARLET DIVA with a mild case of rabies; she is all the time what Courtney Love manages to be only at key drunken moments (not a dig, I love Love). Dalle is hot the way only genuine (check on her private life in the UK Telegraph) insanity can be hot. She's the hot female version of Robert Mitchum in CAPE FEAR or Brando in STREETCAR; she's berserk so you don't have to be. It's okay to be turned on even as you're running for your life.

She's played in many films, in many different guises, but there are three unforgettable movies that, taken together, circumscribe a 20 year devolution of her screen persona:  BETTY BLUE (1986), TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001) and INSIDE (2007). Taken together they form a loose, unofficial 21 year trilogy of taboo-busting French cinema wherein our heroine evolves from bi-polar sexually ravenous waif (BETTY) to batshit cannibal nymphomaniac (TROUBLE) to full-on female Michael Meyers / Jason unstoppable Kali womb ripper (INSIDE). Let's slow down and delve!

Blue kind of retro-actively launched the whole 'quirky comi-tragedy with casual nudity" French genre; Trouble took the always popular vampire myth to its bloody extreme end; and Inside fit the torture-porn mold of the late 00s. What's interesting is the way the movies are separate -- different directors, scripts, etc.--but Dalle plays the three in a way that can be read as a cohesive arc: character threads left unresolved in Betty continue through to complete homicidal psychopathology in Inside, the way RED kind of wound up the threads of WHITE and BLUE in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy.

And what a hell of a journey because, you see, this actress needs no makeup our double to be terrifying: she's got those teeth!


One thing our own Hollywood heroines never seem to have is scary teeth. This sad truth compromised the rawness of Rob Zombie's DEVIL'S REJECTS (2007) for example, with its scuzzy Manson family cannibals flashing top notch orthodontistry and thin, ninny voices suffering without the deepening effect of decades of cigarette and meth smoke. In America our teeth are either perfect or godawful based on our parent's health plans or lack thereof--the have-braces and have-nots; the rich get even their minor imperfections sealed over and whitened while the poor can only watch in the mirror as their incisors and bicuspids overlap and twist sideways. In countries with socialized medicine however, such as France and England, the collapse of first rate dentistry in favor of a universal median produces a uniformity of neither very good nor horrendously bad teeth. Dalle's are definitely in this ballpark, not hideous but certainly lupine... and she is a truly brave actress and sexpot for not wanting to hide them (as say, Anna Karina and Jane Birkin used to) and for using them as a counterpoint to her stunning sexuality. Their dark crooked contours shine in all the H.R. Giger glory in TROUBLE, where they reminded me at times of the creature in ALIEN; hers are the castrating incisors that squeamish last-minute castration cop-out films like TEETH and HARD CANDY boast of but are scared to deliver, even on deserving pedophiles and rapists.

Dalle doesn't need a reason to kill or castrate, it just comes naturally. Her crazy sexual frenzy in TROUBLE EVERY DAY is truly terrifying and sexy at the same time; she puts the softcore sleaze of BASIC INSTINCT's ice pick murders to shame.

I came the long way around to BETTY BLUE in the early 1991, rented it on the advice of a hot chick I was after. I was wary about it since subtitles since they were hard to read on VHS (sometimes they were just cut halfway off by the bottom of the screen, remember?) But - a strong gin and tonic and 20 minutes past the credits I fell 'in love' with the film, and--after hitting my third or fourth drink of the morning--felt like I understood the French! I was ready to fight to defend this crazy sexy movie, I even had a mancrush on Jean-Hughes Anglade! I balled my fists, drunkenly enamored of my blustery readiness to fight to defend it, crying over the sincerity of my two-fisted devotion. It was just a movie, but it was like I had fallen in love with a person, a person who couldn't walk straight or uncross her eyes, maybe, but if anyone made a wise crack I'd belt them in her honor. Roger Ebert, for example, missed the point and thus decided everyone else missed the point, not him! Here's what he wrote about the film on Christmas Day in 1986:

Oh Jeeze, Roger! That's a bit like saying "People say VERTIGO is about obsession, madness, and castration anxiety, but it's really about Jimmy Stewart driving around San Francisco, and everything else is just what happens in between car rides." Oh Roger, your insecure patriarchal need to shoot the lesbians at the end of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is suddenly laid as bare as those 'boobs and behind' (even his word choice gives him away).

See? I'm still fighting to defend it. And YET, though I bought the DVD I've never even watched it. I sobbed over it while drinking so much it's almost like an ex-girlfriend I'm no longer maudlin enough to mope over. (thanks to SSRI meds, I rarely cry anymore)

Looking back, it was, I realized, the first subtitled foreign language film I really 'loved.' PERSONA and LA DOLCE VITA were both close seconds, but my love for them was like an undergrad English student's love for Shakespeare: trepidatious, intimidated, afield of my comfort zone, but armed by the knowledge if I could talk about them in the right company, I'd seem intellectual.

 If they were girlfriends, PERSONA would be that aloof beauty you end up heartbroken alone in your room over as she wanders off into the rainy dark to kill herself and wont let you follow (I had that experience in 10th grade). DOLCE is that party girl who stays up all the time doing coke and is ultimately, once you get past the glitter, shallow and manic-depressive with Catholic guilt, maybe even still a virgin. BETTY on the other hand is the sexy girl you meet at a party and bring home and a week goes by before you realize she hasn't left, even to get her things--if she has any--and by the time you notice, and try to stop fooling around long enough to think of an excuse why she needs to leave, she's clinging to you like a python and you're too hooked on her hotness to even resist when she crushes your rib cage. Unlike play-it-safe inside the lines Ebert some of us like to have our lives destroyed by unstable hot messes! What else are lives for?


As her patient lover, the maintenance man, aspiring writer and part-time house painter Zorg, Jean-Hugues Anglade in the film can't go unmentioned. He's no mere 'beard' the way he would later become when strugglin' with English as a French cop in films like MAXIMUM RISK (1996) or as the default boyfriend for LA FEMME NIKITA (1990), by which time the shaggy edges of his role in BETTY had worn off, or else been shorn by producers and directors who didn't understand the importance of his Serge Gainsbourg-ishness. But here he's perfect as a drunken writer who loves his manic muse to the point where he can only shrug every time she starts smashing the furniture, frothing at the mouth, and torching buildings. Zorg's mellow acceptance taught me not to interfere or judge when a hot mess girlfriend goes postal. His Parisian "what can I do?" shrug makes us mad when we're ugly American tourists trying to get directions to the Louvre, but in the context of dealing with psycho girlfriends, well, it's genius. I mention him because it's the lack of an Anglade in the later Dalle films that would signify the madness: Zorg would know when to walk away, know when to run, know when to commit to a sanitarium. Without him, Dalle runs amok and the dead bodies accrue. 

Like SPECIES later, BETTY BLUE was one of the films I would watch over and over during drunken week-long benders, and yet never see all the way to the end, either stopping or passing out beforehand, over and over - just as well. The only time I ever got to the end was when I was too drunk or half-asleep to change the channel.

I didn't like it.

The soapy taste of sacrifice and CUCKOO'S NEST regret seemed tacked on, but the reason the movie worked so well was because the giddy joy that came before, when the pair hook up with a similar nutsy, drunk couple, Lisa (Consuelo De Haviland) and Eddy (Gerard Darmon) and spend many a fun night doing 'tequila rapidos' and dancing and singing and joking about Alpha Romeos, or dancing around the apartment together in silk kimonos (below, opening them).


This kind of 'letting go' between two in-love couples is something that seems uniquely French. Americans never seem to get this loose unless there's a skeevy orgy vibe, or a sleazy 'mixed party' stereotype like the scene with Jane and her friend bringing those boors back from the bar in COMING HOME (where you can smell their cheap after shave). Here the vibe isn't lewd like an American salesman out of town or sad like some Antonioni orgy. This quartet have already had sex, a lot of it. They're just happy to have another couple to celebrate with. The sex is lived: it's widened all four of their perspectives and their collective giddy gratitude is contagious. Dalle's 'behind' sexy albeit deglamourized by a pair of ugly loose silk women's underwear; Anglade, nakedly trying to hammer apart a couch with a lit cigarette --their nudity is neither the airbrushed slickness of late night softcore or fuzzy banal Emmanuelle euro-tics, but a beautiful offhand slacker sexual deadpan joy. Zorg and Betty are a couple that would never sit still for the slow seductions of Rohmer, but rather plunge through the world like crazy screaming brakes-off banshees - and yet not like the abstraction of Godard aping Gun Crazy  or the noir fatalism of Truffaut or the airless youth worship of Araki but rather the acceptance and in-the-moment-beauty and camaraderie of Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray, transposed to the joyously (but not tackily) sexual.
 

BLUE divides a joyful freedom and acceptance first half with a long downward spiral second half, an arc that informed in a slew of late 90's and early 00's movies like BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), TRAINSPOTTING (1996), MONSTER (2003), IT'S ALL GONE, PETE TONG (2004); and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) -- all very open about the highs and lows of drug use --that fast white light upward blast of the first Friday night MDMA-twinkle and ending with the long slow downward death spiral that ends with crying in the office bathroom on Tuesday morning when the last few molecules of molly leave the brain to its own despairing melancholy devices. In BETTY BLUE, tragedy strikes when Eddy's mom dies suddenly and Zorg and Betty take over said mom's piano store in a far-off beach town, separating them from Eddy and Lisa. It's there they play a beautiful little motif on a pair of pianos that seems like they just tossed it off on the spot but it lingers in the mind and sums up the sense of loss that comes when we realize we'll never get that joy we felt with the tequila rapidos back again. 

If you were drinking the way I was, or just maudlin and 23 in a time before Prozac rose to prominence, it was the ultimate sorrow: 1990-1992 - the nights of fun with Eddy and Lisa were gone. The band broke up and college was over and there were no jobs. The feeling was like you just got accepted by the cool kids after years of painful loserdom and sobesky-hood-- were suddenly where you belonged, and loved everyone around you with tender ferocity --and then everyone graduated and went their separate ways, leaving you in the sweaty withdrawal like that Tuesday office bathroom mirror, this time with your mom knocking on your door asking for a urine sample. 


It's that sweet remembrance of things past that suffuses the rest of BETTY BLUE, and lingers on in Claire Denis' TROUBLE EVERY DAY, a glacial, mostly nonverbal film that offers no sense of joy or belonging, only the terror of imagining your own human carnal lust leading you to a grisly agonizing doom--a mix of Cronenberg's RABID and SHIVERS -- the fate of being torn apart by a maniacal lover in a maenad ripping frenzy. Such a grisly potential forces us as viewers into weird moral positions, like a game of Twister devised by a coked-up pope, as the slow and relentless tug of sexual desire drags lonely people to their deaths via a very long, snaking chain tied to a dropping anchor. We risk our lives every time we climb into bed with a stranger - but in some areas, the drive to procreate trumps even survival.

TROUBLE fulfills the promise of CAT PEOPLE which told of a race of humans who would turn into black leopards after making love and could turn human again only after killing their lover or rival. However in Paul Schrader's 1982 version, these killings were kind of tepid; the sex was over before the transformation so it came off a bit tame (the panther strikes while the victim is lolling around in a post-coitus haze). None of that waiting around for Denis! The way Dalle continues to obliviously whisper and coo in her now dead lovers' ears for example, links to her a real cat lady, the type tries to keep toying and torturing their lifeless prey long after its dead.

Such scenes are few and far between in horror films. They make producers uncomfortable because--to put it a meta way--they threaten the safety of their model of the cinemagoer as one already dead and presumed therefore impervious to attack. It's as if the image and the eye are tectonic plates and the idea of cinema is to promise contact--a rumbling and shaking--yet prevent any actual rupture of the concrete, no buckling or triggering of a massive modernist earthquake. In true post-cinematic Asia Argento / Samara fashion, Dalle's sexuality causes the simulacratic melt-down bubble, wherein the covetous eye is torn out in a fit of enjoyment that transcends all textual boundaries. She's like a knife that springs out of the screen as soon as her image lures you close enough to draw blood.

Variously dismissed, panned or gushed over by the few who've seen it, TROUBLE never really explains itself - though if we're familiar with the pantheon of vampire and werewolf movies of ye olden times, we can deduce that Vince Gallo is a chemist of the WEREWOLF OF LONDON / Henry Hull variety, tracking down a rare plant extract cure for his malady. This malady is unnamed, but clearly causes an increasingly unbearable urge to devour and rend especially during and approaching orgasm. Denis cuts back and forth between Dalle's LET THE RIGHT ONE IN-style handler (as he foolishly leaves her alone long enough for her to lure a pair of boys into the house) and Gallo on his honeymoon in a Paris hotel, where his stalker-killer lust is focused not on his wife but on the cute hotel maid who comes in every day to make the bed. Dalle has devolved farther along in the disease, to where she can barely talk and spends each night breaking out of the prison her handler keeps her in, each night heading to the same lonesome stretch of road where truckers apparently pull over for sex, and are soon pulled to pieces.

Gallo and Dalle-- it's gradually revealed through incidental conversations--once had kind of a thing for each other while doing research together in Africa (where they presumably found the plant that afflicted them, thus linking this film to GANJA AND HESS!) and as their paths look like they will intersect we brace ourselves for what the Netflix liner notes erroneously refer to as a joint killing-spree. Denis lives to thwart narrative expectations, but there are however ingenious moments like Gallo and his bride hanging out atop Notre Dame, whose spires covered in gargoyles bear a passing resemblance to both Gallo (his weird eyes) and Dalle (her demonic teeth) - in parallel abstract ways I'm sure were at least mildly intentional. I'm not going to start getting into the whole reptilian conspiracy thing (read up on it here!) but Denis' thoughtful inclusion of these images brings a kind of Antonioni-esque post-modern amnesia to the events. We don't need plot exposition because we know the story and all its variations. In not laying out lots of expository dialogue, Denis--like Antonioni--allows the associations and timeless miasma to form out of a thousand minor details.


I wont spoil the particulars, but the key moment, the grisly highlight, is the sex/devouring scene of Dalle's with a horny neighbor kid who breaks into her locked room, and of course gets far more than he bargained for. Shots of the kids' accomplice downstairs waiting nervously for him, hearing the muffled screams of agony and his ambiguous reaction, reminded me a lot of a key scene, quite similar, in the original I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. And hey, that's a good thing. TROUBLE EVERY DAY has got a bad rap as being disgusting and dull, but I think, again, its this squeamishness critics have with seeing hot girls castrate their prey, metaphorically or other. I get grossed out by a lot of things, but for some reason I find female-on-male sexual mutilation to be quite positive, maybe as there's so much violence done in the other direction, I'm a big one for balance... and anyway, it's the fuckin' movies! Get over it - relative to the amount of sexual violence perpetrated on women, good female-to-male castrations have been criminally underrepresented, with the two films that boast of the most - Teeth and Hard Candy - both copping out (with either Bobbit-style surgery or fake-outs)

Inside (2007)
Last in the trilogy is one of those 'one wild night' horror films that seem to unfold in real time: INSIDE tells the story of a pregnant woman (Alysson Paradis) living in a ROSEMARY'S BABY style bubble of patronizing patriarchal infantilization that gets busted open, literally figuratively and metatextually, by Beatrice Dalle's covetous vengeance-seeker. 

The Netflix liner notes say that in INSIDE, Beatrice Dalle "relentlessly pursues the pregnant Sarah, determined to perform a grisly brand of C-section." I think the "grisly brand" is key here, as it implies there is a non-grisly brand. The patronizing treatment expectant mother Alysson Paradis receives from her mom, the hospital, and her distracted married boss sets the bar of pro-life patriarchal oppression at high, right from the start, against which Dalle offers, at the very least, pre-biblical matriarchal alternative. There's a refreshing lack of "sanctity of motherhood" posing, an element so ingrained in the contemporary post-Spielberg/Ford American cinema as to be unnoticed. With this disillusioning, we are made to realize that all c-sections are grisly; birth is a cruel and nasty business which no amount of drugs, sanitary surfaces and hospital hooplah can deny. INSIDE gets to the meat of the matter, with humor and a fine sense of real time pacing.
Made only five years after TROUBLE EVERY DAY, Dalle's beauty has 'faded' drastically, she seems to have aged a great deal more in those five years than in she did in the 15 between TROUBLE and BETTY. She's no Isabelle Huppert or Isabelle Adjani--two actresses who will probably stay hot into their 80s, but so what? While both Adjani and Huppert can play super fierce and fucked-up women when the role demands, our Beatrice Dalle is something else entirely-- she is that fucked-up fierce woman, and if art imitates life you could take her three films as something like a portrait of supersexy evil genius insanity through the ages. Hers is the evolution of a hottie nymph  from bi-polar slugger losing her shit over not being able to have a baby (BLUE); to sympathetic cannibal (TROUBLE), to a completely unsympathetic monster out to take a baby for herself, right out of another woman's womb. But is it a tragedy, or a triumph? Doesn't being the monster mean you--and you alone, get to not be afraid of the dark?

Now, the ideas on display in INSIDE were, I thought at the time, just a crazy French sensationalists' morbid imagination. But, as the Investigative Discovery TV show Deadly Women has taught me, it's happened quite a few times in real life! In fact it happened in 2007, the same year as INSIDE came out! Sacre bleu!! Crimes like these prove that, when push comes to shove, women can be just as crazy sick as men anytime, even sicker. Of course here at Acidemic we call that a victory. Why? Because, again, at least in the context of our discussion, it's movies! No one is really getting killed by Dalle, and after all, by the end of the trilogy, Betty Blue gets what she wanted--a child!


CONCLUSION:

By turns tragic, comic, sexy, horrifying and terribly sad, this loose trilogy of BETTY BLUE, TROUBLE EVERY DAY, and INSIDE form a grand and very French salute to dangerous women. In all three films Dalle's madness is triumphant; she remains unconquered by patriarchy's desperate chokeholds. Even if she's burned alive, electroshocked, stabbed, strangled, or smothered, she still wins, one way or the other. No wonder Dalle is such an icon! She appeals to the cultured European melancholic degenerate in us all, the one who sees not clearly but too far, and who knows that sex and death are so close to one another along the fault lines of existence as to be inseparable; step too close to the crack and you find yourself caught in the thin slice of ground between their gaping fissures and nowhere to go but down into the crevasse. How, after all, can you go back to safe distance now? How could you live now if not to have one foot on each side, like a god! To desire sex but fear death, or vice versa is to live an anxious lie, what Buddhists call samsara. Dalle is way past samsara. She dwells in the harrowing truth beyond the wobbly front tricycle wheel of life; she's the bubble gum card fluttering in its spokes; her terrible teeth are our deliverance from the mundane irrelevance of man.

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