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

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Girl who Fingered the Frenchman

Ah  France, the big scandal erupting with Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a reminder that where there's liberty et fraternite' there are also sleazebag rapists in high places. The attack (ED NOTE: It's since been downgraded to prostitute-blackmail scam) happened in a New York hotel, and maybe its my city pride that makes this story resonate as a great David and Goliath style upset, something the Millennium Trilogy could be proud of, and might even be a little bit indirectly responsible for: the word of a rattled immigrant hotel maid was enough for our cops to pull this high roller Frenchman off a first class plane and throw him in the clink. Word is finally out: clergymen and politicians are the sex maniacs of our age - believing the word of the victim is the new black!

To see more? Cinema, naturalmente. The above attack sounds very plausible, in fact I've seen it in at least two films, and recently: Asia Argento's self-directed SCARLET DIVA (with a crazy producer played by artist Joe Coleman chasing Asia down the hotel hallway in Paris, naked but for cowboy boots, ah, Cannes! - my in-depth discussion here) and Vince Gallo attacking a Paris hotel maid in TROUBLE EVERY DAY (above, here). The evil rapin' madmen of power in GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO and the Millennium Trilogy are apparently in France now that said girl made it too hot for them in Sweden (see my piece on Bright Lights, 'The New Lurid: Cinema's Rape Disavowal Fantasy').

But what of other locales in France, outside Paris, ala the French countryside? This seems to be a pretty terrible place. Vast stretches of emptiness given privacy by giant tank-hidin' hedgerows allow slavering mutant sexuality to flourish. A group of normally upstanding males commit a horrific gang rape when they realize a woman is living alone in a stone house by a remote stretch of French country road in ONE DEADLY SUMMER (1983), with the victim's daughter (Isabelle Adjani) enacting an elaborate revenge before realizing maybe it didn't happen or whatever (I had to stop watching after that). Indeed, in this array of films, the French countryside is a place where no one can hear you scream, and no law can come to your rescue with any quickness, the law may even be the source of evil groping. Men must stand on their own good conscience, and many do not. Remote areas are a creep's power source as much as above-the-law titles like politician and priest, but the ambiguity and self-reliance goes both ways. All is not always what it seems.

Take the 1970 British film about two birds cycling on holiday through rural France, AND SOON THE DARKNESS. Over at Britmovie, Drew Shimon cogently discusses the film's ability to create suspense without much overt violence or even actual dark:
Ironic, really, for a film bearing the title And Soon The Darkness, that practically no darkness is actually seen throughout, but such things are part of the strange fascination of British horror: in Die Screaming, Marianne for instance, Marianne neither dies nor screams, and in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, the identity of the slayers is in no way a mystery to the audience. What it doesn’t deliver in honour of its title, though, it makes up for by exceeding every other possible expectation.
I was led to expect this film would be really disturbing, ala THE VANISHING, which is why I steered clear for so long, but it's actually just suspenseful, sexy and awesome. Also, if you know any French at all, you get an inkling of the identity of the rapist-killer early on, and the savagery of rape as depicted in GIRL or something like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (see my 'Towards a New Cinema of Castration') is absent, replaced by the gross caricatures of lust you get in Japanese pinku films: the eyes of the rapist bugging, lips snarling in deformed adolescent exaggeration, tongue wagging obscenely... truly possessed, insane by an inability to repress basic lustful instincts. I find these depictions much less traumatic, they're more symbolic renderings, the men demeaning themselves with twisting grimaces; you never get the sense these guys getting very far, mostly humping air like a dog--it leaves one confused. If it's not meant to be harsh and repulsive ala SPIT or GIRL than what? A chance for a woodsman to ride to the rescue? A moment of kinky objectification? Or a moment to have the ugliness of base id-lust rubbed in our face as a cautionary tale? I muse on this at length in my cogent 2010 celebration of FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: JAILHOUSE 41, Stung by the Belle. 

DARKNESS gets a lot of mileage out of short skirts and dried patches of grass, a spooky bunch of wooded patches separating vast empty fields, the gradual setting of the sun (it all occurs over the matter of a few hours), the onset of clouds and rain, and the vast language barrier between a holidaying Brit girl and old French gas station workers. In such a tranquil setting, the sexual violence seems almost quaint, a mere flaring up of an old forgotten splotch of vile repressed desires left too long untended in the fields. Because the film works, as Shimon says, without the darkness promised (and soon, like CCR's someday, never comes), it escapes our condemnation, but there's an aftertaste of sleaze that lingers on. But hey, it's on Netflix streaming! So is the remake! Avoid the latter!

Also on Netflix streaming, all of a sudden!-- is a bunch of Jean Rollin films, including REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE (1973) Read Ethan Spigland's essay on the film in Acidemic #6, here to get the lowdown on the film's use of Freud's uncanny and the sexual doubling of Georges Bataille. Using what looks a lot like the same road from DARKNESS, this film follows to young naifs in clown costumes who wind up lost in the wilderness, eventually abducted by a castle full of old debauched vampires and their slavering rapist underlings. The girls are sexually attacked, and then forced to watch, hypnotized, as various girls chained in the dungeon are raped in the usual slavering, grotesque but bloodless, bruiseless, Sadean, confusing, tedious, all very abstract and philosophically cogent.

The roots behind intellectual S/M still boils down to the most sleazy of crimes against empathy, and if anti-pornography advocates are right--and apparently they are--there's nowhere else left to go but to that wretched basement. Once the consumer of the image has let himself become dehumanized via the suffocating access to so many images, the image suffocates as much as the proximity of the other. Rape fantasies are actually common in both sexes, but as I noted in my BL piece defending the Twilight films from anti-feminism charges, Someone to Fight Over Me: Rape is not called rape when it's in romantic fiction; it's "ravishment" / the erotic charge of setting a romance in a past era lies with the straitjacket moral code: the only way a woman can keep her honor is by resisting both the man and her own desire. She indirectly invites the overpowering on herself as a means of sidestepping issues of her feminine resolve and honor, and the uncertainty of responsibility over one's actions. This is not weakness on her part, but an intrinsic understanding of what's truly erotic about societal loopholes. She has the strength it takes to surrender... (more)

Another interesting French film dealing with slavering maniac males in the countryside is DON'T DELIVER US FROM EVIL (1971), loosely based around the same real life case as HEAVENLY CREATURES, but with a lot more teasing of leering male strangers. It starts in a banal schoolgirl reverie: two lead girls are having a holiday over the summer in the country after a long stretch in a Catholic boarding school. The pair delight in flirting with and teasing passing male travelers, but the men they lure into the brush or home to their hideout have only two speeds: grotesque tongue-wagging sexual assault and motionless confused indulgence. The men never try to tease back or engage in the girls' weird head games. Instead they let themselves be teased to a certain point and then snap, becoming insane slavering rapists in a flash, precipitating their own deaths. As Kim Morgan notes on her Sunset Gun:
Thank goodness they lived in the early 1970s. No manic panic hair, no PVC mini-skirts, no cheap fetish boots and tired, sullen expressions for these best friends. These girls are enjoying their evil. So much that they put together a crafty, dainty black mass in an abandoned chapel (you can feel fellow bad girl Martha Stewart heartily nodding her head in approval). With the dim groundskeeper serving as "Priest," they seal their Satanic deal and drive the man nuts while sitting in the rowboat in the thick of night -- he can see through their cotton Communion gear. (more) 
So can we, man. I still think of that scene at certain times...

The key thread I'm fumbling for through all this is the ultimate emptiness of sexual gratification as the be all and end all of power. All that smoke and perfume and grinding strip show razzle dazzle leads to nothing more than an expensive feeling of emptiness behind the wizard's peepshow curtain. It's culture's job to make you forget that post-orgasmic depression, but just as rich women like Winona Ryder may shoplift for a weird thrill, trying to recapture a time when acquiring possessions brought them joy, so the oversexed rich French politician may accost a hotel maid because all else has failed him, and he figures himself above the law, and maybe still thinks he's in some role-play brothel from the night before. Who knows? His world is akin to the one Kim Morgan describes, of "tired, sullen expressions, cheap fetish boots and PVC mini-skirts." But rather than be hypnotized into the world of surfaces and possessions like the men who want them, the girls in the equation are coming from a different place, trying to harness real power--to master their own chthonic sexuality-- to surf rather than dutifully drown, to dare live beyond social roles, mores and the tedious commodified grinding that passes for modern rebellion. Rather than settle for the $900 call service fee, they want to try for curtain number trois.

For these sleazy rural Frenchmen, however, all the curtains have long since been open, and they have no more control over their desires than a near-unconscious diabetic smashing his fist through a candy shop window.  It's fascinating to contemplate how a man with so much to lose as Strauss-Kahn could be so careless and crazed. Of course it could be a set-up, created to depose him by his enemies. On the other hand, even if it's true, isn't it still a set up, a trick of desire, of the devil, who rewards the debauched with all the riches of the world at the cost of their ability to enjoy them? Aren't those creepy noblemen in Sade, Huysmans, and Bataille really just depressed from having to constantly up the sadomasochistic sensation ante just to feel anything but benumbed ennui? Pity them...  certainly jail them and denounce them in the press and even castrate them but pity them, for they are dumb enough to believe the lies of their own merciless hard-ons. They have become dupes of the genetic con and are destined for incarcération... ou paternité. 

And for what? The sociopath, the narcissist, the sexaholic, even just the pervy father hanging around his daughter's room at her sleepover... who made them what they are? The answer is just the soft sound of French countryside crickets... and the flutter of pages from an old, discarded Maxim. 

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