I have a bit of a problem with Philippe de Broca. I keep going back to his films, drawn by their several significant virtues, and I keep getting kicked in the teeth by a sense of misogyny that doesn’t add anything in the way of complication or pleasurable malaise to what are generally intended, it seems, as light, frothy romps. It’s weird and discomfiting.
 The films are generally dazzlingly pretty, to the point where one might say the achieve actual beauty were it not for a certain emptiness. But the colours and design and eye for feminine charm do a lot to make one abandon one’s curmudgeonly insistence on some form of overall purpose, some sense of a world-view to be communicated. Film as summer holiday.
 Since the movies are often pretty fantastical, and don’t inject any bracing social satire or anything like that to relieve the frothiness, they have a hard job being actually funny — there’s no grit to abrade the comedy neurons — but nevertheless, the movies are inventive as heck, so there’s plenty of delight even if there’s not so many laughs.
 The films all have generous budgets, so that Broca, with his great eye and restless imagination, can indulge his fancies to a high degree of professional polish. It may seem crass to praise movies for being big-budget, but considering how samey and repetitive and cinematically ugly most big films are these days (in modern spectaculars the photography is generally elegant but the wooden blocking and mixmaster editing makes a hash of that), it’s refreshing to find somebody who can spend large quantities of cash and wind up with something attractive for us to look at. If you’ve never seen any PDB but you’ve seen Tariq’s THE FALL then you can still picture the kind of high-gloss location-porn I’m talking about.
Given all that (and if it seems like faint praise, it isn’t meant to — when it comes to movies I’m as much a foppish aesthete as I am a slob when it comes to personal grooming), it’s odd that I usually find PDB’s movies rather unpleasant on some level.
In L’INCORRIGIBLE there are off-colour jokes about rape and domestic violence which are unpleasant not just in themselves (a film-maker with something to say might be able to use such subjects comedically without leaving a meaningless sour taste behind) but for the sense that Broca, inherently a jocular entertainer, regards these subjects as just as amusing as everything else.
THE MAN FROM RIO, which inaugurated the image of Jean-Paul Belmondo as a contemporary daredevil man of action, doing his own stunts in a manner evoking Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and, on the French side, Roland Toutain, is far less obnoxious, but something about the slapstick tone doesn’t gel with the action movie high body count. For me, Spielberg, who was heavily inspired by this movie when he gave us INDIANA JONES, got the mix to work better.
KING OF HEARTS is pretty much devoid of unpleasantness, and I enjoyed Alan Bates’s Scottish accent. The killing of pigeons seemed out of keeping with the lightness elsewhere, and the background of war and madness was problematic because Borca of course has nothing to say about either. He just about manages to be consistent with his dumb “war is bad, madness is quite nice” slant, but even that disintegrates amid the gags. The movie is “charming” if you can really turn your brain off.
LE MAGNIFIQUE might be the best and worst of the Broca movies I’ve seen. It starts as a James Bond spoof. A spy is abducted when the phone booth he’s in is yanked into the sky by a helicopter with a claw hanging from a cable. They drop him fifty feet into the ocean. He’s still alive! Waiting on the ocean floor is a shark in a cage. Evil frogment connect the cage to the phone booth and the man is eaten, his sunglasses floating comically above his nose as he vanishes in a cloud of red ink.
The gore in this movie is startling — most of the spectacular gags dissolve in a welter of stage blood. It’s so excessive to the genre being parodied that it becomes a bizarre fascination on its own. Anyhow, we’re introduced to Bob Saint-Clair, secret agent, a man who vaults into sports cars in slow motion (for some reason this is always genuinely hilarious, the main funny gag in the movie, and I have no idea why it works so well). BSC is super-cool and infallible and accompanied by the gorgeous Tatiana, who’s played by Jacqueline Bisset. Wow.
After twenty minutes of this, we suddenly cut to an unshaven Belmondo slouched over a typewriter, and realize that he’s Francois Merlin, author of the Bob Saint-Clair series of pulp thrillers, and his lief is a dispiriting mess of unpaid bills, killer deadlines, faulty plumbing and electrics, and a variety of other ailments. Coming so late in the film, this is pretty amazing stuff — the one thing you’d think was unworkable would be to extend the fantasy part of the film to fill most of the first act, leaving no time to introduce a compelling real-world plot. But this proves to be one of the film’s best ideas.
From here on, we intercut between Bob and Francois, as Francois meets Christine, a girl who’s just like Tatiana, only she’s a sociology student interested in the cultural-psychological meaning of his books. Francois tries to act like Bob to get the girl, with deplorable results, plus he has to compete with his sleazy publisher boss. At one point, two keys on his typewriter start malfunctioning (shades of Stephen King’s Misery), causing everybody in his story to talk with a lisp. He finally takes to sabotaging his own work-in-progress, heaping indignities upon Bob Saint-Clair, upon the Albanian master-villain he’s based on his boss, and upon Tatiana. This stuff, with Bob suddenly turned into a Clouseau-esque nincompoop infected with mumps, is dumb yet still enjoyable.
Up until now, the movie’s malaise has been the inappropriate levels of graphic violence, presented in a slapstick style. At one point, Bob literally blows a bad guy’s brains out, and we get a brief shot of a fakey cardboard head exploding and then a shot of the severed brain landing plop on a plate on a restaurant table inexplicably adorning the bad guy’s lair (inside an Aztec pyramid, naturally). This is seriously disturbing in about eight different ways. I guess to a nation which regards sheep’s brains as something that actually belongs on a dinner plate, that particular shot is amusing rather than blindly horrific (as a Scot I only regard the contents of a sheep’s skull as edible if they’re mashed up with its other innards and boiled in the stomach lining. It’s called a haggis. Civilized values must prevail.) But the exploding cardboard head is disconcerting all by itself, actually reminding me of the head-splitting scenes in Riccardo Freda’s horror flicks HOMICIDE OBSESSION and TRAGIC CEREMONY. In fact, the violence is irrelevant to the freakish effect of the sudden false head. If Freda had wanted to truly disturb an audience, he could have dispensed with bloody setpieces altogether and just filmed 90 mins of elegant, Whit Stillman style chat, randomly cutting every few minutes to a cardboard face which has inexplicably replaced one of the characters. We’d all have nightmares for the rest of our lives.
So, I was sort of hoping Broca would settle for upsetting me with this stuff, and let the rest of the film be lightweight and appealing. But oh no. In the closing minutes, the Tatiana character is subject to a variety of unpleasant and unfunny abuses as Francois avenges himself upon Christine’s supposed infidelity. Now, Tatiana is a fictional character, even within the terms of the film. But it’s still unpleasant. This isn’t charming Gallic violence towards women, like an apache dance, or IRREVERSIBLE. It’s not shown graphically, but Tatiana is raped, whipped, gang-raped, thrown in the mud, and beaten with a crutch. It’s really, really not funny.
And yet, Broca doesn’t seem overall to hate women. He has superb taste in beautiful actresses, and clearly loves photographing them, dressed or otherwise (Jackie Bisset manages to stay mostly covered. The wonderful Genevieve Bujold and the very perky 21-yr-old Catherine Zeta-Jones both disrobed.) I’m not a good enough feminist to condemn him for his love of semi-gratuitous semi-nudity. But what is going on with this? Why does he want to spoil my enjoyment of his inappropriately blood-soaked self-referential Bond spoof with this offensive shit? It’s not like he’s Alain Robbe-Grillet! If he hadn’t died in 2004 I’d really want to slap him.
In fact, I might still do it.