Spy Fight

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.

Those virtues:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.


46 Responses to “Spy Fight”

  1. “This isn’t charming Gallic violence towards women, like an apache dance, or IRREVERSIBLE.”

    You rascal, you.

  2. (I did laugh out loud at that statement, I should add).

  3. I thought maybe I was in danger of getting too self-righteous.

  4. Hmmm. I’ve never thought of DeBroca this way. To me his whole tone and methodology is so lightweight and glancing that thinking about gore or misogyny seriously never occurred to me. (Jackie greatly enjoyed working with him.)

    I’ve got Le Magnifique on DVD so I’ll give it another look. It was one of the most popular items unspooled on our late lamented early cable era movie emporium The Z Channel(about which a rather good dcumentary was made several years back. It’s creator, Jerry Harvey, was a Peckinpah fanatic and Heaven’s Gate fan. When the major cable companies were created (HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel, etc.) Jerry couldn’t cope. They offered him a lot of money but he wanted total control. And because he couldn’t get it he killed himself and his wife.

  5. Tragic and horrible.

    Le Magnifique is genuinely inventive and attractive for 90% of its length… the blood-letting is sort of disconcerting, especially because the tone is so light. But the plunge into real nastiness did throw me completely. Bisset, for her part, plays the thing light throughout, and is a good comedienne, which doesn’t quite take the curse off it, but does seem the only possible approach. Although I wish she’d put her foot down.

  6. I’ve only seen Le Magnifique on this list but I adored it, and I adored the brain on the plate. Because this is all going on in Belmondo’s head and because Belmondo is SO winningly silly I suppose my sense of moral outrage simply wrote off anything potentially offensive as a spoof of the writer’s ego. There is certainly no sense that we should side with the violence. I’m laughing at it, not with it (unlike in Bond) that’s the difference.

  7. I’m sure that’s the intention. Maybe because I’d seen L’Incorrigible, I was waiting to be offended?

    It reminds me of Dante and Arkush’s Hollywood Blvd (not such a good film), where the intent is clearly high-spirited fun but there doesn’t seem to be any awareness that this stuff COULD be taken seriously, and would seem offensive.

    Belmondo is indeed magnificent: able to get belly laughs just by walking and smiling at the same time.

  8. De Broca always struck me as weird but in a different angle. First, I haven’t seen many of his films (four to be precise) and most films of his I saw had a disturbing scene, and it wasn’t out of context to the film. I was having quite a good time watching That Man From Rio, when he showed both Brasilia (which looked exactly like the worst of urban planning, hit with a neutron bomb), and the jungle being bulldozed. I remember I liked The Love Game, though I hardly remember the film anymore having seen it 25 or so years ago. Somehow it’s blended with other films I’ve seen and I remember only isolated scenes.

    Misogyny in male filmmakers strikes me as pretty banal for some reason. I almost expect it, in fact, and am refreshed when it’s not there. One of the reasons I like ’30s Hollywood films is that even though women’s roles are still proscribed (marriage being the high ideal then), they are treated more as independent actors than they would be twenty/thirty years later, where female roles seemed to have devolved somewhat, with a few ballbusting broads and pneumatic sexpots salted in among the housewives. Things got better for awhile, but seem to have regressed a bit lately.

    And a last comic riposte: Gratuitous female nudity in a French film? You astonish me, sir. Would you care for a French carte postale?

  9. Yeah, 30s films have this whole gamut of attitudes, many of them burlesqued rather than seriously presented. The variety seems preferable. It almost seems like the idea of “the girl” was just shorthand and didn’t have a fixed meaning or “passive romantic interest” until years later, when the next generation of writers took it too literally.

    And French cinema does have a schizoid attitude too — Broca made a later film starring Deneuve, who would have been out of work in Hollywood, where, as everyone keeps saying, there are no good roles for older women. It’s kind of unbelievable that, with all there is to dislike about Sex and the City II, reviewers are commenting on how the actresses look, like, older than they used to. So with all the chauvinism, nudity, misogyny etc, French cinema may have a more usefully varied attitude than American.

  10. I don’t see age holding back Catherine Deneuve’s career. She’s still Catherine Deneuve. But yeah, French cinema is definitely more sophisticated about women than the Anglo-Saxons(as usual).

    It mustn’t be forgotten that August Strindberg was a crazed misogynist but he wrote some of the most remarkable roles for women. And according to Liv Ullmann, Bergman(who looked up to Strindberg as his hero) was in private life guilty of the same chauvinism he criticizes in his male characters. She says he didn’t like any one and was quite arrogant but he wrote more great roles for women than any other director in film history before or after.

  11. Yes, while Hollywood is hardly a monolith, its attitudes are pretty homogenized. Most foreign countries with strong film industries don’t seem to have that sameness to them. I should probably watch more PDB just to see his films after 1966. Honestly, that’s the newest I’ve ever seen. PDB just didn’t get to the US much in VHS or DVD forms.

  12. Charlotte Rampling is still a major film star thanks to the French.

  13. Yes, aging is respected in France, I think. If you were great at 21, the assumption is, perhaps, that you’re still great at 71.

    The chauvinism I find in Broca perhaps is less likely to result in interesting characters than the misogyny of Bergman, who at least engaged with women in his films as real, thinking beings. Broca is obviously deeply besotted with women as spectacle, but maybe not so much as characters, though he doubtless had the ability to talk to them in real life.

    The sexism isn’t that different from the deforestation in The Man from Rio — Broca has been caught being offhand about something we take a bit more seriously now (and should have taken seriously then). Maybe in years to come I’ll find his attitudes as charmingly dated as some of the more astonishing moments in pre-code Hollywood flicks. But some of that stuff still creeps me out too.

  14. david wingrove Says:

    The only de Broca films I’ve seen are L’AFRICAIN and LE BOSSU – both hugely unimpressive. Still, I long to see LE MAGNIFIQUE as I can’t imagine not being dazzled by a movie that allows two creatures as gorgeous as Bisset and Belmondo to canodle for 90 minutes or so.

    As for the dodgier aspects, if La Bisset could survive WILD ORCHID with her class and dignity intact (which, incredibly, she just about did) then she should be able to survive anything. What a dazzling woman!

  15. You’ll definitely enjoy the look and panache of the film, David. And the actors are at their loveliest and seem to be enjoying themselves.

  16. He directed Le Bossu? I LOVE that film! As with Belmondo in Le Magnifique, Auteuil is just an unbridled joy. (Simply thinking of Bob Saint Claire gives me better posture.)

  17. If you love Le Bossu you’ll probably adore Cartouche… which actually came out on VHS in the UK and might be findable on eBay or Amazon…

  18. > KING OF HEARTS is pretty much devoid
    > of unpleasantness […] The movie is
    > “charming” if you can turn your brain
    > off.

    No wonder it was a big hit in the U.S.: an anti-war picture that doesn’t around to saying anything against war.

  19. Cartouche is quite wonderful. Bebel as a gentleman crook in a period film allowing his co-star — the luscious Claudia Cardinale — to display a balcony you can do Shakespeare from. Jean Rochefort is also very good in it.

  20. Claudia always seems like she can take care of herself, so I wouldn’t be worried for her in a Broca film. And it’s early sixties so he’ll probably be better behaved. I might check that one out next.

  21. I ended up giving away my VHS of King Of Hearts simply because it was almost revoltingly whimsical to me about two serious subjects (war and mental illness). I can’t say it was misogynistic, though. I get the feeling that PDB is the French version of an American comedy director, way better style but too empty-headed to see the contradictions in what he was doing.

    Cartouche (the one I couldn’t remember the title of), That Man In Rio, and The Love Game are about it with me and PDB. I’ll never look at a minute of King of Hearts again, it would just irritate me. I’ll try Le Magnifique if it comes my way and revisit TLG if I can ever find a copy. I like a bit of stylish empty-headed fun now and again, and spy spoofs are a really guilty pleasure of mine. I mean, I really feel guilty about liking them.

  22. Christopher Says:

    Cartouche looks enticing

  23. King of Hearts has a sentimental view of mental illness that’s pretty off-putting. It tries to be satirical about war, but PDB is simply too fond of silly jokes to pull that off — once he’s done jokes about people being killed, he’s undercut the whole basis for caring about the war at all, so the satire is toothless… that maybe doesn’t quite make sense, but it will when you see it!

    Fanfan le Tulipe will probably remain my fave French swashbuckler (the original, not the remake!) but Cartouche seems like a lark and I shall give it a go. Love the way he wrinkles his nose at 2:40 — a coquettish gesture few women can get away with!

  24. Cartouche is a lot of fun, right in PDB’s wheelhouse, so to speak. The swashbuckling genre isn’t something to be taken seriously, and so fits his style well.

  25. King of Hearts has dated badly. But it was very popular stateside during the Vietnam war as it captured much of the hippie mood — the desire to “drop out” of an irredemiably corrupt social order. Harold and Maude was popular for this reason as well.

  26. I think you’re right David E. Hippie culture always tended towards sentiment (I think it’s why many of them went so bloody religious and ended up voting for Reagan), so stronger antiwar fare didn’t register as much as the softer I’m-checking-out message of KoH. I always admire old hippies who stuck to their principles. I also don’t meet many of them.

  27. Yoo Hoo — Over here!

  28. Shadowplay Welcomes Principled Old Hippies!

    King of Hearts may have also been very slightly influenced by the theories of RD Laing, who encouraged the 60s kids to view madness as a journey. So the hippies were sentimental about insanity too. Of course, Laing had SOME scientific rigor, whereas PDB isn’t really into dealing with ideas…

  29. It’s possible to view insanity sentimentally as long as it’s temporary, otherwise it seems a bit monstrous, since it generally isn’t a voluntary thing. When you hear someone fondly remembering an acid trip, that’s excusable. I’ve seen enough people go off their head and never come back to view insanity that way.

  30. Christopher Says:

    King of Hearts was constantly playing the midnight movies and art house theatres in the early 70s..I prefered the Marx Bros. festivals and the “Stagering Stoogearama”

  31. When I was a kid, I faked illness for a week (easy to do with chronic bronchitis) to watch the Paramount Marxes on the weekday afternoon movie. I knew they were different and wilder than the MGMs and I had to see them. It’ll always be the best use of cutting school I ever did. Somehow all the others ended up with hangovers and regrets.

  32. Christopher Says:

    in 10th grade they ran a complete Paramount package every monday night after time for me to be in bed..but I had a TV up in my room! ;o)..That was my intro to the Marx’s,WC Feilds,Mae West and assorted other pre- and post code goodies..

  33. Duck Soup is way more radical and countercultural than King of Hearts!

    When Groucho met a young guy who was using his dialogue to pick up girls, he said “You mean kids are getting laid because of our movies? We COULDN’T get laid because of ’em!”

  34. Oh, that’s classic, though I can’t imagine Chico had trouble getting laid. Twenty-plus years ago I improvised a variation of the three-cent nickel gag from Animal Crackers at a company party. Don’t ask me exactly how or what I did, but I did it so well I left the guy, who was dating someone I wanted to be dating, bewildered befuddled and insulted. He even asked “Who ARE you?” and I answered “Jeffrey T. Spaulding, the T is for Edgar”. Everyone was laughing but him. It didn’t get me the date I wanted (do those things ever work?), but it was my second-finest moment as a performer.

  35. Christopher Says:

    Freedonia’s 1932 neighbor,Klopstokia!

  36. Yep, now THERE’S a double feature! Duck Soup is just about the funniest film there is, Million Dollar Legs is more strange…

  37. Hey, sweetheart!

  38. Christopher Says:

    I always wanted a sweatshirt that had a Goats head on it and said Klopstokia,like in the Olympics sequence…
    Harpo Marx took Susan Fleming here out of circulation about this time,and they lived happily ever after…

  39. Good old Harpo! He always seemed to me the most sexual Marx brother. But Groucho is the one Fiona fancies.

  40. Note to self: If David and Fiona visit West Coast, smoke cigar and wear greasepaint mustache. Get frock coat out of storage :)

  41. david wingrove Says:

    I actually have one of those aged VHS copies of CARTOUCHE but have never got round to watching it. Thanks for jogging my memory!

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