The Birds in Peru

David Melville Wingrove is BACK — with another Forbidden Diva column…

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Something for the Birds

“If you are face to face with the impossible, all you can do is give in.”

~ Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Birds Come to Die in Peru

A naked woman lies on a beach, her arms spread wide in a crucifixion pose. Her face is hidden by a white mask, smooth and empty of features. The mask does not belong to the woman; it covers the back of a man’s head. The man is making energetic, even violent love to the woman. He pumps away at her but she does not respond. Her hands, in close-up, clench until her fingernails dig savagely into her flesh and draw blood. Stigmata. She wipes her palms on the mask, until its pale cheeks are stained with blood tears. On the sand, around the copulating couple, lie a score or more of dead seabirds. A trio of other men lie among the birds. They are dead too, or maybe just exhausted, dressed in ragged carnival clothes. One wears an 18th century frock coat and powdered wig. Another wears a plastic suit of armour with a matching mask. The third, who wears a gaudy matador outfit, sits some distance apart and strums on a guitar. Suddenly, the man who is on top of the woman climaxes and rolls over, half dead. The woman stares up at the camera, her eyes blank and exquisite, unfulfilled…

Five minutes into Birds Come to Die in Peru (1968), you may be fleeing up the cinema aisle and spilling your popcorn as you run. If not, you may be sitting there transfixed and feeling you are in the presence of something great. Perhaps the most wilfully bizarre erotic fantasy ever recorded on film, it is the brainchild of the French novelist and occasional film director Romain Gary. (The illegitimate son of the silent Russian star Ivan Mosjoukine, this man absorbed his devil-may-care flamboyance straight from his father’s sperm.) Gary conceived the film as a perverse valentine to his then-wife, the transatlantic American star Jean Seberg. Discovered as a teenage nymphet by Otto Preminger – in Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958) – the glacially lovely Seberg had an oddly schizophrenic career. At once an icon of the French Nouvelle Vague – Breathless (1959) for Jean-Luc Godard – and a bimbo in the squarest of Old Hollywood schlock – Airport (1970) for Ross Hunter. Yet her most indelible screen legacy, here and in Les Hautes Solitudes (1974) by Philippe Garrel, finds her in the service of outright and unapologetic weirdness.

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Her role in Birds Come to Die in Peru is that of Adriana, a frigid nymphomaniac of ineffable glamour and seemingly boundless wealth. All she does, it seems, is travel the world in search of the one man who can bring her sexual satisfaction. Doomed as that quest may be, there is no denying that she goes about it in grand style. Her husband, a sinister Middle Eastern tycoon played by Pierre Brasseur, combs the beach in search of her in his silver-grey Rolls-Royce. Their hunky chauffeur (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) wears a tailored black uniform and looks like a sexy Angel of Death in a Jean Cocteau movie. He sports a pair of black leather gloves that poke up, suggestively, from one shoulder of his jacket. His job is not so much to find Adriana as to keep her husband company on his search. “Wherever she goes,” he quips, “she does wonders for tourism.” A dark and doe-eyed youth in a white suit (Michel Buades) stalks Adriana and watches her from behind rocks. Is this lad her Guardian Angel? Or is he just a horny local beach boy who has not yet got lucky?

Once the five-way orgy is complete, Adriana – still unsatisfied – sees the sun is rising over the pounding surf. The beach around her is positively littered with dead birds. She takes refuge in an old clapboard whorehouse, which is run by none other than the classic French movie icon Danielle Darrieux. The lesbian Madame Fernande takes a none-too-discreet shine to Adriana; they share an unseen interlude behind a closed wooden shutter. As magnificent as Darrieux undoubtedly is in classics such as Madame De… (1953), I tend to find her chilly and remote. Here she is overtly raunchy and vulgar – and wears a rainbow-hued sequinned gown of consummate and eye-popping hideousness. Asked if she is truly French, she snaps back: “My heart yes, but the rest is international.” That is a touching tribute to her rival diva and fellow wartime collaborator Arletty. At the risk of disqualifying myself forever as a film critic, I confess that I have never found Darrieux as oddly likeable as I do here.

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Fearful that her husband and his chauffeur are closing in, Adriana flees the brothel and wanders a bit further down the beach. She stops and pays homage to a giant vulture that crouches atop a boulder – unsure, maybe, as to which of the multiplicity of dead or dying seagulls to snack on next. Feeling that her life is just too desperately empty, she wades out into the surf and tries to end it all. Has she perhaps been watching Joan Crawford in Humoresque (1946)? Like all of Adriana’s efforts, this too is doomed to failure. A dashing ex-revolutionary and failed poet (Maurice Ronet) just happens to glimpse her drowning herself through the giant picture window of his beach house. He runs after her and sweeps her up in his arms; carries her back to the safety of his bedroom. No sooner has Adriana come to than she and Ronet realise, in the same instant, that they are made for each other. Neither one of them has ever met another human being who was quite so poetically disillusioned, or quite so glamorously doomed.

These two outcasts spend the morning making love. At one point, we suspect that Adriana might almost be about to have an orgasm. But Jean Seberg, in her exquisite porcelain pallor, is an actress who makes Catherine Deneuve look like Anna Magnani. We suspect that undergoing (or at least miming) the throes of highest sexual ecstasy might cause her to break into tiny glass splinters. A more expressive actress might well come a cropper in Birds Come to Die in Peru. In a film so outré and flamboyant, any bravura emoting would surely be redundant. The face of Jean Seberg, as callow and coldly perfect as that mask in the opening scene, is a cipher of hidden neurosis and frustrated lust. Her performance blends the cool lasciviousness of Deneuve in Belle de Jour (1967) with the icy anguish of Liv Ullmann in a Bergman psychodrama. We know better than to hope that she and Ronet will settle down to any sort of happily-ever-after finale. Yet the ending is a warped twist that – even having sat through 90-odd minutes of insanity – we are unlikely to see coming.

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Needless to say, Birds Come to Die in Peru was a career-killing catastrophe for everyone involved. Savaged by critics and shunned by the public, it was released in America under a shorter title – Birds in Peru – that made it sound like a nature documentary. Unavailable today in any commercial format, it survives in blurred TV copies that utterly ruin its spectacular Franscope photography by Christian Matras. Seberg and Gary would make only one more film together – a 1972 political thriller called Kill! – before her real-life political sympathies (allegedly) wrecked their marriage. A fervent supporter of the radical Black Panthers, she died in mysterious circumstances in 1979. The official cause was suicide but rumours of FBI involvement persist to this day. Birds Come to Die in Peru still features regularly on lists of the worst movies ever made. Yet I defy anyone who has ever seen it to forget they have – or to say they have seen anything quite like it. A mediocre work of art will almost invariably resemble other artworks. Only the Greatest (and the Worst) art is entirely unique.

David Melville

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5 Responses to “The Birds in Peru”

  1. In some territories it was released as a double-feature with Boom!

    Think about that for a minute.

    Seberg and Gary were the oddest of odd couples. They loved each other but he was sexually impotent, so. . .

    The most interesting account of their years together is to be found in Gary’s book “White Dog,” which was not a novel but a recit — out of which Sam Fuller fashioned a masterpiece.

    She was far from negligible as an actress. Her performances for Premnger are as brilliant as the one she gave fro Godard. But she was deeply troubled — and drugs didn’t help.

    Nico used to complain that every time she dropped by to see her and Garrel, Seberg would steal her heoin stash.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    A BOOM! and BIRDS double feature? I would fly anywhere in the world to see that!

  3. Somebody on the IMDb was speculating on how the film might reflect on the Gary-Seberg relationship. The idea of an impotent filmmaker making a movie in which his wife is the anorgasmic one is a gift to Freudian readers, if there are any left.

  4. chris schneider Says:

    Along with the echo of HUMORESQUE, I’m wondering if Seberg and her chauffeur aren’t an echo of GILDA and Glenn Ford “pick[ing] up the laundry” for George Macready. Or is it just that I saw GILDA this afternoon and the movie is still with me?

  5. It could be. And Cocteau is always a possibility.

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