Archive for September 18, 2019

Chimp Tango in Paris

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2019 by dcairns

After his let’s-give-Yves-Montant-a-hard-time trilogy of Z, L’AVEAU and ETAT DE SIEGE, and SECTION SPECIALE which, unbelievably to me, was criticised for being “caricatured” in its portrayal of collaboration (a certain level of cartooning seems permissable in a film with dozens of characters and a complex set of circumstances to convey), Costa-Gavras took a short break from political issues in 1979 and made the strange and haunting CLAIR DE FEMME (which translates as WOMAN LIGHT which is a terrible title, but the French version seems fine so let’s sue that), in which… Yves Montand has a hard time.

C-G insists that the personal is political but you would be struggling to find even passing references to the events of the seventies, and the film doesn’t seek to deeply investigate or question gender relations, which is the topic at hand I guess. Or maybe it does? But it’s still a very interesting piece, and part of its allure is the mystery of what drew the filmmaker to it.

I would characterise the film as a screwball tragedy — maybe PETULIA would be a good reference, but that film IS overtly political and has a bitterness that’s absent here. Montand keeps trying to fly out of Paris to Caracas or anywhere at all, as soon as possible, but then he keeps wandering out of the airport, missing his flight, and traipsing around Paris. The narrative is all meet-cutes and everybody’s a philosopher, which is why I see it as screwball. Plus the dialogue is epigramatic and the situations faintly absurd. A bereaved father speaks only gibberish, like he’s from Belugistan, Plus our leads evidently don’t worry about money: Romy Schneider pays Montand’s cab fare and doesn’t want paid back. Ever taken a cab from Charles de Gaulle?

The source is a novel by Romain Gary, who wrote WHITE DOG, and indeed one character (the spendid Romolo Valli) is a dog-trainer. He has a night-club act, described by Montand as “unspeakably horrible,” in which a chimpanzee tangos with a poodle, but he’s a nice, distracted, lonely man, dying of heart disease and worried about what will become of his animals. He’s not like Jules Berry in LE JOUR SE LEVE, my only other reference for Parisian dog-handlers. That movie may in fact be a reference, with its open-all-night narrative, elaborate, poetic dialogue… plus Montand himself is a link to Marcel Carne. With the face of a disappointed horse, God love him.

This damn film is weird, melancholic, funny-ish (Roberto Benigni plays a bar-man, but someone has sat on his head and got him to act proper) and disturbingly prophetic. When Gary wrote his book about a man whose wife is suiciding, his own ex-wife, Jean Seberg, was still alive. When Costa-Gavras made the film, Montand was not a widower yet, and Romy Schneider, whose character has lost a child in a tragic accident, had not yet lost a child in a tragic accident. Everything about the story and everything in the acting is so heartbreaking I assumed all those things had already happened and everyone was drawing on them and it was all a bit near the knuckle. Now it’s just distressing that they could do the emotions and yet they were still to have the emotions.

It’s about being bereaved and in love in Paris while wearing a raincoat, so it’s LAST TANGO without the misogyny.

This film deserves to be seen — I couldn’t look away and I couldn’t decide if it WORKED — the appeal of screwball has a strong flavour of “if only life were like this” so overlaying it on tragic events always creates a strange disconnect, a frustrating sense or irreality that never obtrudes when the subject is comic. But with some films, NOT WORKING is part of the charm, maybe even part of what makes them work.

Advertisements