Archive for Maurice Ronet

A Portrait in Gold

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2017 by dcairns

A few weeks ago I had a couple of triumphs — I was able to procure for Chiseler scribe Jim Knipfel three films by his beloved W. Lee Wilder that he’s always yearned to see, and for David Melville Wingrove a copy of LA MESSE DOREE, a movie he’d been fantasising about since he was twelve. Read his report —

“We need to remember that we are still alive.”

Lucia Bosè, La Messe Dorée

The 70s were the decade that looked as if everything was about to change. For most of the much-mythologised 60s, a handful of rich and glamorous people hung out in exclusive nightclubs and talked about changing the world. By the dawn of the 70s, it seemed that people in increasingly large numbers were ready to do just that. Feminism, gay rights, Black Power, anti-war protests and burgeoning left-wing movements across the globe made it tempting to believe that bourgeois heterosexual patriarchy was well and truly done for. But what might the world look like once the end finally came? The cinema of the 70s made some bizarre attempts to imagine. The majority were less a case of Apocalypse Now and more a case of Apocalypse Yes, But Not Quite Yet.

Big commercial movies tried to reflect the anxieties of their audience with overblown epics of devastation and disaster – Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) – where the sheer wretched overacting made you wonder if The End Of Civilisation As We Know It was really such a tragedy after all. The art-house took a subtler but no less apocalyptic view. The single most radical and uncompromising film of the 70s – Pier Paolo Pasolini’s stomach-churning yet wholly non-sensational Salò (1975) – showed the patriarchy fighting back against the threat of annihilation and doing so in increasingly perverse and brutal ways. It may be the one film routinely described as ‘pornographic’ that seems designed to put its viewers off sex for the rest of their lives.

Only one other film of the decade can rival Salò for sheer aesthetic and erotic boldness. It is a film so obscure and so difficult to see that it verges on being ‘lost’ for all time. It was made in France in 1974 by the Italian designer and artist Beni Montresor. Its title is La Messe Dorée. That title translates as ‘The Golden Mass’ and – as one might expect – it is lush, ritualistic and sensual, as mysterious and glowingly over-decorated as a Byzantine mosaic. Its star is the darkly glamorous Italian diva Lucia Bosè, who resembles Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in an unusually perverse mood. Watching from the shadows, in the subsidiary role of her husband, is the French actor Maurice Ronet – whose haunted face seems to hide wastes of depravity of which the Marquis de Sade could barely dream.

The action centres entirely on an orgy in their elegant Art Nouveau chateau outside Paris. Attractive young guests of both sexes are invited, there to indulge in various unspeakable acts. The parallels with Salò may seem too obvious to need pointing out. Yet the tone (and the ideological agenda) of the two films could not be more different. If Salò is the art of protest, La Messe Dorée is the art of seduction. In Salò we see a conservative patriarchal order (specifically, the Fascists of 1940s Italy) defending itself through acts of nauseating sexual savagery; in La Messe Dorée, we witness the defeat and dissolution of patriarchy itself. The father played by Ronet has become an irrelevance in his own house. Unwilling or unwelcome to make love to his wife, he gazes hungrily at the naked flesh of his teenage son and beds down at last (and, mercifully, off-screen) with his nubile 12-year-old daughter.

The real action is downstairs at the banquet. As the guests sit down to dinner, a glamorous lesbian (Stefania Casini) devours a chicken leg as if she were performing a full-on act of fellatio. Flouncing about in a voluminous red-and-gold kaftan, Bosè leads the company in a wild ritual dance. The women swoop and whirl about like Bacchantes while the men-folk, rather sheepishly, join in. Later on, the lesbian and her married girlfriend indulge in some surprisingly hardcore Sapphic action. The girlfriend’s strait-laced husband (François Dunoyer) watches them and masturbates helplessly in the doorway. His only way to join in is for the two women to tie him to the bed and torture him. As the S&M games grow more frantic, he screams out: “I want to die! I want to die!” When the two women leave the room, he is stretched out motionless on the bed. He does not appear at any point again.

Yet even this is not the climax. As the evening draws to a close, a young virgin (Eva Axen) is ceremonially robed and painted to resemble the Madonna. She is carried on a litter to the main hall, surrounded by guests with blazing torches, to the tune of Severino Gazzelloni’s incantatory score. There she is stretched out on the floor and ritually deflowered; as the whole company copulates around her, she penetrates herself with one finger. Orgiasts smear their faces with blood from her broken hymen. All of this proves too much for Bosè, who – as befits a star of a certain age – has presided with elegance over the kinky goings-on but, hitherto, has done nothing indecorous herself. Now, with a shriek of unbridled passion, she runs upstairs and becomes alarmingly intimate with her son. You may be glad the scene that follows is no more convincing than it is.

On its release in 1975, La Messe Dorée managed to shock the few people who saw it – in those few brave countries where it did not get itself banned. I myself first read about the film in a magazine when I was twelve years old. (Yes, I was that sort of child.) It has taken me the ensuing forty years just to track down a copy. That is not too long to wait for a dark and dreamlike fantasy on the breakdown of the heterosexual bourgeois order and the triumph of all things a therapist might label ‘polymorphously perverse’. The look and tone of the film suggest Beni Montresor was a homosexual aesthete in the High Decadent tradition of Oscar Wilde and Barbey d’Aurevilly. Yet, oddly, there is little if any sexual activity between men. La Messe Dorée is defiantly queer rather than gay. Complex and hard to pin down, it may never be reclaimed as a cult movie by one particular audience.

Beni Montresor, a lot like Oscar Wilde, may have lived in sheer terror of not being misunderstood. So we do La Messe Dorée a supreme honour if we do not understand a thing.

David Melville

The Birds in Peru

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2016 by dcairns

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