Friday, March 25, 2011

DON'T TOUCH THE WHITE WOMAN! (Touche pas la femme blanche!, 1974)

In the book 10,000 Ways to Die, Alex Cox treats Marco Ferreri's mock-epic as a spaghetti western. The director and star Marcello Mastroianni are Italian, after all. Cox notes that it lacks a key element of spaghettis, a revenge angle, but in doing so misses the point of the film for a moment. If the film stands for anything, Don't Touch the White Woman! is a call for collective action, and the Indian victory at the end is collective revenge for numberless massacres at the hands of the white man.

But I get ahead of myself. Let's go back to Cox for a second. His inclusion of the Ferreri in his book must have startled many readers because its standing as a western is very open to question. Like nearly all spaghetti westerns, Don't Touch was filmed in Europe, but Ferreri took the substitution of Europe for America to an absurd extreme by shooting it in the middle of Paris, where a massive demolition project was under way in which the director got to take part. He re-enacts the Custer legend against a 19th century cityscape that looks more appropriate for a film about the Paris Commune -- and that's probably no accident.

It's not as if Paris had never been a battleground before.

20th century elements pervade the film. U.S. Cavalry officers await their leader at a modern train station as people in modern dress walk past. A character who interacts with the soldiers throughout is a modern-day professor of anthropology who wears a different institutional sweatshirt in every scene, representing everything from the University of Hartford to the CIA. In one scene he shows off a photo of Che Guevara's corpse. Custer's commander-in-chief is Richard M. Nixon.

Nixon's spirit (and his "magnetic gaze") preside over Don't Touch the White Woman!

It's tempting to label all of this "surrealism," but we needn't be that pretentious about it. Let's call it burlesque instead, in the sense of the word I favor: an exploitation of art's innate unreality. It's also burlesque in the sense of parody, mocking both conventional American westerns and spaghettis. The main characters are clowns. Custer (Mastroianni) is childishly vain and petulantly pompous. He has a habit of stomping his heels to salute a woman or a superior officer, no matter how annoying it proves to his superior, General Terry (Phillipe Noiret). He also does the stomp in the middle of the final battle, whenever he kills an Indian. His rival, Buffalo Bill (Michel Piccoli, who seems to be trying for an American accent) is an egotistical blowhard who proves not to have the stomach for combat. They're creatures out of vaudeville who nearly convince you that Ferreri has made the first Marx brothers movie without a Marx in it -- unless you assume that Karl is in there somewhere.

Above, a dark-haired Custer (Marcello Mastroianni) and his lady (Catherine Deneuve).Below, "the madman" (Serge Reggiani) serves up sound advice along with some slop to Chief Sitting Bull (Alan Cuny)

Is there a point to it beyond the absurdity? Don't Touch is assumed to be anti-American, and I suppose it is, but not in any way that compels this American to take offense. The American villains quite clearly symbolize more than America, however. In the opening scenes, until the name of Custer is spoken, you could assume that the film is about reactionary Frenchmen trying to deal with the problem of urban anarchy. European audiences probably found the symbolism pretty transparent, while Americans, from what I can tell, never saw the film in theaters. A shamelessly loinclothed Serge Reggiani ranting in favor of collectivism is only the most obvious tip-off that the film's primary subject is not the oppression of Native Americans. Don't Touch is really a primer on the flexibility of archetypes. Put the Seventh Cavalry in the middle of Paris and people should get your point.

In the climactic battle scene, Ferreri out-gores most spaghetti westerns.

Ferreri's film also testifies to the director's luck exploiting found objects. Later in the decade, he'd go to New York and build Bye Bye Monkey around a discarded King Kong from the 1976 remake. In Don't Touch he makes inspired use of his once-in-a-lifetime location opportunity with the help of cinematographer Etienne Becker, creating indelible images that are no less epic for being mock-epic. The comedy may be too broad to be cool for some viewers, but the pictorial juxtapositions are nearly apocalyptic in the old sense of a revelation, and in some ways anticipate the tropes of post-apocalyptic cinema. Take or leave the story, but Don't Touch the White Woman is one of the most visually striking films of the 1970s.

Here's a trailer that avoids the money shots of the urban locations, as if trying not to scare off viewers. It was uploaded to YouTube by LindbergSWDB.


Stephen Roberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam Juliano said...

"Let's call it burlesque instead, in the sense of the word I favor: an exploitation of art's innate unreality. It's also burlesque in the sense of parody, mocking both conventional American westerns and spaghettis."

Most interesting Samuel. I am wondering if this rarely-encountered film is in the Ferrreri DVD box set? I'll have to check. I haven't seen it but I have watched a few others by the director, including what I regard as his masterpiece, LA GRANDE BOUFFE, an often revolting satire about food gorging and farting that sends up the upper classes in a non-stop orgy of hedonistic pleasures and gross outs to come close to Pasolini's SALO. How appropriately bizarre that this film was shot in the center of Paris! Ha!

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Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I think it's there because the disc Netflix sent me had a "Marco Ferreri Collection" label. The only other one of his I've seen is Bye Bye Monkey but I have a copy of Dillinger is Dead from a past Criterion sale and your comments on Grande Bouffe sound almost like a dare to me. It sounds like you might find Don't Touch mild in comparison.

Stephen, in the spirit of surrealism I appreciate your comment.