Monday, January 2, 2012

GOING PLACES (Les Valseuses, 1974)

Bertrand Blier's picaresque sex comedy was imported into the U.S. with an arthouse audience in mind. That's probably why Les Valseuses comes to us under the relatively innocuous title "Going Places," though the poster designer had the right exploitative idea (see left) instead of the more idiomatically literal and thematically appropriate "Balls." If an American studio had released a film called Balls in the 1970s, people would have a pretty good idea of what they were getting, and Valseuses would mostly fulfil that expectation. It's what we'd call a road movie, but without benefit of a car most of the time. Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere -- the former became a star with this picture, back when he was a relative hunk rather than an absolute hulk -- play a couple of boneheads who seem to be led through life by their peckers. My first impression as they chased and groped women was that this must have been the original for Dumb and Dumber, down to the ugly hair on the men. The French title becomes painfully literal when the Dewaere character gets his balls grazed by an angry hairdresser's bullet and suffers impotence for some time afterward. But just as he gets better, the film somehow manages to grow on you. You stop waiting (or hoping) for the guys to get killed and you begin to feel a little sorry for them as they wander through a strangely barren landscape. Their original obnoxiousness remains somewhat obnoxious, but is increasingly exposed as a kind of endearing neediness. If they seem like cases of arrested development, their environment of grocery store parking lots, empty resort towns and deserted beaches seems to be partly to blame, along with the unresponsive, uptight majority of the French population.

Even as a baby (above), Depardieu was fairly husky, but he grows fast in Les Valseuses and is soon getting around all by himself.

Indeed, Blier probably goes too far in suggesting that Jean-Claude and Pierrot are a life force that France may need to revitalize itself. Their perpetual horniness -- at one point Depardieu seems likely to take it out on Dewaere -- is a kind of lifeline extended to a variety of unhappy women, from Miou-Miou's frigid yet frequently naked hairdresser to Jeanne Moreau's suicidal ex-con to, perhaps most alarmingly for Americans, Isabelle Huppert's 16-year old virgin. This last encounter, with Miou-Miou assisting, is staged like a literal rite of passage and treated as indisputably a positive event in the girl's life. The girl had impulsively run away from her parents with the trio who had stolen the family car, and is left by them on the road to hitchhike afterward.

It's all good, though -- though Blier has the maturity to remind us that sex can't solve everything. A threesome with the two oafs fails to revive the Moreau character's spirits, and she suicides by shooting herself through her vagina -- an unexpectedly gruesome sight that sends the boys running away like scared children to sob in Miou-Miou's bed. Even then, I suppose it could be argued that the woman had a last moment of pleasure, a blessing from the knucklehead nature gods.

Watching this as a foreigner, I had the impression that Blier intended his heroes to embody something essentially, folkishly French. The music contributed to that impression; instead of the rock soundtrack you might expect in the equivalent American film, Blier's soundtrack is performed by the jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, whose music sounds as unmistakably French to me as anyone's can. Are these essentially innocent boors the soul of France? The French themselves may have thought so; they made the film a hit and Depardieu a star -- and they didn't type him as a moron, either.

Visually, Valseuses is very reminiscent of those American films of the Seventies that utilize landscape and cityscape to expose vulgarity and highlight personal alienation. You get plenty of pretty countryside, but you get a lot of grocery stores and bowling alleys as well. In either case it's our heroes who bring emptiness to crass yet hearty life. The cinematography of Bruno Nuytten consistently nails the mood Blier wants and makes this a movie of memorable images. Ultimately, it's a subtle, tricky picture that you can take either way, either as a satire or a celebration of a certain incorrigibility that's only human. It's the sort of film in which Miou-Miou can rush out rejoicing to tell the boys that she's finally achieved orgasm, only to have them throw her into a pond -- twice. If you can laugh at that, you should enjoy the rest of the show.

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