Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Love hurts

French director Bertrand Blier asks why women find men so baffling -- and vice versa.

By Charles Taylor
Published July 29, 1998 5:26PM (EDT)

Bertrand Blier's films present us with a world of companionable strangers.
His characters freely unload their romantic burdens to people they run
across in cafes or on the street, and they always find a friendly ear
because everyone is equally befuddled by love. Jean Renoir showed us a
world where people were united by class. In Blier's world, it's gender that
binds people together. Men and women are utter mysteries to each other,
mysteries as intoxicating as they are infuriating. And yet neither sex can
keep themselves from plunging into those puzzles of the heart and the
flesh, confident that this time, they'll solve it. To borrow a phrase from
novelist W.M. Spackman, men and women in Blier's films regard each
other as "a presence with secrets."

The secrets Blier spilled in films like the raw, brazen "Going Places" and
the playful, Mozartean "Get Our Your Handkerchiefs" were the secrets of
male sexual attitudes, which he parodied even as he reveled in them. Those
movies upset plenty of people who couldn't get past their outrage to see
that the men were always the butt of Blier's jokes. In last year's "Mon
Homme," Blier tries seeing things from a woman's point of view.

Blier's hooker heroine, Marie (Anouk Grinberg), worries about the same thing
that has always bedeviled his male characters: confusion about what the
opposite sex wants. The scenes where Grinberg and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi
pour out their frustrations is like hearing a female version of the male
griping that made Blier's earlier movies so explosively funny. You can feel Blier exulting in the discovery that women are just as puzzled by men as
men are by women. But, while reclaiming the daring that had become
calculated in his later movies, he adds a melancholy gravity. "Mon Homme"
is, on the surface, a lyrical sex farce. But Pierre Lhomme's rich,
dark-hued photography conveys the movie's emotional depths. "Mon Homme"
hits the fullest, saddest notes of any of the director's films.

Blier makes erotic fairy tales in which desire contains the power of an
ecstatic and terrible enchantment. To Marie, hooking is a sacred calling.
Appalled when a novice asks her how much she should charge, Marie reminds
the woman that her first duty is to pleasure. What she offers, she claims,
is true love, and she has a point. In her warm, cozy apartment at the top
of a six-story walk-up, Marie offers her clients devotion and excitement
devoid of love's grievances, disappointments and flagging desire. When an
elderly gent is too exhausted after his climb to make love, Marie makes him
happy by allowing him to watch her pee. A few days later, he's back at
Marie's pickup spot wearing a dreamy smile and telling her, "I'd like to
climb the stairs again." Heaven is upward.

As in many fairy tales, a mysterious stranger sends things topsy-turvy.
Returning home from a job one night, Marie finds a homeless man sleeping in
the lobby of her building. She feeds him, gives him a place to stay and
finally winds up offering him sex. Instead of responding with the
gratefulness with which he's accepted her food and hospitality, he takes
charge, handling her roughly, usurping the control she's always had with
her clients. She asks what his name is, and he tells her he can't remember.
He asks if she knows who she is, and she replies, "I can't remember who I
am, but I think I'm a whore." Her only certainty is, by the end of their
session, that she's in love with him.

That's Blier's way of saying that sexual attraction makes nonsense of
logic, upsets all our most deeply held beliefs about who we are and what we
want. "Mon Homme" sets up the idealistic notion of "true love" that Marie
offers her customers, the rose without the thorns, against the chaos of
real desire, with its outrageous capacity for pain. She's not blind to that
possibility. While her new lover is sleeping, she kneels beside him and
gives thanks "for this break that may not be one."

As always, Blier plays with sex roles, both the female in thrall as well as
the male who thinks he has to take charge to be a "real man." Thinking that
she's hit on a way to hold on to her identity and at least a little bit of
control, Marie suggests to Jeannot (that's his name; he's played by Gerard
Lanvin) that he become her pimp. "That way I'll belong to you," she says.
He agrees, but he's both attracted to and repulsed by his new role. He
likes his stylish new suits, the chance to shave and change his underwear
every day. But he can't stand being separated from Marie every day,
wandering from cafe to cafe while she conducts business. Jeannot's got
money, clothes, a woman at his beck and call and a nagging feeling that
something will go wrong. So he begins toying with real pimp behavior,
smacking Marie around (she hits him back -- right where it counts), and
picking up women.

He tries to persuade one of his lovers, a manicurist named Sarah (the
radiant Tedeschi), to work for him, but Sarah's notion of true love isn't
Marie's. Her conflicted response sets up the events that send the ménage
spinning into the separations and recombinations of the second half of the
movie. One of the hallmarks of Blier's work is his ability to maintain an
inner logic as events get wilder and wilder, and "Mon Homme" is no
exception. The common thread is the yearning that draws the sexes toward
the edge of the gulf that separates them.

Insecurity is the catalyst for almost all male stupidity in Blier's movies.
This isn't some '70s sensitive-male critique, though. Blier sees male folly
from the inside. He's saying to his audience, "Look at what asses we can
be." By contrast -- without pretending that he understands women -- Blier
has always treated the pain of his female characters solemnly. Marie and
Jeannot's initial lovemaking is scored to Polish composer Gorecki's
Second Symphony, a dark, mournful-sounding thing. Something grave and
wondrous is going on, Blier tells us, the simultaneous potential for the
zenith of pleasure and the depths of pain. He adores the women he puts on
screen. The camera basks in Tedeschi's voluptuous
tentativeness. The moments before her huge smile appears feel like seeing
the sun peek shyly out from behind a cloud. And certainly, we couldn't get
any closer to Grinberg's Marie. She's an almost birdlike creature,
with her long neck and soft spikes of hair. Grinberg's features are both
crystalline and pliable, betraying every emotion. At times, the movie's
deep sadness seems to be welling up out of her huge eyes. The hooker with
"a happy mind and a happy ass" may be a male fantasy, but Marie brings
dignity to her work. It's women who abide in Blier's world. For all of
Marie's delicacy, she's the strong one here. Grinberg's performance is
utterly fearless.

In "Going Places" and "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," the teamwork of Gerard
Depardieu and the late Patrick Dewaere seemed to embody male comic
potential. Dewaere's impetuous nervousness, a flutter disguised beneath
sudden bluster, complemented the slower, more ruminative Depardieu with his
hulking, regular-Joe brawn. Watching Lanvin's Jeannot is like seeing
Dewaere's spirit reincarnated in Depardieu's physique. Lanvin is a great
simian sad sack. He has the drooping eyes of a silent-movie clown. The
Barry White songs on the soundtrack (taken from White's 1994 album "The
Icon Is Love"), with their rumbling sexuality, both aggressive and
supplicating, embody the spirit of his performance. Making us feel sorry
for a bastard is one of the hardest things an actor can do, but Lanvin
accesses Jeannot's roiling doubt, the self-loathing that comes over him
when he goes too far. Blier's movies can be rueful experiences for the men
in the audience. You may have lived your life without resorting to the
extremes of his characters and still, seeing the anger that comes out of
their confusion, think, "My God, that's me."

Men have traditionally wound up outcasts in Blier's movies, going down the
road like Chaplin's Little Tramp reimagined by Henry Miller, still unsure
how they got that way. The terrible gift Blier bestows on Jeannot here is
self-knowledge. He delivers the movie's final line: "Forgive me, women,"
with a bottomless pathos. He knows how he went wrong, but not how to make
it right. In "Mon Homme," that's the story of, that's the glory of love.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Sex Work