Saturday, July 27, 2013

Les Bonnes Femmes

Bernadette Lafont  Obituary by Ronald Bergan from The Guardian 

I don't usually get into posting obituary notices, something of a morbid habit, and certainly a reminder of our own impending demise, but this is one of my all time favorite actresses.

I never thought of her as one of the first New Wave actresses, just generally thinking of Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim, and perhaps Bardot in ...And God Created Woman, but she was a driving force behind Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1972), where one of the key scenes was seeing Bernadette Lafont drown her sorrows by repeatedly listening to Edith Piaf sing her 1948 recording “Les Amants de Paris” seen here: (YouTube - La maman et la putain on YouTube 3:05), which remains one of the essential works of cinema.

My favorite Chabrol film remains Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), a completely unpretentious film about bored Parisian working class girls who spend all day waiting to clock out of their dreary jobs so they can go out at night.  While utterly realistic, it remains as captivating today as when it was made, largely due to the naturalistic performance of Bernadette Lafont.

I still think of  her as that young and vibrant force driving French films, not quite the screen presence as Anna Karina, but she was probably the working class version, which is why I always felt I could relate to her.  There was no distance separating her from the audience, as she felt like one of us, which is something you just don't experience anymore. 

France  Italy  (100 mi)  1960  d:  Claude Chabrol

Before Chabrol started mocking the complacency of the bourgeoisie with artificially stylized whodunits, he made at least two stabs at a social realist film, BEAU SERGE (1958), a naturalistic rural drama, and this deceptively complex work that on the surface appears to be a free wheeling, light-hearted drama about the social patterns of young Parisian girls, shot in a near documentary style following events as they occur over the course of several days.  Balancing their time at work in an appliance store with no customers to speak of, where the highlight of the day is a hopeful visit from a delivery man, the film examines the lives of four young girls who work there, each more bored than the next where their low-end wages offer little hope for a better future.  While they tease one another at work all day and continue socializing at night, it is clear they exhibit an artificial cheerfulness to hide their otherwise empty lives, very much in the manner of John Cassavetes, particularly in FACES (1968).  In fact outside of Cassavetes, this is one of the best films to capture the emotional authenticity of young women and the difficulty they face enduring men who are exaggerated caricatures of themselves, all promising to be more than they are.  While the men are uncomfortably obnoxious, this is all part of the mating ritual where the social art of persuasion is a double-edged sword, where if you allow yourself to get lured in, you may suffer the consequences.  On the other hand, if you take no chances at all, you’re back where you started from, which is a neverending routine of endless monotony.  Chabrol, with help from cinematographer Henri Decaë, does an excellent job finding the rhythms of the streets of Paris which exude a wonderful sense of energy and hopeful possibilities while the oddly dissonant score by Pierre Jansen and Paul Misraki may give some the creeps. 

Bernadette Lafont plays Jane, perhaps the most liberated and sexually audacious of the group, who through acts of exuberant spontaneity hopes to find happiness, while Stéphane Audran, soon to be the director’s wife, working in dozens of films together for some twenty years, plays her roommate Ginette, living a secret life as a singer in a variety revue.  Lucile Saint-Simon plays Rita, an attractive blond who is incessantly schooled by her fiancé how to please his snooty, overbearing parents, demanding that she change to become the girl of his dreams, while newcomer Clothilde Joano plays Jacqueline, a recent hire late on her first day on the job, a shy, quiet girl lost in her thoughts about a young motorcyclist (Mario David) who shows up regularly without so much as a word, staring at her through the storefront window, following her on his bike, always keeping his eye on her.  From an early sequence where a couple of the girls are followed by two guys in a white Cadillac, the audience has an idea what’s in store for them and can see these men are little more than goons, but the girls have a zest for living that typifies the sudden influx of boldly energized New Wave films.  What follows is a wild strip club sequence with a bon vivant Bridgitte Bardot look-alike that gets the guys pinching and grabbing, followed by an extended party sequence that plays out like New Years, where it’s all Jane can do to fend them off, which she does brilliantly until a night of champagne finally wears down her defenses.  Jane can be seen in the same clothes spraying perfume under her arms the next morning as she joins her roommate for another day at work, interrupted by a frantic run to the zoo at lunchtime where they interact with the caged monkeys, rare birds, and a stalking leopard before returning back to work where Jane ends up asleep.  One by one each of the girls is called into the boss’s office to be fondled and pinched, a day where time literally stops, counting the minutes until the work day is done. 

Interesting that the guys surrounding these girls are typically crude, boorish and ill-mannered, more interested in dominating any female desire to express themselves, like hunters caging wild animals or rare birds (“They don’t look rare to me.”), while the girls themselves couldn’t be more vividly gorgeous and appealing in their feminine charm, spending their days in dead end jobs filled with hopes and dreams that someday it might all be different.  There’s a strange swimming pool sequence where the original louts that picked up Jane decide to bully the girls, thinking it’s fun to throw them in the water and continually dunk them, like rude water polo, until they are rescued by the motorcycle guy who runs off the imbeciles.  In perhaps the strangest scene in the film, the motorcyclist takes Jacqueline for a ride into the country, where they walk deeper and deeper into the woods.  It is clear Jacqueline has never been happier, that she is finally, at this moment, herself, in a scene highly reminiscent of similar scenes with the happy and dreamy-eyed Giulietta Masina on her wedding day in Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), a walk in the woods sequence borrowed again by Fassbinder in BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980) featuring Barbara Sukowa as Mieze in the beautifully choreographed Part XII “The Serpent in the Soul of the Serpent.”  These are scenes of utter heartbreak and despair, shown without a hint of excess, probably the turning point in each film.  The ramifications are beyond description, the audience is in a state of disbelief, as this was thought to be a dizzyingly absurd New Wave comedy of sorts, was it not?  The final sequence is just as exasperating, as the tone has completely shifted to a stunned audience that can’t quite comprehend what just happened.  This brilliant change of gears offers a completely new appraisal of the film, adding a profound layer of depth to these girl’s lives, where Chabrol expresses a surprising level of sympathy for their stark vulnerability in such a harsh world that barely notices they exist.

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