Les valseuses (France 1974)

Depardieu et Dewaere

Depardieu et Dewaere

Watching this film more than 40 years after it was made was a strange experience. I sought it out because it features an early appearance by Isabelle Huppert – but she has only a small part and it occurs in the last section of the film. After the first 20 minutes or so I was wondering whether I could stand watching it all the way through, but gradually it became easier to watch.

Les valseuses was written and directed by Bertrand Blier (born 1939) who had also written the novel from which the script was adapted. It tells the story of two ‘ne’er do wells’ who turn to stealing cars and whatever cash they can find in their travels around France. They are young men in their 20s played by Gérard Depardieu (‘Jean-Claude’) and Patrick Dewaere (‘Pierrot’) and worse than their crime spree is their treatment of women – sexual assault, violence and a complete lack of respect. The film is explicit in depictions of their behaviour with a succession of women but it is Miou-Miou as Marie-Ange who bears the brunt of it, playing a seemingly submissive woman prepared to put up with virtually any treatment in the first half of the film when she is revealed as unable to orgasm despite the best efforts of the two would be studs. She seems to accept her treatment as in some way ‘normal’ and that’s almost more shocking than the violence of their assaults on her. The film’s title has been variously translated as ‘Making It‘ (UK) or ‘Going Places‘ (US) – neither of which make much sense. The slang meaning of the title is ‘testicles’ or in plain Anglo-Saxon, ‘balls’. This might refer to the first action in the film when Pierrot is shot with the bullet grazing his groin and requiring stitches – or it could simply refer to the two men.

It’s worth remembering that in the mid-1970s French cinema was heading towards the domination of the local industry by sex films and there is plenty of nudity (female and male) and explicit sexual activity. In fact, the film was not granted a certificate by the BBFC in the UK in 1975 and was only seen in London where it had a GLC (Greater London Council) viewing licence. (It was re-released in the 1990s as an ’18’). In the US this might have been one of the films which gave French films the dubious reputation of excessive nudity and explicit sex. Roger Ebert suggested it was:

” . . . the most misogynistic movie I can remember; its hatred of women is palpable and embarrassing. There are laughs in it, yes, but how could anyone take this as a comedy?

Its story involves two loutish, brutal and unclean young men . . . I guess they’re supposed to come off as pathetic anti-heroes, driven to their cretinism out of terminal ennui.”

Several critics followed this line and sought to align the film (not necessarily favourably) with earlier films like The Wild One (US 1953) as devised to shock the bourgeoisie. I’m not sure that this is the case. I suspect that Blier was trying to make something ‘counter-cultural’ but that he was too heavily ‘marked’ at the time by sexist ideologies. I certainly didn’t mind the nudity or the sex in the film, though I flinched at the sexual violence. And I have to admit that despite their actions the two young men do have a certain kind of charm – which is perhaps even more disturbing. Depardieu in particular is young (25) and slim and has ‘dangerous charisma’. In fact this is the film that made him a star. It registered 5.5 million admissions in France and was a big hit. It’s worth reflecting that films in which men mistreat women have historically sometimes been popular with female audiences (James Mason’s films in the UK in the late 1940s offer examples).

Miou-Miou and Isabelle Huppert

Miou-Miou and Isabelle Huppert

What is to me extraordinary is the way in which the film begins to change halfway through when the two men wait outside a women’s prison and offer a ride to a woman being released (on the grounds that she will be looking for some kind of sexual release). She’s played by Jeanne Moreau, a major star of French cinema. An earlier sequence on a train sees an unusual form of sexual assault on a woman played by Brigitte Fossey, another leading actor of the time. It does seem strange that alongside Miou-Miou and Huppert, Blier could attract actresses to roles like these. However, as I’ve suggested, Moreau’s appearance seems to change the men’s behaviour, if only in the sense that they begin to allow the women to take more of the initiative. Jean-Claude is particularly gentle with her. Later when the men return to Marie-Ange she appears to have a change in self-awareness. Towards the end of the film the trio meet Isabelle Huppert’s Jacqueline who is a 16 year-old on holiday with her parents (Huppert was actually 20 – Miou-Miou was 22). Jacqueline is desperate to get away from her bourgeois family and to lose her virginity. The trio treat her almost tenderly. So, sexist thugs are human too.

To go back to Ebert, is this film a comedy? There are certainly comedic moments and as per the change of tone in the second half, when Jean-Claude and Pierrot throw Marie-Ange in the canal it is more in celebration than an act of violence towards her. But two people die in the film – and not in a way to imply ‘black comedy’. Miou-Miou and Patrick Dawaere had begun their careers as founding members of a Paris acting troupe at Café de la Gare in 1968 and became lovers. (Depardieu also worked there at some point.) All three leads received a boost from the success of Les valseuses, but I find Miou-Miou’s ‘bravery’ (‘recklessness’) the most striking feature of the film. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I think I learned a lot about a period of French cinema that I know less well than I should.

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