There has just been a realignment of the cinematic celestial orbs. You remember James Robertson Justice, the rotund, bearded character actor from a myriad British comedies of the 50s and 60s? The one that used to bellow irritably at Dirk Bogarde in various Doctor films? Truly Scrumptious’ Dad in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Yep, that’s the one. Well, I have just watched a film in which James Robertson Justice utters the line “Leave her the fuck alone”! Admittedly it was a subtitle, and I have my doubts that the French words on the soundtrack were not actually spoken by JRJ, but it still came as a bit of a shock to hear such profanity from the lips of the Establishment. It’s OK. I’m fine now.
What was the film? Well, those nice people at Studio Canal have dug deep into their vaults again to prise yet another vintage flick from the fingers of obscurity. This time, it’s Love on a Pillow (Le Repos du Guerrier), a curio from 1962 written and directed by Roger Vadim. Vadim’s first film, …And God Created Woman, had made a star out of his wife Brigitte Bardot, but had precipitated their divorce. This film was their third and final collaboration, made between Vadim fathering a child with Catherine Deneuve and getting married to Jane Fonda. I think we can safely assume that whatever “it” is, Roger Vadim had it.
Love on a Pillow begins with Genevieve (Bardot in prissy, buttoned-up guise) discovering an attempted suicide when she accidentally enters the wrong room in her hotel. Thwarted in his effort to end it all, Renaud (Robert Hossein) decides that maybe being saved by Brigitte Bardot is not such a horrendous fate and declares her to be the owner of his soul. Genevieve quickly recognises in this man an escape from the constrictive life she leads with her fiancé and bourgeoise mother, and embarks on a masochistic relationship.
The loosening of Genevieve’s ties to the bourgeoisie is neatly represented by the state of her hair. Beginning with a tightly bunned-up do, their first meal together has Renaud liberating a lock from its confines. Before you can say “Because you’re worth it”, Genevieve’s tresses are cascading over her shoulders and she’s warming her naked body in front of a crackling log fire. She also adopts a carefree attitude to punctuality and her housekeeping goes to pot. Her mother is naturally appalled. What she would say about the drug-fuelled partner-swapping parties is anyone’s guess.
The film is most interesting in its attempt to shoehorn comment about male-female battlelines into a Bardot vehicle. Renaud treats Genevieve disdainfully, yet each provocation only seems to deepen her desire for him. Bardot was never exactly pin-up girl for the feminist movement, and this film’s depiction of female subservience does run against the grain of the time. At one point a female character is casually but brutally slapped by her boyfriend, an action which the Bardot character thinks is justified.
Defiantly rejecting the stylistic tics of the French New Wave and the working-class preoccupations of the British New Wave, Vadim appears to have taken his inspiration from the louche lifestyle of La Dolce Vita, especially in the party scene that would have become an orgy had it been filmed just a few years later. As it is, we have a bunch of disaffected people getting stoned while listening to languid jazz, pairing off with each other and muttering phrases like “Merde, c’est chouette!” – or, as the subtitles would have it: “Holy shit, it’s awesome!”
Love on a Pillow is not awesome but it is an intriguing attempt to concoct a more mature persona for Bardot, while still emphasising her allure. The script’s stabs at profundity may veer towards pretension, but Vadim fills the film with evidence of his star’s gorgeousness, and the photography has that irresistible glossy sheen so characteristic of the 60s. Superficial pleasures certainly, but pleasures nonetheless. Although perhaps less so for Germaine Greer.
Love on a Pillow is available on DVD now. Contributor Fintan McDonagh can be followed on Twitter @fintalloneword.
My heart always sinks slightly when I realise a film has been made by a debut writer-director. In most cases these hyphenates are very capable at punching out the words and are no slouch behind the camera, but combining the two disciplines for the first time usually leads to a worrying lack of distance from their material, and an inability to know what works well and what doesn’t. This usually becomes most apparent in the last 20 minutes of the film when the viewer’s buttock muscles determine that a more objective eye would have pruned away some of the stuff that the cutting-room floor was crying out for.
Patrick Stettner proves a very welcome exception to the rule. The Business of Strangers is an assured and compelling piece of work that weighs in at a nicely lean 84 minutes. Despite being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and winning Stockard Channing the London Critics’ Circle award for Best Actress, it made little impact at the box-office and failed to lead on to greater things for Stettner, whose only subsequent bash at direction was the distinctly underwhelming The Night Listener. But let’s not hold that against him. The Business of Strangers is just as perceptive as Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men (another writer/director’s debut that explored power games in the workplace with a sexual twist) but without the characteristically bitter aftertaste of the LaBute recipe.
As brilliant as she is, Stockard Channing’s award (and nominations from other bodies) feels acutely unjust with respect to this film. It is the sparky interaction with the equally brilliant Julia Stiles that lingers long after the copyright information has disappeared off the top of the screen. Elsewhere on this blog, I have written about the ‘first female buddy movie’ in which the two actresses flounder in underwritten and over-directed material. The chief pleasure with The Business of Strangers is in watching two actresses at the top of their game, letting rip in roles that are perfectly in sync with their talents.
The opening scenes act like a dry run for Up in the Air. Stockard Channing plays Julie, a high-ranking, high maintenance businesswoman, inhabiting the same platinum air miles, executive hotel suite, hand-baggage-only milieu as George Clooney in the later film. She power-strides from airport to boardroom to hotel-room, wheeling her perfectly packed existence behind her, mobile phone clamped to her ear, the omnipresent muzak reverberating in her wake. Julie is a woman who has sacrificed much for her success: fearing for her job when one of her superiors calls an unexpected meeting, it is her therapist whom she phones for support. Learning instead that she is to be made CEO, her secretary is the only one she cares to share the good news with.
Julia Stiles is Paula, a subordinate of Julie, but only in terms of job description. Her first encounter with Julie is brief: she is 45 minutes late for a meeting and, without being able to offer an explanation, summarily fired. Later, quietly basking in the glow of her promotion, Julie hears Paula yell a typically uncompromising “Fuck off!” at a man in her hotel bar. The dynamic of this second meeting is fascinating as the women jockey for the upper hand. When Julie attempts to apologise for the earlier firing without actually saying sorry and by offering a drink, Paula picks the most expensive cognac on the menu – ‘A double’ – shooting her superior the cockiest look in her repertoire. The woman she refers to as ‘überfrau’ is not to be allowed to diminish her again.
As the alcohol lubricates the friction between them, Paula admits that her real love is non-fiction writing: “The whole fiction thing is too neat – I like the sloppiness of real life.” Which is pretty much the feel of the evening that these two women spend together. Their relationship shifts constantly, with Paula an unpredictable catalyst. Sporting a spider tattoo in the nape of her neck, she gives the impression of spinning her own web, veering from arrogant to vulnerable via reckless and flirtatious. “You know a number of pornos are directed by women? They’re very similar but there’s less sex and more foreplay…”, challenging Julie with another of those meaningful looks. There is a palpable sexual undercurrent as they scandalise the occupants of a lift by joking about strap-ons and fool around in the hotel pool, but how seriously are we to take either of their intentions?
It would be unfair to reveal much more about plot, but suffice to say the dynamic changes markedly when a slick headhunting colleague of Julie’s oils his way into their company. There is a marvellous moment of transition when the women enter an area of the hotel under construction and are illuminated by a plane taking off from the nearby airport. Stettner uses slow motion and an ominous music cue to indicate that the larky power games are about to be played for higher stakes. And as scotches are downed, pills are popped and inhibitions are dulled, the boundaries that divide the poor girl made good and the slumming rich girl become increasingly indistinct.
Channing and Stiles are both superb, exuding intelligence and shouldering the film effortlessly between them. Hollywood should be ashamed that their talents have been so neglected. To watch Julia Stiles slump from her purple patch a decade ago to playing a barely-there character in the Bourne films and the lead in (shudder) The Omen remake is bitter proof that talent alone is not enough. And although I am aware that Stockard Channing has done something called The West Wing and won an award or two for it, what we really want to see is Rizzo clutching her Oscar, clad in Pink Lady jacket, cigarette dangling from lip – right?
Contributor Fintan McDonagh can be followed on Twitter @Fintalloneword.
I really like Jeanne Moreau. What’s not to really like? The heavy-lidded insouciance of her gaze. The husky purr of her voice, undoubtedly nurtured by a several-packs-of-Gitanes-a-day habit. The attitude that challenges you to find her irresistible while simultaneously not giving a Gallic toss whether you do or not. I present Jacques Demy’s La Baie des Anges as case for the defence. Just see if I’m not right.
Louis Malle didn’t exactly discover Moreau but he certainly gave her an almighty shove up the career ladder. In his first two fiction features, the Malle-Moreau chemistry worked wonders for both parties, on-screen and off. In Ascenseur pour l’échafaud Moreau wanders the Parisian boulevards throughout the night while her lover is trapped in a lift. In Les Amants she wanders in the wee small hours through the woods in her nightgown before taking a bath with the lover she’s just picked up. Nobody takes a nocturnal stroll quite like Jeanne Moreau.
After making the downbeat Le feu follet (also featuring Moreau in a minor role, and recently re-invented in Norway as Oslo, August 31st), Malle decided it would be welcome change of tone to make a comedy. This might have been a fine plan, except Louis Malle had no talent for comedy. His previous attempt, Zazie dans le Métro, though formally clever and inventive, seems to last twice as long as its 90 minutes in its desperate quest for wackiness. Viva Maria! also proves to be something of a challenge for an audience in search of a laugh.
The set-up is promising: Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as a pair of travelling performers discovering striptease by fluke, in what’s probably the first female buddy movie. Their musical numbers together are the most enjoyable aspect of the film. The scene where Bardot accidentally bursts out of her costume during a song, then continues to strip to the inevitable excitement of the audience, has a certain charm, although Barbara Windsor will forever remain the Queen of Accidentally Bursting Out Of Her Costume. And a few years later Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac occupied the stage with much more pizazz in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.
It’s an uncertainty of tone that holes the film beneath the waterline. It veers across genre and style like some mishmash of Carry On, Monty Python, Luis Bunuel, The Wild Bunch, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Jesus Christ Superstar and Calamity Jane. The plot (if we can be bothered with it – certainly the screenwriters didn’t appear overly concerned) involves two performers both called Maria travelling around Central America with a circus at the start of the 20th century. They witness the sufferings of the peasants under the sadistic dictator Rodriguez, and after Maria I (Moreau) falls in love with the doomed revolutionary leader Flores (George Hamilton), the girls lead a popular revolt to victory over the dictatorship and the corrupt Catholic Church.
One minute we have the two Marias performing a fluffy song-and-dance routine, the next we have a brutal massacre and enslavement of peasants. Then there’s George Hamilton making his entrance like Christ on the road to Calvary, forced by his captors to carry a beam of wood across his shoulders, while giving Bardot a run for her money in the unfeasibly well-coiffed hair stakes. The Hamilton role is completely absurd but presented earnestly and without a whiff of humour. He speaks po-facedly of the degradation of the peasants and the necessity of revolution as if he had just read ‘Marxism for Dummies’, and with all the conviction of someone who knows he is being out-acted by his French voiceover artist. The scene in which he makes sweet love to Moreau in his jail cell, all the while chained to that inconvenient cross, is beyond parody, yet the plaintive guitar and lush string accompaniment indicate that we are meant to take it at its romantic face value.
When Hamilton flutters his pretty lashes for the last time, Moreau, fired by her promise to continue the revolution, makes a speech based on Mark Antony in Julius Caesar that rouses the assembled peasants to rise against their oppressors. The speech is designed to awake indignation in the audience too, but since it is sandwiched between scenes of unfunny farce, all it awakens is an awareness that this film has been going for an hour and a quarter (only half an hour to go).
And so it continues. Relatively straight shoot-out action sequences and scenes of would-be dramatic impact are undermined by bizarre moments of surrealism (as they cross a barren desert, they encounter the upright skeletal remains of a horse and its rider) and weak humour (the cross on a church spire being used as a semaphore signal). The final sequences unexpectedly rope in a Spanish Inquisition that is straight out of Monty Python, and unveil the military genius of Brigitte Bardot. Ah yes, Bardot plays the innocent, virginal daughter of an Irish revolutionary, easily mistaken for a boy despite her proficiency with false eyelashes, who, after a night with the lads that would make a Premier League footballer blush, becomes the type of revolutionary strategist that chalks her conquests on the wall of her caravan. And who goes into a bit of a sulk when Moreau nabs Hamilton first.
Of course it’s all nonsense and not to be taken too seriously. The problem is that Malle does take it seriously for curiously long periods, resulting in a film with a tone as uneven as Bardot’s impersonation of an Irish boy. It looks good and the large budget is reflected in the crowds of peasants swarming across Mexican hills, but it’s an incoherent mess and rebelliously unfunny. So, a film that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t? Well, yes. But, you know, it does have Jeanne Moreau in it…
Contributor Fintan McDonagh can be followed on Twitter @Fintalloneword.