Monday, August 8, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "The Profane"

Yes, you're reading that right: I took a class entitled "The Profane" last semester. The class focused mostly on sex, specifically on the presentation of women and female sexuality. It was a really fascinating class, anchored by a collection of films that pushed the boundaries of taste and "decency" in a variety of ways.

So here's the list of the films that we watched. Well, some of them: in the interest of brevity, I excluded the documentaries and short films that we watched, and instead I'm including only the narrative features.

A Short Film about Love (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)


An expanded version of the sixth chapter of his epic television series The Decalogue, A Short Film about Love finds Polish master filmmaker Kieslowski doing his best Rear Window interpretation. Postal worker Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) spies on a promiscuous older woman, Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska), and falls in love with her. When she does not reciprocate his feelings, however, events spiral out of control. The dynamics of Tomek's and Magda's relationship are more than a little questionable (it's essentially stalker-stalked), which makes the film's final act discomforting. Kieslowski's direction, however, surprisingly makes it work, and hints at the greater films he would make toward the end of his career. On it's own, however, this film is more of a curio than anything else.

In the Realm of the Senses (dir. Nagisa Ôshima, 1976)


Ôshima quickly established himself as Japan's leading provocateur with Death By Hanging and Three Resurrected Drunkards in the 1960s, and his frequently scandalous material found him working in France as often as his native Japan. In the Realm of the Senses remains his most notorious film, a retelling of the story of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), who in pre-WWII Tokyo became a sensation for murdering her lover Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) and keeping his severed genitals in her kimono. Ôshima presents the story as a tableaux of explicit, reportedly unstimulated sex scenes, often accompanied by BDSM and allusions to the rise of fascism in Japan in the 1930s. It's a bold film that is provocative and thoughtful without being titillating.

More after the jump.


Last Tango in Paris (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)


Last Tango in Paris is almost certainly Bertolucci's most famous film (though his tamer The Last Emperor is his most successful in the US), if only for the infamous "butter rape" scene between American expatriate Paul (Marlon Brando) and Parisian Jeanne (Maria Schneider). Indeed, Bertolucci's film is an exercise in erotic ennui as it watches Paul and Jeanne's anonymous affair, and the disintegration of the affair as they learn more about one another. Despite an effort to balance the relationship, the film is overwhelmed by Brando's domineering performance, an indication of the outsized work he would turn in for the rest of the decade. As a result, the film loses much of its potential, and instead feels like an exercise in aggressive male sexuality at the expense of women.

Going Places (dir. Bertrand Blier, 1974)


There was no hotter star in France in the 1970s than Gérard Depardieu, and his willingness to lend his talent to smaller arthouse films was a hallmark of his erotic screen presence. Going Places (the original French title, Les Valseuses, is a slang term for testicles) finds him wrecking havoc with Patrick Dewaere as Jean-Claude and Pierrot, respectively, two men determined to have a good time at any cost. This means sexually harassing old ladies, stealing cars, and generally causing mischief, eventually joined by Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou), a woman incapable of having an orgasm. There's an anarchic tone to the film as a whole, but a brief sequence in which the men seduce an older woman (Jeanne Moreau), reveals the deep cynicism at the film's heart. What appears to be a gleeful romp of a film turns out to be more of an existential crisis.

Dog Days (dir. Ulrich Seidl, 2001)


Austrian auteur Seidl has made a name for himself with his detached style: the camera is an unfeeling observer on people's lives and refuses to look away as his characters embrace their basest behavior. Set in the hottest days of summer, Dog Days finds six interweaving tales of various characters around Vienna - including a verbose hitchhiker, a man living with his ex-wife and her lover, and a prostitute involved with dangerous men - and the dark places their stories take them too. Seidl's film is unflinching in its depiction of grotesque orgies, rape, and violence, as the filmmaker stares into the worst of humanity. The question, though, is what his aim is? Is Seidl's project debauchery for the sake of provocation, or is there a deeper statement here?

Irréversible (dir. Gaspar Noé, 2002)


Speaking of provocateurs, French-Argentine filmmaker Noé is renowned for his kinetic works of questionable taste. Irréversible is perhaps his most questionable: the film opens with Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) murdering a man in a gay night club, then works backward in reverse order to reveal that the dead man raped Marcus' girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) and beat her into a coma. The rape forms the centerpiece of the narrative, and Noé holds the camera still for an uncut 10 minutes (though it feels like an eternity) as the man (Joe Prestia) commits the crime. The film begins with its most unseemly bits, but telling the story in reverse order lends the film's final scenes - the narrative beginning - an unexpected poignancy and tragedy. Make no mistake, the film does its best to make the audience wretch - at violence, at homophobia and transphobia, at rape - but its surprisingly moving too.

Baise-moi (dirs. Virginie Despentes & Coralie, 2000)


Unlike Irréversible, Baise-moi - which translates to "fuck me" - is decidedly unsympathetic in its portrayal of rape and debauchery. Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) and Nadine (Karen Lancaume) go on a violent spree across France after the former is gang-raped and the latter kills her roommate, rebelling against society. The film isn't a French Thelma & Louise, however, as neither woman seems to have much concern for anything but anarchy. Despentes & Coralie's direction can charitably be described as amateur, and the film is shot in a low-grade video that gives it a degraded look. Though the aesthetic fits the material, the film nevertheless feels like an empty exercise in extremism.

Taxi zum Klo (dir. Frank Ripploh, 1980)


Taxi zum Klo is a rare film about pre-AIDS gay male life made by an out gay man (unlike, say, William Friedkin's exploitative Cruisin'). Frank Ripploh (playing himself) is a schoolteacher during the day, but spends his nights looking for anonymous sex in Berlin. With Ripploh's starring role, the film feels autobiographical, and the frankness with which he presents gay culture suggests that much of it is drawn from his own experiences. More than anything, however, the film is a fascinating document of gay culture from an era when it was still treated as taboo.

Betty Blue (dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986)


For class, we watched the nearly three-hour director's cut of the film that was released in 2004, which is about an hour longer than the version released in theaters in 1986. The film charts the volatile relationship between writer Zorg (Jean-Hughes Anglade) and unstable Betty (Béatrice Dalle, no stranger to unstable characters) over the years as he works on publishing his magnum opus. Beineix manages to wrangle a lot of material here, but ultimately can't enliven a too-familiar story. As much as Betty is the center of the film's marketing, this is Zorg's story, and it's a story about how a "quirky" woman teaches a man to be a better version of himself. There are some amusing diversions - such as a disastrous attempt to run a restaurant - but nothing terribly original.

Romance (dir. Catherine Brellait, 1999)


Brellait, as is the common theme of these films, is one of France's top provocateurs, particularly in how she frankly depicts female sexuality. Romance stars Caroline Ducey as Marie, a woman frustrated by a boyfriend (Sagamore Stévenin) who won't have sex with her. She ventures out into a world of no-strings hookups, including a man at a bar (Italian pornstar Rocco Siffredi) and an older man (François Berléand) with a predilection for BDSM. Brellait, like other filmmakers on this list, goes for shock value, particularly in the film's unsimulated sex scenes and a final act that goes to it's logical extreme. That being said, Brellait wisely keeps the film focused on Marie's sexual liberation and exploration without demonizing female sexuality, a rarity in most mainstream filmmaking.

Fat Girl (dir. Catherine Brellait, 2001)


On the other hand, Fat Girl - alternately known as For My Sister in Europe - pushes the provocation to more troubling ends. The film revolves around teenage sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) while they are on vacation at the French coast with their parents. Elena meets a strapping Italian law student (Libero De Rienzo) and starts a relationship with her, but Anaïs witnesses him pressure her into sex. For the first two acts, the film is a nuanced, exemplary study of the relationship between the two sisters, and it gains real power from how the intrusion of a man influences their bond as well as from the pressures placed on young women to have sex. The bizarre third act, however, feels dropped in from a completely different movie, ending on a note that is borderline irresponsible. It seems Brellait pushed for provocation too much.

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