“La dolce vita” is more bitter than sweet in these razor-sharp rarities
DVD has become the preeminent forum for high-art cinema on video, and the trend shows no sign of letting up. Auteurists who could previously only dream of seeing, much less owning, crisp copies of films like Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes or Losey’s legendary Eva can now satisfy their fetish thanks to companies such as Kino, which has released fine versions of these two films along with a third, Antonioni’s Il Grido, in a handy three-pack under the collective title Rare Treasures of European Cinema.
That Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), one of the landmarks of the nouvelle vague, never received an official release in the United States is surprising considering the film’s many sensational elements. Loads of “exotic” (Parisian) location shooting; heavy-breathing scenes in a French grindhouse; a racy and violent pool scene; plenty of casual sex and tease; and the murder of a beautiful naïf should have assured some domestic box-office. But an almost Hitchcockian feel of implacable fate that filigrees the film must have given exhibitors second thoughts, and it’s mostly known only to dedicated cinephiles.
Chabrol’s subtle inversion of “la dolce vita” – and of all those old Hollywood movies of young girls coming of age in the big city – makes the film well worth the watch. More a series of interludes than a linear plot, Les Bonnes Femmes turns a pitiless eye on male-female relationships in an increasingly fractured world. The “good women” of the title are four beautiful young Parisians who pursue a variety of ultimately unsatisfying, and in one case lethal, dreams. Free spirit Jane (Bernadette Lafont) gets involved with a boorish married businessman whose chubby, grabby best friend expects to make them a ménage. Ginette (Stéphane Audran) hopes to become a great singer but spends her time impersonating a tacky Italian street chanteuse in a seedy club. Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) masochistically accepts the put-downs of her pompous bourgeois boyfriend, who allows her to be degraded by his parents. Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) is the innocent romantic who rejects a “good man” in favor of an ominous biker who spends the film shadowing her before their gruesome meeting.
The film fleshes out this creepy world of used and user with a gallery of mostly male grotesques who function less as “real” people than as embodiments of the women’s barely sublimated fears and delusions: their boss, M. Belin (Pierre Bertin), a leering buffoon who forces them to sit in his lap for punishment when they’re late; Marcel (Jean-Louis Maury) and Albert (Albert Dinan), the gross businessmen whose horseplay has violent undertones; and the loathsome Henri (Sacha Briquet), Rita’s boyfriend, who has one of the film’s most unsettling moments when he frenziedly spews out the achievements of Michelangelo for a desperate Rita to memorize to impress his parents. The women too can be cruel, as the film shows when Rita’s horrific encounter with Henri’s parents is observed with sadistic delight by her coworkers, sitting discreetly nearby.
The film takes place mostly in the nighttime world of Paris’s streets and clubs, seemingly an open leisure-class environment full of opportunities but in fact an endless series of traps for these characters. The final trap comes when Jacqueline pursues a romantic ideal in a stark sequence that ends chillingly, if not entirely unpredictably, in death. Chabrol’s camera records these events with an impersonality that makes them all the more real and disturbing, and his treatment of the characters as giddy children on the edge of a precipice gives the film a gravitas that will keep it fresh in the viewer’s mind.
Les Bonnes Femmes was produced by the famous – or infamous, depending on who’s talking – Hakim brothers, Raymond and Robert. They were also responsible for such international classics as Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, Renoir’s La Bete Humaine, Duvivier’s Pepe le Moko – and Joseph Losey’s Eva (1962). The latter was a cause celebre for years in film circles, unavailable except in truncated, splicy, incomprehensible prints and discussed in those hushed tones reserved for masterpieces butchered by callous producers. The release of the DVD of Eva will change some of the terms of this discussion. It contains two versions of the film, one the Hakim brothers’ cut (103 minutes) and another, Swedish cut with an extra 12 minutes restored. Losey’s original version ran 155 minutes, leaving at minimum 40 minutes out of either cut. Both versions tell the same general story, with the few extra scenes in the longer one less revelation than compounding a problem. The result in either case is a problematic film indeed. It’s doubtful that adding any amount of footage could entirely salvage this curio, which, while fascinating in some respects, sinks under Losey’s obvious desperation to move from the respectable ranks of B-filmmakers into the rarefied sphere of the international cinema scene.
The Hakims brought James Hadley Chase’s pulpish novel to Losey, and with its exotic locales, tormented male, femme fatale, and operatic storyline, it seemed an ideal property for pushing Losey into the spotlight. Most of the film was shot in and around Venice (including scenes at the 1960 Venice Film Festival), and the cast seemed solid enough: Stanley Baker, Jeanne Moreau, and Virna Lisi.
Eva follows the misadventures of a writer, working-class Welshman Tyvian (Baker), who has written a bestseller allegedly based on his life as a coal miner. The problem is that Tyvian, like many a Losey hero, is assailed by doubts, and for good reason: he’s a phony who stole the book from his dead brother. At the famed Harry’s Bar, he’s confronted by film producer Sergio (Giorgio Albertazzi), whose wife Francesca (Lisi) was Tyvian’s mistress before her death. The film then switches to flashback, and introduces us to Eva (Moreau), a classy courtesan who breaks into Tyvian’s house with the help of a wealthy trick. She spends what seem like hours bathing, listening to Billie Holiday records, chain-smoking, and smiling to herself. When Tyvian arrives, he tosses out the trick and is hit over the head with an ashtray by Eva. This only encourages him, of course, and he spends the rest of the film chasing her from Venice to Rome to taste more of her abuse. While he marries Francesca, who sincerely loves him, he can’t stay away from Eva. His wife’s discovery of the pair in flagrante triggers her death, and ultimately Sergio’s exposure of Tyvian. Now a “Jet Set bum, ” as the press notes so aptly put it, Tyvian masochistically awaits his next meeting with Evil Eva.
The film – both versions – is awash in pretentious existential angst of the kind that flows authentically through the films of, say, Antonioni but here simply looks foolish. No doubt Losey felt it was crucial to make this film larger than life in the acting, which is full of sturm und drang; in tricks of time, of which there are plenty; in theme – and in running time. But the film is doomed from the opening, a stentorian Biblical voiceover that’s more laughable than tantalizing: “And the man and the woman were naked together, and they were unashamed.” They should have been. Tyvian’s masochism is ultimately self-defeating; he’s too wretched for too long to be of lasting interest. His pursuit of Eva begins to take on an unintended comic overtone as he endures endless physical and psychological assaults. And Eva is simply not an interesting character. Losey’s forte was always men, intelligent miserable men, no doubt a reflection of his own apparently constant anxieties. (Losey favorite Dirk Bogarde has written of the director’s crying jags that got so bad on one film that the actor had to take over directorial duties for ten days.) Losey’s major works —Accident, The Servant – are unconvincing in their portrayal of women, and Eva, true to form, never rises above her origins as a cardboard harpy from a potboiler novel. Her extreme self-involvement and tedious cruelties border on the grotesque, and even Losey’s visual legerdemain – classy mirror shots, stark high-angle compositions, gliding camerawork – can’t force her to live onscreen. She’s predictable and in the end, boring.
Losey’s collaborators are a mixed lot here. Michel LeGrand’s score gives the film a whimsical feel that’s annoying and inappropriate, but the photography (Gianni di Venanzo and Henri Decae) lends constant visual interest where the story flags. The mostly sharp transfer of both versions helps put this aspect over. As for the cuts, perverse as it sounds, the film might have benefited from more, not less. Endless footage of Moreau sponging her glistening flesh and the repeated-ad-nauseam refrain of a Billie Holiday tune are evidence that the Hakims, for all their ham-handedness, may not have been on the wrong track after all.
Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957) is a tonic to Losey’s stiff, an unsentimental, visually bravura slice of neorealism that remains one of the director’s great ’50s achievements. Unlike Eva’s Tyvian, this film’s Aldo (Steve Cochran) has minimal self-awareness but also lacks any of Tyvian’s self-pity. He’s a mechanic in a small Italian village (in the Po Valley near Bologna) who’s been having an affair with a married woman, Irma (Alida Valli), for seven years. Irma’s husband dies suddenly, and Aldo expects to marry her. Instead, she spurns him, causing him to react violently toward her in a very public scene. Still desperately in love and finally just desperate, he takes their daughter Rosina (Mirna Girardi) on an aimless trek through the rural highways of the Po Valley.
His journey is a kind of Odyssey-in-reverse, with Aldo as a quietly tormented Everyman. Unlike Odysseus, he’s moving away from his beloved, not toward her. Asked why he’s traveling, he can’t answer. Asked to stay put, he simply moves on, accompanied by Rosina until it’s apparent he’s too alienated to take care of her. Aldo begins by visiting a woman from his past, Evira (Betsy Blair), who continues to love him in spite of his indifference but sees something in him that she can’t deal with. He continues through a succession of increasingly bleaker environments and encounters, ending with a liaison with a prostitute, Adreina (Lyn Shaw), with whom he lives briefly in a rain-soaked hut.
Steve Cochran was a fixture in American B movies, often gangster films, from the 1950s (most notably Walsh’s White Heat). Here he retains some of the coarse charm of his earlier incarnations, with the addition of a world-weariness that feels as authentic as the real locales in which the film takes place. He consistently underplays, movingly capturing Aldo’s transition from disillusionment to despair in small gestures and lingering looks. While the other actors also register strongly, this is finally Cochran’s show, and he delivers beautifully.
Antonioni’s evocations of vast, unforgiving landscapes that dwarf and finally swallow his characters is in splendid form here. Like Red Desert, Il Grido situates its denizens in a postindustrial wasteland made up of empty fields that drift into the hazy horizon, long stretches of empty highway, and occasional outposts of humanity that pop up within them: here a lonely gas station, a prostitute’s collapsing house. The camera pauses on these backdrops as long as it does on Aldo or Irma or Adreina, giving as much weight to a world that eventually engulfs its inhabitants as to the inhabitants themselves.