European Class, American Cheek

"Spirits soaring and mind aglow"

February 1973By Comments

LUIS BUNUEL’S THE DISCREET CHARM of the Bourgeoisie is a deliciously pungent concoction by the 72-year-old filmmaker and his young co-scenarist, Jean-Claude Carriere, that will set your spirits soaring and your mind aglow. Never before has this always fascinating artist been quite so tantalizing, so tongue-in-cheek and so deft in his examination of the inanities and near-surrealism of a society he has long viewed with fatalistic eye. He has, he guilefully leads you to suspect, assumed a tolerance of the fools that mortals be, but the suspicion lasts only for the duration of his intricate, intriguing film. In retrospect one sees his rages at the hypocrisies and brutalities that lie beneath the elegant coolness, the gentilities, the ripostes and the resiliencies that do indeed provide the bourgeoisie with that certain something he admits wryly to be their discreet charm.

His focal figures are the Ambassador of Miranda and five Parisian friends, the Senechals, a chic young couple with an attractive country house; the Thevenots, a more mature couple, and Florence, Mme. Thevenot’s younger sister. To celebrate a drug-smuggling coup by the Ambassador that has netted the three men a fortune, they are to dine at the Senechals’ home. The four arrive to find their hostess alone: they are a day early. They invite her to a nearby restaruant only to find, after they have ordered, that they are in the midst of a noisy wake for the manager who died a few hours earlier. But the charm of the bourgeoisie, of course, is its refusal to be discouraged by the trivia of life—and so Bunuel is off and running into realities, fantasies, dreams and escapades as the six attempt to consummate their dinner engagement.

Lunch at the Senechals instead? The guests arrive but their hosts, in a moment of pre-prandial lust, are off quite literally for a roll in the hay that somehow winds up with no lunch but the Senechals hiring the local prelate (there are, he notes, “working bishops” as well as working priests) as their gardener. Another dinner attempt is interrupted by army maneuvers; the next by a police raid; still another by a band of terrorists. Even the ladies’ attempt at a tea party is frustrated, as is Mme. Thevenot’s assignation with the Ambassador. And whether these are dreams or truths, undaunted, the six walk happily along their chosen road…

The flavoring for Bunuel’s brew is in the characters’ steadfastness and the beautifully disciplined vagaries of all they encounter. Never does composure falter or an amenity go unobserved, whether it is in the bishop’s dispensation of divine justice to the murderer of his parents, in the ladies’ courtesy to a sad lieutenant who pauses to tell them the horror story of his childhood, in a soldier’s recounting his dream of limbo or in the ghostly legend of the bloody police sergeant. The phantoms and the flesh leave the bourgeoisie undisturbed; rude awakenings bring only relief.

Fernando Rey, the brilliant veteran of so many roles (perhaps most recently Bunuel’s Tristana and The French Connection), is perfection as the Ambassador, his amatory passion no more glowing than his outrage at the suggestion that his heroin-filled diplomatic pouch be inspected. He is matched by Delphine Seyrig and Paul Frankeur as the Thevenots; Stephane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel as the Senechals and Bulle Ogier as the dissipating Florence laid low by one martini but perpetually demanding more. (Only the lower classes, our friends note, tend to gulp them down unappreciatively.)

Bunuel deals so subtly with his characters that he evokes appreciative smiles rather than gut laughter; there is a grace to his directorial hand and a spark of brilliant laughter in his camera eye as he covers the richness of scene. No exterminating angel hovers over his tableful of fools—only a mature artist whose genius lays bare the truths of ourselves and illuminates them for us to revel in for the nonce—and wince over in retrospect, even as our spirit soars in recognition of his creative wit and insight.

Chloe in the Afternoon is the fourth feature-length film and last of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales”—and compares with the best of the three others: Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Claire’s Knee and La Collectionneuse. Certainly it is the least esoteric and the one of broadest appeal as well as the richest, in social rather than intellectual terms, in its consideration of his basic theme. All the Rohmer tales have been concerned with a man who, in love with one woman, encounters and is attracted to another. The “Moral” aspect of his tale, the writer-director has noted, is not that it is a story with a moral but that it is a story “dealing less with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it.”

The only one of his features to be set in Paris, but aglow, as the others were, with atmosphere and ambience, Chloe is closest too to the workaday world. His protagonist is a young businessman, Frederic, caught up in a variety of deals, complete with a partner and two-secretary office. He is deeply devoted to his wife, Helene, an off-beat brunette beauty, a teacher doing graduate work as well, and to his young daughter (another child is on the way), and leads a satisfying social life. He is, Rohmer shows us in that wonderfully literate style he has perfected, of voice-over narration, visual demonstration and perceptive dramatic vignettes, a contented man, handsome, attractive—given to escapist reading, true, and fantasies involving all the beautiful women of whom he is very much aware. Easily seduced by a smart sales-lady into buying but cool in any further involvement, he hasn’t time for love in the afternoon. And then, one day, in walks Chloe out of not even his but his best friend’s past—the girl he hadn’t liked as a partner for his pal, while he himself had been involved with someone else.

Rohmer’s gift is in his subtle differentiation between the cliches of relationships and the eternal verities that are at the heart of those cliches. Frederic is cold and wary and ruthless—and just a little miffed when Chloe responds in kind. She is cool and calculating, a manipulator of men, an independent woman who wants to be alone; and she demands that her loneliness be shared. And it is Rohmer who knows that each knows the other’s game, that something has to give.

The French filmmaker’s anatomy-of-a-married-man-on-the-brink is fascinatingly empathetic in its appreciation of the need for a fresh audience, of the frenetic outpouring that supplements the “silences” of domesticity, of the excitement of secret meetings and little jokes. And as with Maud and the ladies of Claire, how exquisitely he probes the psyche of Chloe, the girl with a chink in her armour of poise, and of Helene, the wife who is woman enough to know where completion lies. Small wonder that Rohmer is unique in his long involvement with his scripts, tailored frequently to the personality of his players. His are more than creatures of flesh and blood; they are people who read and write and think—and their company itself is a pleasure.

On an entirely different level, Heat marks an advance for writer-photographer Paul Morrissey, producer Andy Warhol’s protege who has worked his way up from Flesh and Trash not only to a non-porno level but also to a professional level, and an interesting one at that. On a dual high-comedy and low-tragedy key, Morrissey has come up with a 21-years-later view of Sunset Boulevard, a view of the “now” that was undoubtedly the subsurface of the past, the grit and muck and ludicrous venal self-delusion that were squelched by the Hollywood mythology and by our own disinterest in anything unromantic about Shadowland. The grande dame of the silent screen has become a much-married yenta, all body and no talent in her past, now an “aging, fading, practically unknown star,” given to game shows, television movies and studs, haggling over property with her fourth ex-husband and paying off her freaked-out daughter. And the writer is a stud, a one-time child actor who made the chorus in Mousetown U.S A. and stardom in a series called The Big Ranch, who is now trying to hustle and survive with recordings. His temporary home is a sunbaked motel, where the grotesque and obese landlady gives cut rates for special service, complains about the star’s daughter, who lives with baby and lesbian lover in a “suite,” and tolerates a young man who, with his retarded brother, does a stage act consisting of a “little singing, a little dancing and then some sex.” Through the daughter, the stud meets the star, moves in with her in the hope of advancement and moves out when nothing develops. And when she arrives at the motel pool to kill him, Morrissey gives the final sour laugh to the romantic humbuggery of yesteryear.

A sordid contrivance? Morrissey makes it far more than that, thanks to a gifted and offbeat cast and his own clear camera eye which glittered through to so many gut truths in Trash. Sylvia Miles does a penetrating portrait of the star, blowzy and fleshy and totally ego-centered, all star and part mother and mostly lust; Joe Dallesandro, who indicated in Trash that he was something more than a superstud, proves it with the cool calculated sensuality with which he plays the field in his own conviction that he is the big star, with “lots to do.” The most striking performance—in large part non-performance—comes from the late Andrea Feldman as the flat-voiced freaked-out daughter, a mass of psychotic confusion, infantile and heart-breaking. With his well structured comedy-drama, his obvious talent for using both professionals and non-professionals to the hilt and his keen eye for the sad truth under the most unappetizing of exteriors, Morrissey proves himself a filmmaker on the way up and well worth watching in the process.

Arthur Hiller’s Man of La Mancha, adapted by Dale Wasserman from his own 1965 smash that ran for 2,330 performances on Broadway and almost as many elsewhere and in revival, seems to me to work much better on film. On stage I was impressed most, I must admit, by the staging itself and the performances per se of Richard Kiley and Joan Diener, the reductio-ad-middlebrow of Cervantes’ work, let alone a borscht-belt interpretation of Sancho Panza, kept my personal enthusiasm minimal. The film comes as a very pleasing surprise, for Wasserman and Hiller have provided a cinematic enlargement and flow to the Cervantes-Quixote-Quijana transitions from the outside world to the prison to the imagination (and once again our compliments to the makeup men involved under Euclide Santoli’s supervision). Most of all, however, it is the stars who offer us solace, with James Coco emerging as the Sancho Panza of our hopes and Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren providing much more than glamor-name substitution as the man of la Mancha and the scullery-lady of his dreams. That they are both top performers need not be iterated and both have previously indicated their singing abilities. That these prove absolutely right for their roles is the refreshment. If you are a la Mancha devotee, you will love the film: if you were cool, or unaware, you will find a surprisingly good entertainment on hand, with stars well worth the gazing.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, a John Foreman production, gives one the impression that John Huston decided to take lessons from George Roy Hill via Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid—from Paul Newman’s presence to a romantic “Raindrops” interlude (this time the tune is “Marmalade, Molasses and Honey” with a bear instead of a bike) to time encapsuled in a montage of sepia-toned photographs. And it’s as smooth and entertaining as Butch Cassidy, despite its air of deja vu, what with Newman providing a dandy bravura performance as the fugitive who brings his own version of law and justice to an outlaw Texas town and dedicates it and himself to Lily Langtry (and who better to embody that dream girl than Ava Gardner in a cameo at the film’s finale?); fine bits and pieces contributed by Ned Beatty, Roddy McDowall, Tab Hunter, Anthony Perkins and, among others, Huston himself in a great bit as a mountaineer, and such lovely ladies as Victoria Principal, as Newman’s earthly love, and Jacqueline Bisset, as the daughter he returns to rescue after twenty years “down the pike.” It’s all very movie-movie, with even that happy ending we schmaltz-lovers love so well.

The Getaway, Sam Peckinpah’s newest film, is just a good old-fashioned totally absorbing caper movie, almost an homage to classics like White Heat or High Sierra or whatever your favorite ex-con-pulls-a-caper movie you cherish. It’s fast, furious, full of shoot-outs and car chases, lovely little side-forays into suspense and irony, and tidbits of genuine humor. Steve McQueen is appealing as ever as the mastermind who keeps his cool; Ali MacGraw is as immobile and immutable and Wellesley-to-look-at as any mastermind’s old lady should be even when serving as wheelman or gunman for her guy; Ben Johnson is grand as an oily baddie; Sally Struthers is delicious as a dumb lecherous lady; and Al Lettieri is blood curdling as a homicidal maniac-cum-sadism. And a happy end, yet!

For pure pleasure—and somehow we think of that as “old-fashioned”— there’s Travels with My Aunt, adapted from the Graham Greene novel in lush literary theatrical style by playwrights Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler, directed in high-Hollywood style by George Cukor at 72, and performed to the award-winning hilt by Maggie Smith and Alec McCowen. It is, in a way, an adult Auntie Mame, this picaresque tale of a pismirish middle-aged accountant swept into the company and schemes of his aged amoral aunt, a Mamish banqueteer-cum-cynic who notes that “Some of us get out of life what everyone else is stupid enough to put into it,” as she smuggles currency, steals Modiglianis and seduces everyone in sight, including, to a point, her nephew Henry, who finally yields to pleasures (“After all, this is the Orient Express”) and survives deportation from Istanbul as an undesirable with Augusta’s assurance that “You must not allow this little contretemps to distort your values.” Miss Smith, at one moment a marvelously slapstick version of Martita Hunt’s Madwoman of Chaillot and at another, in flashback, her own lovely self as schoolgirl and call girl (Marlon Brando’s makeup man could learn a lot from Miss Smith’s, a genius named Jose Antonio Sanchez), is nothing short of perfection, matched by McCowen, who gives endearing style to stodginess and spine to morality, and by Lou Gossett, as Augusta’s devoted admirer with a talent for fortune-telling, girl-getting and pot-stashing. Much like Henry, you won’t get a change to see the Louvre or even a minaret, but you’ll have a wonderful trip with Travels.

Paul Newman’s second film as director, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, based on Paul Zindel’s 1971 Pulitzer Prize play, not only confirms his abilities but, with a screenplay by Alvin Sargent, transcends the original, enlarging its scope and significance without any conscious “opening up” or literalizing. The story of a middle-aged widow, tormented by the frustrations and failures of her life, tormenting in turn her teen-aged daughters, becomes a devastatingly honest consideration of victims of time and place—and of survival. The film—as the play never quite succeeded in doing—underlines the contrasts between life and the realities we create for ourselves: it is the chance encounters, the words overheard, the distortion of memory and the stimulation of a young mind and open imagination that are revealed as the moulders of our lives, the forces of our destiny. The values have shifted in the filming and in the performances: Joanne Woodward’s mother may lack the wit that Eileen Heckart on television and Sada Thompson on stage brought to the role, but she has a shabby beauty, a Stella-Dallas vulgarity that gives her past a validity and her present a compassionate appeal. Roberta Wallach, Anne Jackson and Eli’s 17-year-old daughter making a most auspicious debut, brings a new air of sisterly caring to her discerning portrait of the elder child, and the Newmans’ 13-year-old, with the family nickname and stage name of Nell Potts, provides stunning silent strength to the role of the younger girl who has found the path to survival. All have provided new power and passion to make a “small” play a deeply moving and significant drama.

The Mechanic, Englishman Michael Winner’s first Hollywood-based film, is a far cry from the upper-Establishment milieus of such earlier films as The Jokers and I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname, let alone the wit and urbanity of their style. A mechanic, you see, is, in the great American Godfather-gospel according to Lewis John Carlino, a professional killer in the employ of the “organization” whose head, as any schoolboy knows, is an ultra-civilized billionaire living in seclusion and painting away like Grandma Moses when he’s not busy caressing a cat or a kid or a concubine. And he doesn’t get his orders by telegram or self-destruct tape even: He gets a total dossier of facts and photos in a plain brown manila envelope to study up on and then comes a phone call to the effect of “ready when you are, old bean.”

So here’s the mechanic, weathered-faced Charles Bronson, living in a house whose splendors make Kane’s Xanadu look like a Hooverville artifact (actually it’s a house in the Hollywood Hills reportedly built for Zsa Zsa Gabor by a swain for a mere million in the mid-fifties), and he’s studying up on his forthcoming victim, who lives in a Skid Row hotel. Now you and I, fools that we are, would think the down-and-outer could be done away with via spiked red-eye, a careening car or even a sniper’s bullet. But we’re just amateurs. How does a pro do it?

What seems like half the film is devoted to showing us: He studies and photographs and studies; he breaks into the victim’s slummy hotel room, cracks the gas pipe on the stove but covers the leak with parafin that will melt off after the next use of the stove, substitutes drugged tea bags for the victim’s and tucks plastique into the binding of a book on a shelf near the victim’s bedside. And sure enough, the victim comes home, has his tea, gets drowsy and dozes off while gas fills the room. Then our mechanic, housed across the street, takes his high-powered rifle and shoots—through a closed window, yet—the binding of the book, setting off an explosion that wrecks the whole hotel and makes for one honey of an explosion shot. That’s professionalism —and the fact that every inhabitant and employee of the flop house has been slaughtered along with our victim shows you the efficiency of studying a situation thoroughly.

And that’s only for starters. Getting a trio of dope dealers involves hi-jacking a truck, shooting up a mansion, wrecking the neighborhood and an assortment of cars and trucks in the course of a cross-country motorcycle chase and dissolving bodies in an auto-works acid bath. Getting a gang in and around Naples involves blowing up a yacht and bulldozing a car right off a scenic mountain road over a 1,000-foot cliff. Bronson also wittily does away with Keenan Wynn, an out-of-favor organization man, by forcing him into a heart attack, and when Wynn’s son, whom Bronson makes his on-the-job trainee, exercises his own talents as a mechanic by poisoning Bronson via a disappearing acid rubbed on a wine glass, Bronson reaches out posthumously to blow the kid up in a shiny new Mach I Ford Mustang (“Aware that an explosion of a mock-up car would not seem as real. Winner ordered the $7,000 model detonated,” we’re told. “The result was spectacular and somewhat expensive.”)

Well, no expense has been spared to show us how a pro operates. “Money is paid,” Bronson admits amid his Picassos and rare editions, “but that isn’t it. It has to do with standing outside of it all; on your own. There are killers and killers and they all got their own book of rules…You’re dead sure—or dead.” His trainee, portrayed with unweathered face by Jan-Michael Vincent, who made a relatively interesting major-role debut last year with Robert Mitchum in Going Home but seems to have stopped there, learns his lessons only too well. “Every man has his jelly spot,” he tells Bronson, already in throes from the wine. “Yours was you just couldn’t cut it alone.” And he walks out with a jaunty “See Naples and die,” leaving Bronson to brood, no doubt, on the sharpness of serpent’s teeth.

Now all of this is very educational—for aspiring mechanics. For humans it is a banal expedition into slaughter and sadism and stupid dialogue. That all the sets are the McCoy, that Winner did not set foot in a studio here or in Italy, makes for high budgets and snappy press releases. But he also has not strayed into a moment of truth or relevance, despite all the authentics he explodes.

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