Les Valseuses - dir. Bertrand Blier (1974)
Bertrand Blier’s Going Places (Les Valseuses, literally balls or cajones) was a huge success in its day, catapulting Depardieu and Dewaere into the cinematic limelight and introducing an exciting new director to the world. It was the first in a number of collaborations between the three, with Depardieu appearing again in films such as Trop Belle pour Toi and Ménage. Les Valseuses divided American audiences, and a good case can be made for its enduringly divisive resonance. Which is to say, it succeeds as provocation. While American cinema of the early 70s is mostly remembered for its celebration of violence, French cinema (films like Mann’s La Meilleure Facon de Marcher, Malle’s Souffle du Coeur, Jaecklin's The Story of O, Schroeder's Maïtresse, etc.) explored the outer boundaries of human sexuality with singular and unblinking directness.
A buddy comedy with a difference, Les Valseuses emplots the pre- and anti-social impulses of the testosterone-fueled male psyche. Following in the footsteps of Wild Boys of the Road, Wild Ones, and sundry causeless rebels of modern cinema, our two free-wheeling drifters-- Jean-Claude (Depardieu) and Pierrot (Patrick Dewaere)--swoop into the frame pushing one another in a shopping cart in pursuit of a noticeably freaked-out, over manicured bourgeoise. They chase and corner the screeching square at the front door of a tenement, then lewdly maul her while helping themselves to her pastries, visibly and innocently delighted by her hysteria. Their assault of the woman--an emblem of civilization's effeminate over-refinement--sets the bawdy yet good-naturedly amoral tone of the misadventures to follow.
Pierrot and Jean-Claude are unredeemable fuck-ups, but fuck-ups whose agenda has assumed archetypal status, preserved in the amber of a Zeitgeist four decades old.
Blier cuts to his anarchists running through a field chased by the neighborhood contingent of 'epaté-ed' property owners. They get away to heist an automobile, returning after a jaunt about the countryside only to be confronted by its gun-wielding owner in no mood to negotiate. As neighbors gather the wronged man--so 'uptight' he even wears a tie--makes arrangements to call the police. Jean-Claude, looking up at windows crowded with retributive kill-joys, muses: “We certainly are in France.” His implied distinction between cool and uncool seems rather pat and it's hard to imagine it could have been otherwise even in 1974, a fact that suggests the distance we've traveled culturally since the days when everyone authentically 'contemporary' was a convinced anti-establishment type, or an anarchist.
A shot is fired and Pierrot takes off running. The Square is disarmed and Miou-Miou in pink faux fur abducted as Stephane Grappelli’s jazz violin cues lighthearted irreverence.
Blier conspires to put us on the side of his two dimwits, alternately cheered by and cringing at their vulgar escapades. The fact that these unreformed gangsters-for-the-hell-of-it just want to have fun compels us to condone their rebellious disinhibition lest we make ourselves guilty of the very anhedonic unhipness they would root out. Blier, in essence, invites us to regale ourselves watching two horny boors escape from boredom, a flight that turns out to be, almost by accident, a journey of self-discovery.
Where Godard’s Pierrot had a sense of understandable moral indignation lending authority to his wild ride south (viz, the protest against America’s brutality in the Vietnam war), Blier’s duo have no cause for which to agitate except their own inviolable right and inclination to pursue pleasure while spurning constraints of any kind. Their protest is against the bourgeois order per se, including the notion of personal dignity. Pretty much any convention standing in the way of their spontaneously combusting excesses. It is the morning-after the principled protests of the '60s. All that is left is a kind of joyless license; rioting for rioting’s sake, trouble-making out of an excess of Unbehagen and élan.
Being treated for the slug in his upper-inner thigh, Pierrot reclines pantless in a gynecological examination chair, his mouth open as he sleeps. In one of a handful of incidents that undermine the might of his 'valseuses,' Blier shows Pierrot's otherwise aggressively randy sexuality as unexpectedly vulnerable. This playfulness with issues of male sexuality positively defines Blier's individual style.
Miou Miou is left with a portly mechanic and drug-dealer, who complains she's a “dead fuck” who doesn’t "bite or scratch, just spreads her legs and counts the flies." As non-orgasmic, she's treated as the ultimate failure by her would-be liberators. Pierrot and Jean-Claude clearly relish degrading the dopey hairdresser. Before dropping her off they ask if they can touch her ass-hairs, because "touching something dirty brings good luck." She obliges after a brief bout of incredulity, allowing them to rummage about under her fur before bringing their fingers up for an inquisitive sniff. Blier can congratulate himself for having conquered one more nouvel dimension of sexual behavior for mainstream cinema. Somehow the gesture doesn't come across as gratuitously vulgar. Perhaps because it's filmed in zoom. Or because Miou Miou is more amused, even honored, than disgusted. After all, it's not everyday one's ass hairs confer talismanic power.
Les Valseuses has been called (by Rosenbaum, among others) an excrutiatingly misogynistic farce. While there is plenty of irreverence towards women in the film, and even some violence, it is more vulgarity than hatred of the female per se that is on display. If there is hatred, it's the kind that goes hand-in-hand with sexual idealization and the protracted individuation needs of sexually maturing males, a process of initiation not infrequently accompanied by the aggressive instrumentalization of women. Sexual aggression as such degrades, and in Les Valseuses a general aggressiveness towards all standards of decency is being explored, including the inhibition induced by the veneration of mothers and would-be mothers.
In Lina Wertmüller's Swept Away, by contrast, the self-degradation of the female lead, willfully and cravenly submitting to her alpha male tormentor in the crucible of love-as-war, is arguably a more provocative and damning example of aggression towards women. In films that are explicitly about breaking taboos the taboo against the mistreatment of women should be contextualized by that intention.
The Mother is beautifully embodied by Brigitte Fossey—the epitome of the nordic milk & honey goddess. Jean-Claude and Pierrot sit down facing her as she nurses her infant at the back of a train, enraptured like schoolboys at the sight of the exposed breast fulfilling its natural function. Their staring, oblivious to her discomfort, would be offensive enough, but what next transpires is unheard of in its audacity--the veritable stuff of male fantasy, and female dystopia. As the mother makes to leave, causing the baby to cry, they block her exit, insisting “Baby Jesus” get his fill. Sitting back down, she opens her blouse, and resumes stilling. Pierrot and Jean-Claude reverently take in the transmission of life-giving sustenance. She maintains an air of resignation until the job is finished, returning their gazes with her own vacant, almost pitying one.
“Your tits are hot,” Jean-Claude tells her as she buttons up, in another bit of unfunny comedic incongruity. She remains unfazed, like some superior being beyond fear. He sits next to her, pulling out some of his stolen money to make a kind of origami figure out of it. Untempted by his offer, she hurries off, only to find her way blocked by a bicycle. Jean-Claude proposes the money be spent on a champagne celebration of her impending reunion with the father of her child. In exchange she must give Pierrot—who was abandoned by his own mother—to suckle.
With a certain weariness the Mother consents. The train enters a tunnel. Pierrot kneels before her and unbuttons her blouse as she and Jean-Claude exchange a prolonged, intensely ambivalent gaze--surely one of the most loaded stand-offs in all of cinema. The almost mythical profanation, at once shocking and profoundly beautiful, owes its occurrence to Blier's iconoclasm, as acted-out by his protagonists.
Like the film itself, it is a painfully incorrect scene with the enduring fascination of all things genuinely transgressive. Blier, in exploring sexual prohibitions rather than taboos of violence, is more subversive than Melville, Friedkin, and Coppolla combined, largely because violence has lost the capacity to shock us.
A scene so audacious in an ostensible comedy is unique and explains Les Valseuses' well-deserved status as iconoclastic. Blier's iconoclasm is not destructive but creates its own order of the sacred, one inseparable from acts of profanation.
While Pierrot nourishes himself the woman grows tender, then passionate, stroking his hair and bending over to embrace him. Blier, who thrives on juxtaposed incongruities, doesn't allow us to fix the tender moment. Its heartfelt if shocking eroticism is interrupted only when Pierrot complains he's not “getting hard.” Yet even this bit of vulgarity can't cancel the power of their scandalous, breathtaking, and oddly sublime communion.
As the train pulls into the station the mother hurriedly disembarks, a smile at the prospect of seeing her husband playing over her features. Pierrot and Jean-Claude watch as the couple embraces, noting that the husband is sure to get his "rocks off" after they the warming-up they've given her. Punching the wall with his fists Pierrot exclaims: “Why can’t I get a boner?!”
If it has historically been the woman without feminist aspirations who resigned herself to bearing the brunt of such transgressions, was it out of weakness, fear, female masochism? for the sake of preserving virility and male initiative? in the knowledge of the necessity of that movement whereby Mother becomes sex object, tracing the demotion of Her authority for the sake of His instrumentalization of her as pleasure-tool? In light of the dignified forbearance of Fossey's mother it is hard not to conclude that the female's self-possessed wisdom and awareness as an offering on the altar of sexuality coincide. Her peculiar dignity is inscribed in her preparedness for sacrifice: once as object of the male’s conquest, once more as vehicle of the Kind’s self-replication one excruciating birth at a time. To call this "female masochism" seems a gross mischaracterization of the sanctity of womanhood.
For certain kinds and ages of male control of the female is the only way he can venture into her precinct. The male reacts against the primacy of the female. Whence the table-turning genius of Genesis--the founding myth of a patriarchal [re-]ordering of nature. Demotion and degradation are necessary moments in male self-validation as equal ("superior") to the force She, qua delegate of the Mother, embodies. And what is erotic love if not a degrading idealization? that very profaning sacralization constitutes the genius of Blier's film.
The male enters the domain of female fertility and profligacy bringing competition and scarcity and asserting his individuality against the default rule of female nature. Virility is an up-rising, a protest, and subjugation. Though it too must be sacrificed in/on the womb/lap of Nature--the altar of the Kind’s self-propagation. It is this realization that propels the male's perpetual self-distancing and -differentiation, as if his masculine essence could never be sharply enough delimited from the engulfing female. This realization, and the insight that the violation of the female vouchsafes her sanctity, is what I discern in Fossey's inscrutable, unblinking, sphinx-like gaze. A gaze coneying the endlessly patient, radiantly suffering Mother in full consciousness of her own essentiality and inviolability. If there is any gender derogation implied by this unique scene it lies in the direction of misandry rather than misogyny.
One need only contrast Les Valseuses with the near contemporaneous The Last Detail to understand the difference between post-puritanical American prurience and the unabashed erotic exuberance of the French. There is a decidedly anti-libidinal grimness to the masculinity of Nicholson and his cohorts. By comparison Blier’s duo seems omni-sexual—playful, enchanted, and wounded.
The pair next break into a seaside condominium and make themselves at home. They sniff a bra and panties to divine the age of its owner, then bathe, Jean-Claude washing Pierrot’s legs and hair. “See how handsome you are,” he quips looking over Pierrot’s shoulder into the mirror as he trims his mustache. “You almost turn me on,” he adds, putting his hand where it doesn’t belong. “Take your hand off, fag,” Pierrot calmly demands. "It’s nothing to be ashamed of," Jean-Claude replies. “It’s not a question of shame but of not wanting to.” “How do you know if you’ve never tried?” Jean-Claude presses. “You really think you can turn me on?” Pierrot exclaims, pushing him away. Finally Jean-Claude picks him up from behind and carries him towards the bed. Blier cuts to them walking down a desolate beach-front street as Pierrot cries “I feel humiliated!” “It’s only natural between friends," Jean-Claude insists.
Such a scene would be inconceivable in a contemporaneous American film about male friendship. In The Last Detail the merest hint of eroticism between buddies would completely annul its moral code of masculine affiliation, predicated as it is on shared fear, anger, and lust for women--any and everything except shared physical pleasure. Therein lies the true obscenity of Ashby's film.
They return to Miou Miou. “Screw if you want to,” she declares, whereupon Pierrot, offended by her vulgarity, slaps her. “None of your lip…We’ll screw if we feel like it.” She calls them fags. Pierrot squeezes her breasts till she winces. “You’re a hooker, right?” “Yes, a dirty hooker,” she replies. They wind up in bed taking turns as she yawns. “I’m fine,” she blithely replies when Jean-Claude, demonstrating his superior technique, inquires into her state of mind.
“She’s a hole with pubes around it!” Jean-Claude complains in exhausted frustration after failing to arouse her: “an unfeeling aperture.” “You can flip over, the fuck is over.” Jean-Claude informs her. “Have you no modesty?” (literally: “Hey-modesty, familiar with it?”), Pierrot adds hypocritically. Unfazed by their vulgarity, she sits up between them. “Sorry we’re not more romantic,” Jean-Claude half-apologizes.
Some will see Miou Miou’s taking her place between the two, instead of running out of the room in protest, as one more failure on the part of an unemancipated woman to demonstrate self-respect. I would argue that the film is not about individual character as bearer of virtues and vices, but about relationship per se. The most proximate horizon of Blier’s distillation of character is what Kegan has called the "interpersonal equilibrium," characterized by a thorough-going egalitarian interchangeability of selves regardless of gender. One might call it the politics of absolute friendship.
A moralizing point of view on Blier’s film—including the accusation of misogyny—is not invalid, just irrelevant. In a deeper sense, of course, the moral perspective is all-pervasive and indispensable. But it must not mislead us to gratuitously censuring a work for containing offensive behavior. Les Valseuses shows that, however proximately belligerent, the male search for connection is finally benign. The capacity to absorb male aggression, on display here and paradigmatically in films such as Pialat's Nous ne vieillerons pas ensembles, is one reason why the charge of misogyny has been leveled against both, on the understanding that the female has no special capacity for such 'object-constancy.' I would argue that while tolerance ideally constitutes a two-way street paved by love and forgiveness, female forbearance nonetheless enjoys a special status in the hierarchy of values men cherish. That such a view is 'andro-centric' cannot constitute the grounds for its invalidity. In a film explicitly thematizing male sexuality in all its juvenile excesses, it must be unconditionally valid.
The duo next hooks up with a woman released from prison after serving a ten year sentence (the ever melancholy-dignified Jeanne Moreau well into middle-age). Overcoming her reluctance to accept help, they take her to lunch at a seaside restaurant. Pierrot and Jean-Claude, visibly smitten with the “plain” older woman, observe her mysterious, self-contained ways as she savors her meal. Afterwards she informs a visibly taken-aback patronesse how lucky she is to bleed regularly, a reference to her pre-menopausal fertility.
The gentleness and maturity of the interlude with Moreau, a kind of poignant idyll, stands in stark contrast to the rest of Blier's satyr-play. The restaurant scene, with the figures shot against the sunny ocean, reminded me of a similar set-up in Altman's The Last Goodbye, featuring Vilmos Zsigmond's famous flashing technique.
After a walk on an overcast beach they get a room and have a passionate threesome. Awaking between the slumbering lovers, the inscrutable older women goes to an adjoining bedroom and commits suicide by firing a gun into her vagina (off-camera).
They hire another newly released convict to come screw Miou Miou. The unprepossessing young man succeeds in getting her off. Pierrot and Jean-Claude are out fishing in one of those emblematically French tree-lined rivers when she races up half-naked to break the news. They pick her up and throw her in the river. Twice. As a result of his unlikely prowess the upstart is served first at dinner, as Pierrot and Jean-Claude look on with a mixture of admiration and annoyance.
Later while driving together at night Miou Miou pipes up from the back seat with a straight-forward request: “Please fuck me. I need to know” (i.e, that she is capable of repeating her feat). Pierrot obliges, jumping into the back seat for a romp as Jean-Claude steers down the dark highway, their feet smacking into the back of his head. They stop to switch places as Miou Miou nears orgasm. Cut to the three of them marching along in solidarity en route to another car heist.
Concerned that she not be implicated by hanging around accomplices to murder, Jean-Claude bids Miou Miou adieu at the side of the road. “The thought of you rotting in jail makes me sick. You’re too pretty and fragile,” he insists. “You need love and affection.” He kisses her tenderly. But the next scene she’s still around. Hitching a ride after another stolen car goes up in smoke. She curses the “lousy stinkin’ proletarians” who won’t stop. It's lines like that that make the film unintentionally funny.
Their final escapade involves appropriating the Citoyen of a picnicing family they proceed to tear apart, turning the daughter (a fresh-faced Isabelle Hupert) against her own father, before taking her away for an impromptu plein-air orgy, screwing another captive soul to liberation.
Driving through the Pyrenees at dusk, Jean-Claude muses on their fate as libertines. "Everything'll work out. They can't put a hole in our ass. We already got one." Pierrot, less sanguine, protests: "We can't just drive around aimlessly till we run out of gas." "Why not?" Jean-Claude replies."Aren't we fine?...In the cool of the evening. Hanging loose. We can fuck anytime we want." Wars may rage, systems exploit and governments betray, but as long as we can share pleasure we have a bulwark against destruction. That may sound crass and cynical, but it represents a valid truth. We are, in the end, just animals huddling together for warmth in an inhuman universe. The answer for Blier, and all interpersonals, is clear: affiliate. For all the conflict between these three, what emerges in the end is a bond of friendship--even if it is nothing nobler than a bond between 'fuck-buddies.'