La Meilleure Façon de Marcher (The Best Way to Walk) (1975) - Claude Miller
“…some little private madness…"
Revealing unanticipated depths of inhumanity, The Best Way to Walk's brutal thematic seemed the unlikeliest of subjects for filmic realization when I first saw it as a teen-ager. Ever since I have felt destined to essay an account of it. In mercilessly exploring heretofore unclaimed psycho-sexual territory, it belongs, as all truly novel films, to the permanent future of the cinematic avant-garde.
A study of opposites in collision, Miller's film takes place at a boys camp over the course of the summer of 1960. Eschewing the kind of fussy curatorial outfitting that often drowns period films in nostalgia, Miller focuses on the psycho-dynamics unfolding between his protagonists: the sensitive and taciturn camp director's son Phillipe (Patrick Bouchity) who oversees theatrical activities, and Marc (Patrick Dewaere), self-assured, virile and boisterous, in charge of athletic contests.
The cruelty of youth reflects the precariousness of the terrain it negotiates. As hormones surge identity assumes existential exigence. The incommensurable allegiances of public role and privately evolving self foment the age's infamous volatility. The guarantors of childhood wholeness must be relinquished and shared meritocratic proofs embraced in preparation for finding mate and metier.
Miller’s film is located at the juncture of boy- vs. manhood--the boundary separating the unfinished business of being vs. having a maternal matrix from the attainment of masculine distinction and heterosexual object choice. This seems to apply more to Phillipe, mired in divided loyalties, than to Marc, who has advanced with lucid transparency to his sense of self, public and private identity cohering seamlessly. Yet the very unambiguousness of Marc's masculine identity will reveal itself as oddly vulnerable when confronted by Phillipe's agonizingly anomalous identification-in-progress.
During a storm Phillipe and two other counselors watch Wild Strawberries on television as Marc and his companions play a boisterous game of cards. The volatility of misaligned temperaments--oblivious vulgarians vs. high-brow sophisticates--threatens to combust into physical violence, but ends with minor feather-ruffling. Tired of the interruptions, Phillipe withdraws to his room. The storm triggers an electrical surge that blows out the lights and prepares for the revelation that sets the plot in motion.
Looking for candles with a flashlight, Marc knocks on Phillipe’s door. Phillipe asks him to wait. Marc, straight-forward and impetuous, enters to find Phillipe in front of a mirror wearing a dress and wig, his face heavily made up. Phillipe pulls off the fake hair and wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, smearing the lipstick as the light on his face goes dark.
Mark gazes back in perplexity. Then remembers why he came and asks for candles. His complexion sooty against the candle-light, Phillipe glares back, his heavily mascaraed eyes frozen wide with apprehension. For a brief moment Marc's shock matches Phillipe’s horror. The rest of the film charts the ramifications of this primal scene of unwitting exposure and the unwanted intimacy it creates between virtual strangers.
Mark walks back through the dark hallways to resume his card game as Phillipe languidly wipes the makeup from his face. In a perfect evocation of disenchantment, he gazes upon his reflection, more bewildered than mesmerized. The spell of his clandestine disguise has been broken, displaced by the realization of his own peculiarity.
Hell, famously, is the intrusion of other people on our private vanities. A disruption of the immanence (or innocence) wherein being and appearance, counting and wanting to count, are not yet disjunctive. The Creator crashing his creatures’s dyadic bliss beyond good and evil; the neighbor unwittingly forced into the witness role, both bring the sudden scrutiny—unsought recognition —that turns innocent play into self-conscious 'antics.' Consider it the price of self-awareness. At this level, even recognition--the ticket to self-substantiation--constitutes disruption, literally a confusion of selves. Yet this dispossession, paradoxically, also opens up the path to owning who we would be.
Reappearing in his pajamas with a candle, Phillipe declares he is unable to sleep. Marc invites him to join the card game, but he declines. Before returning to his dark lair, he turns in the doorway and asks Marc if he has anything special to tell him. “What do you want me to say?” Mark replies, tapping his fingers against his temple in a show of bafflement as his comrades chuckle.
To know another’s obsessions violates their right not to be seen. To remain hidden essentially supports inviolability and individual dignity, like a cocoon in whose anonymity unfinished selves are carried to term. For some this process of incubation is interminable.
Given human vanity, exposing another's secrets invests with ultimate power. But exposures cut both ways. Phillipe's 'discovery' virtually burdens Marc with his shame. Marc appears to hold the better hand, but he becomes Phillipe's victim without realizing it. This may explain why our sympathy is no less with the accidental exposer than with the individual he 'outs.' Complicit in Phillipe's project of face-saving, Marc is unable to resist the temptation to abuse his power. Phillipe, on the other hand, who wanted his "private madness" to remain sacrosanct, will be forced into the role of seducer--the object of Marc's disavowed fascination. In the denouement the tables turn as Phillipe, the shamed freak, transforms into a fully-fledged subject of desire.
The film canvasses the sordid details of Phillipe’s humiliation, interrupted by episodes of oddly respectful sensitivity on Mark's part. Passing Phillipe at the camp suggestion box, he turns back with an air of almost chivalrous solicitude, pledging to return the candles. He brings them to Phillipe's room later that evening accompanied by a friend. Full of mischief, he takes a photo of a young woman—Phillipe’s fiancée Chantal—from the window, then draws nearer and slaps Phillipe's book shut, saying that excessive reading is like masturbation. In a gross violation of personal space, he taps his fist against Phillipe’s jaw, declaring his contempt for “bookworms.”
Later that night, unable to sleep, Phillipe knocks on Marc’s door. Marc invites him to sit on his bed. Phillipe would like to broach a subject “difficult to talk about.” In a roundabout attempt at rapprochement, he says he feels the groups of boys are too isolated from one another, therewith unwittingly diagnosing the dilemma at the heart of his own disruption: the basic exclusion of the 'middle' through which alternatives--or warring factions--would find themselves mediated, if not reconciled. His declaration states the problem as such: isolation engenders antagonism (= isolation).
“That’s what’s been keeping you up?” Mark inquires incredulously. Phillipe insists he wants the groups to work closer together. “Why not try Deloux? He’d love it,” Mark suggests. Discouraged, Phillipe rises to go. Marc restrains him by his shirt sleeve and accuses him of being touchy. Phillipe says he's been guilty of not letting his boys do sports. “Excuse me? Repeat that I didn’t get it?” Marc facetiously enjoins, increasingly wary of Phillipe’s oblique style of communication.
Don’t other people have problems? Phillipe inquires. With characteristic directness Mark asks why he is the recipient of such disclosures? “It’s only normal,” Phillipe replies, killing two birds with one stone: “I’m confiding in you because everyone admires you.”
Phillipe is desperate to forge a bond of mutual respect out of fear for his reputation as the camp superintendent's son. Marc can see through his greasy stratagem, but plays along. It amuses him to see Phillipe contort himself to establish a level playing field now that the balance of power has shifted. He clearly relishes his dominant position. Indebted without knowing the terms of repayment, Phillipe realizes he can no longer afford his mildly disdainful superiority.
“I’d like us to be friends,” Phillipe suggests coyly, pouring himself some wine till his glass overflows. “What about favors?” Marc inquires mysteriously. Mopping up on all fours, Phillipe looks over his shoulder and asks for specifics. Marc remains vague, saying only that as a ‘friend’ he might need a favor.
Though it has the elements of one, The Best Way to Walk is not a ‘gay’ film so much as one about power and manipulation. It emplots the role power assumes by virtue of the fact that in seeking recognition as the basic satisfaction of their individuality, people put themselves at each other's mercy. It shows how Phillipe is subjugated by his need for Marc's discretion. Initially savoring the authority Phillipe's vulnerability invests him with, Marc soon finds himself repulsed by his desperate groveling.
In Marc’s eyes dressing up as a woman for one's own beguilement forfeits masculine honor. Phillipe's exorcism-by-impersonation of the female suspends him between two forms of participation—being vs. having a woman. As the film will show, these are not exclusive alternatives.* But in Marc's eyes, no one who wants to 'be' a woman can genuinely desire to possess one, and that desire largely defines what masculinity amounts to.
*A female identification in the male is wholly compatible with heterosexual object-choice, for the relation between desire and identification is not orthogonal, as was assumed by the earliest modern investigators of homosexuality (viz. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs).
Is the personification of the female meant to celebrate women or divest them of their power? The theory behind this framing is that transvestism is a denial of separation from the mother, therewith a failure to mourn her loss. Impersonation attempts to elide the difference that makes possible the relationship, and with it the desire and longing for its continuation. This would make cross-dressing a curious mix of denial and restoration.
One can interpret transvestism as a refusal to choose; view it as tragic failure of individuation or a playful affirmation of possibilities'; as the rejection of exclusive identification or the resolute embrace of inclusive non-differentiation.
The identificatory project of maleness precludes such openness to alternatives, being rather prepared and concerted to exclude the alternative. As an identity or bias, it constrains choice. The male who pretends to be a female wants to remain free not to exclude. But this kind of freedom from constraint is more virtual than real, being free in the same way that the ironist is free. At least--until the transvestite goes public and, in so doing, demands recognition. If only because recognition, and its withholding, is the currency of social life.
His identificatory play-acting is virtual because it is not affirmed re-cognitively, remaining a private potential. To recognize (or validate) the identifications of the cross-dresser would mean to tolerate his gender indeterminacy as such. To turn a blind eye to it rather than to affirm it. For how could we really affirm as a valid and estimable alternative what we would not consider as such for ourselves? This state of affairs perfectly describes the condition that makes toleration--or forbearance--requisite. And this brings us to the paradox of tolerance, which accepts what it rejects.
This state of affairs is intolerable for the transvestite who would be recognized. Assuming the end of his cross-dressing really is to count as female, he compels recognition of his femaleness while prohibiting awareness of his biological gender, making his public witness complicit in his private illusion. His playing-at appearance rather than embracing of reality.
From a different angle, spirituality has been conceived as the process of uniting opposites. Lao-Tzu observed: “He who, being a man, remains a woman, becomes a universal channel.” The ideal being the balance of polarities. Whether this is what your average cross-dresser is up to is open to debate. And conditional upon the agenda one is pursuing. One certainly cannot rule out that transvestites are are seeking totality. Whether this is considered regressive will depend on one’s view of the proper end of masculine identification. Either way it may be interpreted as a station on the convoluted journey to individuation.
Even in the age of gender-gerrymandering, male identity in western cultures is defined against the female by a frequently emphatic, even violent process of differentiation. And though a diversity of motives must be allowed the transvestite, what matters here is not the validity of a psychological theory, but the consequence of one character’s perception. Marc has not been sensitized to the now self-explanatory right to be shamelessly different, specifically the right not to choose in blurring boundaries. Hailing from a period before gender relativism, he responds to what threatens his identity with self-defensive aversion: rejecting a masculinity insufficiently exclusive of effeminate tendencies. The playful, school-boyish spiritedness in which he expresses his loathing for Phillipe, and his denial of being discomfited, may seem to belie the notion that he is threatened, though in light of his panicked response in the final act, he is clearly unnerved by Phillipe's militant 'otherness'.
Phillipe's personification empowers him, albeit in a half-lit realm of make-believe, while the overtly phallic and resolutely unhidden Marc struts as one of the elect. Inhabiting a culture of honor and open display, he unambiguously disdains all dissimulating shadow-play.
Phillipe’s group try their hand at dodgeball, while Marc’s participate in the theater, only to turn a mock battle into a real one. Phillipe accuses Marc of planning the fiasco for his amusement. “You’re baiting me because you saw me that time in my room” “I don’t give a fuck about all that,” Marc insists.
Phillipe: “If I snuck into your room at night I’d catch you at…”
Marc: “Yeah what?”
Phillipe: “At some little private madness.”
Marc: “As my grandmother would say—you’ve got bats upstairs.” Marc pushes him back with his fist.
“All this was your idea,” Mark continues. “Out of fear, you romanced me. Afraid I would tell everyone.”
“Pathetic. You are a real jerk-off. You crap in your pants…. I want no part of you.”
Phillipe writes to his girlfriend, begging her to visit him. After some vulgar joking in the cafeteria from which Marc appears to protect him, Phillipe barges into Marc’s room where he is washing his feet in a sink, and demands Marc stop his harassment. Marc assures him he has not told anyone. Then makes lewd insinuations about Chantal. Phillipe doesn’t respond.
“If someone had said that to me I would already have busted his face. You didn’t even flinch. You are repulsive.” Mark throws Phillipe forcefully out of his room.
By virtue of his status as deviant, Phillipe must appeal to Marc for recognition. But the recognition he seeks isn't parceled out on the basis of need or inherent dignity. Marc must be compelled by a show of force demonstrating shamelessness that Phillipe merits honoring. In a show-down pitting the desirer against the desired, each will dare the other to blink first.
Mark picks up Chantal, a luminous brunette of great tenderness. At a restaurant Phillipe tells her he’s rented a room. She wonders why. They drive into the forest and lay in a fern framed meadow where Phillipe attempts to make love to her. This sequence is handled with Bressonian efficiency. He rolls off her. Both are naked. Cut to her facing away as he stands still naked in the foreground. Next she is kneeling in the foreground in her undergarments, her arms folded like some modern day Eve covering her nakedness while he ties his belt. Cut to them exiting the forest. Cut to them sitting pensively in a desolate cafe. She takes his pen and writes: “It doesn’t matter. I love you.” Kissing each other goodbye, she reassures him the first time is a flop for lots of people.
Watching the boys play soccer, Phillipe asks Marc about the favor he wanted. “I’ll suck your cock, if that’s it.” Bemused, Marc insists he doesn’t want anything. Phillipe, at his wits’ end, demands to be left alone, threatening to kill himself and blame Marc for making his life miserable. Marc apologizes for ‘screwing him around’ and extends his hand. Phillipe shakes it and thanks him. “My pleasure,” Marc responds, “It’s always a pleasure to shake the hand of a gentleman.”
Their rapprochement won’t last, of course. Offering to put oneself at the sexual disposal of another is no way to earn their respect, as a matter of dignity or honor.
Phillipe picks Chantal up at the station. Marc and his squad appear. He invites them to a swimming match he’s set up. “Do we have a choice, Officer?” Chantal asks with annoyance.
Changing out of his tracksuit, Phillipe looks down to watch Marc entertain Chantal with his antics. He invites her to eat with them. She declines. Finding himself locked in his room when the door handle comes off in his hand, Phillipe has to climb down through the window, tearing his blazer pocket in the process. Later Chantal assures him Marc represents everything she loathes: “I find him cheap and pretentious.”
At a swimming event they reluctantly attend, Deloux is officially expelled for having pornography in his room. Asked to say a few words he throws a tantrum and has to be escorted out. In the pandemonium Marc rushes over to Phillipe and throws him in the pool. Then dives in to retrieve him at Chantal’s insistence. Phillipe feels like throwing-up.
On the pretext of helping him, Mark forces Phillipe to put two fingers in his mouth. They argue violently. Marc pushes Phillipe’s fact into the sink, ordering him to “eat your shit.” Phillipe screams. Chantal enters. “I was helping him puke,” Marc insists.
Marc's abuse of Phillipe is shocking, but seems more a reflection of his disdain for effeminate males, than for ones who have sex with other men.* What makes Phillipe the enemy is not his desire, but his vulnerability as object of ridicule.
*Towards a more spirited homosexual Marc could not respond with unalloyed disgust; his self-acceptance as subject of desire would compel respect. As himself the author of recognition, he would be a force to be reckoned with. Recognition is not a gratuitous gift, but in large part compelled by the other’s self-understanding and its claim to acknowledgment.º For Marc to give such acknowledgement there needs to be both a level playing field—the very agonistic pitch which Phillipe’s wound disqualifies him from occupying. It is not a matter of indifference whether the person from whom recognition is sought is himself estimable. In this sense recognition is not egalitarian but inherently partial and hierarchic.
º Where recognition has to be compelled, respect has not been earned. Recognition as a form of honoring is at home in what were until recently homo-social institutions such as the military, medicine, law, and politics. In aristocratic cultures equality, in the form of an equality of the best (aristos) and inter pares, is as essential as it is in egalitarian regimes, where dignity largely supplants honor. A level playing field is the presupposition of any agonistic society where honor secures the arena of commonality through mutual recognition. This very fact precludes honor from being a universal right.
When the suggestion box is emptied it contains nothing useful in the way of a season’s end activity. Finally, Phillipe, fully recovered from his ordeal, suggests a costume party, as “everyone likes dressing up.”
He asks Chantal not to come, but she insists on being there. She wants to know what he wants, and all his secrets. “To understand and love them, to show you mine,” she declares in voice-over, suddenly materializing in a mirror sporting a fake mustache while combing her hair.
As festive music strikes up Marc appears as Matador. “What’s Phillipe dressed as?” he inquires. “You’ll see,” Chantal responds.
Cut to a heavily made up Phillipe in a red dress, casting a defiant gaze from out of the darkness. With more than a trace of Marc's signature bemused superciliousness he invites Marc to dance. Marc smirks and looks at Chantal. “May I?” he asks her. “What do they call the dark Lady?” “They call me La Upa.” Mark claps his hands, bending forward to do a little jig before offering himself to Phillipe. “I’m in a strange mood,” Phillipe tells Mark, “ready for anything. I find you more appealing than usual.” Marc shakes his head, grinning. “And you are a real beauty tonight. You are always a beauty.” Phillipe draws nearer, “You bitch,” he whispers into his ear, cackling like some drunken floozy. Marc gives warning that they are being watched. “Let them look, my sweet, mad thing!”
“Tonight I only want to dance with Marc!” Phillipe declares loudly. “Okay, but this is the last one.” Phillipe becomes aggressively tender, stroking the back of Marc’s neck. Mark looses is patience and pushes away. “Quit or I’ll punch you.” Not backing off, Phillipe looks at him with mock innocence. When Marc tries to dance with a woman, he breaks them up: “You’re dancing with my lover, Jezebel.” Phillipe grabs his buttocks. Marc is furious, yet paralyzed with shock. “Marc, my little one, where do you hide them?” he asks, his hand coming round to his crotch. “Here, Marc, it’s here. What are you afraid of?” he says, moving Marc’s hand to his loins. He brings his lips to Marc’s and kisses him until Marc breaks away, screaming. He slaps Phillipe. “Fists won’t do Marc. I’m ashamed. I’m just ashamed. I feel those needles in the same places you do,” he rages. Bending forward like some charging bull, he rams Marc. They roll about on the ground as the band plays on. Phillipe grabs a knife from the table and plunges it into Marc’s thigh. The music stops abruptly as Marc bends over in disbelief. “He pricked me,” he announces to the dumbfounded guests. “He’s nuts.” Phillipe sits back on a table, exhausted. “Excuse me,” he whispers.
The climactic table-turning scene is genuinely subversive: supremely awkward, at times almost funny, as well as truly shocking. In coming out of hiding--the inferior place to which shame, inhibiting his aggression, confined him--Phillipe not only owns his ambivalent gender-identity, he deploys it to turn Marc’s worst nightmare into reality.
Cut to a panoramic view of Paris “quelques années plus tard.” The camera pan ends on Phillipe looking out a window. A beaming Chantal appears. “Shall we take it?” she asks. They go inside as the realtor asks if they like it. It’s Marc, his hair longer and mustache bushier, all convivial professional. He tells Phillipe since it’s him they can work something out about the fee. Phillipe doesn't respond to his query about how many years have passed. Unlike Marc, he has not married, though he and Chantal appear to be a couple.
Exiting the apartment Marc politely enjoins “after you.” Phillipe insists Marc go first. Back and forth they go, Phillipe’s hand resting amiably on Marc’s shoulder. “After you,” Marc repeats a final time, gazing demurely at Phillipe. The frame freezes as the credits roll.
The abrupt end on a note of graciousness resolves the old struggle for recognition in the mutuality of a somewhat awkward civility. That the intervening years should have healed the old wounds, feels miraculous. Marc’s exquisite politeness may be dictated by his role as realtor, but we sense genuine esteem for this new Phillipe who once risked all to become a subject of desire.