'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Film Notes: loulou 

As feminists have noted for decades, the cinema, whether Hollywood or Mosfilm or Bollywood or Hong Kong, has been one of the most effective disseminators of patriarachal values. Indeed, it has masterfully reinterpreted them within a context of global capitalist development. Male characters and concerns are to the forefront, with women cast in subordinate roles, subject to boundaries established by the male dominated family and workplace.

Perhaps, this is why one experiences such a shock when watching loulou, a 1980 film directed by Maurice Pialat with a screenplay by Pialat and Arlette Langman. Anton Bitel of Film4 was apparently one of the few critics who recognized its combustible engagement with class, gender and sexuality. Curiously enough, although the film is named for the male lead performed with the usual muscular dynamism associated with Gerard Depardieu, it is the character of his lover, Nelly, portrayed by Isabelle Huppert with an extraordinary range and subtlety, who grounds the narrative.

At the beginning of the film, Nelly is married to Andre, and works for him as well. Although unclear, it appears that Andre has a prominent position in advertising or television in Paris. Andre is her intellectual mentor, and the dominant figure in their bourgeois marriage. Andre is captivated by Nelly's spontaneity, Nelly by his formalistic rigor. But there is a problem. Nelly is sexually unfulfilled.

Nelly meets Loulou at a dance club where, contrary to American expectations, all classes mix liberally. She dances with him, has a nasty argument with Andre (he finds pop music coarse and primitive) and leaves with Loulou. Loulou is an ex-con, but excellent in bed and surprisingly down to earth in his communication with women, all qualities that Andre lacks. He can be crude, but also surprisingly empathetic and tender, and Nelly is immediately drawn to him.

Nelly is, in effect, shattering the patriarchal demand that women subordinate their sexual and emotional needs to men, and, upon discovering that her bourgeois marriage to Andre is incapable of satisfying them, she abandons it. During the course of doing so, she discovers that Andre cannot, until it is too late, separate affection from possessiveness. Pialat presented all this naturalistically, with the use of a hand held camera, generating audience empathy with Nelly's journey. Along with Langman, he told her story by means of a script that emphasizes emotional insight and conflict over melodramatic convention.

It is precisely the centrality of Nelly to the narrative that makes loulou so compelling. I recently had the opportunity to watch two Godard films from the late 1960s, La Chinoise and Le Gai Savoir, and one gets the impression that Godard subconsciously accepted the old Marxist-Leninist doctrine that the contradiction generated by the exploitation of women was a secondary one, secondary to the primary one between the proletariat and capitalists, and one that would be resolved upon the attainment of a classless society. Neither film, despite the prominence of female characters, addresses the reality of gender relations confronted by Pialat and Langman in loulou. If anything, there is an undercurrent of androgyny in both films, with Godard treating sexuality as a frivolity.

Similarly, I also watched two Eric Rohmer films, My Night at Maud's and Chloe in the Afternoon, and while Rohmer deserves great respect for his emphasis upon marriages between equals, marriages between educated professionals, his primary interest is the allure of bourgeois marriage for men. The wives, as well as the temptresses, serve the purpose of assisting the enlightenment of Rohmer's male protagonists. One wonders what sort of movies Rohmer would have made if he had focused upon the wives instead of the husbands.

In any event, Nelly seeks a transcendent, self-actualizing relationship in the arms of, for lack of better term, a lumpen proletarian. In France and Italy, the 68 generation derided the notion of wage labor, and Pialat suggested that Loulou was one consequence of it, a petty ex-con who doesn't work, and, moreover, lacks any comprehension about how to go about doing so. Alternatively, one can relate to Loulou as representative of that part of French society that historically resisted the capitalist rationalization of the country, that uncouth, raucous part that Hausmann, and, later, DeGaulle, sought to eradicate through their reconstruction of Paris. Pialat's camera explores a Paris where gentrification, a phenomenon that, ironically enough, Andre condemns even as he profits from it, is accomplishing what Hausmann and DeGaulle could not, the explusion of the lower orders from the city.

As Nelly tells Andre, Loulou can't find a job, but she can, and so, she pays the bills and why shouldn't she? It works, but not perfectly so. Loulou worries that Nelly is just another women who loves his cock, failing to recognize that she sought out his cock to discover that there was more to being a woman, more to being a person, than her life with Andre. Andre sarcastically asks her how she talks about literature with Loulou, and she responds that reading it is enough. In other words, she doesn't need Andre anymore, but she does need Loulou, even as she worries about Loulou's dependence upon her. Ultimately, the film ends on a somber note, as both Nelly and Loulou realize that their relationship is ill-suited for a society in which commerce and commodification is ascendant.

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