Before the Revolution…there was the word.

March 6, 2010

It’s good to keep in mind that Bertolucci was in his early twenties when he made Before the Revolution, and that the protagonist, Fabrizio, is only twenty himself.  The film is bursting with ideas and cinematic effects like somebody besotted with the art, and his talent – it even satirizes the archetypal super serious cineaste in one scene!  There are times when it might even seem to some like a parody of the serious European avante-garde film – Woody Allen’s spoof was mentioned by my wife – but it is, in the end, a fabulous movie!

A movie, but the texts have it!  A film about people obsessed with words and texts.  Who can take them seriously, especially if you’re an American, raised in a culture where politics is a corrupt circus for grasping old farts that means nothing to anyone?  Especially a generation (or two) after the revolution, or at least after the revolution that never was, the 1960s?  Who watching this film now can relate to Fabrizio’s intellectual predicament, his desire to be more radical than thou, while also being one with the people and hating his family background, while loving his aunt, Gina…?  What a mess!

Fabrizio is the son of a Parma family of bourgeoisie – the kind that lives in a creaky old palace filled with 19th century furniture and chandeliers.  It’s stuffy as hell, so he is taking lessons from a serious fellow with glasses, the local school teacher who also tutors young men in the ways of communism.  He’s smart, but tough – he tells Fabrizio that he “talks like a book,” but the student is only trying to be good, spouting the words of his tutor’s masters.  When Fabrizio brings Gina, his aunt and lover to meet the teacher, they all duel in quotations read from books on the shelves.  Who does Gina quote?  Oscar Wilde.  My favorite socialist.  ( How Oscar would have laughed at the pretentious statements by Fabrizio’s friend about the relative morality of this over that shot in cinema!)

Marxist texts, Proust, Wilde, and finally, Moby Dick, of all things.  Fabrizio buckles under to history and family, and decides to get with the bourgeois program:  He marries his very pretty, but supposedly dull, childhood sweetheart.  A perfect match.  As Fabrizio gets a wedding send off – he’s only seen from the back – and moves off into middleclass embalment, Gina furiously kisses his younger brother’s face and hair in an agony of displaced and frustrated love.  The teacher recites to his young students the speech of Captain Ahab in which he makes clear to his crew the nature of the absurd and furious quest to which they have signed on…  Is it Life?

Some scenes:

During an outing, Fabrizio and Gina visit an old friend of hers, Puck.  He is a dead-end aristocrat.  In an operatic speech, he bewails the destruction of the old order natural and social, as the camera soars over the landscape, soon to be bulldozed by progress

Fabrizio and his tutor check on the the People at the annual Festival of Unity.  They seem to be out of step with the masses.

The wedding seals Fabrizio’s fate, and Gina’s.

No revolution.  Not for Fabrizio.  Not for the schoolkids

Certainly not for Gina.

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The Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse)

June 30, 2009

Black Sheep fisherwoman

One of my favorite novels, and certainly at the top of my Balzac list, is this story of a titanic battle over a family fortune in the provincial town of Issoudun.  The French title can be translated as The Fisherwoman, and that is how Flore Brazier, the character is known in town.  More precisely, la rabouilleuse means a girl who assists a fisherman by using a stick to disturb the water in a stream so that the fish flee right into the nets.  This is how the young Flore was employed by her guardian when she enters the story.

I don’t know why the book is called The Black Sheep in English.  It leaves open the question of just who is the black sheep:  Phillipe Brideau – the brutal, callous, murderous, thieving, totally dishonorable former soldier of the Imperial Guard; or his brother, Joseph Brideau – a sincere, talented, hardworking, but impoverished artist living in a crassly materialistic milieu that considers painting a career for failures, no matter how brilliant the practitioner.  Flore, on the other hand, is the point about which much of the action revolves.

A child of stunning beauty, even in the abject rags of rural poverty in which she lives, Flore is ‘rescued’ from her fate by Old Rouget who happens upon her on a ride.  His intentions in bringing her to his house are anything but honorable, but Balzac, as always, is tactful in his Olympian manner.  He sees all, but needn’t tell all.  The old man dies, and the girl, grown to a fabulously beautiful young woman proceeds to dominate his imbecile of a son.  He is totally in thrall to her sexual  power, and she sets up a comfy menage a trois by bringing Maxence, a local reprobrate of a magnitude to equal Phillipe, as her live-in lover.  Together, they scheme to get the dolt of a son to sign over his enormous fortune, accumulated by his hard nosed miser dad, to them.  Sex is the lubricant that keeps their machinations going.

Well, the field of battle is set for the confrontation between Flore-Maxence and Phillipe.  It turns out that Phillipe’s mother is the dolt’s aunt, so she has an interest in the family stash, although her brother, the dead Rouget, always claimed, without evidence, that she was illegitimate, and he didn’t speak to her for the thirty years she lived in Paris.  Money, family, sex, city vs. country…everything!

Phillipe turns hero as he comes to Issoudoun to find a way to eliminate the influence of Flore and Maxence over his rich and stupid uncle.  The town isn’t big enough for the two villainous rascals.  One will have to go, and it will have to be in a box.  And so it happens…

The suspense is great, the absolutely devilish brilliance with which Phillipe outwits and crushes the gold digger crew, and his subsequent destruction as he pursues his true corrupt nature, now with piles of cash to back him, is amazing.  The mother is without a clue, nearly to the end, believing Phillipe to be her “good” son, and Joseph to be an ineffectual, if loyal boy, even as Phillipe robs her blind.  The action  and grasping morality of the characters is breathtaking in its brutality.