Ladies in Distress – Chabrol & Pakula

February 22, 2010


The film world is not one that features lots of strong women characters, unless their strength is heavily overlaid with softness, and unless they are in distress.  Two females here:  the first is Catherine from Claude Chabrol’s Masques; the second, of course, is Bree from Klute – both are victimized by predatory males and need saving by a handsome young man.  At least they show a lot of spunk in the process!

These two go together well in their sort-of minimalist approach to the thriller, and the creation of a stifling atmosphere of “paranoia.”  In Masques, we find a young man staying at a plush country estate with a fabulously popular host from a French TV game show – a gong show for old people, without the gong.  The young fellow is writing his biography, so he says, but he is obviously searching for clues about a missing woman.  The host’s young female ward, Catherine, is a wilted flower of a young woman, under continual medication, sensitive to the sunlight, tall, slim, and pretty in that emaciated pale way that some French women bring off on-screen.  We learn that the older man is a monster behind his mask, willing to kill his mother for a good picture by Monet, and probably killing with poison the young woman whom he is also fleecing of her inherited wealth.  The cat and mouse game between the young and the old man ends with the priest of TV good feeling de-frocked on-screen, and the two young people happily betrothed.

This film is very clever and witty.  Small bits of dialog are so revealing.  The host is horribly allergic to feathers – they will be his death!  When his thug-chauffeur is carrying the drugged body of the young girl to her nasty end, he comments, “Oh, she’s light as a feather.”  Little touches like that abound in this film, and all the characters are wonderful, but especially Phillipe Noiret, as the devil with a beaming face.

Chabrol visits again the theme he treated in Ten Days of Wonder:  the evil, controlling God-the-Father, but with a lighter touch.  The only problem I have with the film is that Catherine’s impetuous infatuation with the young houseguest – she brings him some hangers and then embraces him passionately and without preamble! – seemed very odd to me.  Was she spending her time there waiting for a new guest to fall in love with..?

The woman who needs saving in Alan Pakula’s Klute, is not a pretty young thing – she’s a hard-as-nails independent prostitute.  The man stalking her is unseen by her, ever watchful, powerful, rich, and psychotic.  Anyone who has watched a lot of movies won’t be surprised by anything that happens in this film – do we need to be surprised to feel suspense? – all the tension comes from the characters.  We know that Klute will save Bree, but will they stay together?  Will Klute ever open up and … smile?  Will Bree ever allow herself to not be in control of her life and feelings?  That’s the real suspense story. 

The film is eerie and sinister.  In this age of cell phones, pocket digital equipment and cameras, the tiny reel-to-reel tape recorder at the center of the psychotic vortex is a devilishly scary prop.  The dispatching of the villain, wonderfully played by Charles Cioffi, is simple, clean, and abstract,  in keeping with the look and feel of the movie.  A real pleasure, this one.

La Duchesse de Langeais

April 22, 2009


From Balzac’s History of the Thirteen, we have this novel about a coquette noblewoman who goes a bit too far.  She revels in teasing men and making them think she will be theirs, only to dump them and watch them squirm.  She meets her match in the smoldering General Montriveau, an idealized self-portrait of the author.

Once the General realizes that she is only playing with him, he concocts a scheme to teach her a thing or two – he has his men, initiates to the cabal of The Thirteen, abduct her and prepare to scorch her brow with a hot brand.  Talk about scarlet letters!  There is much knotting and unbinding of wrists and ankles as she is led here and there, blindfolded, to undisclosed locations before being deposited back at her party from which she was snatched.  Her footmen are all drunk – part of the plot no doubt.

The General scorns rape as undignified – she falls in love with him, truly, after being totally in his power, power which he disdains to exercise over her.  (He drops the branding idea when she instantaneously, under the influence of her helplessness, goes from ice-queen coquette to passionate adorer of him.)

Balzac is always very discreet, but the overtones of sadism, misogyny, kinky sexual passions, and brutal sexual warfare are quite strong.  My apologies to J. A. D. Ingres for defacing his masterpiece, Madame Contesse D’Hausonville, now hanging in the Frick Collection in New York, one of my favorite museums.

Reason Ridden

November 11, 2007


As I strolled about the Met, I came upon this piece, which I had never seen before. It’s called an Aquamanilia, a hollow vessel to hold water for washing hands during ceremonies sacred and secular. There are many examples of them in the Met, mostly in the form of animals or mythic beasts, but this one drew me up short and taught me something! A woman riding a man, in a medieval sculpture? And the man is none other than the great philosopher, Aristotle. (Aristotle was The Man for philosophy in the middle ages, despite his misfortune of having been born too early to be baptized a Christian. Dante consigned him to Hell’s First Circle, where the virtuous pagans had it fairly easy, only sighing in pain for their missed salvation.) Who is this dominatrix, Phyllis, who treats Aristotle like a sexual plaything?

It turns out that this image was quite popular then, and derives from a story that was also well known among the educated. In short, Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great, was warning his pupil against the distractions from greatness that women offered. He suggested that Alex dump his girlfriend Phyllis. She overheard this business and decided to get even. She seduces Aristotle, but refuses to yield fully until he puts on a saddle and lets her ride him around the yard. No, they weren’t prudish in their entertainments then. Aristotle is humiliated in front of his pupil, and he tries to laugh it off as some sort of object lesson on the dangers of women, but Alexander is not fooled. He reunites with Phyllis and forgives his revered teacher.

So many themes here, and I’m sure that contemporary feminists, social critics, and litsy-critsy cranks have had their way with it. I even found one of the images below on a site with links to fetish and bondage sites.