Chabrol vs. Chesterton on cavemen among us

March 7, 2010

In Error there is truth

The universe includes everything right and wrong that can be said about it, so I always pay close attention to statements that are very, very wrong.  You might learn something!  So too, with nasty and critical comments on this blog.  I have a thick skin.

I received a nasty one recently on my post deriding William F. Buckley:

Gessi Says: March 7, 2010

“But only a blockhead or someone uninterested in testing their ideas would be so confident that there is nothing more to know.” And yet the author of this blog is just as arrogant in his certainties as Buckley.

Well, maybe I spoke too harshly of the recently dead, but no matter.  This jibe at my personality led me to other comments on the same post by a Libertarian Catholic blogger with whom I occasionally exchange views.  He mentioned G.K. Chesterton a lot, a man I’ve never read, and one who came up in conversation recently.  And that led me back to Chabrol, and to my lingering feeling that there was something very unsatisfying about his acclaimed film, Le boucher.

Cavemen among us

In an article by Dorian Bell, Cavemen among us*, the author connects Chabrol’s film to Zola’s novel, La bête humaine, and traces the idea that within modern “civilized” man, there lurks a primeval savage that sometimes finds its way to the surface.  This idea is very much associated with Chabrol’s film in many treatments, and Chabrol himself is quoted in the Bell article as saying, “Je me suis demande´ si l’homme était toujours “cromagnonesque.” [I asked myself, if man is always cro-magnonesque.]

Bell does a very good job of dissecting the presence of this idea in the film:  the images of flesh and meat, dialogue about butcheries, human and animal, the juxtaposition of the pre-historic cave drawings with the young children on an outing with their sophisticated teacher, etc. etc.  Unlike most critics I’ve read, he actually hits the point that Hélène is complicit with Popaul in his murders, stating (my emphasis):

Popaul’s violence seems extreme in part because it was successfully consigned to the periphery for so long.  Now it is back, borne by a returning colonial soldier whose crimes Hélène, the picture of purity, cannot bring herself to reveal. Remember that in the years leading up to Le Boucher, the state-sanctioned torture employed by France in the Algerian war had been met by many with similar silence. Complicity, like Freudian atavism, spares no one, and in the guilty figure of Hélène, Chabrol updates the thematics of atavism for the postcolonial era.

Typically, for an academic, he situates the discussion in the cross-currents of imperialism, Freudianism, and an arcane reading of la representation, but he is on to a lot of things here.  Problem is, what if you reject Freudianism?  What if you are not a Marxist?  The article assumes that these points of view are beyond question, or at least that it is not interesting to question them.  After all, how then would academics meet their quota of publications?  Alas, I wonder if Chabrol questioned them when he made this film.

Freud’s troglodytes

Underneath all this talk of atavism, primitivism, and savagery -walking through the cavemen’s haunts, Hélène asks her students on the outing, “What do we call a savage desire that has been civilized? An aspiration!”  If this were an irony, I would like it more, but I think it represents a serious attempt to make sense of civilization by Chabrol.  Why should we accept this?  Freud’s very influential but very absurd book, Civilization and It’s Discontents was surely more popular in 1970 than it is now, even in France, and it proposes the idea that civilization prospers by repressing and sublimating the savage impulses of mankind.  What is absurd is that the book was written by a man who remarked, “As a young man, I felt a strong attraction toward speculation and ruthlessly checked it.” Ah, well, maybe not quite well enough, because Civilization is little but an extended daydream.

Perhaps our ancestors were just as gentle and artistic as we are?  And here we have Chesterton, who writes of the popular notion of the caveman:

So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about, or treating women in general with what is, I believe, known in the world of the film as ‘rough stuff.’ I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded. Nor, as I have explained elsewhere, have I ever been able to see the probability of it, even considered a priori. We are always told without any explanation or authority that primitive man waved a club and knocked the woman down before he carried her off.

We know a lot more about pre-historic man now than we did when he wrote, and this image of the caveman lives on mostly in cartoons and satire, even to the point where it has been recycled ironically as the Geico caveman who is insulted at the prejudice directed against him, but it lives on rather untouched among many intellectuals who are more interested in culture than the science of paleolithic archaeology.  Chesterton is absolutely right – what reason do we have to think that the cavemen was a savage in temperament as well as in material circumstances?   If one is committed to the Freudian view of civilization, it’s a no brainer, but what if civilization (culture) are, as someone somewhere said, simply things to make life easier? People haven’t changed that much – we just get better at making our lives run smoothly…most of the time.  The myth of atavism is just a convenient intellectual crutch for those who would rather not think the hard questions of why we are as we are.  Not so hard, after all, because we’ve always been as we are.

Does Chabrol know what a cro-magnon man was like?  Does he care?  Or has he simply used an idea in-the-air to make a taut thriller with an intellectual gloss that dazzles lots of his followers?  Hélène’s student asks her on the outing, “What would Mr. cro-magnon do if he lived with us now?”  She answers, “I don’t know, maybe he would die...”  [Of course, how could he survive in this civilized hell-on-earth?  Really, Popaul is barely making it as it is!]  Ah, but the little girl says, “Too bad, I think he would be nice.”  We are supposed to think that is childish and cute, but perhaps she understands more than her teacher.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Darwinism and materialism were subject to so much polemical vulgarization, that the elegant refutations of them by G.K. Chesterton have no interest for me, an atheist.  We’ve moved on, or at least I have, but his dissection of the caveman myth is wonderful.  Similarly, Freud’s grand theories about sex, death, and culture, whether in his own words or those of his descendants like Herbert Marcuse, should be consigned to the realm of interesting literary ideas that have had too much influence.  Nobody but scholars of French literature puts much effort into fathoming Zola’s reconfiguration of Darwin into Le Rougon Macquart cycle.  We read the books for their literary value.  Atavism, an idea for the dustbin, along with it’s twin fantasy, the noble savage.

*Dorian Bell – Cavemen among us:  Geneaologies of atavism from Zola’s La bête humaine to Chabrol’s Le boucher.   French Studies, Vol. LXII, No. 1, 39–52

WR: Mysteries of the Organism

March 7, 2008


Raise your hand if you have seen this film.  Come on, I want to know who you are!  Send me a comment!  I saw this extradordinary work as a college student in the 70s – just that once – and I remembered it vividly.  I just bought it from the Criterion Collection of DVDs, and, to my delight, it is just as amazing as I recalled it from 30 years ago!

Directed by Dusan Makavejev in 1971, it earned him – his words – “a one-way ticket out of Yugoslavia.”  Remember-this is long before the Fall of Communism!  The film was banned in the East Block for years of course, and it is not widely seen or heard of in the West.  I posted about it briefly early in this blog. What is it?

I provide a brief outline with images of the film here.  It is an attempt to convey the visually and intellectually dazzling experience it provides.  For an excellent and lengthy description of the myriad ideas that crisscross throughout the film, visit this post on another blog.

The film begins as an investigation into the life of Wilhelm Reich (WR), focusing on his later years in America.  Reich was a member of Freud’s circle, but he was deeply interested in contemporary politics, appropriately terrified by the rise of Fascism, and a Communist.  Of course, with his belief in the connection between sexual repression and political movements, he couldn’t be a favorite son of The Party, and the Nazis reviled him as a perverted Jewish subversive.  Reich linked the repression of the sexual drive with the appeal of Fascism for the masses, and he was an advocate for free and open sexual education of youth.

Opening credits – still image of WR – shot of his Orgone Accumulator

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NYC waste incinerator – Reich on the way to prison – NYC streets 1970

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In his later days, Reich went rather mad.  He developed crackpot theories about cosmic orgone energy, which he believed was channeled by humans during sex. The Orgone Accumulator was a box he “invented” to capture and focus this blue energy for therapeutic purposes.  His books were banned, burned in New York, and he was tried and imprisoned through actions by the US FDA.  Meanwhile, in the grungy NYC of the 1970s, some strange bohemian types roam about and don clothing and paraphernalia of urban guerillas.

Title pages of works by and about Reich – WR memorial in the USA


Local folks reminisce about the eccentric Mr. Reich – Cloud buster apparatus to manipulate
atmospheric cosmic orgone energy – Archival clip of the arrival of scientists arriving to meet with WR

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The film provides some background on the earlier career of WR, but focuses on his deranged later period. How much more deranged than the rest of us was he?  Was his insistence on the primacy of sexual force in human life nutty, or just common sense?  He was certainly a fish out of water in the USA, despite his conversion to conservative politics.  (He voted for Eisenhower).  Isn’t America filled with loonies like WR, setting up communes, founding Utopias, peddling revelation?

Milena’s story – Milena – Relaxing with a cigar and Karl Marx

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Milena’s appeal – Sexual polemic for proletariat – Comarade Stalin

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The fictional narrative of the film begins to be intercut with the documentary strand at this point. The satire, parody, visual and verbal irony are relentless.  The language and artistic cliches of orthodox state communism are hilariously skewered, while the psychological documentary side of the tale is pursued with segments of primal-scream therapy and New York Reichian therapists discussing the role of body language, “body armor” to Reich, in repressing sexuality.

Milena, the Yugoslavian heroine is devoted to the ideals of revolution in the personal and political realm.  She is a communist-feminist advocate of freedom, in love and work, but she has yet to find the right man with whom to build her personal sexual-socialist paradise.  Leaving her cramped apartment so her voluptuous roommate can have her romp with her latest boyfriend, she goes to the terrace to address the assembled workers on the need for sexual joy in communist revolution.  An annoying worker, who fancies himself eligible to be her lover, appears yet again.  Archival propaganda films of Father Stalin (played by a look-alike) are intercut, the monumental socialist-realist kitsch providing a bizarre and hilarious counterpoint to the action.

Meanwhile, back in NYC – At last, a love interest! – Milena smitten

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Back in NYC, the crazy guerilla wonders the streets, menacing with his M-16 to which he appears to have an overly passionate relationship.  Milena goes to an ice spectacular with friends and, lo! she finds the man of her dreams!  He is a god, and she is in love, at last!  The show is an absurd and showy concoction of kitsch – part Vegas, part Moscow – to the choral accompaniment of childish songs of praise to The Party.

Soviet Man, Soviet Hero, Soviet Hunk

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Milena approaches the lead skater – Vladimir Ilyich, like V. I. Lenin – and of course, he responds to her – she’s gorgeous, and so serious! After his makeup is off, he comes home with her to have some milk and cookies.  The two women fawn over him, so handsome! as he talks on, sonorous, serious stupidities falling from his tongue as if rehearsed.  Seeing a poster of Manhattan he says, of course, they have performed “miracles of production,” but they are unhappy, without our socialist souls.
What is that picture! – Communism means “in common” – Breakthrough?


The working class is the subject of history – Death to Male Fascism! – Free Love!


Vladimir notices a picture on the wall of Adolf Hitler sitting in the midst of a huge circle of admiring, adoring young women.  What is a beautiful young communist doing with that on the wall?  Milena explains that it is to illustrate how thoroughly the beautiful erotic impulse can be distorted and manipulated to frustrate the workers and to subjugate women to tyrannical rule of fascist males.  The portraits of Reich and Freud look down from the wall.  Do they approve?

Milena’s roommate – she left her clothes somewhere – brings the refreshments.  Let’s share, we are all communists! Vladimir explains that a communist must be incisive, sharp, like a scalpel…The wall breaks, someone is coming through! It’s that drunken worker again, so unlike the Adonis-Vladimir.  He sings and makes as if to march with his pickaxe and locks Vladimir in the armoire.  Cut to Milena:  She’s the only person in the frame…she’s holding the frame…she addresses US!

Releasing the Soviet Hero – Granny, Look! – It’s Stalin!

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Bohemian “artist” molding a penis – Stalin speaks!
Milena frees her love from the closet – cut to a Soviet propaganda film:  all eyes turn to Comarade Stalin!  Then back again to weirdo NYC where we watch an artist do a plaster cast of a man’s erect penis so as to make a wax or plastic model of it. Turned out pretty well!  Back to Stalin!!
Last stand for fascist architecture? – Primal scream – Reach for the heights!


Our weirdo urban guerrilla continues his maneuvers.  How fitting that he ends up in Lincoln Center, surely not an accident.  The style is reminiscent of Mussolini’s projects – totalitarian kitsch is a different kind of International Style. (Philip Johnson, who had a hand in the project, was quite sympathetic to the Nazis for a while…) We learn more about Reichian therapy and watch numerous women come into ecstatic contact with their inner-orgone, or at least breathe very heavily.  And finally, our urban warrior finds release with his beloved M-16 and sends off some celebratory rounds skywards.  Happiness is a warm gun!!

Cloud busters – He thinks only of THE REVOLUTION – Is he blind!

“Your people are so interesting,” he says. “And the women?” she asks.

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Back at Rancho Orgone,  the cloudbusters are manned by the intrepid cosmic seekers.  They look an awful lot like anti-aircraft guns, but they are designed to bring energy down to the earth, not to send destructive explosions up into the sky.  Milena and Vladimir take a romantic walk by the not so romantic riverside.  She tries, but he has eyes, ears, thoughts, only for the great revolution.  “To die for love is wasteful, romantic, bourgeois.  Brutally zoologic!” He lives only for his art in service to the glorious workers state!  Does he not see the palpitating beauty right in front of his nose, aching for him to take her into his arms and bring them both to a revolutionary, socialist, common, fruitful consumation?!!!  Is he blind?!  Alas, she realizes sadly, he may be just that.

She makes one last try…and, STALIN!

Eisenstein would be proud.


She will try once more, desperately, without inhibition, to break through his emotional, intellectual, sensual armor and to let him know what she wants, what she needs, in no uncertain terms.  She reaches for him and…he SLAPS her! And we see… Comrade Stalin!  (How interesting – could this be a deliberate echo of the movie, Fail Safe?)  Stalin looks on coldly, with world-historical understanding (the choir music swells!)  The woman brings a supplication – he considers, will he grant it?  The world on his shoulders!

Enlightenment – Anger – Telling it like it is!


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She sees the truth now, the cosmic light energy of understanding is shed on her, through her.  She will set the record straight and she is terrifying in her righteous, socialist, revolutionary, feminist, truth-telling.  She lets that sniveling stuffed-shirt of the revolution have it with hits, verbal pummeling, and slaps.  She knocks his stupid hat off!

You want the revolution, but heaven forbid it should touch you!”  She really gives it to him! “What’s a baby? For a man, a second, then it’s the woman’s job!”  You want revolutionary violence, I’ll give it to you!  She denounces him, his party, the revolution, and the entire kitsch spectacle of his socialist art extravaganzas.


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At last, on his knees, he understands, she forgives and finds love…



…But in the end, the energy released is too much for this repressed agent of the people’s revolution.  The male principle must reassert itself, achieve dominance and control of all impulses.  He cannot allow himself to run free.  The communist road must be followed!  The champion skater, tumbled low by love, uses his skate to decapitate Milena with one terrific blow.  Her head, examined in the morgue, begins to talk, to tell of her tragic experience with this “genuine Red fascist”. Meanwhile, Vladimir lets loose with a song of his sorrow. Her story will go on, and his.


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