Listen, Let’s Make Love

September 20, 2011

Listen, Let’s Make Love (1967) is an Italian film set in Milan:  the image (on Netflix, of all places!) was grainy, the sound poor, and everyone is dubbed, even though some of them seem to be speaking their lines in English.  Some call it a satire, some an erotic comedy or drama, and some call it Eurotrash.  I’ll go for the satire and erotic drama, although there is no kissing, no nudity, and certainly no sex. (Perhaps it was filmed, then censored – the Italian laws changed at the end of the 1960s, making possible a slew of sex comedies and dramas with the likes of Laura Antonelli).  I’m still not quite sure why I watched it.

The film opens with shots of Milan and some heavy female breathing in the musical score.  There is a funeral, and a countess laments that she cannot attend, though the man who is being buried was her lover for twenty years, because all of Milan would talk.  Lallo (Pierre Clementi – an actor who inspires strong opinions) comes from Naples to attend his father’s burial and take up his profession, that of a gigolo to the social élite – mostly women, but now and then men.  His father left him nothing but his profession, and a room full of nice clothes.

Lallo proceeds to have a series of liaisons, including one with his aunt, before her husband flees with her to Venezuela to avoid prosecution for cooking his books.  In a story with Naples, Milan, financial élite, affairs with aunts, and an oblique mention of Stendhal  in the dialog, The Charterhouse of Parma must come to mind, and maybe even Before the Revolution.  The northern women like to make fun of Lallo’s Neopolitan upbringing, but that doesn’t stop them going to bed with him and showering him with gifts.


Things just sort of happen in the film.  It’s hard to fathom the characters, but then, most of them are shallow socialites.  The characterizations are not deep, and Lallo’s inner life, if he has one, is a mystery.  He slides into his niche as available male quite easily.  At times, he shows a nervy sarcasm:  “I am determined to sell myself to the lowest bidder,” and when he gets a killer look from a woman he dumped for a better client he says, “She gave me a look that mussed my hair!”  He has an early conversation with a friend of his father’s who gives him good advice on how to conduct himself in this business – seeing more of him would have added something to the film.  He only reappears at the end when, losing patience, Lallo kicks his current woman in the ass, sending her sprawling in the snow at a costume party where she’s dressed as a nun:  he appears in a full batman costume and expresses his exasperation with Lallo.

Lallo has fallen in love, truly, so he says.  He wants to marry the daughter of the countess.  She lies to him, saying that the young woman is his half-sister.  He dresses in full regalia to somberly lend his presence to her wedding to another bourgeois.  A jarring note of reality hits you like a brick in the head when the countess speaks the facts of life to her maid and accomplice in deception:  These young people…They can dress as they like, think as they like, have political ideas, and do what they want in private.  But, at least in Milan, money marries money!

The film has a lush soundtrack that veers from sounding like Muzak to commenting on the imagery very well.  The design is a tour of high-end 60s style and fashion, sometimes with an impressive and disturbing look to them.


Le rouge et le noir

April 16, 2010

When I first read The Red and the Black by the pseudonymous Stendhal, I immediately wanted to form a Julien Sorel fan club.  Send me a few bucks, and you can join and receive a hand made button like the one shown above – I wear it proudly – for your lapel.

Julien is the child of a brutish and crafty peasant who runs a local saw mill, discussed in my recent post on peasants.  He idolizes Napoleon, and fumes at his inability to find a ladder out of the provincial pit of sloth and stupidity into which he has been born.  He is smart though, and is made tutor to the local bourgeois family of note, a family with a very beautiful mistress.  He promptly decides that seducing her is his only chance to advance himself.

Julien is cold, calculating, touchy, arrogant, insensitive and incredibly blockheaded.  He is also very good looking, but his deep sense of insecurity and inferiority, born of his low social station, prevent him from fully understanding or exploiting the effect he has on others, especially women.  He frequently appears to them as simply strange, unpredictable, even bizarre.  He is a strange sort of romantic hero.

Strange also in that his romantic nature is fixed on social climbing, even as he aches for love.  He can’t get love from Madame de Rênal, his employer, even though she is utterly infatuated by him, because he only uses people, as his father used him to make money.  He is passionate, and torn apart internally by his conflicts; he is the romantic hero of the superman – Napoleon – and the cursed burnout – Rimbaud or James Dean.

Eventually, he makes his way to Paris, where he works as a secretary to the Marquis de la Mole.  The Marquis’ young daughter, Mathilde, is a real piece of work herself.  Haughty, beautiful, intelligent, and suffering from the crushing boredom of post-1830 society in which nothing of interest can be said because it might be controversial, she is the natural aristocratic complement to Julien.  She is intrigued by this upstart plebeian – at least he is interesting. After considerable erotic knife-play, they become lovers.

Eric Auerbach, in his magisterial work of scholarship, MimesisThe Representation of Reality in Western Literature, devotes a chapter to the novel, naming it In the Hotel de la Mole after the title of chapter 34.  He dissects Stendhal’s brilliant depiction of the stifling and suffocating enforced conventionality, of manners, of dress, of thought, amongst the noble and bourgeois elite.  I practically gasp for air when I read the scenes of Julien suffering through an evening of chit chat in the de la Mole’s drawing room, the object of amused condescension of the more at-home guests.

Julien comes to a bad end, Mathilde is pregnant with his child, and she keeps his head as a keepsake.  There is so much in this novel, so many fantastic scenes, such crazy passion and psychological insight, such merciless realism, that I read it again and again with the passing years.

In 1996, Michiko Kakutani of the NYTimes published this clever parody and rap hommage to the novel:

THE RED AND THE BLACK (with apologies to L. L. Cool J and other rap artists):

Now I’ve got a tale I wanna tell.
It’s how I romanced these chicks and
got sent to hell.
My tag’s Sorel
And I’m one bad dude,
Master manipulator, young
Machiavelle.

Grew up in the sticks, where there ain’t no glory.
Had to make my name, no matter
how gory.
Got me a job as a kinda tutor.
Met the kids’ ma and became her suitor.
Mrs. R., she fell for me hard,
I made her my toy,
I’m one bad boy.

Got me a job in the far-off city.
Met a rich girl who was pretty pretty.
She was a doormat, I had a format.
We were gonna get hitched
I was gonna be rich.
Till old Mrs. R. played her
role as snitch.

She sold me out as a nasty cad.
So I tried to fade her, but I
got had.
They found me guilty and
now I’m dead.

Stupid Mathilde went and
buried my head.
Old Mrs. R. heard the news
and fell.
Now she’s off-line too,
as you can tell.
Like I said before, I’m a
master manipulator, the
new Machiavelle.


Sharp dealing peasants

April 16, 2010

Peasant is often used as an insult, the meaning being that they are a stupid, dull, and foolish lot.  Of course, they managed to survive for centuries under conditions that were far from comfortable, so obviously, they know a thing or two about life.  I happen to have a weak spot for novels, it seems they are all French, that feature sharp dealing by peasants, and I am reading one now, La Terre, by Zola.  The archetypal literary scene of peasant-dealing is for me, however, from The Red and the Black, by Stendhal, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

Julien Sorel is the young son of a successful peasant who runs a lumber business in the hills.  Old Sorel beats his son, and despises him as a useless, arrogant, and snotty layabout, always shirking work, slight of build, addicted to reading useless books of Napoleonic history.  Through the offices of a local priest who notes the boy’s intellect, Monsieur Rênal, a local big bourgeois, decides to hire the boy as a tutor for his children, so Rênal goes to settle terms with the father.  The old man, grasping that his son is valuable to these people, and sensing there is money to be made from him, makes a deal on wages and boarding, but when the time comes to seal the agreement, he stalls Monsieur Rênal (italics original).

“Oh, very well!” said Sorel in a drawling tone, “then there’s only one thing for us still to settle:  the money you are to give him.”

“What!” M. De Rênal indignantly exclaimed, “we agreed upon that yesterday:  I give three hundred francs; I consider that plenty, if not too much.”

“That was your offer, I do not deny it, ” said old Sorel, speaking even more slowly; then, by a stroke of genius which will astonish only those who do not know the Franc-Comtois peasant, he added, looking M. de Rênal steadily in the face:  “We can do better elsewhere.”

I have the original French passage here:

– Eh bien! dit Sorel d’un ton de voix traînard, il ne reste donc plus qu’à nous mettre d’accord sur une seule chose: l’argent que vous lui donnerez.

– Comment! s’écria M. de Rênal indigné, nous sommes d’accord depuis hier: je donne trois cents francs; je crois que c’est beaucoup, et peut-être trop.

– C’était votre offre, je ne le nie point, dit le vieux Sorel, parlant encore plus lentement; et, par un effort de génie qui n’étonnera que ceux qui ne connaissent pas les paysans francs-comtois, il ajouta, en regardant fixement M. de Rênal: Nous trouvons mieux ailleurs .

Truly, a memorable moment in literary representations of the peasantry!  They survive against Nature, not always nurturing, and in a social realm that relegates them to the bottom of the heap.  Sentimentality is a luxury, and even family feeling often gives way to calculation.  Relations between father and son are often disrupted by lunges for the economic jugular.

In La Terre, the old farmer, Fouan, decides he can’t keep up his land anymore, love it as he does.  He and his wife decide to make a legal gift of it to their children on agreement that the children will pay the old couple an annual stipend on which they can live.  The two sons comprise a scheming rascal and an utterly dissolute drunkard, known locally as Jesus Christ because of his resemblance to images of the Saviour.  The daughter is an intelligent woman married to a hard working farmer, and she fears being diddled out of her share by her brothers.  The sons resent not getting the land outright:  they suspect that Old Fouan has a stash of money he can live on easily without their payments, and that he is just plain stingy.  At any rate, the two sons are constantly delinquent with their payments, especially Jesus Christ.

And then there is La Grande, the old crone, Fouan’s sister, eighty years old, tough as hickory, single, independent, who regards Fouan as a complete idiot for doing the gift.  She knows what children are like when money’s involved.  She sits in on a confrontation between Fouan and his sons, watching with utter, but silent disgust as Fouan demands the money owed him from one, only to forgive the payment owed by Jesus Christ, and in fact, letting him walk off with some of his brother’s money.  That one is the favorite of the mother!  La Grande declares, “You asked for it!  Don’t ever come asking me for even a penny!!”  She screeches like a harpie or an ingnored prophetess in a Greek myth.

Finally, there are the two later novels, by Pagnol, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, better known here through their film adaptations.  These tell the story of the Soubeyran clan in southern France, where land is valuable, but water is the final arbiter of wealth, for without a well, land is worthless.  In this story, the battle for water, takes on a mythic cast, followed through several generations, with a hidden cache of gold as the final prize.  This is not social realism, but it is brutal enough.  In the end, the peasants’ grasping after water and wealth is frustrated by ironic twists of fate, complete with a local crippled prophet out of Oedipus, who declares the truth of the curse that floats over a town stricken by a dried up spring.


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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