Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 10, March 2004

 

 

Victoria Reid

 

B.B.:

Sue Harris's _Bertrand Blier_ 

 

Sue Harris

_Bertrand Blier_

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001

ISBN: 0-7190-5297-1

166 pp.

 

In the opening pages of Sue Harris's _Bertrand Blier_ the author quotes Jeander, a critic who reviewed Blier's first film in 1963: 'Blier's film is an exciting achievement in the quest for new cinematic expressions. What will the famous initials 'B.B.' mean to cinema historians fifty or a hundred years from now? Brigitte Bardot or Bertrand Blier?' (9). [1] Forty years on, Harris challenges the primary association in the Anglo-Saxon world of B.B. with _Big Brother_, with an accessible, exciting, and bold presentation of Bertrand Blier's oeuvre, which leaves her reader hungry to see (again) Blier's films. The contribution is also on a European scale: to date only one French text on Blier exists, and this was published too early to discuss films subsequent to _Tenue de soiree_, such as the multi-award-winning _Trop belle pour toi_. Informed by Blier's output between 1963 and 1996, Harris articulates that new cinematic expression intuited by Jeander: it is an expression fuelled by the culture of carnival; it taps into the French tradition of the opposition ('contestataire') voice by, for example, operating through socially-marginalised characters; it uses popular expression to subvert orthodox narrative and dramatic construction; and it applies to the screen movements from theatre, such as 'cafe-theatre', absurd theatre, and 'creation collective'.

 

As Harris observes, the novelty of Blier's representations (use of stock characters, defiance of cultural and gender constructs, de-eroticization of sex, deliberate fragmentation of narrative, refusal to impose order or give psychological explanations for his characters' actions) does not make for comfortable viewing. The author takes our perplexity in hand, articulates it, and reassures us that this is a normal reaction. Demonstrating that feminist theory is no better equipped to appreciate the richness and complexity of Blier's oeuvre, she arms us with alternative interpretative tools, captured in the chapter headings of 'A Cinema of the Absurd', 'Festive Madness: the Carnival as Structuring Motif', and 'Bending Gender'. These structures locate Blier's 'novelty' firmly within traditions rarely treated in cinema.

 

Persuasively, two films released after the publication of Harris's text, _Les Acteurs_ (1999) and the current release _Les Cotelettes_ (a film version of Blier's 1997 play), are very amenable to its discourses and observations. For example, lack of critical acclaim meant that _Les Cotelettes_ was prematurely relegated to smaller cinemas, resonating with Harris's suspicion that Blier's 1997 return to the theatre had resulted from his disappointment at 'the consistent failure of the public and critics to understand his purpose', and his sense of frustration at the 'passive, consumerist spectator' (144). The press reviews of these recent films contain many elements described in _Bertrand Blier_, but, in the main, fail to acknowledge the overarching structures that Harris believes give coherence to Blier's oeuvre. The reviews therefore often seem to contain the clues, but not the detective work that leads to their solution.

 

_Les Acteurs_ is a series of portraits of well-known male French actors, including Gerard Depardieu, Alain Delon, and Jean-Paul Belmondo, who have all been connected at some point with Josiane Balasko, star of _Trop belle pour toi_. The men bump into each other accidentally, or in a contrived way, talk about themselves, and reflect on their acting careers. 'Direct verbal address to the camera . . . one of Blier's most favoured and widely used devices' is adapted in _Les Acteurs_ into direct verbal address to an other actor, playing himself (38). Harris quotes Haustrate, who noted that in Blier's first film, _Hitler, connais pas!_, the director engineered 'artificial conversations between people who had never actually met' (39); [2] in _Les Acteurs_, by contrast, he engineers artificial conversations between people who *have* met. Hence, we see the increasing use of intra-filmic self-referentiality, discussed by Harris, which functions at the levels of technique, character, and actor, and is part of a grander movement of circularity in Blier's output, which elsewhere is manifested by the re-emergence and tweaking of characters, images, and scenes.

 

As for the increasing centrality of women to Blier's work, there could be no better example than the positioning of Josiane Balasko in the film: she is the maypole around which all the other actors dance, her commanding situation exemplifying Harris's comment that 'in the final cycle of films, women fully initiate and conclude the narrative action' (134). Moreover, we are drawn back to the Bakhtinian discourse of carnival, where woman is celebrated as life-giver, not only in the sense of reproduction, but also as a rejuvenator of society: in _Un deux trois soleil_, for example, 'the symbolic force of regeneration [is located] in the earth mother figure' and 'a fundamental link is made between the woman's body and the health of the community' (89-90). Certainly, in _Les Acteurs_ the community exists solely in its relation to a woman. Further, the exposure of man's weak position in contemporary society, seen by Harris as a crucial theme in Blier, recurs in _Les Acteurs_, which is described by _ChronicArt_'s reviewer, Gregoire Benabent, as 'a collective confession of impotence and resignation, unsettlingly imposed by Blier on all the actors'. [1]

 

_Les Echos_ complains that the film lacks a story-line, which leads us back to Harris's chapter on the absurd, which explores the numerous strategies employed by Blier to deliberately disrupt 'illusory narrative norms' (34): the absurd rejects the logic of cause and effect, and also, as Martin Esslin notes, 'the development of a narrative plot from exposition to solution' (33). [4] Contrary to mainstream cinema, where the general thrust is towards order, Blier prefers to move from disorder to a provisional order, and then back to disorder. Exploiting techniques from Brecht's 'Verfremdungseffekt', he orchestrates collisions between tragedy and comedy; language and action; a secure diegetic world and a ruptured one, where, in _Trop belle pour toi_, for example, the hero hears and comments upon the soundtrack, to which we would expect him to be oblivious. Thus, the mechanisms of film are exposed within the film and the spectator's space is infringed, contributing to the effect of 'an attitude of aggression towards the audience and its expectations' (33). In accordance with this, _Le Monde_'s reviewer claimed to have been disgusted by _Les Cotelettes_ because it is 'pushy, embarrassing, useless'. [2] The carnivalesque use of grotesque characters is evoked by Vincent Ostria, who talks of _Les Acteurs_'s 'long parade of grotesque sketches'; Ostria also shows the sense of nostalgia (perceived by Harris in the later works) to be a nostalgia in true Blier style: the film, he writes, is a 'merciless homage to a profession Bertrand Blier patently abhors'. [3]

 

A great merit of Harris's book is its openness to a wide readership: as part of Manchester University Press's series on French Film Directors, it fits with the series editors' intention 'to contribute to the promotion of the informal and formal study of French Films, and to the pleasure of those who watch them' (viii). The book is as engaging and all-inclusive as the carnival it depicts, and the tone is warm, inviting, and enthusiastic. Somehow it speaks simultaneously to the layperson, the film-enthusiast, the undergraduate, and the academic. Readers unfamiliar with Blier's work will benefit from the Introduction and first chapter, which lead the reader by the hand through Blier's career, relating why he is such a controversial director; while readers familiar with theorists such as Martin Esslin, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Laura Mulvey will enjoy seeing their work (dis-)applied to Blier's cinematic style. Harris describes Blier's 'bricolage' or 'melting-pot' approach to form as being,

 

'based on the concept of 'cultural collision', or what in Bakhtinian terms we might call a dialogical interaction between the high and the low in cultural expression. These fusions or generic forms and conventions -- frequently conflictual, but always productive -- have the effect of disconcerting the potentially uncritical viewer through the challenge that they mount to expectations about representation.' (19)

 

In her own way, Harris has done something similar, except that her text emphasises fusion over conflict -- a more helpful tactic when dealing with the aftermath of a disconcerted spectator. Refreshingly, the layperson is not alienated from, but rather introduced to, the 'high' expression of cultural theorists. Similarly, the academic, by being exposed to the popular cultural expression of carnival, is discouraged from condemning Blier's films as misogynistic, a stance which too complacent a reliance on feminist theory might engender.

 

It is perhaps surprising that Blier, after his 1997 departure, returned to cinema two years later. Presumably, he hoped that the non-comprehension of the public and critics would abate, giving way to a more sensitised audience. Realising this hope is the intention of Harris's work.

 

University of Reading, England

 

 

Notes

 

1. Jeander, 'Review of _Hitler, connais pas!_', _Liberation_, 31 July 1963.

 

2. Gaston Haustrate, _Bertrand Blier_ (Paris: Edilig, 1988), p. 13.

 

3. Gregoire Benabent, 'Review of _Les Acteurs_', _ChronicArt_, 2000; see <http://www.chronicart.com/cine>.

 

4. Martin Esslin, _The Theatre of the Absurd_, rev. ed., (London: Pelican, 1972), p. 228.

 

5. Florence Colombani, '_Les Cotelettes_:Un peu de viande avariee suffit a gacher tout un repas', _Le Monde_, 27 May 2003 <http://www.lemonde.fr/web/article/0,1-0@2-3398,36-321599,0.html>.

 

6. Vincent Ostria, 'Review of _Les Acteurs_', _Les Inrockuptibles_, no. 237, 5-11 April 2000, p. 38; see <http://www.lesinrocks.com>.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Victoria Reid, 'B.B.: Sue Harris's _Bertrand Blier_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 10, March 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n10reid>.

 

 

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