I was 21 when I saw my first Bertrand Blier film, “Too Beautiful for You” (Trop belle pour toi) at the Ritz Theater in downtown Philadelphia, one of the city’s few sophisticated art house cinemas in the late 80s. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it, the story of a successful car dealer (played by Blier regular Gerard Depardieu) who rejects the love of his beautiful wife to have an affair with his frumpy middle-aged secretary. Its almost surrealistic dialog and narrative construction were actually shocking to me and even more shocking to some of the audience, who walked out during a now notorious dinner scene. At the time, I assumed that the scene in question was a bit too “sophisticated” for the audience, but as this film sparked an obsession with Bertrand Blier that forced me to watch his oeuvre, I eventually came to realize that “sophistication” was not a concern for this director.
Most audiences in the States first saw Blier when his second film was released here in 1974, the thrillingly audacious “Going Places” (Les Valseuses) , which garnered great, if not horrified reviews and turned its three leads, Gerard Depardieu, Patrick Dewaere, and Miou Miou into international stars. The story follows two hippies/Visigoths who screw just about everything they find in the French countryside (and even each other when no one else is around) until they get a clue that women possibly want something more than a play by play commentary during a ménage à trois, or to get paid to be nuzzled on a train. It’s upsetting and hysterical but miraculously ends as an almost tender film. Yep, Blier managed to pull that off.
I saw “Les Valseuses” shortly after “Trop Belle Pour Toi” on video and was floored, so naturally I wanted to see what Blier came up with next, which was not easy. I would eventually discover that his next effort was a much maligned 1976 film called “Femme Fatales” (Calmos). But being that this search began in 1989, and “searching” meant more than typing a few words into IMDB, I was left with just film guides and microfiche to hunt for more information on this film that was not available in any media format. Even Montreal’s excellent Francophile video store” La Boite Noire” could not track it down for me. In fact, as I write this, there has yet to be an English subtitled release for “Calmos” on VHS or DVD. And here’s why…
“Calmos” (written by Blier and Philippe Dumarçay, who also co-wrote Going Places) is basically “Les Valseuses” in reverse. Here we have two middle-aged men, Paul (a bored gynecologist played by Jean-Pierre Marielle) and Albert (an almost eerily successful pimp portrayed by Jean Rochefort) who flee the city and the female gender only to be hunted down by their wives, and virtual army of horny, militant women who crave only the power of their middle-aged libidos. At first, I enjoyed Paul and Albert’s transition from their “normal” lives into this misogynistic nightmare. It’s what you would you expect from Blier: the absurdly entertaining bawdiness, mixed with terse moments of dizzying hate that expose the protagonists’ shortcomings with the opposite sex. Unfortunately, as we get deeper and deeper into a dizzying comical surrealism that would make even Luis Buñuel cringe, the ideas play out as audacity for audacity’s sake, and even the brilliance of our heroes landing into a soon-to-be penetrated giant vagina cannot save “Calmos”. (if you don’t believe me, look at the clip below)
Not surprisingly, “Calmos” was not well received both critically and commercially, but two years later in 1978, Blier would receive accolades with, “Get Out Your Hankerchiefs” (Préparez vos mouchoirs), by again reworking some of the ideas of “Going Places” . It was awarded “Best Film” by the National Society of Film Critics here in the U.S., and the Academy gave it the most ill-advised Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1979.
Blier, much to my delight, would finally move away from the scenario of “Les Valseuses” for his next three films, 1979’s Cold Cuts (Buffet Froid), 1981’s “My Father” (Beau Pere) and 1983’s “My Best Friend’s Girl (La Femme de mon pote) which truthfully also crudely play with our ideas of sexuality and normal relationships, but they have an almost, dare I say “restraint”? Or at least, restraint in Bertrand Blier terms anyway.
Blier, now 75, won a Cesar (France’s equivalent to the Academy Award) in 2011 for his last film, “The Clink of Ice”.