The Sweet But No Less Poignant Comedy Of Claude Goretta’s 1975 Film, “Pas si Mechant Que Ca” (The Wonderful Crook)

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Gerard Depardieu In The Wonderful Crook

When thinking about Switzerland’s contribution to the thriving period of European 1970s filmmaking, two names immediately spring to mind; Alain Tanner and the director of the film I will be writing about today, Claude Goretta. Both internationally celebrated filmmakers, these two talented auteurs made their directorial debut together in the 1957 documentary entitled “Nice Time” about the then seedy area known as Piccadilly Circus in London, but since that effort, they have diverged in styles dramatically. As Alain Tanner’s films are usually presented in a dire stark reality with a clear political message; Goretta’s early work is more or less presented in a delicate comedic fashion, with its overall message being no less politically charged and socially conscious as Tanner’s work. After the comedic brilliance of his 1973 Cannes Grand Jury Prize winning film, “The Invitation,” Goretta returned in 1975 and delivered the understated gem, “The Wonderful Crook.”

Pierre (Gerard Depardieu) is living the good life. He’s a married father of one, who barely puts in a day of work at his father’s handmade furniture factory, and wants for very little, living in his seemingly idyllic country town. One day when his father has a stroke, Pierre must assume control of the business and immediately discovers that the factory is steadily dying because no one wants pay for the expertly made furniture they produce anymore. Pierre doesn’t tell a soul about the failing business and responds as any good slacker would, by picking up a gun and robbing banks and postal shops. With his newly acquired gains, Pierre doesn’t try to upgrade his factory for the modern world; instead, he just creates fake orders for furniture for imaginary clients, furniture that he then burns at the dump as to not raise suspicions at the factory or at home with his adoring wife.

At home, it’s business is usual, Pierre plays with his child (played by Gerard’s actual son, the late Guilliame Depardieu) and makes love to his wife Marthe (Dominique Labourier) seemingly without an ounce of guilt for what he has done, but the eventual guilt manifests itself after a failed robbery at a stamp shop where a lovely clerk named Nelly (another excellent performance from Marlene Jobert from Maurice Pialat’s “We Won’t Grow Old Together”) faints after Pierre fires his one bullet into a lamp that is usually meant to “make an impression.”

Pierre then becomes somewhat obsessed with Nelly, or to be more exact, Nelly despite her strong objections at first, becomes the one person he (Pierre) feels the need to apologize to for his wrongdoings, and the one person whom he can tell of the reasoning as to why he needs to be a thief. Goretta smartly leaves open the possibilities of why Pierre confides in Nelly and also why Nelly becomes involved with Pierre’s mission. Nelly resembles Pierre’s wife Marthe, both waifish redheads, which may explain Pierre’s fascination with her, but for Nelly, is it physical attraction for Pierre? Is it sympathy or a longing for a thrill? Or is it just the case of two people who have people who love them, but feel the need for more? It’s clear here that paradise is never is as perfect as people perceive it on the surface. A key to this facade of paradise and the breaking of the myth might be contained in an early scene in which locals at a pub brutishly mock an Italian immigrant for dancing with a vase of flowers to impress a pretty woman. What might be seen in a Rohmer film as a classic moment of French romance, Goretta cleverly distorts in order to make clear that the definition of traditional love in a changing world is vanishing in the same way that the old world craftsmanship found in the furniture that Pierre must now burn to keep up the facade.

Gerard And His Infant Son Guilliame In The Wonderful Crook

With its superb acting, script, and mostly favorable reviews, it is a somewhat surprising that “The Wonderful Crook” has not survived the test of time. This may be credited to the letdown that occurs when a director tries to follow up a hugely celebrated hit such as “The Invitation,” leaving audiences hoping for another masterpiece, but I feel that it is mostly due to the fact that “The Wonderful Crook” was released the same year as another, more sexually audacious Gerard Depardieu film in which he plays a thief, Barbet Schroeder’s, “Maitresse,” which attracted worldwide curiosity for its depiction of fetishistic sexuality, eventually propelling it to cult classic status. Unlike the subtle nature and comedy of Goretta’s film, “Maitresse’s” hard-edged story of a burglar who breaks into the home of a dominatrix and manages to become not only her assistant but also her lover once he realizes that her employment as a sex worker is primarily driven by the need to support her children may have played more into the growing decadent yet pragmatic mindset of the 1970s, than the understated, yet no less important message about love inside of Goretta’s work.

Marco Ferreri’s 1978 Film, “Bye Bye Monkey,” Says So Long To Masculinity

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French Poster for “Bye Bye Monkey”

Surprisingly, as an excessively sexual and carnivorous Italian man, I had been ignorant of Ferreri’s work until my soon to be roommate Doug ranted to me about a 1973 Ferreri film entitled, “The Grande Bouffe.” A film whose plot is centered around four middle-aged men who lock themselves into a villa and then proceed to fatalistically gorge on food and wine while screwing until they die. A kind of stay-at-home, non-violent, Italian version of “The Wild Bunch,” with these four men, who have become tired of their lives, end it all without firing a shot, which if you think about it, was more in line with the softening seventies male. If the passing of masculinity into the sensitive seventies had not been metaphorically shot down there, Ferreri’s next film, 1976’s “The Perfect Woman,” went so far with this new emasculation that our director would make hunky French film star, Gerard Depardieu, cut off his own manhood with an electric kitchen knife after another deflating argument with his wife.

For his first U.S. film, the dystopian “Bye Bye Monkey,” Ferreri would keep up this same trend of metaphorically depicting the downward spiral of masculinity, and why wouldn’t he? After all, wasn’t the United States responsible for setting the world standard in that decade for helping the loafer clad males get in touch with their feelings through overpriced weekend sensitivity training classes? For this film, Ferreri reenlists the beefy Depardieu to play the down and out New York electrician, Lafayette (sarcastically named for the gallant French General who would help American revolutionaries win the war of independence) who works two jobs: one, as an electrician at a Roman Empire wax museum and another as the lighting technician for an all female feminist acting troupe. While men in hazmat suits roam the streets hunting down rats during an epidemic, our feminist theater group laments the fact that they have not experienced any of the real hardships that modern women have faced, so when they come up blank for a theme for what their next performance should be, they sheepishly select rape. The “bad” news is that none of them have been victims of rape, so they decide to rape their electrician, Lafayette, after a member of the company knocks him out.

The next day Lafayette is angered by the events of the previous evening and takes a walk with his older friend Mr. Luigi (Marcello Mastroianni) on the beach near the World Trade Center where they discover a life-sized King Kong lying on the beach dead, with Kong, of course, as the ultimate symbol of a tough guy from a distant place who hit NYC and got the prettiest girl in town. Clutched in Kong’s hand though would not be scantily clad Fay Wray but instead a tiny monkey baby whom Mr. Luigi refuses to take care of due to his advanced age, so Lafayette takes the job and plays mother to the orphaned baby, raising it like a human child. Once home and domesticated, Lafayette becomes the target of admiration for Angelica (Gail Lawrence, better known as Abigail Clayton during her porn star years), one of the theater troupe who originally spurned Lafayette’s advances but is now interested due to what I can determine is Lafayette’s new found maternal instinct. This is where we really see Ferreri, drawing the hard line between men and women. Not during the female on male rape but here as a faux mother is where Lafayette succumbs to his sensitive side and becomes more accessible to the women around him.

On several occasions in the film, Lafayette seeks out the advice of his boss at the wax museum, Mr. Flaxman (James Coco), so when Lafayette arrives with his new monkey to work, Mr. Flaxman tells Lafayette that the monkey will eventually lead to his downfall (loss of masculinity for those following in the cheap seats). Lafayette heeds his boss’s advice and tries to abandon the monkey, the soon be named Cornelius (Planet of the Apes anyone?) But when Lafayette tries to leave Cornelius in the park, Cornelius cries and runs to Lafayette who just cannot leave his new baby, so his motherhood is now complete. Lafayette tries to go about his life, but with Cornelius with him, the prophecy of Mr. Flaxman comes true and everything goes south for Lafayette. In fact his friend Mr. Luigi, a clear symbol of the masculinity of the past, sees his penchant for non-vegetarian eating and his inability to find love in the new land as a harbinger for his eventual checking out of this world. Even Mr. Flaxman sees the writing on the wall when he is blackmailed into changing the faces of his wax sculptures Julius Caesar and Nero into Nixon and Kennedy.

1996 Interview With Marco Ferreri About “Bye Bye Monkey”

Ferreri cleverly uses Depardieu and Mastroianni as examples of two generations of actors from Europe, which was still going through an ultra machismo period, behaving here like they would in a contemporary film from their home countries. As outsiders, it is then up to their characters to decide in “Bye Bye Monkey” on whether they will acquiesce to the way of the seventies male or just stop living all together. What is made clear then by Ferreri with his “punch you in the head but you still find it uneasily interesting” symbolism, is that empires will always fall, and it is the rats who come out of every civilization that expires. Of course Marco Ferreri is not a soothsayer like his Mr. Flaxman, but the now eerie image of the former World Trade Centers looming in the background during many of “Bye Bye Monkey’s” key moments, somewhat bear out Marco Ferreri’s prediction of an American empire, once lead by strong men, fading out in the not too distant future.