Sussing out the Gallic attitude toward sex in the many French films on the matter brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s famous quip about Henry James: “He writes fiction as if it were a painful duty.” Sex is approached as something of a grave responsibility in many French films, yet rarely is it attached to any moral considerations. Adultery, notoriously, merits less than a shrug, as is fitting in a country where the wife and mistress of departed president François Mitterand stood nearly next to each other at his state funeral. Mitterand first met that mistress when he was about 40 and she was 13 (though their relationship reportedly began in her early twenties), and this detail also causes little vexation in the French mind. Huge age gaps are routine in French sex comedies. The widow Mitterand’s comment on the matter after that funeral was “It wasn’t a discovery or a drama. I’ve taken responsibility for it.” She took responsibility! Suffice it to say that in France one enters a different world in affairs of the heart.
An especially droll postcard from Planet France is one of my favorite 1970s comedies, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1978. I find irresistible Frenchness in stone-faced lines such as “Everything bores me and excites me at the same time.” The film is not easy to find these days; no streaming service offers it and you can’t rent it via Amazon’s online video store, although you can get it via Netflix’s DVD-by-mail service. (Remember that?) There is a rare opportunity to see the film on the big screen, from March 15 to 21, in downtown New York City’s recently renovated Quad Cinema, as part of a retrospective celebration of the work of 79-year-old director Bertrand Blier, whose next film is about to debut in France and stars — who else? — Gérard Depardieu.
Wikipedia calls Depardieu a “character actor.” Nonsense. Depardieu is a a star, a superstar in fact, comparable perhaps to Jack Nicholson, with the major difference that Depardieu is absolutely tireless, with more than 150 acting credits to his name. He is a force of nature, a man who has proven a master of everything from the most ridiculous slapstick comedies to the most pompous historical dramas, the single greatest actor in the history of French cinema. Among his earliest starring roles is the one in Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, in which he plays Raoul, the desperate husband of an unhappy woman, Solange (Carole Laure). She is listless, silent, bordering on catatonic. Raoul is so eager to bring the light back into her eyes that he decides what she needs is another lover. A man she has been staring at in a restaurant, Stéphane (Patrick Dewaere), will do. It takes some urging to put these two strangers in bed together, but as played by Depardieu, Raoul has so much brainless, doggish charm that you can picture anyone getting caught up in his scheming. Unfortunately the experiment doesn’t work, and Solange, having been passed from one man to another, takes refuge in obsessive knitting and cleaning. Time for plan B. Then C and D.
Get Out Your Handkerchiefs is a farce played absolutely deadpan, with such an exaggerated solemnity that it baffled the kinds of critics who like to be properly alerted when it’s time to laugh. An anonymous reviewer in People magazine wrote, “Blier’s sense of humor is curious if not downright incomprehensible.” The film today plays like a French version of an extended Seinfeld episode in that no one in it is unduly troubled by moral concerns and their moronic scheming becomes increasingly ridiculous. There is a very Seinfeldian debate about what exactly constitutes kidnapping — if the kid goes along with it, is he really being napped? — and a scene in which a man discovers an unconscious woman in a car wreck and seizes the opportunity to fondle her legs.
A more on-target critique, made by several writers, is that the all-but-inert Solange character is a sexist conception who is nearly dehumanized. She spends a lot of time sitting around topless, knitting, while the men argue about what to do with her. Yet the guys (Raoul and Stéphane wind up enlisting two others to help out with their Solange problem) are buffoons. A more astute reading of the film is that its target is male cluelessness about the desires of women. Solange finally laughs when her two would-be protectors are outsmarted by a boy genius who gives them what is portentously described as a scientifically foolproof IQ test. It consists of asking the two men to draw a tree, which they do badly. The comic premise here is not that women are sex objects but that some of the men trying to figure them out are idiots.