Film & TV

The Solemn Duty of the Sex Comedy

Gérard Depardieu, Patrick Dewaere, and Carole Laure in Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (Compagnie Commerciale )
A farce played with the solemnity of deadpan, the French film Get Out Your Handkerchiefs baffled the critics when it was released in 1979.

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.

Most Popular

Film & TV

A Sad Finale

Spoilers Ahead. Look, I share David’s love of Game of Thrones. But I thought the finale was largely a bust, for failings David mostly acknowledges in passing (but does not allow to dampen his ardor). The problems with the finale were largely the problems of this entire season. Characters that had been ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Great Misdirection

The House Democrats are frustrated, very frustrated. They’ve gotten themselves entangled in procedural disputes with the Trump administration that no one particularly cares about and that might be litigated for a very long time. A Washington Post report over the weekend spelled out how stymied Democrats ... Read More
World

Australia’s Voters Reject Leftist Ideas

Hell hath no fury greater than left-wingers who lose an election in a surprise upset. Think Brexit in 2016. Think Trump’s victory the same year. Now add Australia. Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison shocked pollsters and pundits alike with his victory on Saturday, and the reaction has been brutal ... Read More
NR Webathon

We’ve Had Bill Barr’s Back

One of the more dismaying features of the national political debate lately is how casually and cynically Attorney General Bill Barr has been smeared. He is routinely compared to Roy Cohn on a cable-TV program that prides itself on assembling the most thoughtful and plugged-in political analysts and ... Read More
Film & TV

Game of Thrones: A Father’s Legacy Endures

Warning! If you don't want to read any spoilers from last night's series finale of Game of Thrones, stop reading. Right now. There is a lot to unpack about the Thrones finale, and I fully understand many of the criticisms I read on Twitter and elsewhere. Yes, the show was compressed. Yes, there were moments ... Read More