Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 12, 2004 1:33 pm 
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Devolution

Either because they were too shocking, or too bad, or just too French, Jean-Claude Brisseau's previous nine films (some just done for TV) haven’t made it to the US. Choses secrètes (Secret Things) is having some limited distribution here. The film seduces initially with its intelligence and its elegant look; then it betrays us with tendentiousness, tedium, and numbing excess. If you loved Luchino Visconti’s The Damned or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, you will have to see this. If you respected Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, you may want to consider Choses secrètes, which some think does its moral consideration of sex and its orgy scenes better.

Whereas Dangerous Liaisons (the de Laclos classic as well as its various film adaptations) involves the plot of a man and a woman to demolish a powerful and wicked female, this film involves two women out to get men in general. Brisseau’s Nathalie (Coralie Revel), a stripper, coaches Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou), a barmaid, on how they can both become powerful through exploiting their own sexual daring. They’ve just been fired – literally thrown out on the street – from the club where they both work for refusing to have sex with customers afterward. Nathalie persuades the naïve, penniless Sandrine to move in with her and next day outlines her plan for the two of them to conquer the Paris business world.

This is all to be done through sex, and from scene one, there’s plenty of masturbation -- orgasms, real or faked, are as frequent as explosions in action flicks -- and plenty of nudity, but only female in each case. Nathalie’s simplistic, rather old-fashioned rule is that if they can give themselves pleasure, they need never be enslaved to any man. The typically French rationality of Nathalie’s exposition of her plan undercuts the obvious softcore aspects of the film – for a while, that is.

And so does Choses secrètes’ splendid appearance: the beauty of the two young women is set off by handsome cinematography and a generous use of sumptuous, richly colored drapery that makes the décor a pleasure to look at. One wishes American filmmakers could generate effects of taste and elegance with such simple means. But there is more to cinema than the visuals and this movie begins to seem little more than a Vogue shoot.

Wilder and prettier: that’s the two girls’ selling point. On the strength of a certain provocative appeal, we’re to believe, they’re hired at a major financial corporation, Nathalie in personnel, Sandrine in the top administrative office. Again the film’s seductive: the sudden rise may be far fetched, but you want to see what happens.

Sandrine follows Nathalie’s instructions and rejects a younger executive who wants to marry her: a big mistake; but she sticks to the program. Instead of dating the sincere young man, Sandrine seduces Delacroix, the firm’s married, bored fifty-year-old (but handsome and lean) manager. Delacroix falls hopelessly in love. Sandrine fakes everything. Nathalie ignores her own rules and has a secret lover who hurts her. We have to guess who he is; but it’s not hard: we know that Christophe (Fabrice Deville), the aged, ill boss’s son, who’s heir to the corporate fortune, is a gorgeous seducer who’s literally driven women to commit suicide right before his eyes – and enjoyed watching. Christophe has a preposterous back story to explain his moral emptiness.

Things go rapidly downhill when this monster of evil begins to dominate the scene. It doesn’t help that the slightly corpulent Christophe looks more like last year’s model than a real person. Looks and sound effects have started to take over Choses secrètes at this point. There haven’t been such scenes of elegant depravity since Visconti. But there are too many orgies with Bach and Vivaldi masses played at top volume for background. It’s over the top: the film self-destructs before one’s eyes. And the old fashioned moral tale – replete with blatant titillation over the “hell” it depicts – morphs into an increasingly tedious and surreal scenario. There’s an angel of annihilation, a face transfixed by death, a bird of prey pecking at a bleeding chest: we’re on the wilder fringes of the French imagination. Cocteau did this sort of thing much better.

In a final scene several years later Nathalie and Sandrine, now on separate paths, have a brief final meeting. One has a wholesome life and the other has become a pampered princess: using a stretch limo to suggest the latter’s wealth was a genuinely bad idea. Both women look exactly the same as ever: like this year’s models. The movie has completely disintegrated. There is nothing left to care about.

But I did love the drapery in Nathalie’s bedroom. It promised better things.

For an infinitely smarter and ultimately more chic French film about love games, if you don’t want to go to the source, de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons and its film versions, rent a copy of Benoît Jacquot’s School of Flesh (L’École de la chair), with Isabelle Huppert at her most sublimely disdainful. Nathalie and Sandrine combined aren’t fit to dust her shoes.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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