Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat May 12, 2007 10:43 pm 
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Christophe Malavoy: The Fire That Burns (1996, TV). Netflix dvd.

The French title of this film is "La ville où le prince est un enfant" -- a line from the Bible quoted by the Father Superior at the pre-WWII Catholic school where this takes place: "The city where the king is a child." It's not where you want to be: emotionally in thrall to a young boy. But that's just where Abbe Pratz (Christophe Malavoy, who also directed the film) is: he has an excessive affection for a boy named Souplier (Clément van den Bergh). Since Souplier happens to be involved in an "amitié particulière," a "special friendship" of the schoolboy homo kind, with an older boy, Sevrais (Naël Marandin), Pratz deliberately entraps the boys at one of their secret meetings and expels Sevrais so he can have Souplier all to himself. But the Father Superior (Michel Aumont) is onto Abbe Pratz's pedophile attraction and expels Souplier too. Abbé Pratz and the Father Superior have a long final scene in the chapel more appropriate to the stage than the screen (this is based on a 1951 play of the same name by Henry de Montherlant) in which the Father Superior chastens Pratz and urges him to think of "souls" and not "faces" and love God instead of little boys.

Readers of Roger Peyrefitte's 1943 novel Les amitiés particulières/Special Friendships or viewers of the excellent 1964 black and white Jean Delannoy film based on it will know what to expect from the secret meetings between Souplier and Sevrais -- the sweet kisses and adoring looks from the older boy and cigarettes and declarations of selfless loyalty and love, always conducted in some hidden storeroom. But this film by Malavoy on the template laid down by Montherlant, though beautifully staged, with handsome costumes, good cinematography and nice music (including a boy choir), isn't nearly as intricate and entertaining as the web of manipulation and deceit woven by Peyrefitte, who went on from Catholic school to become a professional diplomat. Peyrefitte's novel and the Delanoy film go more deeply into psychology, boy love, and school politics. In a sense Special Friendships can be seen as essentially a boy-boy love version of the Machiavellian mindset behind the 1784 Choderlos de Laclos classic of love manipulation and revenge, Dangerous Liaisons, set under the rules of a Catholic school instead of a royal court. The Fire That Burns is different because its concern is the responsibility of the priest to repress his pedophile tendencies in an institution teeming with young boys (he doesn't consider that they might just ask for a transfer). But a look at Montherlant's biography reveals that he was expelled from a Catholic school himself for a relationship with a younger pupil, and he had a lengthy correspondence with Peyrefitte, so he knew whereof he spoke; and despite its recent date this TV film precisely captures the period mood and atmosphere.

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