Jul 4, 2018


Out of all my ex-girlfriends, I can sincerely say that I only regard one as being a genuinely decent and selfless human being, which becomes all the more notable when one considers that she suffered a horribly abusive childhood and could have easily become a horrendous piece of shit like some many other people from similar backgrounds. Luckily for my ex, she is a distinctly beautiful babe with a perfect hourglass shape, more than ample derriere, and nice shapely tits, though she once had extremely poor self-esteem due to abusive family members, especially her exceedingly jealous mother, and thus could not even bask in her own singularly statuesque body.  In fact, it was only until I routinely reminded her for a couple years that she actually became fully aware of her positively prepossessing pulchritude, though she never let it go to her head and instead developed an appreciation for feminine beauty in general. For those that do not know her and saw her on the street, this might seem completely inexplicable, especially considering so many modern American women have such bloated senses of self-worth, but such a miserable childhood involving alcoholic parents, including a violent bipolar mother, can certainly warp one’s self-esteem, or so I sadly discovered during my relationship with her. While it has been nearly a decade since this specific ex-girlfriend and I broke up, I was recently reminded of her after watching the pastoral tragedy Mouchette (1967)—a film that, like the director's previous masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest (1951), was based on a novel of the same name by French Roman Catholic monarchist Georges Bernanos—directed by French master auteur Robert Bresson (Pickpocket, L'argent), who has indubitably become one of my favorite filmmakers in recent years.

 Indeed, the film, which was like virtual metaphysical Déjà vu for me, feels like a biographical depiction of my ex as a teenager, albeit set in 1960s bumfuck frogland, as the female lead Nadine Nortier not only resembles my ex in terms of appearance, gestures, and pantomimes, but her experiences and family situation is also eerily similar.  Also like the heroine of Mouchette, my ex could be rather rude and crude (indeed, on top of being prone to mooning people for sport and thus exposing her arguable best physical attribute for free, she was not beneath mocking uppity negress aggressors to their faces with monkey sounds and racial slurs).  While I certainly will not attempt to argue what is the superior film, I cannot help but admit that my emotional connection to Nortier’s character was much stronger and more personal than that of Anne Wiazemsky’s character in Bresson's previous (and somewhat similarly themed) masterpiece Au hasard Balthazar (1966). An unrivaled master of what he himself called the ‘cinematograph,’ Bresson demonstrates a sharp, intuitive, and uniquely unsentimental humanistic respect and empathy for an ultimately quite mean, vulgar, and unkempt teenager girl that no one seems to love or care for aside from her dying mother. Indeed, the eponymous lead is more than a little bit rough around the edges and her pain, misery, and heartbreaking dejection can be clearly read across her youthful yet ultimately terminally tragic face. A filmmaker that best described his own filmmaking style when he declared, “I limit myself to what is indispensable,” it should be no surprise that Bresson constructed a film where pretty much every single frame of film and single sound is imperative, as if he somehow was able to capture every crucial moment in the last couple days of a girl that ultimately decided to choose death over life on a virtual whim. In that sense, Mouchette might be best described as an ‘emotional autopsy’ were it not so much more as one of the great works of truly transcendental cinema. 

Although it probably makes me sound like a proper scumbag, the reason I prefer the titular teen of Mouchette to the almost insufferably cutesy chick of Au hasard Balthazar is that I found the passivity of the latter when it came to her incessant victimhood to be somewhat infuriating, even if she was a being of angelic purity. Indeed, not unlike my ex-girlfriend, Mouchette decides to take revenge against the sick and pathetic alcohol-fueled society that uses and abuses her, though most of her actions are indubitably misguided, at least on a superficial level. In fact, the heroine oftentimes does repugnant and even downright sadistic things yet the viewer is able to easily sympathize with her due to Bresson’s brilliance as a filmmaker that preferred the natural organic gestures and expressions of a non-actor (or what he called ‘human models’) to the counterfeit melodramatics, histrionics, and plastic posturing of many professional actors, or as he once wrote, “An actor in cinematography might as well be in a foreign country. He does not speak its language.” Clearly influenced by Bresson, Louis Malle—a filmmaker that usually worked with popular actors, including Hollywood stars—followed the lesson of Mouchette by getting a real rural lumpenprole teen to portray the lead in his WWII era Vichy masterpiece Lacombe, Lucien (1974). As both films demonstrate, Bresson was certainly right when he wrote, “Respect man’s nature without wishing it more palpable than it is,” as the films derive their potency and intrigue through the authenticity of gesture and emotion as expressed by their non-actor leads.  Although it is accepted among many film critics, including Charles Barr and Joseph Cunneen, that Mouchette is arguably Bresson’s most accessible film, to me it was so much more as it felt like a beauteously bittersweet deluge of Déjà vu due to the female lead’s authenticity of facial expressions and gestures, as if I was transported to some past alternate reality where my ex-girlfriend was a 1960s Provençal farm girl that opted to kill herself instead of going on with life. While Bresson made a number of films containing the timeless theme of suicide and thus can be regarded as the unequivocal maestro of self-slaughter cinema, there is really no other cinematic work in film history where the unpardonable sin seems so nonchalantly beauteous and metaphysically sound, though I initially found myself having a hard time detailing specifically why aside from acknowledging its particularly preternatural lack of premeditation. In that regard, the film’s lead also reminds me of my ex (who, thankfully, never offed herself). 

Undoubtedly, Mouchette clearly demonstrates that Jean-Luc Godard was right when he stated on the frog TV doc Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson in regard to his cinematic hero, “If I wanted to characterize Bresson, I said once in an interview that to me he's a Grand Inquisitor, someone who, despite the risk or violence involved, penetrates to the very depths of a human being.” Of course, very few people would openly admit that they want to endure head-on the sort of soul-crashing experience that leads a cute teenager girl killing herself in the end. For example, in his entry on Bresson in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980), film scholar and cineaste Richard Roud makes the somewhat dubious complaint, “Indeed, there is something almost sadistic in the way in which the girl is treated, not only by the other characters in the film but by Bresson as well. She is a victim, and he is unable to make anything more of her than that.” Aside from his seeming incapacity to discern between sadism and deep empathy, Roud seems to be ignoring that the titular teen expresses free will, albeit in an oftentimes miserably misguided fashion that involves pelting classmates with mud and ultimately committing suicide. While one might be tempted to point to the annoyingly over referenced Nietzsche quote, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you,” in regard to the tragic nature of the character, she expresses slight glimmers of hope just before destroying herself in a playful gesture of self-slaughter that is akin to a silly game. Like me with my ex, the viewer learns to love the fi'ms heroine because of her coarseness, vulgarity, tactlessness, and gross naivety when it comes to confronting her life, thereupon making her suicide all the more heartbreaking yet somehow fitting and even liberating. 

 At the very beginning of the film, the viewer is introduced to a somber middle-aged woman (portrayed by French novelist Marie Cardinal) in a church that declares, “What will become of them without me? I can feel it in my breast.” The woman in question is the titular protagonist's mother and she is terminally ill and thus naturally fears for the future of his poor dysfunctional family. Although barely a teenager, Mouchette has already had to take her dying bedridden mother’s place at home and thus must care for her baby brother and clean and cook for her entire family, which also includes her ungrateful deadbeat alcoholic bootlegger father (Paul Hebert) and similarly scummy and swarthy brother. On top of her home life being fairly draining, virtually every other aspect of Mouchette's life is miserable and degrading, especially at school where she has nil friends and is tormented by her fiercely frigid teacher. Aside from her dying mother, no one really seems to care about Mouchette, especially not her physically and emotionally abusive father. In short, the little lady heroine lives a life of perpetual misery, torment, and abuse as a child that rarely gets to experience the joys of being a child. In fact, the only time that Mouchette has any sort of reprieve from the sick sad joke that is her life is when she is able to briefly enjoy a bumper car ride at a local fair after a somewhat mysterious young mother randomly gives her a token for said ride. Being ill-equipped to socialize, especially with members of the opposite sex, Mouchette uses crashing her bumper car into that of a young boy’s car as a strangely touching means of flirting. Rather unfortunately, the heroine musters up courage and makes an attempt to talk to the boy after the ride, but her deadbeat dipsomaniac dad slaps her in the face just as she invitingly smiles at the lad, who is wearing bourgeois and is probably a sort of dream boy for the heroine. From there, everything goes downhill for the poor little dame. 

 In Mouchette’s pathetic gin-fueled village, there is a sort of sexual rivalry between a swarthy epileptic poacher named Arsène (Jean-Claude Gilbert of Bresson's previous film Au hasard Balthazar) and a somewhat older gamekeeper named Mathieu (Jean Vimenet) because the two are both in love with a somewhat bitchy young barmaid with a blonde dyke cut named Louisa (Marine Trichet). While Arsène is a middle-aged loner that somewhat resembles Mouchette’s father in terms of his decidedly dirty deadbeat appearance and overall sleazy character, Mathieu is a respected married man (who just happens to be in love with a woman that is clearly not his wife). One day after wandering into the woods after school and getting lost in a rainstorm that she confuses for a ‘cyclone,’ Mouchette encounters Arsène during a less than auspicious moment after he wrongly assumes that he has killed his rival Mathieu during a drunk brawl. Rather disturbingly, although Mouchette, whole clearly senses a kindred spirit as a fellow loner that is hated by local, treats the pathetic poacher with inordinate affection, comforts and sings to him when he suffers a rather unnerving seizure, and proudly promises to provide him with an alibi for his ostensible murder of Mathieu, Arsène decides to pay her back by getting her drunk and raping her. While Mouchette initially ruthlessly fights Arsène off when he is attempting to rape her, she eventually embraces her involuntary deflowering by warmly wrapping her arms around him once he penetrates her. Not surprisingly, she later proudly states to Mathieu’s wife, “Mr. Arsène’s my lover. Ask him. He’ll tell you,” thereupon underscoring her depressingly misguided view of romance and affection and overall social retardation.  Of course, as a young peasant girl that has local boys routinely flashing their cocks at her, Mouchette does not exactly have a healthy background for understanding sex and romance.

 While it is somewhat arguable as to what the true catalyst is that leads to her suicide, Mouchette’s mother's death certainly does not help and ultimately leads her on a morbidly melancholic road to self-annihilation. Indeed, despite being aware of the fact that her mother has just died, everyone seems to gang up on Mouchette on the day after she looses her sole loving parent, as if she lives in a village occupied by frogland’s most sadistic, hateful, and most frigid individuals. For example, her pathetic (non)father calls her a “little hussy” right after he mother dies, henceforth inspiring Mouchette to loudly yell “merde” (aka “shit”) and then wander the village where she is met with unwarranted abuse after abuse from an eclectic range of individuals that includes teenage boys and bitter old farts. On a quest to find her baby brother some milk, Mouchette goes to the local grocery store where the female grocer gives her a croissant and tells her that she is sorry about her mother, but then calls her a “little slut” after the hapless heroine accidentally breaks a bowl of coffee and then post-coital scratches on her chest subsequently become quite noticeable to the bitchy busybody. Upon being randomly invited into gamekeeper Mathieu’s house under dubious pretenses, the man’s wife attempts to get Mouchette to admit that Arsène got her drunk and raped her as the old woman realizes she reeks of gin from the night before, but she refuses to give up her self-described “lover,” thus revealing her sick (yet nonetheless understandable) sense of solidarity with the village’s foremost misfit criminal. After refusing to collude with the gamekeeper and his wife in bringing down her rapist, Mouchette visits an exceedingly elderly woman that almost seems like a sort of female Grim Reaper who engages in ‘ancestor worship’ and proudly declares, “I love the dead. I understand them.” When Mouchette demonstrates her somewhat strange sense of contempt for the old woman by rebelliously grinds mud onto a fancy rug with her oversized clogs, the odd old-timer remains eerily calm and simply states, “Are you asleep? Your heart’s asleep. Don’t wake it too fast. You have time enough.” Clearly not wanting her help, Mouchette hatefully states to the old woman, “You disgusting old thing,” to which she calmly replies, “I only want to help you. You’re being mean. It’s because you can’t understand. There’s evil in your eyes.” Despite her rather rude and hateful behavior, the old woman gives the female protagonist a burial shroud for her mother’s corpse and some dresses. As to why Mouchette is so mean and rude to the old woman, it seems that she fears she will grow up to be an eccentric loner and recluse just like her, thus assumedly giving her just one more reason to commit suicide. 

 As if being egged on by the universe to off herself, Mouchette witnesses, among other things, the horrific sight of cutesy rabbits being gunned down by local hunters while taking a scenic stroll in the country (notably, the film actually features authentic footage of rabbits being killed and it is surprisingly grisly, thus forcing the viewer to confront the discomfort that the heroine feels). When the heroine reaches a grimly placid pond, she wraps a white muslin dress that the old woman gave to her around her body and then proceeds to roll down a hill in what just seems to be simple innocent childish fun, at least initially. Unfortunately, the final nail in the casket occurs for Mouchette when she attempts to wave to a man on a large tractor and he completely ignores her. After that, Mouchette decides to roll down the hill two more times and on her final attempt she accomplishes her goal of falling into the pond where she drowns in what is indubitably the serenest and most sublime depiction of suicide in cinema history. In the end, the film comes full circle with the soothing sounds of “Magnificat” from Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi’s Baroque Psalm composition ‘Vespers for the Blessed Virgin.’ As Bresson stated in an interview with Yvonne Baby featured in the March 14, 1967 issue of the newspaper Le Monde in regard to the significance of this composition, “The music isn’t about sustenance or reinforcement; it precedes and it concludes. It envelops the film in Christianity. It was necessary.” 

 While I admittedly found the conclusion of Mouchette to be inordinately beauteous, I also found it to be somewhat heartbreaking for personal reasons as the titular teen just as easily could have been my ex-girlfriend.  Indeed, before we got together, she did quite mindlessly reckless things like overdose on cough syrup during a failed excursion in ‘robo-tripping’ in between getting in fights with her mother that led to her being almost literally strangled to death. Luckily, quite unlike the film’s tragic heroine, my ex is now a happily married mother with a child that receives the love and affection she deserved but never received as a child. Of course, Bresson’s film made me realize that she just as easily could have succumbed to some miserable, pathetic, and/or pointlessly tragic fate had circumstances in her life been slightly different. In that sense, Mouchette was easily the most potent film I have ever seen dealing with the subject of suicide, which of course Bresson was the unequivocal master of as also demonstrated by his later works like Une femme douce (1969) aka A Gentle Woman and Le diable probablement (1977) aka The Devil Probably. Of course, the eponymous heroine’s final act is like a poor vulgar country prole equivalent to ‘A Gentle Creature’ in the Dostoevskian sense (after all, like the real-life seamstress that inspired Dostoyevsky’s titular short story, Bresson’s character is an example of a “meek suicide” that “keeps haunting you for a long time”). As Joseph Cunneen rightly noted in his book Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (2003), “MOUCHETTE is perhaps the most touching of Bresson’s films, and its poetic realism succeeds in giving the girl’s ‘suicide’ the overtones of liberation. The film is emotionally accessible to a broad public, except for those who are unable to see anything but bleakness in its ending.” Indeed, arguably the most shocking aspect of the film is how unshocking the suicide really is, which is a testament to Bresson’s singular genius as a genuine humanistic artist. 

Although I have mixed feelings about suicide and the integrity (or lack thereof) involved with such a truly permanent act, Mouchette certainly made me rethink it from a philosophical perspective. In fact, the film inspired to revisit E. M. Cioran’s arguable magnum opus A Short History of Decay (1949) aka Précis de decomposition, most specifically his aphoristic essay ‘My Heroes’ where he argues, “When we are young we look for heroes. I have had mine: Kleist, Karoline von Günderrode, Nerval, Otto Weininger. . . . Intoxicated by their suicides, I was certain that they alone had gone to the end, that they drew, in death, the right conclusion from their thwarted or fulfilled loves, from their broken minds or philosophic pain. That a man should survive his passion was enough to make him contemptible or abject in my eyes: which is to say that humanity was superfluous. I discovered in it an infinitesimal number of lofty resolutions and so much compromise with life that I turned away from it, determined to put an end to it all before I was thirty. But as the years went by, I lost the pride of youth: each day, like a lesson in humility, I reminded myself that I was still alive, that I was betraying my dreams among men rotten with . . . life. Exasperated by the expectation of no longer existing, I considered it a duty to cleave my flesh when dawn broke after a night of love, and that it was a nameless degradation to sully by memory an excess of sighs. Or, at other moments, how was one to insult duration further, when one had grasped everything in a dilation which enthrones pride in the very heavens? I thought that the only action a man could perform without shame was to take his life, that he had no right to diminish himself in the succession of days and the inertia of misery. Not elect, I kept telling myself, but those who committed suicide. Even now, I have more esteem for a concierge who hangs himself than for a living poet. Man is provisionally exempt from suicide: that is his one glory, his one excuse. But he is not aware of it, and calls cowardice the courage of those who dared to raise themselves by death above themselves. We are bound together by a tacit pact to go on to the last breath: this pact which cements our solidarity dooms us nonetheless—our entire race is stricken by its infamy. Without suicide, no salvation. Strange! that death, thought eternal, has not become part of our ‘behavior’: sole reality, it cannot become a vogue. Thus, as living men, we are all retarded. . . .

Of course, it is ironically the ‘pride of youth’ that gives the titular heroine of the film the nerve enact felo-de-se with such fierce yet playfully executed finality, though she clearly does not need a deep philosophical argument to off herself, which makes her self-obliteration all the more ‘pure’ and morbidly intriguing (indeed, personally I find the stereotypical ‘bourgeois intellectual suicide’ to be mostly banal, if not downright completely cliche). When Mouchette’s mother warns her just before croaking, “Make sure you never get taken in by lazy workmen or drunks,” not long after she is raped by the most loathsome of drunken deadbeat lumpenproles, it becomes all too painfully clear that her life is already a devastatingly fatalistic disaster and that her future will indubitably be plagued with unending pain, misery, and abuse. Although even somewhat immature for her age as indicated by her cravenly childish bullying of her classmates and preposterously nihilistic displays of fruitless rebellion, the heroine certainly has a certain intuitive wisdom that is beyond her years on a visceral level that not even Cioran—the well educated son of an Orthodox priest who, compared to most Romanians of his era, had a relatively comfortable upbringing—could comprehend, at least not instinctually. Either way, it is impossible to be angry with Mouchette for her actions. 

 Undoubtedly, one really realizes the brilliance of Mouchette when one considers that Bresson simply saw it as a sort of experiment or “essai” (aka “exercise”).  Indeed, as Bresson confided to Godard in a May 1966 interview featured in Cahiers du Cinéma in regard to his objective with the film, “Instead of a whole group of lives and different characters . . . I want to concentrate, constantly, absolutely, on one face, the face of this little girl, to see her reactions. . . . And I will choose, yes, the most awkward little girl there is, and try to draw from her everything that she will not suspect I am drawing from her. That is what interests me, and the camera will not leave her.” While I have obviously never met Nadine Nortier and was not even born until almost two decades after the film was released, there is no doubt in my mind that Bresson managed to capture her completely organic expressions in all their coarseness, vulgarity, tactlessness, awkwardness and youthful purity. Surely, it is no coincidence that the very first aphorism of Bresson’s rather short yet completely invaluable text Notes on the Cinematographer (1975) is, “Rid myself of the accumulated errors and untruths. Get to know my resources, make sure of them,” as Mouchette, like virtually all of the filmmaker’s great works, does not contain a single false note or second of filler. Indeed, as the film reveals, André Bazin was right when he wrote that Bresson is “concerned not with the psychology but with the physiology of existence,” though it is impossible to not assume things about Nortier’s character's psychology when confronted with her rather unforgettable physiology. 

 Although I will not attempt any sort of theological interpretation of Mouchette in regard to the heroine’s suicide, film scholar turned auteur Paul Schrader, who incidentally recently completely his own rather Bressonian film First Reformed (2017), provides a good argument in his sole book Transcendental Style In Film (1972) when he states, “Intertwined with the abjuration of the body in Bresson’s films is the vexing problem of suicide: If the body enslaves the soul, why not destroy the body and be free? St. Ambrose stated the case quite clearly: ‘Let us die, if we may leave, or if we be denied leave, yet let us die. God cannot be offended with this, when we use it for a remedy,’ and Augustine and Aquinas rushed to counter the argument. Marvin Zeman, in an essay on suicide in Bresson’s films, has demonstrated that Bresson, particularly in his later films, has come to associate himself with a radical wing of Christianity (including, among others, St. Ambrose, John Donne, and George Bernanos) which regards suicide as a positive good.” Charles Barr certainly provides support for Schrader’s claim when he argued in his essay on Mouchette featured in the book The Films Of Robert Bresson (1969) that, “Her suicide is right; and Bresson gets from us, certainly, the ‘stock’ responses to such a suicide – pity for her, disgust for those who caused it. But, to go back to the point I started on, he quite excludes the often almost inseparable shallower response, the impulse to despair of the world, but rather to luxuriate in hopelessness, as in Shelley’s lines ‘I could lie down like a tired child / And weep away [this] life of care’. The ‘tired child’ here does nothing like this.” Indeed, in her own dubious way, the heroine achieves transcendence by escaping the seemingly perennial void of her own painfully dead-end earthly existence. If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right when he wrote, “The meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering but in the development of the soul,” one can see why Mouchette chose death over life as she seemed to be foredoomed to a forsaken existence that would have only all the more warped and debased her already rather damaged soul, thus her suicide seems like an act of (seemingly subconscious) self-salvation. Notably, Bresson would even admit in an interview with Napoléon Murat featured in the March 16, 1967 issue of Le Figaro littéraire when questioned about despair in source writer Bernanos’ work that, “If there is despair in his work, it’s due to an error in the writing, more likely due to poor reading. Even suicide . . . Mouchette’s, for example—Bernanos says this in so many words—is not cause for despair. Her innocence, her terror are like those of an animal being tracked. In the film there’s a parallel between the game bird and Mouchette. For her, death isn’t an end, a finality (Bernanos dixit) but, one the contrary, it’s a beginning. She’s waiting for a revelation.” 

At the very end of his interview with Georges Sadoul featured in the March 16, 1967 issue of the French literary publication Les Lettres Françaises, Bresson reveals his surprising sense of humility by remarking in a rhetorical fashion, “I wonder if my films are worth the effort they require.” For me, the simple answer to his (non)question is that, in terms of quality, Bresson’s films provide a value that is probably worth more than every single film associated with the La Nouvelle Vague combined, as they do the seemingly inexplicable by providing a spiritual experience in celluloid form that will follow (or, some might say, ‘haunt’) the viewer for the rest of their lives, which is certainly no small accomplishment for any serious artist.  After recently revisiting Dead Poets Society (1989)—a film directed by an Australian auteur that I have always had great respect for—my belief that Mouchette features the greatest suicide scene in cinema history has only been reinforced.  Indeed, famous for its scene near the end where Robert Sean Leonard's character commits suicide because his uptight father will not allow him to pursue his dream of becoming a theater fag, the famous offing scene in Dead Poets Society ultimately seems like a cheap melodramatic ritual when compared to the transcendental majesty of Bresson's depiction of spontaneous teenage self-termination.  Even after writing this long ass review, I feel that words are simply inadequate when it comes to describing the great joyous passion of little Mouchette's suicide, no matter how sick or demented that sounds.

-Ty E

Jun 14, 2018

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

I never thought I would say it, but recently I saw a holocaust film that I found to be rather aesthetically alluring and traditionally beautiful to the point where I watched it no less than three times in one week to make sure that I was not hallucinating. Of course, leave it to Italy—a country that has somehow managed to elevate sleazy horror, western, and action genre trash to the level of art—to be responsible for such an inordinate cinematic work that seems like it was made with more intent than to simply spread the gospel of the (anti)Occidental post-religion of holocaustianity. Indeed, Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1970) aka The Garden of the Finzi-Continis directed by Italian neorealist maestro Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D. ) is an excellent example of what happens when a real artist projects his own humanity onto the plight and suffering of an alien people that could not have done a better job on their own, but of course it was naturally produced by chosenites, including Arthur Cohn, Gianni Hecht Lucari, and Artur Brauner. The first film that the auteur directed after becoming estranged from his regular screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, De Sica's strangely delectable feature is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Ferrarese Jew Giorgio Bassani, who notoriously loathed the film adaptation. On top of being uniquely unkosher in its direction and overall execution, the film features the patently absurd novelty of featuring highly attractive (and mostly blond) Aryans with mostly noble demeanors portraying rich spoiled Jews that are just too decadent and terminally introverted to sense the rise of fascist antisemitism. In short, the film was clearly made to cater to tendencies of a naive all-goy audience, as if it would be too much of an aesthetic risk to feature real live Jews portraying Jews (at the very least, they could have cast handsome half-heeb Vittorio Gassman). In fact, while the film features characters sporting Star of David necklaces, synagogues, and various references to the growing tide of Hitler-inspired Italian fascist antisemitism, I was never able to truly able to embrace complete suspension of disbelief and sincerely feel that I was watching a movie about the holocaust, thus underscoring De Sica’s innate dedication to humanism and cinematic art. In short, I was somehow able to rather enjoy the film in spite of its Hebraic holocaust theme. 

 Winner of various coveted awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1972 and the Golden Bear at the 21st Berlin International Film Festival in 1971, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was indubitably a comeback film of sorts for auteur Vittorio De Sica, who had not had a hit since Matrimonio all'italiana (1964) aka Marriage Italian Style and spent a number of years directing mostly worthless mainstream comedies after long abandoning his neorealist roots due to commercial success. While it would be an exaggeration to say that the film is as good as his previous masterpieces like Ladri di biciclette (1948) aka Bicycle Thieves, Miracolo a Milano (1951) aka Miracle in Milan, and Umberto D. (1952), it is arguably De Sica’s last great film, though some less kind critics were not that at all impressed, including David Thomson, who argued in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975), “But his work in the 1960s was slick and tasteless. The pictorial grace and the emotional severity were both abandoned in a serious of concocted comedies about sexual hypocrisy. THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS was a regeneration only in that it was a serious, literary subject that de Sica transcribed with rather hollow rectitude. He stands now as a minor director.” To Thomson’s credit, the film does seem a bit flaccid and pathos-poor when compared to the auteur’s masterpieces, but there is not denying its great enrapturing pulchritude and somewhat provocative depiction of Italian Jewry, which are certainly the main reasons I enjoyed it.  Indeed, forget the sappy sentimentalism and silly humor of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997), De Sica's film thankfully never feels like a gross exercise in emotional manipulation as the Dead Sea Pedestrians are depicted with great sensitivity to character flaws, warts and all.

 It is has been speculated that the 15th-century Italian noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci—a blonde beauty that tragically died at the mere age of 22 who was regarded as the most beauteous woman in Northern Italy during her time—acted as the inspiration for a number of famous painting, probably most notably The Birth of Venus (1484-1486) by Sandro Botticelli. Undoubtedly, French fashion model turned actress Dominique Sanda was a sort of equivalent to Vespucci in terms of late-1960s/1970s European arthouse cinema as the always stunning star of such important cinematic works as Robert Bresson’s Une femme douce (1969) aka A Gentle Woman, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il conformist (1970) aka The Conformist and Novecento (1976) aka 1900, and Fred Haines’ underrated Hermann Hesse adaptation Steppenwolf (1974), among various other examples. Simply due to her sheer beauty, Sanda even manages to virtually steal the entire show in her all too brief uncredited cameo in Luchino Visconti’s late era anti-jet-set flick Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (1974) aka Conversation Piece. Undoubtedly, if Sanda demonstrated any great talent, it was portraying a deceptively elegant, slightly venomous, and strangely sophisticated cocktease, which she does to great effect in de Sica’s film as a terminally spoiled and deceptively frigid wealthy young Jewess who ultimately rejects the romantic propositions of her lifelong Judaic friend for a much more masculine and aggressive guido of the hopelessly hairy goyish commie sort.

 Indeed, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis—a film set on the eve of the Second World War in 1938 Ferrara, Italy—is the beauteously bittersweet story of a young lovelorn Jewish writer the faces the dually degrading experience of being repeatedly rejected by the woman he loves while he and his people face discrimination from the increasingly counter-kosher fascist government. Oftentimes feeling more like a strangely warm dystopian romance as directed by the wop grandpa of John Hughes than the typical Spielbergian celluloid shoah showcase, the film ultimately succeeds where most holocaust movies fail in that the Jewish characters, who are all conspicuously flawed, do not seem like an exotic ‘other’ that the viewer is expected to virtually worship in a mystical fashion. On top of successfully humanizing the eternal Hebrew, the film thankfully does not dwell on depicting dagos as dastardly demons worthy of eternal damnation, but I guess one should not expect anything less from a filmmaker that got his start during the fascist era. If the film has a villain, it is not an individual but instead collective fear and apathy, which of course are universal emotions. 

 Naturally, as a (quite regrettably) college-educated American, virtually every true blue Israelite that I have ever encountered was relatively rich and spoiled. Indeed, the denigrative weaponized label “white privilege” that is oftentimes used by Judaic cultural Marxist types that pretend to be white like Tim Wise, Noel Ignatiev, and their spiritually castrated shabbos goy lackeys would certainly be an apt description for the average American Jew. While the characters in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis are also plagued with an inordinate degree of kosher privilege, they are not nearly as repellent or loathsome as the various American tribesmen that I have had the grand misfortune of meeting. For example, instead of shitting on European culture, these characters mostly embrace it to the point where some of them, including the male protagonist’s father, are fascist party members. Of course, these characters represent the last generation of true European Jewry before the holocaust and mass immigration of Jews to the United States more or less completely destroyed the culturally schizophrenic peoples. In that sense, the film acts as a virtual collective epitaph for European Jewry, most specifically Italian Jewry, hence why the film concludes with a dreamlike montage of all the characters that have perished.  Actually set in Europa instead of some annoyingly fake Hollywood set, the film also radiates a certain authenticity despite its very specific stylization and cast of aesthetically gifted Aryans portraying rather rich Red Sea Pedestrians.  In fact, even auteur De Sica felt the film was too beautiful, or as he stated in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, “That's right.  The second half shouldn't be so beautiful.  I should have made it grey or reversed THE LAST JUDGEMENT and made the first part color and the second black and white.  That's a good idea.  I wanted to achieve effects like those in Huston's REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, but my cameraman was incapable.”  Apparently De Sica was unable to completely realize his entire aesthetic vision due to a lack of time and money, thereupon resulting in the most glaringly gorgeous holocaust film ever made.  Needless to say, such a film would never be made today.

 After beginning with an immediately strikingly blood-warm autumnal opening credit sequence that sets the film’s aesthetic tone of diffused delectability and soft-focus melancholy, the viewer encounters a couple bourgeois tennis dorks in all-white on bicycles as they approach gates of the large estate of the wealthy Jewish Finzi-Contini family, with one of the friends half-jokingly declaring that, “…the Finzi-Continis never leave their kingdom.” When the group finally enters the estate, they are greeted with an otherworldly Edenic paradise of sorts, though communist Malnate (Fabio Testi)—a masculine goy boy that boasts to his Judaic comrade in regard to his fetish for class warfare, “But the middle class I don’t care for. They’re all of them more or less fascists. Except for you Jews…understandably…considering—but at least the works at my place…are almost all antifascist”—acts less than impressed. A friend of the family’s sole son Alberto (Helmut Berger)—a sickly and painfully introverted blond chap who doesn’t like leaving home because, as he states, “I always felt I was being spied on…envied”—Malnate soon develops a romantic interest upon meeting his pal’s sole sister Micòl (Dominique Sanda), who is somewhat rightly described by a Hebraic comrade as, “Very beautiful: tall, blond…but unpredictable.” To make matters more romantically complicated, the film’s Jewish protagonist Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio) falls in love with Micòl, who also happens to be his childhood friend as both are members of respected local Jewish families. While Micòl gives Giorgio the perfect opportunity to fuck her in her family’s automobile as her nipples can be seen through her wet white shirt after the two seek shelter from the rain, it is ultimately the notably more masculine Malnate that manages to mate with her right before being drafted into the Italian army and being killed in combat in Russia. Although Giorgio fails miserably in terms of attempting to get his virginal shylock cock wet by dipping into Micòl’s premium grade kosher cunt, he is the only one of his tennis friends to survive the ordeal and escape Italy before being herded into a cramped cattle car.  Undoubtedly, the great irony of Giorgio's young life is that, despite succumbing to a crippling degree of lovelorn dejection, he will live on while the woman that he believes he loves will die and eventually become nothing more to him than a fading bittersweet memory of unrequited love during a chaotic war torn period in what is ultimately a sort of Jewish Götterdämmerung.

 Although pathologically preoccupied due to being terribly lovesick, Giorgio seems to be one of the only characters in the film that is acutely aware that an ominous fate awaits the Jews. Indeed, even Giorgio father’s (Romolo Valli)—a fascist supporter with ties to the local government—seems to be in denial about the situation as demonstrated by his preposterous attempts to rationalize anti-Jewish laws. When Giorgio accuses his padre of having a “pet mania” and believing that, “That our Mussolini is better than Hitler…our fascism better than Nazism!,” his father replies, “Well, it’s true!,” and then subsequently argues without even the slightest hint of irony that it is ok that they are, “Third-class, if you will, but still a citizen who can….enjoy his basic rights.” The only other Jew that seems totally horrified by the anti-kosher climate of Italy is Micòl’s insufferably introverted Alberto, who seems to be so deeply metaphysically plagued by the growing counter-kosherism in the air that he eventually becomes terribly sick and eventually dies of the antisemitic storm, or so the film makes it seem. Aside from repeatedly dispassionately rebuffing Giorgio’s various meek and largely pathetic romantic advances, Micòl cannot even be bothered to say goodbye to her brother Alberto, who she seems to have incestuous feelings for, when he is on his deathbed.

Although she declares to Giorgio before a failed half-hearted attempt at seducing him, “I like to feel I’m a woman,” Micòl’s words are clearly those of wishful thinking as she is such a hopelessly spoiled brat that she cannot be bothered to suffer the grand indignity of stepping outside the innately internal fantasy realm she has created on her family estate, hence why it becomes all the more disturbing yet strangely fitting when the goombah Gestapo finally arrives at her less than humble abode to take her and her family away.  A clear victim of bourgeois decadence and the apathy it inspires, Micòl does not bother to even attempt to put up a fight when her black-clad persecutors arrive. Indeed, she seems like she would agree with Rimbaud's words, “I found I could extinguish all human hope from my soul.” Undoubtedly, Micòl seems to suffer from a certain unspoken self-loathing due to her particularly privileged background, which explains her disgust for a fellow wealthy Jew like Giorgio and sexual interest in a good masculine guido gentile like Malnate. In fact, she more or less expresses as much when Giorgio declares he loves her and Micòl angrily responds, “But I don’t love you! Lovers have a drive to overwhelm one another. But the way we are, alike as two drops of water…how could we ever overwhelm or tear each other to pieces? It would be like making love with a brother. Like with Alberto. You and I are not normal people. For the two of us…what counts more than the possession of things—how shall I put it?—is the remembrance of things…the memory of things.”  Of course, the brutal irony is that if Micòl had hooked up with Giorgio and fled Italy with him, she would not have joined the supposed six million in the Endlösung

 To some extent, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a ‘message’ film and Vittorio De Sica manages to more or less outline most of its central themes in a single scene at the end where protagonist Giorgio’s father—a man that seems to realize his life is over—reconciles with his son and gives him the following fatherly words of advice,“If I may say so…as families go, the Finzi-Continis are not for us. They’re not our sort. They’re different. They don’t even seem Jewish. Micol—Maybe that’s what attracted you to her. That she’s superior to you socially. It’ll pass. You’ll get over it. And a lot sooner than you think. I can imagine what you’re feeling now. Yet, in a way, I rather envy you. In life, in order to understand…to really understand the world…you must die at least once. So it’s better to die young, when there’s still time left…to recover and live again. When you’re old, it’s much worse. Why is that? There’s no time to start over from zero. And our generation has made so many, many mistakes. A few months and it will seem as if none of this had ever happened to you. You may even end up being glad. You’ll feel richer, one might say. More mature.” As if he predicted the future (or was committing a sort of passive suicide), Giorgio’s father is rounded up by the fascists just like the Finzi-Continis, though he manages to send his family away to safety.  Although a Jewish fascist that supported a political party that persecuted his own people, Giorgio’s father ultimately comes off in the end as seeming like the most honorable character in the entire film.

 While surely entertaining and aesthetically delectable to a certain degree, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis cannot be fully appreciated without a certain understanding of the history of Italian Jewry and its relationship to Italian fascism, which is a bit more complicated and dubious than that of German Jewry to the Third Reich. For example, Giorgio’s father—a man that seems to be just as proud of being Italian as he is Jewish—seems to be symbolic of the Turin banker Ettore Ovazza, who was not only a diehard fascist from the very beginning, but he also bankrolled Mussolini and his movement. Not unlike Giorgio’s father, Ovazza seemed to have been at least partially in denial when it came to growing fascist antisemitism, which he and his family ultimately paid for with their lives with after the Schutzstaffel caught up with them in late-1943 near the Swiss border. As depicted in the rather flaccid and banal TV miniseries Benito: The Rise and Fall of Mussolini (1993) starring Antonio Banderas as the eponymous lead, Mussolini was the sexual and political protégé of communist Jewess Margherita Sarfatti, who acted as an imperative propaganda adviser of the National Fascist Party as well as Il Duce’s biographer. Notably, fascist General and war hero Italo Balbo, who was from Ferrara just like the characters in the film, was strongly opposed to anti-Jewish laws due to his own favorable personal experiences with the long assimilated Ferrarese Jews. Although the film makes it seem as if every single Italian Jew was rounded up and exterminated in a concentration camp, only ninety-six of Ferrara's 300 Jews were actually deported, hence how the film’s source writer Giorgio Bassani was able to survive the war despite being an active resistance fighter.  Of course, considering their oftentimes similar phenotypic traits, especially in the south, it was probably easier for Jews to hide among Italians than among Germans. As far as Hebraic guidos and tennis are concerned, Trieste-born Jewish tennis star Uberto De Morpurgo—a somewhat handsome fellow of aristocratic stock that would certainly be at home with the characters of De Sica's film—was named Italian Commissioner of Tennis by Benito Mussolini in 1929.

 Due to their pathetic passivity and seeming complete and utter disinterest in even leaving home, the titular family of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis almost seems to long for death, as if they have been waiting their entire lives for a one-way ticket to Auschwitz. Notably, this seems especially true of the young intellectual Alberto, who has the luxury of kicking the bucket before ever getting into nazi hands and thus dying a slightly more dignified death. Indeed, thinking about Alberto, I could not help but reminded of the tragic Italian Jewish philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter, who killed himself by shooting himself with a pistol only hours after completing his sole book Persuasion and Rhetoric—a doctoral thesis that, not unlike American Jew Mitchell Heisman's Suicide Note (2010), reads like a hermetic philosophical suicide note—at the mere age of 23 in 1910. Like his Viennese Jewish counterpart Otto Weininger, who killed himself at the same exact age on the same exact month almost seven years before, Michelstaedter was, despite being descended from rabbis, a totally deracinated irreligious Jew that had adopted a completely Occidental cultural and intellectual perspective as a student of Plato and Aristotle. Although just speculation, but I think Michelstaedter was probably like how Oswald Spengler described Weininger in that he was a sort of post-religious Jewish mystic of late religious consciousness destroyed in the agony of a sort of schizophrenic Magian dualism as a result of being a racial/spiritual alien with a carefully cultivated European sensibility.

As Daniela Bini noted in Carlo Michelstaedter and the Failure of Language (1992), “Twelve years after his death his close friend Vladimiro Arangio Ruiz developed an interpretation along a more philosophical line. In speaking of Carlo’s suicide Arangio Ruiz used the very words Carlo himself had written in his autobiographical pages: that he had died ‘for overwhelming abundance of life.’ He emphasized the great demands Carlo had made upon himself, that he had elevated his own being to a height and expected from himself a perfection that cannot exist in human life. He was made of the same stuff of which heroes and saints are made. In this view emphasis was also placed on Carlo’s youth, when idealism reigns uncompromised.” Of course, it can also be argued that the film’s titular family—decadent intellectuals that are even looked at as virtual aristocrats by other Jews due to their wealth and lack of stereotypical Jewish characteristics—also succumbed to ‘overwhelming abundance of life,’ as their bloated opulence and detachment from the struggle of life and survival leads to accepting a horrific fate that is right in front of their faces. Quite notably, both Weininger and Michelstaedter were a major intellectual influence on self-described ‘superfascist’ Julius Evola, who received financial backing from Mussolini to start a racialist journal entitled Sangue e Spirito aka Blood and Spirit that featured a distinctly ‘Roman’ (as opposed to German) view of race that blended Sorelianism with a Mussolinian eugenic ideal. Somewhat ironically, despite his influence on Evola and other fascist thinkers, Michelstaedter’s entire family, including his mother and elder sister, died in the holocaust.  Of course, had Michelstaedter not killed himself, he probably would have also ended up at Auschwitz.

 At the beginning of his magnum opus Persuasion and Rhetoric, Michelstaedter arguably provides another insight into the titular family of the film when he writes, “Nor is any life ever satisfied to live in any present, for insofar as it is life it continues, and it continues into the future to the degree that it lacks life. If it were to possess itself completely here and now and be in want of nothing—if it awaited nothing in the future—it would not continue: it would cease to be life. So many things attract us in the future, but in vain do we want to possess them in the present.” Throughout the family, most of the members of the Finzi-Contini family seem to be living completely in the present, as if they, quite unlike protagonist Giorgio, have nil interest in a future and have thus accepted a sort foreboding self-obliteration via passive contentment that ironically leads to their deaths. While Michelstaedter certainly could have not predicated the holocaust, it as if he understood the sort of hopelessly fragile Jewish bourgeois mindset that would make its implementation possible. Not unlike Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who was executed under the command of Jewish Bolshevik thug Yakov Yurovsky, the Finzi-Contini family is simply too spoiled, weak, and out of touch with reality to deal with a glaring threat that would ultimately completely engulf them.  Of course, the sort of self-slaughter committed by Michelstaedter is certainly more honorable than being another statistic in the shoah, as it at least demonstrates a certain will power.

 While Vittorio De Sica was not exactly a politically correct guy in some respects (when asked in an interview why he did not develop a scene of homoerotic love in his film Shoeshine (1946), he simply replied, “Because it revolted me”), he did seem to suffer from a certain ethno-masochism when it came to fascism, or as he stated in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels featured in Vittorio De Sica: Contemporary Perspectives in regard to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, “After the disaster of SUNFLOWER I wanted to make a true De Sica film, made just as I wanted it. I accepted this subject because I intimately feel the Jewish problem. I myself feel shame because we are guilty of the death of millions of Jews. Why were they killed? Because a criminal, a lunatic wanted that. But the Italian Fascists are also guilty. So am I. I wasn’t a fascist, but I belong to the country that collaborated with Hitler. I wanted, out of conscience, to make this film, and I am glad I made it.” Judging simply by his comments, De Sica—a mensch that freely admitted that he was inspired to direct the ‘fascist’ film La porta del cielo (1945) aka The Gates of Heaven because, “it was a film made only to save me from the Fascists”—seems to have failed in his artistic intentions with the film. Indeed, instead of being the stereotypical holocaust agitprop piece, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a film that dares to reveal Jewish-fascist collaboration and at least partly blame the Jews for their own downfall. On top of that, the film—a sort of contra Shoah (1985) in virtually every way imaginable—is just too patently aesthetically pulchritudinous, seraphic, and luscious to inspire the doom and gloom of gas chambers and dubious things like Herr Doktor Joseph Mengele’s supposed twin fetish.  Of course, exploiting the holocaust and the Third Reich for monetary and/or aesthetic reasons is a great legacy of Italian cinema history as demonstrated by everything from guido arthouse films like Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (1974) to Corrado Farina's comic book adaptation Baba Yaga (1973) to the the countless films of the mostly worthless Nazisploitation (sub)genre like Sergio Garrone's SS Experiment Camp (1976).

For me, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is less a melodrama about the holocaust than a sort of celluloid death poem for European Jewry; or, more specifically a thoroughly Europeanized Jewry that no longer exists but once produced people like Michelstaedter, Weininger, Karl Kraus, Edmund Husserl, and Egon Friedell, among others.  Indeed, I am far from a philosemite, but I think the film does pay respectable tribute to European Jewry, even if it fails in its holocaust agenda.  As to why the film was superior to many of the filmmaker's many previous artistic failures, De Sica probably said it best when he stated in an interview, “I am happy that I made it because it brought me back to my old noble intentions.  Because, you see, I have been ruined by lack of money.  All my good films, which I financed by myself, made nothing.  Only my bad films made money.  Money has been my ruin.”

-Ty E

May 28, 2018

That Most Important Thing: Love

After a recent one-man Andrzej Żuławski marathon, I came to the somewhat ironical conclusion that the director’s (arguably) most accessible and aesthetically conventional film, L'important c'est d'aimer (1975) aka That Most Important Thing: Love aka The Main Thing Is to Love aka Nachtblende—a love story for the terminally lovesick and romantically nihilistic based on the novel La Nuit américaine by the film’s frog co-screenwriter Christopher Frank—is also one of his greatest and most immaculate accomplishments as an artist. Of course, like many of the director’s cinematic works, including his most popular and well known feature Possession (1981), the French-Italian-German coproduction deals with the timeless Żuławskian theme of ‘love as pain’ and the rather romantic notion of true love being a grave metaphysical affliction that can bring death and self-destruction, among other less than desirable things. Indeed, the sort of love depicted in a Żuławski flick is more deleteriously addictive and all-consuming in the poetic sense than the way poet and cine-magician Jean Cocteau described the eponymous narcotic in his classic text Opium: Diary of a Cure (1930). Of course, being a Żuławski flick, it is a cinematic work that practically redefines the romance film as it feels more fierce, frantic, violent, and fast-paced than the latest Hollywood action film, albeit non-retarded and packed with almost painfully penetrating pathos.  Additionally, only in Żuławski's film does the random anecdote, which is not even depicted onscreen, of a pathetic commie intellectual reciting Rimbaud as his last words on his deathbed become one of many so memorable moments, as if the auteur was able to fit three or four films into one.  Depicting a bizarre love triangle between a wash-up Austrian sexploitation actress, her exceedingly emasculated and perennially unemployed beta-male frog husband, and a French alpha-male photographer protagonist that is determined to make her his beloved, That Most Important Thing: Love is also a film about how women, including old and used up ones, can completely destroy men without even the slightest bit of effort or concern for the forsaken fellows that suffered the misfortune of falling in love with them. In short, the film brings a certain poetic truth to Friedrich Nieztche’s oftentimes quoted words, “Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.” Unfortunately for the film’s male protagonist and the goofy guy he cuckolds, the heroine—played by Austrian diva Romy Schneider in a performance that would rightly earn her a ‘frog Oscar’ (aka César Award)—is too much of a sad solipsistic emotional mess of a woman to be too concerned with the fact that she is tearing up the souls of the two men that matter the most to her in life. 

 Admittedly, it felt somewhat like kismet when I recently watched That Most Important Thing: Love for the first time as I had a somewhat recent romantic experience that is, at least superficially, comparable to that of the protagonist. Indeed, I began a brief yet somewhat passionate romance with a girl that found herself unable to breakup with her longtime cuckold fiancé despite her completely sexless and largely pathetic relationship with him, as she could not break an old routine with a loser that she openly admitted that she was completely sexually disgusted with.  Incidentally, this same girl bears a superficial resemblance to Romy Schneider.  Needless to say, after watching the film and experiencing something similar firsthand, I have resolved to never ever again deal with a damaged dame that lacks the strength and decisiveness to stick with one man.  In the film, Schneider’s character—an ex-whore of sorts that makes a living flaunting her flesh in disreputable Jean Rollin-esque art-horror-erotica—feels obligated to stay completely faithful to her husband despite the fact that they have nil sex life and he is a weak and pathetic unemployed man that collects Hollywood publicity shots like some old queen-ish antique dealer. In short, the heroine—a woman that is clearly well past her prime in terms of pulchritude—finds herself practically creaming her pants at first sight when she meets the masculine alpha-male photographer protagonist played by Italian stallion Fabio Testi (who apparently was some sort of macho male bimbo in real-life), who makes the iconic character played by David Hemmings in Michelangelo Antonioni’s counterculture classic Blow-Up (1966) seem like a sapless Brit prick bitch pussy by comparison. Although a dark love story, it is also a film about broken people where no character is unforgettable but virtually every single one seems to have been either forgotten, disposed of, and/or beaten down by society. Set in a largely dark and dreary Parisian underworld inhabited by overly intellectual communist cuckolds, puritanical black market pornographers, megalomaniacal theater faggots, impotent cinephiles, childish gangsters, and other losers and freaks, That Most Important Thing: Love ultimately makes love seem like a painfully rare and important thing that demands great sacrifice due to the ugliness, failure, and stupidity that seems to consume most of humanity; or so one discover in the unforgettably zany Żuławskian realm. 

 In a somewhat incriminating interview included as an extra feature of the Mondo Vision DVD of That Most Important Thing: Love, Żuławski states, “It’s true that I’m more gripped by the characters who are perhaps good people at heart, but who end up going down a slippery slope, and don’t ever manage to fit into society.” Indeed, every single character in the film is a misfit of sorts that is connection to a group of misfits, including pornographers, theater poofs, and gangsters, yet Żuławski somehow manages to give most of these individuals a certain degree of humanity. Undoubtedly, the film’s tall, dark, and handsome protagonist, Servais Mont (Fabio Testi of Vittorio de Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970))—a two-time war veteran and stoic yet not exactly sophisticated alpha-male of sorts—is the most seemingly normal of these characters and he is a fairly lonely guy with a drug addict bum for a father who makes his living taking pornographic photos involving such unsavory things as homo miscegenation involving muscular negroes and Brit tranny freaks with Isaac Asimov fetishes. At the very beginning of the film, Servais sneaks into a porno shoot to take bootleg photos of its female star Nadine Chevalier (Romy Schneider) straddling a bloodly corpse, but he is instantly taken aback when the failed actress stares directly at him and states to him while sobbing with a certain inordinate emotive intensity, “No photos please. I’m an actress, I do good stuff. I only do this to… to eat.” While Servais manages to escape from the film set with the snapshots after getting in a brawl with a couple film crew members and being kicked out of the production, he immediately becomes obsessed with Nadine to the point where he wastes no time in finding out where she lives and then randomly shows up there unannounced. Luckily for Servais, Nadine seems to be just as interested in him, but unfortunately she has certain moral obligations to her unemployed beta-boy husband Jacques Chevalier (musician turned actor Jacques Dutronc in his second acting role) and has also adopted a sort of self-stylized Puritanism as an assumed psychological defense mechanism due to her decidedly debasing career as an exploitation slut.  A childless c grade actress that lies multiple times to Servais by claiming she is only 30 even though she is clearly about a decade older and thus has very little sexual market value left to any man that is serious about having children, Nadine is clearly at a miserable place in her life, so naturally the handsome protagonist is very tempting to her.  Unfortunately, Nadine's husband is a serious obstacle, at least until he becomes seriously suicidal.

 While poor old Jacques is a seemingly impotent loser that cannot even bear to fuck his wife even when she is literally on her knees begging for it while repeatedly declaring “Fuck me!,” he certainly understands Nadine as indicated by his remark to Servais in regard to her seeming hypocritical occupation as a porn star, “Nadine does them but doesn’t like them because she’s a puritan. Understand that? She’s done everything and showed everything and is getting more and more puritanical. She discovered she had principles. Now, you can strip her of her pants, but not her principles. She couldn’t explain her principles. They’re just there…like rails and Nadine sticks to them even if they burn her feet like right now.” Of course, Jacques’ passive-aggressively expressed words reveal why Nadine is initially hesitant to engage in carnal passions with Servais despite their clear strong mutual attraction for one another. As a man that begrudgingly snaps shots of orgies for an elderly effete gangster he despises named ‘Mazelli’ (Claude Dauphin)—a reluctant pornographer that also happens to be a prissy little prude—Servais certainly has more in common with Nadine than a mere mutual attraction, as they are both individuals that really loathe their jobs because they are forced to routinely debase themselves just to get a paycheck. Two seemingly innately moral people that have been degraded by the demands and influences of a degenerate demonic world inhabited by freaks, faggots, and fucks-ups, Nadine and Servais seem like they could be soul mates in some ideal alternate universe, but they are ultimately trapped in a living nightmare of isolation, morbid melancholy, and just plain bad luck. Like her husband Jacques, who apparently acquired her love and affection by saving her from a self-destructive life of hedonism and whoredom, Servais wants to be Nadine’s own personal savior and decides to put himself in a precarious situation to accomplish that goal by borrowing a bunch of money from his much hated gangster ‘boss’ Marzelli so that he can financially back a play and thus secure his would-be-ladylove the prestigious lead female role of Lady Anne in an avant-garde theatrical production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Indeed, somewhat ironically, Servais gets sucked further into the slimy subterranean realm of pornography so that he can rescue Nadine, who initially has no clue that he is even responsible for getting her the role. 

On top of going into great debt and virtually selling his soul to a boss that he absolutely loathes, Servais also makes some other sacrifices to get Nadine the role in Richard III, including befriending a theater troupe of flaming fag degenerates that include an absurdly arrogant German aristocrat named Karl-Heinz Zimmer (Klaus Kinski) and his cross-dressing director pal named Laurent Messala (Guy Mairesse). In fact, despite the fact that he is clearly a rampantly heterosexual frog buck, Servais even attempts to convince Nadine that he is an old friend of queen Messala so that he has an excuse to hang around the rehearsals for Richard III and thus spend time with her. Of course, as a man with a criminal drug addict father (Roger Blin) that longs after mulattoes, Servais is not too picky with who he hangs out with, though he certainly has somewhat curious friends in general. To his minor discredit, the protagonist, who his own flaws and annoying idiosyncrasies, also has no problem cuckolding his best friend Raymond Lapade (Michel Robin)—an unhinged Marxist dork and all-around failed intellectual that, somewhat ironically, gives him romance advice and inspires his quest to get Nadine to play the lead in Richard III—even though he does not seem particularly fond of his beauteous wife Luce (Nicoletta Machiavelli) and quickly forgets about fucking her when Nadine enters the picture.  In fact, pussy does not seem to be something that is particularly hard for Servais to acquire as he also sleeps with a hot Vietnamese whore (Hong Kong model Sin May Zao), but all these fuck-buddies disappear when he falls in love Nadine.  When it comes down to it, Servais is ultimately a loner that does not seem particularly fond of his friends or fuck-buddies, thereupon making it all the more apparent that his obsessive love for Nadine is real and not simply some form of misguided infatuation.

Aside from also wanting to be her savior, Nadine’s pathetic husband Jacques is more or less the complete opposite of Servais in practically every way imaginable. Indeed, while Servais is tall, strong, stoic, hardworking, and seemingly humorless, Jacques is a short goofy cinephile that seems to be allergic to work and incessantly acts like a clown to the point where he literally sports clown make-up at one point in the film. While Jacques is completely financially supported by his wife, who cinematically peddles her puss for a living in trashy films with titles like Nymphocula, Servais is willing to go into extreme debt with an unsavory gangster he hates in the hope that he can simply make his seemingly perennially dejected would-be-lover happy.  In that sense, Servais is certainly the more ideal lover for Nadine, who has been forced to take on the sexually inverted role of breadwinner. While Jacques is a pathetically laughable loser that lives his life like it is one big joke because he seems to be quite conscious that he is a joke, he is certainly no moron and almost immediately realizes that Servais will soon replace him. Notably, in an attempt to rationalize her sad and pathetic marriage to an unemployed film dork, Nadine describes her dubious relationship with Jacques as follows to Servais, “I’m neither a victim nor a prisoner. My life is what it is even if you don’t think it adds up to much. About the ghost in my last play, six years ago. I married him and I love him.” Rather unfortunately for him and his wife, Jacques also refuses to fuck Nadine and it is hinted that he is all but completely impotent despite his worship of manly fictional heroes like Zorro and the Italian silent era cinema hero Maciste created by proto-fascist hero Gabriele d'Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone. Of course, it is obvious that Jacques lives in a fantasy world of cinema and superheroes because he needs to escape from his own miserable unmanly existence, hence his boyish reverence of Zorro and Maciste.  In short, Servais is the man that Jacques never was and everyone in the bizarre love triangle seems to be painfully aware of this, though the protagonist would never be so arrogant as to actually state this.

 Needless to say, Nadine is the only thing that Jacques has to live for, so naturally suicide becomes the only serious viable option when he poses to lose her. Indeed, when Nadine realizes that Servais must truly love her after he turns down her pussy when she offers it to him as payment after learning that he secretly funded the Richard III project so that she would secure the lead female role, Jacques also comes to the cold realization that his wife is hopelessly in love with a strong and protective man and she will be moving on. Right before killing himself, Jacques finally drops the pathetic clown routine and confronts Nadine in regard to her true feelings for him, stating, “You know what the lousiest thing is? The most disgusting. Pity. Because it’s terminal. I know what you think of me. Of all my bullshit. There’s a word for it. I found it in my leather bound and gilded dictionary. Contempt.” Jacques also tells Nadine, “I can do anything for you except… live,” so naturally he must die and he does so by intentionally overdosing on drugs in the bathroom of the very same restaurant where they had the intense post-breakup conversation only minutes before. In a sick and pathetically passive-aggressive twist, Jacques sets it up so that his replacement Servais is the first to discover his corpse in what is ultimately a most loathsomely craven attempt at revenge. While staring at Jacques' corpse at the morgue, Servais becomes emotionally erratic for the first time in the film, declares in front of Nadine, “What a jerk!” and then proceeds to scream in his ladylove’s face after she physically attacks him, “Why did he do it? He should have done it before! Before he met you! Why did he do it? He should have done it before knowing you! Do you understand?” 

 Love kills, or so one certainly learns at the end of the ultimately somewhat bitterly brutally titled That Most Important Thing: Love, which concludes with Jacques successfully committing suicide and Servais being beaten within an inch of his life by a motley crew of gangsters at the behest of his (ex)boss Marzelli. While Nadine finally tells Servais that she loves him and caresses his badly brutalized body, it remains to be seen whether or not the male protagonist survives the ordeal, though one can certainly see the two being happily married if he does; or at least as happy as two outcasts can be. For better or worse, Servais ultimately proved his dedication and paid a hefty price to be with Nadine, who initially let her sentimentalism for a spiritually castrated cinephile blind her from a very great future. On the other hand, the innate irrationality of heterosexual love seems completely sane when compared to the almost otherworldly narcissism and all-around megalomaniacal madness of the homosexual characters in the film, namely the kraut queen Karl-Heinz Zimmer as personified by the one and only Klaus Kinski. Indeed, after discovering that his play is a critical bomb, Karl-Heinz needs to repair his ego and thus decides to brutally beat a couple boorish heterosexual men and then, despite his fagdom, proceeds to take home said boorish heterosexual men’s women and fuck them in a threesome. Notably, before beating up the men under the dubious pretense of one of them touching his coat, Karl-Heinz states to them with a sort of exceedingly eloquent understated rage, “My overcoat, sir. You touched it […] I paid a lot for this overcoat! Since I’m a well-bred homosexual, I care a lot for my things. Silence. I don’t like your type. You touched me with your proletarian fingers.” Undoubtedly, as the film reveal, homosexual insanity makes lovelorn lunacy seem rather tame by comparison, especially in regard to Teutonic dick-downing dandies. 

 While That Most Important Thing: Love depicts female protagonist Nadine in a relatively favorable light, I cannot help but think of her husband’s suicide and be reminded of the H.L. Mencken quote, “No matter how much a woman loved a man, it would still give her a glow to see him commit suicide for her.” Indeed, as the popularity of websites and apps like Instagram, Twitter, and Tinder demonstrate, female narcissism and solipsism knows no bounds. Taking this into consideration, one cannot help but speculate Żuławski and source writer/co-screenwriter Christopher Frank’s intent as to why the fierce fag played by Kinski randomly declares, “Philosophically speaking, if you don’t count St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval period was a catastrophe but we owe it a certain conception of women’s dignity.” Of course, with his later film Possession, which could also be called That Most Insane Thing: Love, Żuławski would reveal a more cynical view of love and especially marriage. Additionally, in an interview included with the Mondo Vision Blu-ray release of the filmmaker’s somewhat neglected feature La note bleue (1991) aka The Blue Note—a film that depicts with an almost annoying degree of artistic license the bitter end of the romantic relationship between Polish composer Frédéric Chopin and pseudonymous French novelist George Sand— Żuławski concludes in regard to the real-life protagonist of his film, “After this day depicted. . .filmed. . . in LA NOTE BLEUE, he never wrote any kind of new music. He went through Europe, went to Scotland, went to England, went to…—while adding some notes here and retracting some notes there—and he died, which means for me only one thing; if you’re in a profound, real love relationship with somebody, be this somebody good or bad, you’ll die of it.” Naturally, Żuławski’s remark seems somewhat curious when one considers that he seems to have been fueled by the romantic ideal of ‘Liebestod,’ but then again maybe he never ever really experienced a “profound, real love relationship,” though I sincerely doubt it. After all, the auteur was in a long-term artistically fruitful romance with singular French beauty Sophie Marceau and one can only assumed he suffered greatly at some point in that relationship, hence the increasingly romantically nihilistic nature of his films. While That Most Important Thing: Love is indubitably a dark romance that concludes in a fittingly unsettling fashion, it ultimately seems like a sentimental rom-com when compared to the bloody bacchanalian brutality and Yandere insanity of Żuławski’s later Polish feature Szamanka (1996) aka She-Shaman.

Notably, Żuławski would state of the importance of That Most Important Thing: Love in the context of his entire filmmaking career, “It’s a film that has stayed very close to me, because of its humanity. The final feelings it leaves me with are very human, and not artificial.” Undoubtedly, the film features the auteur’s warmest and most sympathetic female character and not the sort of demonically possessed sort of bitches in his later works like Possession and Szamanka. Indeed, the film is ‘humanistic’ in the best sense of the word as a cinematic work where the scab of lovesick humanity is ruthlessly ripped off and the open wound is allowed to freely bleed into the viewer’s soul. After all, even when Nadine declares to Servais, “You see, you were right. A woman can always be bought. Whatever they say,” one cannot help but respect the vulnerability in her honesty and I say that as someone that finds poetry in the words of Otto Weininger.  Rather embarrassingly, I am not really familiar with much of Romy Schneider's work, but she certainly reveals in Żuławski's film that she was the height of feminine elegance and the sort of actress that seems painfully nonexistent nowadays.  While Schneider's character Nadine might be a porno whore that is certainly long past her peak in terms of pulchritude and fertility, I think it is safe to say that many men, including myself, long to be with a women of such bargain bin diva divinity.

Romantic intrigues aside, the film also carries a very important message about the tragedy of true individuality in a socially oppressive world were both literal and figurative serfdom and whoredom seems to be the norm.  Indeed, while his eccentric entourage of eclectic goons are brutally beating Servais to a bloody pulp at the end of the film, villain Marzelli exposes his own personal Weltanschauung and declares to the protagonist, “You know kid, normally people like us don’t exist. I know it but I’m the only one. Each morning when I see myself, I say: ‘this is not real.’ So, since we don’t exist we must find a way to be accepted, right? That’s what you’re doing now. You’re accepting.” Considering Marzelli's words, one can only come to the conclusion that That Most Important Thing: Love is a film about accepting the fact that life sucks and then you die, but if you're lucky you might snag a Romy Schneider-tier babe at some point during your miserable existence.

-Ty E