Sep 25, 2013

Invitation au voyage (1982)

Like anyone, I like a good road movie, but finding one I have yet to see that catches my fancy has become a rather tedious task, so I do not exactly go hunting for them and prefer to allow them to fall into my lap. Knowing nothing about the film aside from the fact it was supposedly about a lurid incestuous love affair between fraternal twins, I decided to watch the French-Italian-German co-production Invitation au voyage (1982), a work based on a novel written by the relatively unknown French novelist Jean Bany that proved to not only be one of the most idiosyncratic road movies I have ever seen, but also a nicely nuanced piece that esoterically expresses the vapid essence of its particular zeitgeist. Directed by Italian auteur Peter Del Monte (Piso pisello aka Sweet Pea, Étoile aka Ballet), Invitation au voyage is a post-punk/death rock/new wave drenched work of laidback yet ominously off-beat celluloid poetry that, as demonstrated by the film’s title, alludes to decadent French poet Charles Baudelaire, but also Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joan Jett. Despite winning the prize for the Best Artistic Contribution at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and being a rare French cult arthouse flick to actually have a mainstream release in the United States (Sony Pictures put it out on VHS), Invitation au voyage has, rather unfortunately, faded into almost total obscurity like the hokey hairstyles featured in the film. A moody, melancholy, and even morbid road movie about incestuous twins—one male and one female—that might as well be doppelgangers were it not for having different genitals, Invitation au voyage unravels through a series of flashbacks what happens when a brother promises his sister he will make her “live again” if she were to ever die, which she does. Featuring a brother bathing his twin sis in a bathtub full of creamy white milk, an exquisite naked corpse in a cello case strapped on top of an antique Rolls Royce, and a curious corpse-like ‘protagonist’ who moves like a somnambulist as he internalizes and ultimately transsexualizes his innate incestuous feeling after his rock star sister dies in one of the most peculiar accidents of cinema history, Invitation au voyage, for better or worse, is a film about transformation and emasculation in the post-apocalyptic age of cultural degeneration. 

 As demonstrated by the fact that he puts the corpse of a naked woman in a cello case, loads and ties said makeshift coffin to his car, and drives away for a rather dubious road trip, loner Lucien Vallon (Laurent Malet) seems to be a lecherous lunatic and as the film Invitation au voyage progresses, this seems to be all the more true, but not in the manner that one initially assumes as he is not a psychopathic serial killer or a rapist, but a man with a rather unhealthy attachment to his sister that extends to incestuous necrophilia of the morbid milk fetishizing variety. As revealed later in the film, the naked dead girl is postmortem punkette Nina Scott (Corinne Reynaud), the more successful fraternal twin sister of Lucien who has supported her brother both economically and emotionally with her music. As quite blatantly demonstrated in a flashback scene featuring the two totally unclad and embracing after coitus, Lucien and Nina were incestuous siblings, so when the ‘female’ half of the duo dies, it leaves the male half in a sort of existential pandemonium, which is tested during a road trip where the lovesick twin brother meets a number of individuals no less eccentric than himself who more or less unwittingly help him embrace his metamorphosis into a tranny weirdo who believes he has taken on the identity of his decidedly deceased sister. As twin sis Nina tells her brother regarding their rather close relationship sometime before she dies, “With us it’s not the same. The others don’t matter. No one but us understands,” and, indeed, as Lucien will find out through his vaguely phantasmagoric odyssey through rural France in a Rolls Royce, no one can quite compare or even begin to act as a substitute for his sister. The first person Lucien meets on his trip is an exceedingly extroverted female kleptomaniac (Aurore Clément) who rather irks the mourning twin after she accidentally puts on his dead twin sister’s black lipstick, thus inspiring the melancholy traveler to kick the stranger out of his car into the pouring rain of the night. By happenstance, Lucien later runs into the cutesy klepto at a bar and she tells him in a stereotypically French manner that he is “a phantom” and that he is “here without being here,” which the half-dead man seems to take rather well and the two strangers, somewhat surprisingly, share carnal knowledge later that night. Of course, when Lucien notices the wind is blowing around the cello case containing his sister on his car, he has a rather senseless emotional freakout and pastes a number of Nina Scott flyers around the bar, thus leaving his klepto love interest in the dust. After running into two Norwegian truckers at a diner and helping them to translate a conversation with a French waitress, Lucien ultimately helps the two Nordic gentlemen get in the pants of the frisky frog waitress, so when the loner twin is run off the road by a group of delinquent teenagers, he receives help from the Nords get backing on the road and eventually goes his marginally merry way. After getting his car worked on at an auto repair shop, Lucien is met with a surprise when an elderly and seemingly half-senile geezer, who had hid inside the automobile, randomly pops up, but does not scare the melancholy twin too bad. Using Lucien as a way to hitchhike to a graveyard to visit his wife’s grave, the odd old timer confesses his deep dissatisfaction with his daughter and son-in-law, stating, “Money’s the only thing that interests them…not even screwing. I have no grandchildren,” but also confessing his love for David Bowie and Nina Hagen, thus signifying the lack of real values and worship of false values in the West. 

 While driving and daydreaming at night, Lucien hits a half-deranged Turkish illegal alien named Timour (Mario Adorf) with his car. Although Timour initially pulls a gun on Lucien when he seeks to help the injured man, the strange stranger passes out and is driven back to his homestead by the young Frenchman. After playing a one-person game of Russian roulette while laying injured on a pool table, the hot tempered Turk confesses to Lucien he killed his “whore” wife, but, for whatever reason, later denies he killed his wife, meekly stating, “Those were all lies I told you last night. Forget everything.” After the Turk takes back what he said about killing his wife, Lucien tells Timour that he “does not make sense,” to which the ostensible wife-killer understatedly states, “neither do you,” thereupon establishing a strange sort of unspoken solidarity between the two mental men. With Timour riding along, Lucien heads to a farm where he grew up to meet up with his childhood friend Martine, but leaves rather abruptly without speaking to her and heads to Martine’s brother Gérard’s home where he reveals that his sister Nina is dead. After proclaiming, “I thought with her head, I saw with her eyes. You understand? Now, I see nothing…I feel nothing” regarding his sister, Lucien goes a little a crazy and cuts himself with a butcher knife while crying and reveals to Gérard that he is hauling around his sister’s Nina’s corpse. After telling Gérard that Nina loved him very much, Lucien homoerotically kisses his friend as if his sis’ ghost is living vicariously through him, stating before he leaves to his friend, “never forget her.” The next day, Lucien takes his sister Nina’s nude corpse to a landfill and burns it. After going to a bar, Lucien once again runs into Timour, who is working as a server and is planning to go back to Turkey but needs a passport. Lucien, who has decided to take on the identity of his sister Nina (he promised to her “I’ll make you live again” were she to died shortly before she actually did die) and ultimately transforms into the tranny doppelganger of his big sis, gives Timour his passport. In the end, both Lucien and Timour head south via ship, but the latter does not recognize the former on the boat ride as he is dressed like a degenerate punk chick that wears far too mascara. 

 Whether looked at as a modernist tranny tragedy, post-punk road trip, macabre off-beat melodrama, arthouse Goth fetish flick, and/or decidedly degenerate dysfunctional filmic family affair, Invitation au voyage is most certainly hard to classify, but if anything is for sure regarding the film, it is a superlatively suavely stylized and ideally idiosyncratic cinematic work that never fails to be provocative in terms of its phantasmagoric ‘cold wave’ tableaux and froggy libertine themes. Shot by French cinematographer turned director Bruno Nuytten—the man behind the creepily compelling camera work of underrated frog cult flicks like Zoo zéro (1981), but more importantly Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981)—Invitation au Voyage is a film that wallows in the ‘dark side’ of life and not in any sort of campy or cartoonish manner, but in a romantic and decadent fashion that borders on metaphysical horror and invokes the (di)spirit of not only Baudelaire, but also Edgar Allen Poe and Hanns Heinz Ewers. Featuring an insanely incestous protagonist who ritualistically drinks milk that his twin sister died in during a freak accident involving electricity from a light bulb and a bathtub full of dirty dairy products, Invitation au voyage also features more universal themes, especially regarding the specific era when it was made, when boys began to resemble girls and vice versa. Most notably, protagonist Lucien relies on his sister both economically and emotionally, as he, although a male, is the weaker of the twins, thus symbolizing the emasculation of males not only in France (though France is obviously one of the most worst off), but the entire Occident in general. Of course, in its inclusion of an old man who longs for grandchildren but whose daughter is too selfish and money-motivated to have them, Invitation au voyage is a work that focuses on cultural decay in Europe in general, which reaches its most absurd level when the criminally-inclined Turk Timour even decides he prefers his homeland to France and ultimately decides to sail home. The extremely moody tale of a young man who is only able to find solace after his sister’s death by ‘taking on her identity’ and becoming a punk rock tranny, Invitation au Voyage is by no means a happy film, but certainly an aesthetically hypnotic and hallucinatory one that might offer a sense of hope to certain hopeless (homo) types, even if it will leave most viewers, myself included, with an odd combination of disgust and ecstasy. 

-Ty E

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