Jun 22, 2014
Two and a half hour long improvised post-French New Wave flicks featuring live avant-garde jazz music and swarthy dorks with pervert mustaches are not exactly my cup of tea. In fact, such an aesthetic prospect seems downright dreadful to me, yet I recently managed to watch one such work, Merry-Go-Round (1981) aka L'engrenage directed by Jacques Rivette (Celine and Julie Go Boating aka Céline et Julie vont en bateau, Duelle), for admittedly rather superficial reasons. Indeed, my sole interest in seeing Rivette’s free celluloid jazz anti-mystery-crime-thriller is because it stars lapsed Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro (Flesh, Blood for Dracula) and drugged-out bisexual bitch Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris, The Passenger) in the two lead roles of a film that was supposed to be a magical work featuring two arthouse counter-culture icons uniting for a special moment in cinema history but ultimately proved to be a bit of a nasty nightmare for virtually everyone involved with it, especially in regard to the two leads and the director. Aside from possibly Louis Malle’s pre-apocalyptic Carroll-esque fantasy flick Black Moon (1975) and the rather obscure high-camp work Queen Lear (1982) directed by one-time Swiss auteur Mokhtar Chorfi, Merry-Go-Round is undoubtedly the strangest work Dallesandro has ever worked on, yet it also features the Italian-American sex icon at his greatest and most naturalistic in terms of where his certainly singular acting is concerned. Directed by arguably the most ambitious and hopelessly avant-garde filmmaker associated with the French New Wave who is noted for the exceedingly long running times of his films (his fourth feature, Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971) aka Out 1: Don't Touch Me, is nearly 13 hours long, though he released a 4 ½ cut under the title Out 1: Spectre in 1972), Merry-Go-Round was described by auteur Rivette as his “worst film,” and indeed, it is certainly a curiously convoluted and ludicrously labyrinthine epic mess of a movie, yet it is a strangely captivating mess of a movie nonetheless that demonstrates that a failed film directed by a masterful filmmaker is almost always more worthwhile than an immaculately assembled work directed by a for-hire hack. A work that seems like it was edited in the style of the literary 'cut-up' technique used by William S. Burroughs (interestingly, one of the two jazz musicians featured in Merry-Go-Round, Barre Phillips, would later contribute to the soundtrack of David Cronenberg's adaption of Burroughs' Naked Lunch), Rivette's shockingly enthralling filmic failure is a work that weaves in and out of fairytale-like dream-sequences without warning and features a series of triple-crosses, mysterious characters with dubious backgrounds claiming to be people they are not, and a tragic end that was only natural for an ultimately tragic film production that could have been a unique masterpiece of French cinema but is now nothing more than a peculiar footnote in one already mystifying filmmaker's history.
While Maria Schneider was the one responsible for approaching director Rivette (who thought Little Joe was “magnificent in Morrissey’s trilogy”) and professing that she would love to star in a film with Joe Dallesandro, she was also the one that was probably most responsible for destroying Merry-Go-Round, which the mentally unstable French actress quit before it was even finished (a stand-in, Hermine Karagheuz of Out 1, was used to replace Schneider in the dream-sequences so that the film could be completed), though the director apparently started to lose his mind and began to suffer what would be his second nervous breakdown (the director suffered a breakdown in 1975 just a couple days into shooting his previous production Histoire de Marie et Julien aka The Story of Marie and Julien, which he would later successfully direct in 2003). Indeed, as Dallesandro revealed in the book Joe Dallesandro: Warhol Superstar, Underground Film Icon, Actor (2011) written by Michael Ferguson regarding the chaos of the production: “Rivette was going nutty, and Maria was attempting suicide, and so my crack-up [motorcycle injury] gave us a week to calm down and get it together. Rivette was trying to make this movie last forever—we shot a ton of footage—and it was turning out to be one of those twenty-four hour movies. In fact, when the producers wanted the film to end, because they thought Jacques had lost his mind, they came to me and said, ‘Joe, you gotta tell him it’s over.’ Maria had already walked off […] I had to say I can’t go on making a movie in which all the other people have left and gone home and you’ve still got me in it. ‘It’s over, Jacques, We gotta stop.’” Indeed, as its title unwittingly reveals (there was originally supposed to be an amusement park scene, but it was never actually shot), Merry-Go-Round, which was shot in 1978 but not released until 1984, is an absurdly aimless work that literally goes around in circles, with a good portion of the film featuring Little Joe running around in the woods for seemingly no apparent reason in what prove to be dream-sequences. In fact, Dallesandro has less than pleasant memories of shooting those scenes, recollecting regarding his experience in Michael Ferguson's biography: “We worked on the film for so many weeks, and they kept shooting these scenes where I was running. Running, running, running. It got so bad that I wasn’t even aware Maria had left the picture. She was so far away during these endless scenes that I had no idea they’d replaced her with a double. That’s when I really understood that this movie could go on forever. If they’d have replaced me with a double, they’d still be out there shooting.” An impenetrable story revolving around greed about an American crook who tries in vain to be a hero, his M.I.A. French girlfriend’s strange sister, the mysterious death of her father in a plane crash, and the dubious disappearance of $20,000,000 francs, Rivette’s mystifying celluloid misstep is a cognitive-dissonance-inspiring work that ultimately brings up more questions than answers as it progresses in a spastically non-linear fashion that defies cinematic-logic.
Benjamin Phillips (Joe Dallesandro) receives a telegram in the middle of the night from his estranged girlfriend Elisabeth/Lisa (Danièle Gégauff) telling him to fly out to Paris to meet her at a hotel called Sofitel Roissy, but when he gets there, she is nowhere to be found. Instead, Ben bumps into his girlfriend’s rather peculiar sister Léo Hoffmann (Maria Schneider), who was also told by Lisa to meet her at the hotel, even though they have not seen each other in some four years. Not long after meeting each other for the first time, Léo takes Ben to a graveyard to see if Lisa might be visiting the grave of their father David Hoffmann, who may or may not have been killed in a plane crash and whose corpse is not actually in the ground. After missing Lisa by 15 minutes at the graveyard, Ben and Léo nonsensically receive a phone call from her at a pay phone in the middle of a seemingly abandoned train station. When the two meet Lisa at the two girls’ deceased father’s mansion, it becomes quite apparent that a criminal conspiracy is under way to steal patriarch David Hoffmann's large fortune. Indeed, Lisa tells her sister Léo that she believes that their father is not really dead and that she hopes to steal papa’s fortune as she believes it his her birthright. After Lisa is hauled away to a loony bin at about the 30-minute mark of the film, Merry-Go-Round begins to degenerate into the sort of innate cinematic incoherency that could have only been artistically sired by a funny fellow suffering from a major mental breakdown as was clearly the case for Rivette while working on the film. Although nothing is as it seems, what is for sure is that Ben is involved in a conspiracy to get frog patriarch David Hoffmann’s cash and he and his comrades apparently have the key to get it. Of course, Ben faces a moral dilemma when he has to decide whether he is more interested in the missing fortune or saving his girlfriend's Lisa's life. One of Ben’s accomplices is a seemingly sinister and surely flaky lady with a rather unappealing dyke haircut named Shirley (Sylvie Matton), who is apparently the American crook’s sister (though she may or may not also be David Hoffmann's ex-mistress and Lisa's best friend). As Léo confesses, she hates her ostensibly belated father and has essentially been emancipated from him since the age of 13 when her late mother died from a complication relating to diabetes, thus she knows less about her family’s fortune than outsiders like Ben and Shirley. A virtual cuckold of his big sis, Ben confesses to Léo that Shirley lost all her “great respect” for him after he was once busted for car theft (incidentally, this happened to Dallesandro in real-life during his pre-Warhol years), as he proved to be a shitty thief, thus he wants to prove to his sibling that he can do much better now. Indeed, if there is a common theme in Merry-Go-Round, it is that all the characters have rather troubled and just plain bizarre relationships with their siblings/families, with greed being the main reason for familial disharmony.
For a good portion of Rivette’s seemingly never-ending celluloid anti-amusement ride, Ben and Léo hang out in a variety of abandoned homes and mansions that range from luxurious and merely unoccupied to totally dilapidated abodes with wild plants growing inside them. While the viewer assumes that counter-culture sex icons Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider will eventually hook-up and engage in rather passionate and even otherworldly carnal pleasures, as it seems like the main point for such a strategically cast film, they never do much more than frivolously flirt and their relationship inevitably becomes as erratic as the film’s increasingly incoherent (non)plot. Notably, while Dallesandro and Schneider got along splendidly before shooting the film, the actress began to hate her friend when shooting for Merry-Go-Round began, or as the Warhol Superstar later revealed in an interview with Ferguson: “Me and Maria were best of buddies before we started the movie. As soon as we started the movie, though, Maria hated my guts. Don’t know where it came from. I did nothing to her. I’m the charming, wonderful person I always am. And I still kept the film going. She had a girlfriend at the time, which I never interfered with. She was never a love interest of mine. I just respected her as an actress, you know? I loved her work. I loved that she took my hero, Marlon Brando, and brought him back to life.” Considering Schneider was wasted on drugs and probably had a jealous girlfriend (what dyke would not be jealous of the fact that their bisexual girlfriend is working on a film with Little Joe?!), there were probably a number of reasons for her seemingly irrational hatred towards her American co-star. Either way, this strange and distinctly female hatred certainly bleeds through the film in an exceedingly effective way that would make any male viewer feel very afraid of Schneider's womanly wraith.
Despite their troubled relationship on and off the set of the film, Dallesandro and Schneider certainly have a wildly idiosyncratic form of chemistry in Merry-Go-Round that is one of a handful of things that makes the film worth seeing. While Ben initially attempts to get in Léo’s pants by doing childish things like taking his hair out of a ponytail for her, by the end of the film he is attempting to kill her, at least in his own mind (he shoots at her on a beach during one of the film's various dream-sequences). Indeed, the film features a number of seemingly nonsensical scenes that ultimately prove to be dream-sequences of Ben and his non-lover chasing each other in forests and on beaches, with packs of wild dogs, snakes, and medieval knights in shining armor attempting to kill them when they are not trying to kill each other. Back in reality, Ben becomes the unwitting victim of a number of double and even triple-crosses that make him seem like a small-time American philistine criminal who cannot compare to the grand majesty of frog-style white-collar gangster tactics. As Ben reveals to Léo, he has always dreamed of being an effete aristocrat who spends his evenings enjoying decadent candlelight dinners, as a fellow that, “always wanted much more…needed much more,” but he lacks the psychopathy to obtain such an unbecoming goal for an uncultivated American. Ironically, Ben’s lack of class and sophistication makes him seem like the only even remotely empathetic character in the entire film, as the other characters seem like calculating upper-class psychopaths who more or less reflect every negative character trait one can think of regarding posh and pompous frogs. In the end, Ben loses his lady love Lisa after she is killed via sniper, which infuriates Léo so much that she goes insane and kills a wacky psychic named Mr. Danvers (played by Maurice Garrel, French junky auteur Philippe Garrel’s father), who is pretending to be her deceased father. Indeed, Léo has what some might call an anti-Electra complex. Of course, Merry-Go-Round is the sort of film that demands an absurdly tragic ending where virtually every character has a hole burnt into their already forsaken souls.
Despite the handful of negative things that Joe Dallesandro had to say about working with the somewhat unhinged French director, Jacques Rivette had nothing but good things to say about the American sex icon, once stating in 2007 in an interview with Les Inrockuptibles regarding the difference between working with the ex-Superstar and dope-addled diva Maria Schneider on Merry-Go-Round: “Without going overboard, I felt like Billy Wilder waiting for Marilyn [Monroe] to get ready without ever being certain that she’d actually show up. Very quickly, Joe understood that he’d get nothing out of this film. The relation with the production was very tense, we had a lot of illness crop up at the onset of the shoot. But he had a kindness to him, and an impeccable seriousness. Total respect for Joe Dallesandro.” Also, total respect for Monsieur Rivette as well, as he at least had the balls to admit where his film went wrong, or as he stated in the May-June 1981 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma regarding the legacy of the work: “With MERRY-GO-ROUND everything changed. It’s an exaggeration to say that we placed Maria and Joe together in front of the camera and waited to see what would happen. We had a starting point, of course, and then we made up the beginning of a story, with a father who had disappeared, but all along we told ourselves, this is just a pretext for Maria and Joe to get to know each other […] But since the relationship between Maria and Joe rapidly became hostile, we were forced to develop the story-line; from a mere pretext it took on a disproportionate importance. Maybe that gives the film a certain vagabond charm, I don’t know, but it really is a film with a first half-hour that’s quite coherent, and then it searches for itself three times, three times searches for a way out.” Indeed, never have I heard an auteur be so honest and precise regarding why his film does not work, but then again, Joe and Maria’s real-life antagonistic relationship gives Merry-Go-Round a certain distinctly delightful, if not rather bittersweet, flavor that manages to work in some way. Additionally, Rivette’s film is also a rather aesthetically pleasing work that in parts, especially during the dream-sequences and the various scenes when Joe and Maria play around abandoned mansions like naïve children discovering love for the first time, seems like a sort of evil fairytale for adults directed by a mystical-minded mad man who attempted to direct a sexy crime-mystery-thriller and got lost somewhere along the way. Even with a cinematic misfire like Merry-Go-Round, it is easy to see that Jean-Luc Godard was right when he said of his cinematic compatriot: “someone like Rivette who knows cinema so much better than I shoots seldom, so people don't speak of him...if he had made 10 films he would have gone much farther than I.”
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:22 PM
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