Apr 5, 2015

Rendez-vous à Bray

While Belgian auteur André Delvaux (The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short, Un soir, un train aka One Night… A Train) has quickly become one of my favorite filmmakers, I must confess that I was eager to see his third feature Rendez-vous à Bray (1971) aka Appointment in Bray aka Rendezvous at Bray for the most hopelessly base of reasons. Indeed, after I saw a screenshot from the film featuring a rather petite unclad woman with an hourglass figure and a fairly ample derriere, I just could not get it out of my mind, so I had to immediately watch the film and see said fairly ample derriere in moving image form. As someone who can only seem to tolerate women that have rather largely and shapely backsides, seeing that delectable derriere in Delvaux’s film was like a sort of otherworldly déjà vu as if the director could read my mind almost fifteen years before I was actually born. Rather fittingly for me considering my initial impression of the work, Delvaux considered Rendez-vous à Bray his most joyous and uplifting work, stating that it is, “without doubt my happiest film, calls to mind a finally mastered form, where music and characters, grafted on a correct time line, marry perfectly.” Indubitably, the film is also Delvaux’s most successful attempt at a cinematic ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ as a work that seamlessly weaves together virtually all artistic mediums and confirms cinema’s status as the ‘seventh art’ as well as the sum of all other arts, not to mention the fact that it pays charming tribute to the early days of film via sepia-tone scenes and excerpts from Louis Feuillade's five serial French silent masterpiece Fantômas. As a work that, although technically a French-Belgian-German co-production, is completely set in France and stars top La Nouvelle Vague divas Anna Karina and Bulle Ogier, the film is also Delvaux’s most ‘French’ work, even if it is also a classic piece of Belgian magical realism. Based on the short story Le Roi Cophetua (1970) aka King Cophetua by French novelist Julien Gracq, Rendez-vous à Bray tells a story set near the conclusion of World War I about an eclectically repressed and introverted young Luxembourgian pianist and music journalist that lives in Paris who receives a telegram from his extroverted airman best friend asking him to meet him at his country chateau in a fictional town called Bray, but when he arrives his friend is not there and he ultimately spends his entire time reflecting on the past and spending company with his comrade’s seemingly forlorn and emotionally distant beauteous maid, who he eventually has sex with, thus making the failed rendezvous rather worthwhile after all in the end. Arguably the Delvaux’s most personal work as a film featuring intimate anecdotes from his own personal life, an uncredited cameo from his daughter, and a reference to the fact that he used to perform live scores on piano for silent films at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique before ever becoming Belgium's most celebrated auteur filmmaker, Rendez-vous à Bray is also probably the best example of how the director was able to turn a writer’s work into his own in a rather clever, highly personalized, and idiosyncratic fashion that even puts Kubrick to shame. Like a Gothic ghost story sans ghosts where the only phantasms are the protagonist’s oftentimes bitter but sometimes sweet memories of self-denial and self-loathing while in the company of his quasi-aristocrat French comrade and said comrade's beauteous blonde bimbo girlfriend, Rendez-vous à Bray is ultimately an elegant piece of celluloid anti-puritanism as a life-affirming work that celebrates Occidental art and culture yet also reminds the viewer that one must sometimes give into carnality or otherwise life a non-life a monotonous misery.

 Pedantic pretty boy protagonist Julien Eschenbach (Mathieu Carrière of Volker Schlöndorff’s Young Törless (1966) and Harry Kümel’s Malpertuis (1971))—a character whose surname is probably a reference by Delvaux (notably, the narrator of Gracq's source story is nameless) to the similarly repressed and Apollonian-oriented protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach of Thomas Mann’s classic novella Death in Venice (1911)—is an enterprising young pianist and music journalist who has dedicated his life to overcoming his meager Luxembourger proletarian roots to such a stern and serious degree that he denies himself every single worldly pleasure, especially women and sex, as if he is afraid of these self-forbid things. Indeed, Julien is more or less the complete opposite of his best friend and musical collaborator Jacques Neuil (Roger Van Hool, who later starred in Delvaux’s Woman in a Twilight Garden (1979) aka Een vrouw tussen hond en wolf), who is a wealthy Frenchman of seemingly blueblood stock who never turns down an enticing woman or drink and, oftentimes to the chagrin of the life-denying protagonist, likes to live life to the fullest as demonstrated by his tendency to drive his car like a daredevil and eagerness to join the war effort as an airmen during the ultimately fratricidal so-called Great War. At the beginning of the film in a scene shot in a sepia-tone silent film style juxtaposed with Brahms' intermezzo in B minor, Julien reads a letter from Jacques telling him to meet him at his family chateau in rural Bray on December 28th because he has a couple days of leave from the airforce. Upon Jacques enrolling in the airforce three years earlier, Julien agreed to take over his job as a music journalist in Paris, but the protagonist does not seem quite cutout for the job as he is berated by his boss for being too cowardly to write in one of his articles that a group of rather rude Wagnerians were hissing at Debussy fans during a performance of works of César Franck and Claude Debussy by a group called the Capet quartet. Of course, as it makes reference to various times throughout the film, Julien is very self-conscious of his Germanic accent due to World War I and uses it as an accuse as to why he was not accepted to volunteer for the French military, even though he is a citizen of the neutral nation of Luxembourg. 

 While taking a train ride to Bray, Julien talks with a French soldier who claims that an offensive will be launched nearby sometime soon, thus striking a certain foreboding fear in the fairly cowardly protagonist that will haunt him for most of the rest of the film. Julien also tells the soldier about his relationship with Jacques and his blonde lady friend Odile (Bulle Ogier of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)), who the latter the protagonist treats with contempt because she comes from a humble proletarian background similar to his own. When the soldier asks Julien regarding Jacques, “Is it him you’re going to meet?,” the protagonist seems quite startled by the question and retorts, “How did you know?” in a somewhat paranoid fashion as if he has just seen a ghost. Julien also takes a special interest in the soldier's mostly silent and somewhat beautiful female friend, as if he is infatuated with her as reflected by remarks he makes about her later in the film. When Julien finally gets off the train at the station in Bray, he asks a couple young boys if they know where Julien’s house his, but they treat him in a discernibly suspicious fashion due to his accent and are of no help. When Julien eventually arrives at Jacques’ somewhat dilapidated chateau, he is greeted at the gate by his friend’s exotically beauteous and almost ghoulishly angelic dark-haired maid Elle (Anna Karina of Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) and Alphaville (1965)), who almost seems like she is floating around like a sort of melancholy ghost. Naturally, Julien is disheartened when Elle informs him that his comrade Jacques has not arrived back yet from the war but that he is expecting him. Elle is a sort of dreamgirl with a fiercely flat affect who seems to be lost in some of metaphysical nightmare and she acts as the perfect groveling servant for Julien, who is certainly not used to any sort of stunning woman giving him such close attention, but she does not even show the slightest inkling of emotion as if she is a wandering dead soul who will disappear into thin air at any moment. Despite her seeming emotional vapidity, Elle will ultimately change Julien’s life like no one before and teach him that there is more to living than practicing piano and writing second rate music reviews. 

 Not long after Julien enters his friend’s home, he is somewhat spooked by a sort of ghostly presence in the living room and soon finds a Nocturne-like musical piece in the style of the protagonist’s favorite composer Brahms that Jacques has written in tribute to him. After playing the piece of music, Julien remembers once arguing with Jacques over the dubious future over their musical quartet as a result of the war, with the protagonist rightly fearing that it will have an irrevocably deleterious effect on not only their lives and friendship, but Europe in generally. Jacques attempts to comfort Julien by telling him regarding their music quartet, “The war will end. We will practice again.” When Julien later enters the kitchen, he finds Elle looking all forlorn with her hand over her face as if she has discovered that Jacques dead or something like that, which inspires the protagonist to consider leaving the chateau. Ultimately, Julien decides to head outside and look for a phone at the seemingly unpopulated and somewhat ruined local town nearby but the one he finds does not work, so he heads back and stares at Elle from a window and then recollects a less than happy and rather embarrassing episode from his life when Jacques discovered him playing piano live during a screening of the second segment, Juve Against Fantômas (1913), of Louis Feuillade’s classic 5 ½ hour five serial silent epic Fantômas. Indeed, Jacques is offended that Julien would hide such a lowly job from him and aggressively attacks the protagonist with the remark, “I think it’s despicable that you hide what you do here from me.” Jacques also sarcastically states to the protagonist that he is free to waste his life and free to wear out his fingers on a “tinny theatre piano,” to which Julien replies in a most arrogant fashion, “It’s typically bourgeois to think that playing in a cinema is degrading.” Needless to say, playboy Jacques is not happy with Julien’s remark, so he viciously rebukes him by retorting, “Jesus from Luxembourg. No alcohol, no women, no concessions to philistines.” When Julien learns that it was Odile who told Jacques about his secret profession, the protagonist calls her “Judas” when in reality the young girl likes him a lot and was actually trying to help him start a series career. Indeed, Odile was helping Jacques to look for Julien because he got him a respectable gig playing for a rich kraut named Monsieur Hausmann (Pierre Vernier) and he equally opulent friends. 

 While Julien attempts to turn down the gig because he has an inferiority complex of sorts and resents playing for rich people and rather play for uncultivated proles at the movie theater, he ultimately gives in and receives a standing ovation following his solo performance at Hausmann’s high-class party. While Monsieur Hausmann compliments Julien’s performance by telling Jacques that it is the “the epitome of youthfulness,” his wife Mme Hausmann (Martine Sarcey) takes an extra special liking to the protagonist to the point where she remarks to him that he reminds her of someone special from her youth and then attempts to seduce him, but he just stands there coldly as if he is about to receive the kiss of death, thus offending the rich broad, who seemed convinced that she could defile the young man. When Monsieur Hausmann compliments Julien on his performance and attempts to hand him a glass of alcohol and a thick wad of cash in payment for his services, the protagonist becomes infuriated because he feels like he is being patronized, loses his cool, and slaps the alcoholic beverage out of wealthy man's hand, thus causing a majorly disgraceful scene at the party that is not exactly appreciated by Jacques, who has a prestigious reputation to uphold. Meanwhile, Odile tries in vain to ‘properly’ eat a piece of chicken on a plate while standing up at the party, thus revealing her less than well-to-do class background. As demonstrated by a previous flashback scene where the protagonist incessantly corrects her mispronunciation of words and names while she is speaking passionately about Fantômas, Julien has sheer and utter contempt for Odile because, while he tries very hard to disguise his peasant origins, she seems to make no effort at all and totally embarrasses him by her mere presence as she reminds him of where he really comes from. In another flashback scene, Jacques attempts to coerce Julien into having sex with Odile, but he becomes rather annoyed by the request and flatly turns the offer down as if it is an offense against his character. In the final and most happy flashback, Julien, Jacques, and Odile go skinny-dipping in a river in a forest in an almost fantasy-oriented scenario, with Bulle Ogier’s bare voluptuous ass certainly being the highlight of scene and arguably the highlight of the entire film. Rather shockingly, it is prude Julien of all people that strips first and initiates the almost heavenly skinny-dipping session, thus revealing that there is a wild and adventurous fellow lurking somewhere beneath his hopelessly serious and rather prosaic exterior.

 Towards the end of Rendez-vous à Bray, Elle serves Julien an extravagant three course meal and the maid manages to smile for the first time in the entire film after the protagonist compliments her on her cooking and warmly smiles. After dinner, while Julien gets drunk on various sorts of expensive liquor that Jacques has stocked at his home, Elle abruptly enters the room while carrying a candelabra and wearing nothing but a blue robe to gesture to the seemingly impenetrable protagonist that she wants sex and then lures him to an upstairs bedroom where they make passionate love. The next day, Julien wakes up and Elle is nowhere in sight, so he quickly puts on his clothes and heads to the train station where a seemingly disillusioned French army unit is hanging out. After borrowing a newspaper from one of the soldiers, Julien discovers that the airmen have not flown in three entire days, thus it seems unlikely that Jacques is dead as the protagonist had presumed. In fact, it almost seems as if Jacques setup a scenario where Julien was asked to come over with the intention of Elle seducing him and freeing him of his assumed virginity. After all, virtually all of the flashback scenes are comprised of Jacques attempting to get Julien to live a more free, happy, and ultimately hedonistic lifestyle. For whatever reason, instead of taking the train back to Paris, Julien decides to stay behind in Bray. Whether Julien hopes to screw Elle again, finally fulfill his planned rendezvous with Jacques, or something else is anyone’s guess, but if one thing is for sure it is that the protagonist’s one-night-stand with his friend’s maid has turned him into a new and more lively man with a great appreciation for life. In the final scene of the film, a shot of Julien stand outside the train station in Bray is juxtapose with a little girl singing the lyrics, “We will meet in hell again [...] Paradise is not for you [...] Paradise is for the King.” 

 Among countless other aesthetic idiosyncrasies that the film features, Rendez-vous à Bray is notable for being in the structure of a musical ‘rondo’ in terms of how it weaves scenes together from the past and present in a cinematically irregular fashion (instead of having an ‘ABCD’ structure, they have an ABA, ACA, ADA structure). Of course, in its implementation of musical works by and/or inspired by Frédéric Devreese, Johannes Brahms, and César Franck, the film makes it more than clear that auteur André Delvaux was a true music connoisseur with a strong background in the artistic medium. Naturally, the film also demonstrates Delvaux deep love for other artistic mediums, namely painting. Indeed, two relatively famous paintings play a prominent in the film, with British Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones’ King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884), which is mentioned prominently Gracq’s source story, indubitably being the more important of the two. Notably, Burne-Jones was heavily influenced by Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, which is quite clear in his painting, which features a powerful King kneeling before a beauteous beggar-maid that superficially resembles Anna Karina's character in a sort of ironic role reversal that demonstrates the cryptic powers that attractive women, not matter how poor or destitute, can wield over even the most powerful and prestigious of respected men. The other painting featured in Delvaux’s film is Goya’s Mala noche (1799) aka A Bad Night and it is featured in a somewhat obscured fashion in the bedroom where the protagonist has sex with the maid played by Anna Karina. Of course, the greatest and most organic piece of art in the film is Bulle Ogier’s bare bum and considering how much emphasis he put on it and the way he directed it, I think Delvaux would certainly concur. After all, Rendez-vous à Bray is about an uptight young man of the Apollonian sort who does not really become a real man until at the end when he is quasi-seduced by a somnambulist-like Anna Karina and develops a more Dionysian outlook towards life.  Notably, as revealed in the featurette Rendez-vous avec André Delvaux, out of all his works, Rendez-vous à Bray was the film that Delvaux requested should be the first to be restored and released on DVD, thus suggesting that it was the Belgian auteur filmmaker's favorite and most cherished work.  Indubitably, it is certainly his most uplifting, arguably his most accessible, and seemingly his most immaculately structured, thereupon making it the perfect work for Delvaux novices.  After all, even if you don't enjoy the film, you still have the grand honor of gazing at petite yet buxom blonde beauty Bulle Ogier's bare buttocks.

-Ty E

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