May 14, 2015

A Brutal Game

If France has anything resembling its own sort of refined arthouse equivalent to the classic low-budget American serial killer flick Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) directed by rebel auteur John McNaughton, it is most certainly Un jeu brutal (1983) aka A Brutal Game directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau (Noce blanche aka White Wedding, Les anges exterminateurs aka The Exterminating Angels). Indeed, in terms of its combination of violent killings, decidedly dysfunctional family dynamics, and provocative moral ambiguity, Brisseau’s film shares some notable superficial similarities with Henry, but it is ultimately an innately more intricate and enterprising work that would probably bore the hell out of jaded gorehounds and can hardly be described as a horror flick (I have read some somewhat misleadingly describe it as a “Bressonian serial killer movie,” though I guess one can see it as a sort of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) of serial killer flicks, albeit sans the donkey). While the film might feature a serial killer and some disturbing murder scenes juxtaposed with an eerie and unnerving score, A Brutal Game is really one of the most bizarre and grotesque yet strangely humanistic coming-of-age flicks ever made as a work that depicts the intellectual and especially sexual maturation of a rather nihilistic and equally sadistic crippled girl whose estranged crypto-killer scientist father takes her out of the Catholic convent where she has been most of her life and makes her learn some real spartan discipline. Part sadistic slasher flick, part existentialist coming-of-age flick for ephebophiles, part eccentric dysfunctional family drama, and part morbid murder mystery, Brisseau’s cult film without a cult should surely be considered a classic now, but considering it is far too visceral, tough, and politically incorrect for the sensibilities of the ludicrously liberal nation of Frogland, it seems to have never gained the notice or success that it rightly deserves as one of the most preternatural serial killer flicks ever made (of course, France would also produce Sombre (1998) directed by Philippe Grandrieux). Made at a time in his career before the success of De bruit et de Fureur (1988) aka Sound and Fury when he still worked his original job as a school teacher and only directed films part-time as a sort of super serious hobby, A Brutal Game is indubitably the work where Brisseau most emphasizes the importance of education in not only the academic but also sexual, emotional, and spiritual sense. Indeed, the crippled chick protagonist gets a little bit of ‘tough love’ from her father and ultimately goes from being a feral-like blonde beastess that loves killing animals to a calm and thoughtful nature-loving artist of sorts, thus I could certainly see the film being criticized by certain hysterical left-wingers as being ostensibly ‘fascistic’ due to its positive depiction of cold and hard discipline. Notably, Brisseau has described the film as being heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) in the sense that he knew it would initially offend the critics in terms of how hardcore and visceral the material was. As Brisseau has described in various interviews, the central theme of the film is the meaning in the life and the point of one’s existence in this merciless yet beauteous world. Ultimately, A Brutal Game demonstrates that once you give up free will and begin putting too much stock in spiritual delusions, you let yourself become more susceptible to the most heinous and irrevocable of acts. Simultaneously erotic and grotesque, as well as brutal and beauteous, Brisseau's undeniably underrated film is a rare piece of existentialist cinema that does not seem like it was directed by some pretentious ponce and/or grad student dropout. 

 Opening with the following quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s literary swansong The Brothers Karamazov (1880), “Listen! I took the case of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity, with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose,” A Brutal Game immediately informs the viewer of one its greatest intellectual influences, as well as the fact that it merely uses a crippled girl as a pretext to explore the meaning of life and how life is different for everyone, as everyone takes their own unique path in life which they must discover on their own. At the very beginning of the film in a scene of disturbing yet strangely serence slasher-esque horror, a middle-aged man named Christian Tessier (of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) and Brisseau’s Sound and Fury) stalks a 12-year-old girl until he finds her sunbathing topless in the woods and then brutally butchers her with a knife. Tessier is a respected scientist of the seemingly psychopathic sort and he has decided to abruptly quit his job at a lab where he burns all of his precious research before leaving for good, as he is a pathological paranoiac who has convinced himself that his co-employees want to steal his work. When a mailman tells Tessier, “We’ll miss you. A great scientist such as you,” he does not even acknowledge the man but instead focuses intently on a letter informing him that his mother has suffered a heart attack and, “She wants to see you before she dies.” As the viewer will soon discover, Tessier’s mother (Belgian veteran actress Lucienne Le Marchand) is one of the few people that the character actually listens to and respects. While on her deathbed, Tessier’s mother berates him for quitting his job and giving up “all that responsibility” and then begs her son to reunite with his crippled teenage daughter, stating, “That poor thing was abandoned when her mother left you. Actually, she never had a father either.” Tessier’s mother also tells her son to take his daughter to his place of birth in rural Saulière as she also wants him to get in touch with his roots. When Tessier’s mother subsequently dies, he refuses to attend her funeral because he sees her corpse as nothing more than an “object. A thing like a stone,” but he does honor his progenitor’s wishes and immediately has his crippled daughter retrieved from the Catholic convent where she has spent the majority of her pathetic life and soon meets her in Saulière. 

 Upon first meeting his marginally attractive dirty blonde daughter Isabelle (Emmanuelle Debever of Andrzej Wajda’s Danton (1983)) in Saulière, Tessier must immediately acknowledge that the wheelchair-bound little girl is quite hateful, spiteful, malicious, and possibly somewhat deranged as she proceeds to go into great detail to her father about how she would love to set bombs all around the small village they are at, stating with a sense sadistic glee, “First I’d blow up the market when it’s the most crowed. Bodies torn apart, women and children screaming. Sewers blown apart, mud, and corpses spreading blood everywhere.” A servant named Lucien (Brisseau regular Lucien Plazanet of Sound and Fury and Céline (1992)) attempts to excuse Isabelle’s insane rant by stating, “You have to indulge her. She was born like that and she will die like that. And she has always lived in solitude,” but Tessier refuses to excuse such unhinged behavior as he does not believe in further crippling cripples and retorts, “We’re all alone. You have to cope with that.” When Tessier takes Isabelle to a local river and she proceeds to kill a bird and some insects, the concerned father asks her why she is engaged in such reprehensible behavior and she replies that it amuses her and that she hates animals. When Tessier attempts to talk some sense into the tyrannical teen, she becomes enraged and calls her father a “dirty old sod,” so he responds by violently picking her up, throwing her into his car, and locking her into her room after demanding that she clean and wash herself. As Tessier tells Lucien regarding his plans for his daughter, “At the moment she is just an animal. She needs discipline, or else the devil will get a hold of her.” Indeed, Isabelle is so helpless and worthless that she cannot even dress herself even though she has full use of her arms and hands and is merely unable to walk as a result of having a piece missing from the base of her spine, so Tessier demands that she learns these things and when she refuses and throws a fit, he locks her in her room without any food. Ultimately, Tessier creates a stringent daily regiment for Isabelle that describes what she must eat, learn, and do every single day. 

 Aside from having to learn to be a normal human being, Isabelle is also forced to receive both a physical and academic education from a young pretty live-in teacher named Anne Lorraine (played by Brisseau’s wife/editor María Luisa García aka Lisa Hérédia), who previously worked with retarded kids and luckily has a high tolerance when it comes to dealing with uniquely unruly students. From Anne, Isabelle also begins to discover her sexuality, as she spies on her teacher while she is masturbating and then proceeds to masturbate for the first time while staring at her unclad body in the mirror. While Isabelle has a rather nihilistic attitude at first, complaining to Anne, “I should have never been born!” after learning that she will never be able to walk because she is missing a piece of her spine (indeed, despite being nearly adult, Isabelle somehow never came to the conclusion that she is permanently disabled, as if everyone was too afraid to inform her of this important fact), the teacher’s exceedingly empathetic attitude works wonders on the eclectically damaged dame. When Isabelle screams at Anne regarding her father, “I’m sick of you! Especially him! He never leaves me alone! I haven’t seen him in years, and then he shows up just to annoy me!” after Tessier yells at her lack of empathy in regard to a poem by French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert (who was responsible for penning the classic work Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) aka Children of Paradise directed by Marcel Carné) about an injured horse, the teenage protagonist is punished with being locked in her room for 28 hours straight without food. When Anne forgets to lock the door to her room, Isabelle manages to escape on her crutches and heads to the river near her house where she accidentally falls in the water while trying to kill bugs. Luckily, Anne’s semi-handsome brother Pascal (Albert Pigot) spots Isabelle while she is drowning and narrowly saves her life. 

 Needless to say, Isabelle soon falls in love with nice and sensitive pretty boy Pascal, who humors the cute yet crippled teenage girl by taking her on hikes and carrying her while the two skinny-dip. Indeed, Pascal is the first person that Isabelle is nice to and she even professes her love to him at one point by confessing, “The only beautiful person on this earth is you […] Thanks to you, I’ll never be alone or unhappy again. I’m starting to even like people I used to loathe.” Pascal also somewhat successfully helps Isabelle get over her irrational fear and hatred of animals and insects by telling her after she freaks out when a small spider crawls across her unclad stomach, “Since you don’t know how to look at it, you compare it to yourself. It’s a being in its own right. Regardless of us, it will keep on going.” Of course Pascal is not as romantically interested in the teen as she is in him and when Isabelle finds him in bed with Parisian brunette babe, she throws her crutches at the two lovers and cries hysterically after falling to the floor. Naturally, Isabelle’s melodramatic behavior wakes up Anne, who tells her brother to pack up her things. So that the lovelorn teen will not be able to kill herself, Anne immediately hides all the scissors and knives around the house, but Isabelle still proclaims, “You can try to hide everything away from me. I’ll kill myself. I’ll kill myself anyhow.” While Isabelle almost succeeds in accidentally killing after falling down a mountain and hitting her head on a rock, Pascal manages to save her life again just before he leaves for good. 

 When Isabelle spies on servant Lucien one night and discovers that he is a gay cross-dresser upon seeing him posing with fancy dresses that were owned by her recently deceased grandmother, she develops empathy for the old queen and begins asking him questions about her family and is startled to discover that her father—a man that had previously berated her for squashing bugs and killing birds—was just as pigheaded and cruel to animals when he was a boy. Indeed, apparently Tessier once horrified Lucien by dismembering a frog and pouring acid on its wounds just to see what would happen, hence the reason why he probably became a scientist. Meanwhile, Tessier continues to stalk and brutally murder children while on supposed business trips. When Isabelle decides to disobey her father by breaking into his room to put a flower under his pillow as a display of affection, she discovers a photograph on Tessier's wall of six children and a list of their names, with most of the kids' faces and names being crossed out, as if to indicate they are dead. Ironically, around the same time Isabelle begins suspecting that her father might be involved in some rather unsavory behavior, her relationship with him grows stronger and the two began regularly frolicking around gaily in the countryside. When Tessier buys Isabelle a pet snake and she becomes disheartened when it eats a frog, the father explains to his daughter that it is normal and natural because it is merely “nature’s law” and “nature is a self-balancing system.” When Isabelle complains that she finds the idea of snakes eating frogs “awful,” the father demonstrates her has a sort of Nietzschean worldview by stoically remarking, “Awful. Unfair. In fact, these words are meaningless. Happiness comes from pain, pain from happiness. Death impels life as life does death. The same goes for good and evil.” Ultimately, Tessier tells his daughter that if she gets rid of her emotional and sentimental “illusions” then the world will appear to hear in all of its splendors. Around this time, Isabelle takes up painting and seems to be at peace with herself and the world, but a problem arises when she discovers upon watching the news that one of the little girls from the photograph in her father’s room was murdered. 

 When Tessier discovers Isabelle snooping around his room and realizes that she has figured out he is a serial killer, he surprises the viewer by not killing his daughter. When Isabelle hesitantly asks her father, “You didn’t really kill innocent children, did you?” he replies in a rather calm manner, “No one is innocent. Remember that. We’re all just links in the chain. The world is full of signs. Silent to the ignorant, the incapable, the fools. Yet, clear indications to those who know how to interpret them.” After going on a paranoid rant about how his fellow scientists and the government where spying on him and attempting to steal his research, Tessier explains to his daughter that the six children that he has been slowly but surely killing were collectively involved in breaking into his home and destroying all the research he had done at a secret lab he had setup. It seems that Tessier is a paranoid schizophrenic of sorts and he believes that killing the children is part of “God’s plan,” or so he explains in a fiercely fanatical fashion that screams pathological mental psychosis. To demonstrate his point, Tessier has Isabelle write down the first letters of the first names and surnames of the six children, which ultimately spell out “Diable Tueles” aka “Devil, kill them.” From there, Tessier explains to his daughter, “It’s a message. Those kids were sent by the devil to foil God’s work,” and that he believes god sent the children to him to be dispatched and sent straight to hell. When Isabelle tells her father that he is crazy, he responds by calmly threatening to kill her and then tells Lucien and Anne to make sure she is locked in his room for the next 36 hours. Part of the reason Tessier believes the killings are part of god’s plan is because he has yet to be caught, but when he goes to kill the sixth and final child after having Isabelle locked in his room, he ultimately finds himself in a precarious faith-crushing situation when the police corner him in an apartment building shortly after he snatches the little girl that he intends to butcher. While Isabelle prays that her father is stopped, Tessier miraculously comes to realize that he was wrong, proclaiming, “My god. What have I done?” while staring with a deep sense of guilt in his eyes at his prospective child victim. When the police walk in on Tessier touching the little girl while he is attempting to comfort her and assume he is attempting to hurt her because he has a knife in his hand, they shoot him dead. After her father is killed, Isabelle somehow instantly realizes this and sees an apparition of Tessier reaching out to her from a distance and she responds by reaching back at him, as if to say goodbye. In the end, Isabelle sits at the top of a mountain in a symbolic scene that demonstrates that she has finally conquered her spiritual journey and reached personality serenity. 

 In its depiction of a well dressed child killer that stalks children around dark alleyways combined with a subplot about an uncommonly tolerant teacher attempting to tame and train an innately intemperate girl that is more like a beast than a human, A Brutal Game is almost like a fiercely fucked frog hybrization and mutation of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and Arthur Penn’s Helen Keller biopic The Miracle Worker (1962), yet this description would indubitably betray auteur Jean-Claude Brisseau's main objective with the film and that was getting out a particularly dispiriting point in his own life, or as the director explained himself, “… [the film] came out of a difficult period that I was going through. I was asking myself about the meaning of life and what made life worth living.” Of course, in the end, the teenage protagonist comes to the conclusion that life is worth living, even after facing the fact that she will always be a cripple and that her father is the most loathsome sort of criminal as a child killer. Brisseau’s decision to make the serial killer somewhat sympathetic was inspired by his reading of Dostoyevsky as the director revealed in an interview when remarking regarding the film, “I was interested in making it so that in the end the audience ends up almost feeling compassion for him, because if you…If you refer to Dostoevsky, for example, who believed in God, when you forgive someone, the problem is not to forgive your friend or those whom you love, it’s to forgive your worst enemy.”  Of course, what makes A Brutal Game especially notable for a serial killer flick is that the serial killer miraculously discovers the error of his ways and becomes consumed with guilt, though it is ultimately too late and he ultimately pays for his seemingly unpardonable sins.  Personally, I would have liked to see the serial killer survive, as it would have made Brisseau's film an all the more subversive and uncompromising work, but not unlike the pernicious priest of Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling (1972), the killer must pay for his exceedingly bastardized reading of the Catholic holy writ.

 In its depiction of a respectable French bourgeois intellectual and father with a home in the countryside who lives a second life as a highly predatory serial killer of the highly meticulous, anally retentive, and psychopathic sort, A Brutal Games certainly shares superficial similarities with the vaguely arthouse-ish popular Dutch psychological thriller Spoorloos (1988) aka The Vanishing directed by George Sluizer, but ultimately Brisseau’s work is much more subversive, philosophically intriguing, and erotic, as a work that is dying for cult status that has more testicular fortitude than anything associated with the French New Wave. Indeed, like a Michael Haneke flick with a soul and without the pretense that takes a hardcore approach to Hitchcock and takes an almost sadistic approach to genre-bending, Brisseau’s film dares to propose the idea that a man can be a decent and inspirational father even if he is a coldblooded child killer. Notably, Brisseau included some cryptic autobiographical details in the film from his career as a teacher. Indeed, like with protagonist Isabelle in A Brutal Games, Brisseau forced his students to read and attempt to interpret Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Music” (aka “La Musique”). As Brisseau explained regarding Baudelaire’s poem, “The guy [Baudelaire] is saying that when he listens to music, it arouses passions and pain which was forgotten long ago. It brings these things back to the surface, but it soothes him. How is that? Either the guy is a masochist or, and this is not a contradiction, the arts allow you to find…and particularly music, cinema and literature, allow you to find your own emotions and pain, but in a way that helps you to live.” Undoubtedly, the best compliment I can pay A Brutal Game is that it has the same emotional impact as the way Baudelaire’s poem describes the affect that music has on him.  Indeed, as far as serial killer flicks are concerned, you probably will not find one more transcendental and strangely uplifting as Brisseau's.  Additionally, you will also probably not find a coming-of-age flick featuring a female protagonist that will be more appealing to men than women.  Of course, you know it is a Brisseau film when a half-crazed cripple is given a certain nymph-like yet virginal sex appeal.  Undoubtedly, after watching A Brutal Game, I think understand why Brisseau was a teacher, but it was only when he became a filmmaker that he was able to coerce young chicks into taking their clothes off.

-Ty E

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