Nov 23, 2019

The Moon in the Gutter

Personally, I cannot think of a cooler and more aesthetically appealing film title than The Moon in the Gutter (1983) aka La Lune dans le caniveau and I came to that conclusion years before I actually got around to watching French auteur Jean-Jacques Beineix’s almost grotesquely gorgeous celluloid oddity. As far as I am concerned, the film is associated with one of the biggest tragedies of cinema history in a sad cinematic scenario that rivals Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), Tod Browning's London After Midnight (1927), Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Andrzej Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe (1988), and most of gutter auteur Andy Milligan’s early films in terms of a potential masterpiece needlessly succumbing to studio stupidity, negligence and/or petty vindictiveness. Indeed, the French studio, Gaumont Film Company, absurdly and nonsensically (and, apparently, quite illegally) intentionally destroyed Beineix’s original fully-edited 4-hour and a 3-hour versions of the film to supposedly “make space” in the film vaults despite such film reels taking up relatively little space. Apparently, Gaumont, which forced the auteur to cut the film to a mere 137-minute running time (as it exists today, which, according to the filmmaker, apparently destroyed the entire “rhythm” of the film), was so unhappy that the film was such a critical and commercial box-office bomb that they took a sort of symbolic revenge for ostensibly destroying the reputation of the studio by maliciously destroying these two original cuts.  In fact, Beineix, who is still haunted by the nightmarish artistic experience even to this today, only discovered of this great betrayal after assembling a 3-hour director’s cut of his subsequent feature Betty Blue (1986) aka 37° 2 le matin and requesting to give the same special director's treatment to The Moon in the Gutter.

 Still, even as it exists today, the film is, at least in my less than humble opinion, Beineix’s unmitigated magnum opus and one of the greatest masterpieces among flawed masterpieces as the cinematic equivalent of a back-alley opium high where the viewer comes up and down but, not unlike the protagonist, is ultimately left in the same melancholic metaphysical hell as he began. Oftentimes feeling like it is set in a different purgatorial port city of the same narcotizingly artificially-stylized, chthonic Genet-esque cinematic universe as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982)—a film that, incidentally, was also produced by Gaumont in a big studio city—the film is masterpiece of meticulously stylized mise-en-scène where Beineix demonstrates with nil vainglorious CGI visual sophistry the great aesthetic heights of the cinematic form while lavishing the viewer with some less-than-feel-good archetypal truths. One of the key works of the so-called Cinéma du look—a movement that Fassbinder’s later films, including Querelle, aesthetically influenced—the film makes it seem as if the La Nouvelle Vague never existed and that it is merely the gothic/darkwave contribution to the ‘Tradition de qualité’ that the pedantic frogs of the Cahiers du Cinéma so passionately despised.  In short, the film has more to do with Marcel Carné and Jean Cocteau than Godard and Truffaut, though it also seems to be influenced by the most obscure and esoteric of film noir flicks like Arthur Ripley's labyrinthine Cornell Woolrich adaptation The Chase (1946) and John Parker's exceedingly experimental Dementia (1955) aka Daughter of Horror.

 While fiercely French in many ways, The Moon in the Gutter is actually adapted from the 1953 pulp-noir novel of the same name by Jewish-American novelist and screenwriter David Loeb Goodis—a cinephile fave that provided source material to various important directors, including Delmer Daves, Jacques Tourneur, Sam Fuller, and François Truffaut, among others—and thus has the pedigree of an eclectic cinephile’s wet dream. Attracted to the novel’s decidedly dark essence, Beineix described it as, “A totally negative story, very black, it was a dark journey with flashes of light, shimmers, glows … There was also the eruption of a particular embodiment of woman, that girl who arrives in that car, it really was the myth of the femme fatale at its purest … And then there was gnawing doubt, jealousy … In short, lots of things which affect the unconscious.” Indeed, one of the film’s greatest attributes is its ominous and oppressive oneiric essence, as the viewer is engulfed in the antihero played by Gérard Depardieu’s perversely paranoid unconscious as he grapples with his beloved late-sister’s rape-turned-suicide and the sensual charms of an almost otherworldly femme fatale portrayed by Nastassja Kinski. A film that practically reeks of tacky designer perfume, stale piss, rank pussy, and cheap beer where the Nietzschean sense of the ‘eternal feminine’ reigns supreme, The Moon in the Gutter is a film that, unlike the director’s previous big hit Diva (1981)—an enthralling exercise in action-packed style that, rather unfortunately, succumbs to quixotic xenophilia and an exceedingly embarrassing sort of racial fetishism—is hardly politically correct and is set in a wayward ghetto realm of evil obese negress stepmothers and lonely synagogue-side-suicides. In fact, instead of subscribing to some trendy quasi-marxist message like frog filmmakers from the previous generation, Beineix strived to make a completely apolitical flick, even once stating, “I am not interested in political or philosophical demonstrations, they are too simplistic. In LA LUNE DANS LE CANIVEAU there is a contrast between poverty and wealth, but it is resolved in a common distress, which is a metaphysical distress where the social divide is no longer operable.” Or, to quote the auteur again as referenced in Phil Powrie’s insightful text Jean-Jacques Beineix (2001), “I wanted to make the subconscious materialize on the screen. I didn’t want to be in the service of logic, of reality.” Exceedingly stylish, sensual, steamy, surreal and even sophisticatedly sleazy, the film is thankfully not completely senseless despite whatever certain spiritually and/or culturally cucked film critics had to say when the film was originally released.

 A virtual cinematic drug, The Moon in the Gutter is a film that, not unlike Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), one need not remember the plot for it to be one of the most memorable movie experiences of your life. In fact, not unlike Scott and Gilliam’s flicks, I probably could not give a coherent description of the film’s storyline the first couple times I saw it, as to do such a thing seems almost redundant and completely missing the point (notably, somewhat ironically, the film has sort of intentionally redundant narration, as if Beineix reluctantly included it at the behest of the studio). After all, one is not compelled to critique a dream for its supposed incoherence, yet The Moon in the Gutter is hardly incoherent (in fact, the storyline is, relatively speaking, fairly simple) and it is certainly more accessible than most of David Lynch’s greatest films (and, of course, most cinephiles will probably be tempted to compare it to Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986), though that would largely be pointless). In short, the film is, first and foremost, an understatedly phantasmagoric experience of the ruthlessly romantic yet ultimately demystifying sort where a seriously messed up man is in both literal and figurative reach of his greatest dream in the form of a dream girl from a dream world where the air doesn’t smell like a sort of slightly fishy salty semen and things like self-respect and dignity have actual currency. 

 While I cannot say I have had the luxury of being with a real rich bitch or true blueblooded aristocrat, my experience is that, the higher social class a chick, the more innately insufferable and sensually sterile she is, thus I can understand the hatred for bourgeois or—more specifically—the sapless (upper)middleclass that fears the smell of human bodies and always puts material wealth above culture and security over love and affection. In fact, out of all the women I have been with, the poorest and most low-class was also the most loving, affectionate, and sexual and she is probably the one I most regret fucking things up with, but I digress. In The Moon in the Gutter, tough street frog Gérard Delmas (Gérard Depardieu, who would later trash the film by referring to it as, “The Film in the Gutter”)—a moody and broody stevedore from a decidedly dysfunctional white trash family that includes a rather abusive uppity negro stepmother—finds himself the reluctant object of desire in a bizarre love triangle involving his main whore-cum-stepsister Bella (Victoria Abril in a role originally given to Robert De Niro's high yellow then-wife Diahnne Abbott) and the wealthy yet wild woman of his dreams Loretta (Nastassja Kinski). Unfortunately, Gérard is pretty mentally perturbed and not quite in the soundest of minds to make such a big romantic decision as he has a pathological obsession with finding the malevolent mystery man that raped his beloved sister Catherine (Katya Berger)—a virginal beauty that was apparently too pure for the pernicious lumpenprole world that ultimately destroyed her—who immediately committed suicide with the protagonist’s shaving razor. Indeed, the titular moon in the gutter is reflected via Catherine’s ruby red blood in the dark slimy alley where she abruptly committed self-slaughter in a perversely poetic scene that finds great beauty in ungodly human brutality.  While technically a neo-noir flick, The Moon in the Gutter—a film that, aside from a couple scenes, was shot entirely in a studio—brings a certain preternatural glamour to the gritty as if god himself decided to polish the demented dirty work of his misbegotten (sub)human creations.

 Not surprisingly considering Gérard’s obvious incestuous feelings for his dead lil sis, both Bella and Loretta look vaguely similar to Catherine to the point where the three could be sisters (in a drunken dream-sequence of the borderline necrophiliac sort, the protagonist has a somewhat erotic encounter with Catherine’s unclad corpse at the morgue, only to discover Loretta's face on said corpse). Gérard is even convinced that his alcoholic brother Frank (Dominique Pinon)—a small and grotesque frog that seems like the genetically accursed consequence of France's Alpinid majority's virtual genocide of the Huguenots—was responsible for raping Catherine, but one almost gets the sense that the protagonist is merely projecting his own sense of guilt. After all, Catherine was raped after she fled a hospital as a result of Gérard asking her, “Now you dress like a hooker?” after she went to the trouble to dress nicely for him and borrow a white dress after he was injured at work, hence the protagonist's undying guilt. Undoubtedly, Gérard’s pathological paranoia eventually rubs off onto the viewer to the point where one cannot help but even suspect the protagonist of the crime. Notably, quite unlike the mysterious murder of Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks, the crime is never solved but it is almost irrelevant as The Moon in the Gutter is first and foremost a uniquely uncanny mood piece where dark dreams and repressed desires are one and the same. A miserably melancholic man that lives in a nightmare, Gérard is ultimately unable to embrace his dreams even though, rather improbably, they are practically served to him on a shiny silver platter.

Somewhat intriguingly, Gérard finds a wealthy counterpart in the form of nihilistic drunk named Newton Channing (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) who also happens to be the brother of darling dream femme Loretta. While Gérard has been left with an indelible internal wound as a result of the rape and suicide of his little sister, Newton also suffers inwardly in isolation, even while technically in the company of others, as a result of killing both his parents in an intentional car wreck that involved him insanely driving his white BMW into a big rig truck. As Bella states to Gérard in regard to Newton, “He’s weird… He doesn’t like himself” and he has decided to start lurking in the local Mikado Bar—the protagonist’s virtual second home—because he can, “ games the rich don’t allow. Anything goes here.” As with virtually every other male character featured in the film, Gérard initially suspects that Newton, who he competes with in a bizarre ice-eating contest, might be his sister’s rapist, but instead the rich playboy unwittingly provides him with the literal/figurative girl of his dreams—a voluptuous beauty that is like both a dream lover and substitute sister—in the form of his own sister. Indeed, being his self-described “Guardian Angel,” Loretta—a gal so glamorous that wind seems to be always blowing in her hair—arrives at the Mikado Bar to pick Newton up and encounters ungentlemanly gentleman Gérard as a result.

Undoubtedly, the initial encounter between Gérard and Loretta recalls the Nietzsche poem “Accidentally a Seducer” that reads, “He shot an empty word…Into the empty blue; But on the way it met…A woman whom it slew,” as the protagonist spouts nonsense yet seems to cause the little lady to fall in love with him at first sight. Indeed, when Gérard half-jokingly gives Loretta his address after inviting her to dinner, Loretta actually shows up at the preposterous time of 2 a.m. in her fancy convertible beside a billboard that all-too-symbolically reads “TRY ANOTHER WORLD.” From there, Loretta takes the protagonist on a ride to the docks where she practically offers him a dream life with a dream girl—an almost preposterously paradisaical prospect that simply seems too unbelievable to such a terminally miserable man—and even attempts to talk him out of his gloomy defeatism, stating, “I frighten you! One day you’ll tell me. You’ll open your heart. You’ll see blue skies. A highway to the sun. Ships like birds… Gentleness… You won’t be frightened… Things’ll be fine. No one is doomed.” Instead of accepting Loretta’s quite glowingly warm embrace, Gérard literally turns his back on her and then once again visits the sad site of his sister’s murder as if to rationalize his own infuriatingly idiotic rejection of virtual romantic bliss.

While Gérard initially rebuffs Loretta’s rather bold romantic advances in an oftentimes obnoxious and even aggressive fashion, he eventually gives in, dresses virtually like Newton with a fancy suit and slicked back hair, and even marries the dream dame at an extra eerie gothic cathedral where the priest absurdly declares “Faith isn’t a matter of size” in regard to dildo-like Virgin Mary statues that are sold at the church. Needless to say, Bella—a fiery prole femme and assumed prostitute that, at one point, attempts to stab the hero with a broken bottle just because she suspects he might be cheating on her—does not take too kindly to the dubious mixed-class marriage and plots with Gérard’s pathetic dipsomaniac brother Frank to have the protagonist brutally murdered. Indeed, since life is cheap in the barf-and-feces-filled frog ghetto, Bella only has to pay a mere $100 to two ex-con thugs to have Gérard snuffed out, but the hired amateur assassins fail miserably as the protagonist has enough visceral pent-up hatred to give him the inspiration to virtually slaughter an entire army. When the protagonist confronts Bella by nonchalantly whipping out the $100 and declaring, “A guy’s life comes cheap. Here’s your money back,” she completely breaks down, practically denies culpability, and blames perennial fuck-up Frank. Naturally, Gérard decides fratricide is the answer and prepares to kill Frank, but Bella, who clearly genuinely loves the protagonist despite conspiring to kill him, attempts to stop him by telling him to leave town with Loretta, stating, “Don’t do it! Stay here! You’ll spoil everything! Listen…take your ride uptown. She’s waiting. You’re right, she loves you! Go away, never come back!” but he complains “I don’t deserve so much love.”  Of course, Gérard is the sort of self-destructive guy that likes doing things the hard way and is more interested in satisfying his deep-seated desire for bloodthirsty revenge than simply embracing the more sensible route of romantic rapture with his new wife Loretta.

Although Gérard proceeds to attempt to kill his brother in the very same gutter where his sister died using the same exact razor that she used to kill herself, he is stopped at the last minute when a local painter named Jésus (Bernard Farcy)—a painfully gawky art fag that loved Catherine so much that he painted her portrait—hits him over the head with a bottle and declares, “You’re crazy! You know…he didn’t do it.” In the end, Loretta finds Gérard at the site of the suicide and softly cries, “I’m cold,” but their surreal storybook romance is not meant to be and the hero ultimately goes back to his main brown bitch Bella. Indeed, as the narrator states at the end of the film, “Gérard dreamed of a white city…of proper blinds, shady lanes…hidden tennis courts, smooth lawns… He heard the sound of fountains, of birds singing. But he was afraid of that city…of feeling out of place…of that opening door… And the woman waiting for him.” 

 In an excerpt that would certainly confound Marxist materialists, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “He is now poor, but not because everything has been taken from him, but because he has thrown everything away:—what does he care? He is accustomed to find new things.—It is the poor who misunderstand his voluntary poverty.” And, indeed, it is the ‘poor’ that will be confused by Gérard's decision in the end, as if it is better to be a rich automaton and married to a virtual Victoria's Secret mannequin than being yourself and married to a wonderfully wanton woman that understands everything about you, including your insatiable masculine appetite (indeed, it is no coincidence that Gérard immediately declares that he is “hungry” upon coming back to Bella in the end).  Far from unconventionally picturesque ‘poverty porn,’ The Moon in the Gutter demonstrates that home is where the heart is, even if you live in a sort of nasty neo-Sodom hellhole.

Over a decade ago, my long-time girlfriend at the time, who expressed more love and passion than a dozen ‘normal’ basic bitch white girls combined, once told me that, if we ever broke up, she would eventually randomly show up unannounced at my house and assumedly cause chaos with whatever girl I might be with in a dramatic attempt to get me back. While this girlfriend, who both physically and psychologically resembled the eponymous babe portrayed by Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue, never did this (in fact, she is currently married with a kid), sometimes I feel like I’m still waiting for her to arrive.  After all, as devastatingly depicted in Maurice Pialat's classic anti-romantic We Won't Grow Old Together (1972) aka Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, it is oftentimes not until someone finally leaves your life that you realize what you have truly lost. In that sense, I somewhat suspect that if I saw The Moon in the Gutter when we were together and realized what we had (and understood her oftentimes warranted rage, which was not unlike Bella’s, as an irrational yet well-meaning expression of her love), I might not have senselessly sabotaged our relationship but, as obnoxious boomers and bourgeois people sometimes say, hindsight is 20/20.

Despite its almost ominously oneiric essence as dreamlike film filled with dream-sequences and pseudo-dream-sequences where a mensch is confronted with a dream girl and dream life, Beineix's butchered masterpiece is, in my mind, ultimately a film about embracing reality and appreciating those individuals—no matter how irreparably fucked up—that actually love you as opposed to fantasizing about idealized phantasmagoric femmes that will never exist in any tangible reality. While Nastassja Kinski’s character Loretta Channing technically does not do anything evil like attempting to get the protagonist killed (while, rather ironically, the protagonist's true love Bella does), she is still a femme fatale in a sort of figurative and symbolic sense as she puts Gérard on a precarious path that leads to the death of authenticity and selfhood (which, not coincidentally, is Loretta’s spiritually necrotic bourgeois brother Newton’s main objective, hence why he gets engaged to a nearly-ancient and, in turn, infertile, prostitute). Undoubtedly, The Moon in the Gutter is probably the only noir-ish film I can think where the femme fatale is not someone you to learn to hate, thereupon making her seem all the more preternaturally sinister on retrospect, especially on subsequent viewings of the film.

While the general storyline of The Moon in the Gutter is finally burned into my brain after multiple viewings, it will forever remain, most importantly, a cinematic drug of delirious lovelorn lunacy and paranoiac intrigue for me where—not unlike F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), Jean Vigo’s L'Atalante (1934), and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner—I watch for the not-altogether-mindless drugless high that sends me into a bittersweet deluge of emotions that ranges from romantic nostalgia to a sort of hypnotic regretful heartsickness, among other things. As to auteur Beineix’s main method in accomplishing this delectable dream cinema, he once noted, “I sought to make the real a bit unreal and vice versa so as to place the whole thing half-way between dream and reality. To take an example we colored the smoke coming out of a chimney-stack.” Of course, whereas Francis Ford Coppola failed terribly with his would-be-romantic exercise of absurdly ambitious artificiality One from the Heart (1982)—a film that was not a total failure in that it influenced Beineix to cast Nastassja Kinski—The Moon in the Gutter manages the conjure the darkly soulful and archetypically sound in a film where most characters are virtual ciphers and artifice acts as a sort of cockeyed spiral stairway to the primordial truth, at least as far as sex and romance are concerned and, in that sense, it could not be more immaculately (not to mention aesthetically pleasingly) titled.

In describing his artistic objective with the film, Beineix once confessed his intent was to create a completely new cinematic language, remarking, “I asked myself what the essence of cinema was, what was the language of the image. I sought another dimension of this language. The cinema is not necessarily at the service of a story, in other words chronology and reality; it is perhaps also at the service of matter.” While it is questionable as to whether or not he truly accomplished this (notably, pseudo-arthouse hack Olivier Assayas of all people went so far as to write in Cahiers du cinéma that “…there is no film”), there is no denying that The Moon in the Gutter is a singular cinematic achievement and that Beineix would never again create something quite as aesthetically alluring, cinematically revolutionary, or endlessly engulfing. Indeed, while Betty Blue is an eccentrically epic amour fou masterpiece and Roselyne and the Lions (1989) aka Roselyne et les lions manages to be both classically romantic and carnally carnival-esque, they just cannot compete with the strangely cold blue ‘heat’ that practically radiates from the screen of the deceptively darkly romantic celluloid dream that is The Moon in the Gutter.  As for Beineix's latest and certainly least greatest features IP5: The Island of Pachyderms (1992) aka IP5: L'île aux pachydermes—an aesthetically excremental exercise in would-be-zany xenophilia and negrophilia with an ugly and would-be-triumphantly-morally-retarded unhinged untermench spirit—and Mortal Transfer (2001) aka Mortel transfert—a sometimes visually alluring yet ultimately vain and superficial genre-bender without brains—they are probably best left completely forgotten, as it pains one to be reminded that they were directed by the same dude that started his filmmaking career with three arguable masterpieces.

Not unlike Michael Powell with Peeping Tom (1960) and John Schlesinger with The Day of the Locust (1975), the critical and commercial failure of The Moon in the Gutter seems to have destroyed Beineix's artistic will as if he ultimately became too afraid to once again test the bounds of cinematic possibility. Largely unsung auteur Eckhart Schmidt (Der Fan, Alpha City)—a sort of Teutonic low-budget Beineix that also took a romantic anti-intellectual approach to cinema—attempted something similar the same year as The Moon in the Gutter with his underrated nocturnal celluloid nachtmahr Das Gold der Liebe (1983) aka The Gold Of Love, which is like a punk/new wave Dementia meets Eyes Wide Shut, but few other filmmakers have dared to take a similarly darkly dreamlike path lest they be accused of aesthetic (crypto)fascism or some nonsensical horseshit.  Needless to say, the cinematic neo-romanticism of Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer)—a protege of queer agitpropagandist Rosa von Praunheim of all people—seems like frivolous fluff when compared to Beineix's greatest films, hence his collaboration with the Wachowski weirdos.

Clearly working from sort of quasi-Freudian perspective, Phil Powrie sees the ending of The Moon in the Gutter as extremely negative and tragic, arguing, “Gérard’s crime is to have desired his sister, and therefore his mother. His punishment fits the crime: he will marry his stepsister and be hen-pecked by his stepmother, as his father was before him, the ideal Loretta forever refused so that he can continue to expiate incest and voluntary castration.” While Powrie has made a fairly good argument given the details of the film, my personal experience tells me otherwise and I am reminded of the Carl Jung quote, “May love be subject to torment, but not life. As long as love goes pregnant with life, it should be respected; but if it has given birth to life from itself it has turned into an empty sheath and expires into transience.”  Love aside, the film also deserves credit for rivaling Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955) in terms of featuring what is probably the most shamelessly sensual and exquisitely beauteous female corpse in cinema history.  Indeed, when it comes down to it, I would not be surprised if both the public and critics alike still have not forgiven Beineix or The Moon in the Gutter—a film that should have a cult following that at least rivals any retarded slasher franchise—for providing the world with the most devilishly delectable of dead dames in a flavorsomely fucked film opening that reminds viewers of the unfortunate truth that sometimes women are just as hot when their bodies are cold. In that sense, if you ever needed evidence for the innate anti-aesthetic idiocy of the Bechdel bull-dyke test, Beineix's films, especially The Moon in the Gutter, nuke such flippant feministic pseudo-intellectual ordure altogether as one exquisite female corpse will always beat hundreds of ugly squawking hens.

-Ty E

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