Tuesday, March 21, 2017

1978 Winner, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Directed by:  Bertrand Blier

Distributor:  Compagnie Commerciale Française

Released:  January 1978

Country:  France

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression.  A 2011 WHO study found that French people are the most likely to have a “major depressive episode” sometime in their lives.  Depression is treated with medications like Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro; psychotherapy and the occasional electro-shock therapy are also standard ways to work through this very pervasive and common disorder.  

In Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, Raoul, played by Gerard Depardieu, introduces us to a new way to handle the problem.  Raoul’s wife, Solange, is so depressed she doesn’t even to seem to care that she is depressed.  We first meet the couple over a salad lunch at a small restaurant.  Raoul expresses to Solange his total love for her and his complete frustration that she will not snap out of her funk.  Raoul sees that across the restaurant, a shaggy looking patron had been checking out his rather attractive wife.  Nothing overt, just a casual glance or two from the man, but now Raoul believes he has a cure for what ails her.  Why not ask this man to have sex with his wife?  That should clear up the cobwebs or whatever is going on in her pretty little head!
Raoul, Stephane, and Solange

The man, Stephane, at first is a little weirded out.  But Solange doesn’t seem to object, and Raoul the husband is the one asking him, and she's kinda hot, so what the hell?  So for the next part of the movie Raoul and his new bestie Stephane take turns (off camera) having sex with Solange to get her to cheer up a little.  Mostly, she sits around the house without a shirt, sometimes knitting to keep busy (though never a top for herself), but still depressed as she ever was.

Besides sharing Solange, Stephane and Raoul share a love of Mozart and talk about what it would be like to meet him.  They also befriend a local grocer and share with him their love of Mozart and their arrangement with Solange.  They try to include her in their discussions and interests, but Solange just isn’t feeling it.  Then Raoul has another bright idea.  Why don’t he and Solange accompany Stephane, a teacher, for a few weeks at the children’s camp he works at?  The three go there and befriend a 13-year-old oddball named Christian.  Christian is much smarter than the rest of the kids and isn’t afraid to show it.  Which generally doesn’t make him popular with the other kids.  Solange, however, takes a shine to him.  And well, without giving too much away, this is where the film devolves from a slightly depraved sitcom of a movie to one that may make you feel like you have to take a shower after viewing.
Christian watching Solange knit in bed

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs is genuinely funny at times, and Depardieu as Raoul and Patrick Dewaere are a good buddy-movie combo (sadly, Dewaere seems to have been the one with real demons, as he took his own life in 1982).  Carole Laure as Solange is cute as a button, even when she isn’t smiling, which is most of the movie (and speaking of buttons, Solange doesn’t have any need for them during much of the movie).  As strange as the, er, threesome are, all of them are likable and fun to watch together.  But I just didn’t buy that even in 1970’s France this kind of stuff would happen.  And because of that, the humor is muted and whatever point being made by director Bertrand Blier is rendered absurd.  However likeable the trio may be, their choices make them nincompoops, however good-intentioned they seem.  I think I came out of this film as depressed as Solange was, except I had my shirt on for the entire movie.

Solange most of the movie.  Call me a prude, but I added the black box.
The Title:  Préparez vos mouchoirs.  They should have called this, “Get Out Your Boobies.”

The Culture:  If France was a swinging, conventions-be-damned kinda place in the 1970’s, then this film reflects it well.  While he wasn’t French, Mozart is discussed at length.

Agenda danger:  I suppose I could be called a prude for seeing the movie as a push to normalize non-standard sexual relationships.  But I was able to buy into the movie’s first half as all-in-good-fun; it was the last act that left me feeling it would have been okay if this film had never been made.

Best Picture that year:  The Deer Hunter

Rating:  I’ll admit liking this movie for most of it for the humor and for the odd friendship between the three main players.  I think at first even Christian and the trio's relation to him was charming.  But when the film was over, I just shook my head over what had just happened and lost any fondness I had for any of them.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

1979 Winner, The Tin Drum

The Tin Drum

Directed by:  Volker Schlöndorff

Distributor:  United Artists/World Pictures

Released:  May 1979

Country:  West Germany

Allegorical stories are okay by me as long as the underlying story stands on its own and makes sense.  If the Letter A on a dress or a talking pig stand for something beyond their literal meaning, then fine, as long as I can understand them as the Letter A or a talking pig.  The problem comes when the viewer needs a decoder ring or some sort of handbook with him to tell him what the symbolic meaning of whatever the allegory is.  The Wizard of Oz doesn’t have to be about bimetallism or 19th century American politics in order to be enjoyed.

Then there’s The Tin Drum.  Here are a few things we have going on here:
  • Oskar is a little boy fathered by either a Pole or a German
  • Though years go by, Oskar spends most of the movie as a toddler
  • Oskar constantly bangs on his tin drum, needing replacement after replacement
  • Oskar’s tin drum can make Nazis stop goose-stepping and start waltzing
  • Oskar’s scream breaks glass more efficiently than Ella Fitzgerald’s scat
Jan, Alfred, and Oskar with his titular tin drum
Let me back up a step.  The Tin Drum is a story told by Oskar himself, starting with the sordid conception of his mother in Western Poland.  Oskar’s mother can’t make up her mind who she wants to be with following World War I, Alfred the German cook or her cousin Jan the Polish postal worker, so she marries Alfred and carries on with Jan.  Oskar comes along and on his third birthday, he gets as a present—you guessed it—a tin drum.  The title drum in hand, and with his family squabbling over whether it is better to remain Polish or embrace the new National Socialism sweeping the country next door, Oskar decides that falling down the stairs will allow him to stop from growing up and having to deal with life.

Oskar in super-creepy mode
The Swiss actor playing Oskar, David Bennett, plays the role with total creepiness.  Oskar seems sort of reasonable as he narrates the film, but when you see that look on his face when he screams, you just want to look away.  Oskar’s story is not a straight path—he tells about his two dads, his weird mother Agnes who eats raw fish likes it's M&Ms, and a dwarf in the circus with whom he strikes up a long-term friendship.  All of this is going on as the Nazis are gaining power in Germany.

World War II breaks out, further underscoring the differences between Jan and Alfred.  At some point we are introduced to 16-year-old Maria, who is hired to work at Alfred’s shop.  She’s a pretty thing, and not all that choosy with whose company she shares.  Sometime later, she'll have her own weird kid, and like Oskar, he will never be sure who the father is.  The suspects?  Alfred, who must be in his 50’s by then, or Oskar, who, of course, is 3.  Yes, this was quite the controversial movie.

Maria:  She's not too picky
Now for the allegory part.  I guess one could watch this and say Oskar’s age stands for something, and the nationalities of Oskar’s fathers stand for something, and of course, “the tin drum” stands for something.  By the end of the movie, really couldn’t have cared less about that.  I didn’t like Oskar, I didn’t like his fathers, I didn’t like his friends, and I certainly didn’t care for the Nazis.  (As for Maria, I thought, if I had been there, I bet I would have a shot with her.)  I didn’t really care whether Oskar would ever age again or whether he’d ever beat his serious addiction to getting another and another new tin drum.  All I knew was that other smarter people than me were somehow in the know and “got” all of the meaning in this highly acclaimed movie.  And that I didn’t.

The Title:  Die Blechtrommel, in German.  The title is the same as the 1959 Günter Grass novel upon which this film was based.  My bet is that I wouldn’t have understood the book any more than I did the film.

Representation of heartless industry, or just a Tin Man?
The Culture:  As with so many Best Foreign Film winners, we get a look at pre-war Europe, this time western Poland.  One  theme showing up these pre-war films is the terrible uncertainty people felt at the time.  The choice always seems to beGo with the Nazis and make the best of it, or oppose the Nazis and expect the worst.  It is, of course, easy to judge in retrospect, but it must have been a difficult thing to grapple with for so many (non-Jewish) families in Europe.

Agenda danger:  If I had understood all the symbols in this thing, I may have been wearied by the message.  I sensed an anti-nationalism coming from Oskar’s unhappiness at having been raised by two men who represented two political views and countries of origin.  But as usual, the Nazis who are the bad guys, and who can object to that?

Best Picture that year:  Kramer vs. Kramer.

Rating:  The Tin Drum won a bunch of awards and made a ton of money, so who am I to say it’s no good?  I will say that I laughed a few times, though I’m not too sure I was supposed to.  In the end, it made me ask myself this philosophical question:  Who is smarter: intellectuals who watch movies like this and understand all the meanings, or the common folk who avoid watching movies like this?