The plot of French Twist is easy to outline. There’s a housewife, Loli (Victoria Abril), who has a philandering husband, Laurent (Alain Chabat). Into Loli’s life comes Marijo (Josiane Balasko), a hefty and incredibly magnetic dyke. Loli gets involved with Marijo after learning of Laurent’s sins, and even invites her to move in – much to Laurent’s macho chagrin. The “gazon maudit” or “accursed lawn” of the original title refers cheekily to female pubic hair.
From there, we get all kinds of comic complications and permutations. Who sleeps where, and with whom? How much do Marijo and Laurent hate each other, and is it going to lead any further than a few mutual swipes and blood noses? Why can’t Loli take the presence of Marijo’s old girlfriend, who has turned up for a visit? And, above all, what is the cagey game of love and desire that all these characters are playing with each other? What kind of threesome could they ever successfully form?
French Twist is first and foremost a farce (co-written by John Boorman’s daughter Teslche, who died in the year after its release). Like The Birdcage (1996) or The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1995), its humour and charm come from the fact that it addresses us as an “average” audience that will enjoy being just a little scandalised or thrilled – while assuming that, essentially, we will be pretty cool with this bisexual threesome stuff, at least for the sake of a good entertainment. In that sense, it’s a dead-centre mainstream project, flattering rather than confronting its audience. That’s no bad thing, in itself.
This mainstreamness is cued by the clever evasion of certain areas, things the film just isn’t willing to seriously ponder. Just as Twister (1996) is strangely silent on the topic of human death, French Kiss is mute on the topic of children. For there are children in this crazy household; you see them occasionally gliding through the frame on a toy bike or somesuch. But, as to the effects on them of any of the saucy stuff that’s going on … well, forget it. On this level, French Twist reminds me of old, classic romantic comedies like The Awful Truth (1937): the fun and thrill of events depends on children either being absent, or at least effectively absent.
The three central actors of French Twist are terrific. Abril, from Pedro Almodóvar’s films, is like a high-strung kid, with a laugh that cuts through your skull, and a very natural way of expressing all her needs and appetites. Chabat has the seething, wily, not altogether attractive pole in this triangle: he captures a very particular male manner very well. And Balasko – she’s something else, entirely. The more I pondered her work in this role, the more I came to like, appreciate and savour the film itself.
Balasko is a figure in French film that I’ve had my eye on since her impressive and disarmingly anti-conventional role in Bertrand Blier’s Too Beautiful for You (1989). French Twist is also her fourth film as director, but I don’t think she’s as yet very accomplished in this department; it’s a very simply, theatrically staged film, a bit like a telemovie. But Balasko is an extraordinary screen presence, soulful and powerful, funny and deeply sexy. And, as a storyteller, she has a fascinating vision of the erotic, human comedy.
In Too Beautiful For You, Balasko also played against type. She was the Other Woman in an erotic triangle, the woman who lures Gérard Depardieu away from his marital union. The French twist in that film was that the wife was conventionally beautiful, and the marriage seemed pretty good and stable, while Balasko was unconventionally beautiful. (A darker and more dramatic variation of this premise was offered by Cédric Kahn in L’Ennui .) As in several of Blier’s works, the adventures and crises of the heart in Too Beautiful for You are essentially irrational: the characters are disconcertingly whimsical creatures, changing their stripes at each moment, in each scene. This particular conception of character and characterisation is evident in French Twist , too.
Both Blier and Balasko, as directors, come from a particular tradition in French cinema that is not often seen in Australia, although it has extreme mainstream popularity in France. It’s a tradition that drives from theatre: theatre-restaurant or cabaret comedy, café-théâtre. This café-theatre has also fed heavily into forms of variety television in France, such as sketch comedy shows. It’s a broad, rather physical, often proudly vulgar comic tradition. As Jill Forbes observes in her fascinating book, The Cinema in France: After the New Wave (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), films influenced by café-theatre depend heavily on the ingenuity of the actors’ performances – performances that stress the registers of “play and play acting” (p. 173). What this means, above all, is that the actors use and create stereotypes, strongly recognisable cultural and social types, and then play a game of twisting, reversing and complicating them. Everything is a game of masks; it’s a vision of social life as a ceaseless masquerade – whether involving authority, sophistication, or gendered behaviour (or all three).
This is not a model of three-dimensional, psychological characterisation or acting – even as it depends, absolutely, on effects of intimacy and complicity between performers and audience. The nearest equivalent I can think of in English language cinema is the work of Blake Edwards (The Party , Victor/Victoria ), whose films are full of the most outrageous stereotypes of every kind – race, gender, class and social status. But the thrill and the poignancy of his films derives from their sense that stereotypes have an actual purchase on reality – a sense that all of us, in some way, are two-dimensional constructions trying desperately to wriggle out of our typed positions, trying to confound the conventions and multiply our possibilities.
With all the café-theatre directors like Blier, Balasko and Patrice Leconte – and with Edwards, too, for that matter – there’s a prime unevenness. Sometimes the dance with character stereotypes, this whirl of play-acting and masquerade, can be intoxicating and liberating. This is particularly so when the films eventually take off into an elaborate fantasy dimension, as happens in Blier’s Evening Dress (1985) or Leconte’s swoony The Hairdresser’s Husband (1992). But, at other times, the merry game with stereotypes becomes too casual, almost rote – and all we are left with is a series of glittering, grating tokens of the good life, middle-class bohemian sophistication. These films sometimes fall clumsily between parodying a high bourgeois lifestyle and indulging it. That was the problem with Leconte’s shocking Le Parfum d'Yvonne (1994).
French Twist has some of that slightly annoying middle-class veneer. The large, rambling house of Loli and Laurent, his real-estate job, the constant sunshine, the endless lilt of Gypsy Kings-style pop on the soundtrack: this all gave me a mild attack of the heebie-jeebies, and reminded me that Balasko’s film is an extremely mainstream French entertainment. But I don’t want to just reflexly condemn all things and all people middle-class (or mainstream, or middlebrow, for that matter). In fact, when I look at these café-theatre films, I acutely feel an ambivalence that I suspect the filmmakers themselves feel. On the one hand, they show bourgeois life as the place of hypocrisy and complacency, banality and vapid consumerism. But, on the other hand, this milieu, for all its soulless sins, allows a space and a time for some kind of freedom and experimentation, for sensual pleasure and self-exploration. For all the bloody noses, intolerances and tensions, French Twist exudes an infectious air of laughter, play and possibility.
In a way, French Twist harks back to an earlier era in French cinema, the era of 1960s and ‘70s, when films by Agnès Varda or Claude Faraldo explored the radical possibilities of new kinds of relationships, open marriages, extended communal families – in short the whole free-love package. Watching such films today, I can become intensely nostalgic for this era – even though I was only a straitlaced kid in suburban Melbourne myself, at the time. What’s most intoxicating, and most fun, in French Twist is the airy feeling that the film communicates – the feeling that these characters can literally re-invent themselves all the time, over and over. This is more than just a simple or dizzy play with stereotypes. I’m reminded of what Serge Toubiana once said about Blier’s film Evening Dress – that the characters are not so much solid, flesh-and-blood, fixed beings as ghosts: potential or virtual beings who take on some new human form every time that their desire prompts them to form a connection with another person, whatever their nominal gender or sexual disposition. That’s a dream, of course, but a fine and inspiring dream.
This dream takes shape in French Twist in a climactic scene where Marijo decides that she wants to have a child – and she chooses her arch-rival Laurent to be the father. They end up in bed together, and they find it difficult to get things going. Eventually, they figure that they should both shut their eyes and fantasise about Loli. After that, the force of Marijo’s desire surprises and disarms Laurent. And just when you think the scene is one big bedroom farce, Marijo, having mounted Laurent, opens her eyes – wide, limpid, searching – and looks deep into his. What’s happening here, what’s she thinking, who is she at this moment of erotic connection? I’m not exactly sure, because Balasko wants to keep us wondering about all moments like this one. But it certainly gives an incredible frisson.
© Adrian Martin June 1996