A French Woman
I’m fascinated by the many varieties of male pathos in film – movies where men are emotionally excessive in one register or another, sometimes even violently so; but also lovable somehow, precisely because of that excess. It’s a pardoxical, difficult, knotty kind of dramatic emotion. In some stories you get the maudlin variation on male pathos – stories about idealistic, grand old guys left behind by history or shunned by society; Mel Gibson’s directorial debut, The Man Without a Face (1993), is one very fruity variation on that. Just about every film that tries to milk male pathos in these heavy ways tends to make me squirm – but I’m fascinated and entrhralled, too.
There’s a note of madulin male pathos to be found in the rather dismal A French Woman. This is a curious attempt by Wargnier to do an honest biography of his mother Jeanne, who led a free sexual life, somewhat scandalously for her time and place. At the start, a young Jeanne (Emmanuelle Béart) meets the dashing and very proper soldier, Louis (Daniel Auteuil). They marry, but World War II quickly separates them. Jeanne tries to hold the marriage together for a while but, to survive the hard times, she eventually flees, and starts taking lovers. Then Louis returns from the frontline only “half a man” (as he puts it), and their relationship worsens.
The prospect of a male writer-director making a film that squarely depicts his own mother’s errant, unconventional sexuality is an inviting one, for all kinds of reasons. But this chocolate-box confection from Régis Wargnier (Indochine, 1992) can only tell us ad nauseam that Jeanne “lived for love”. (Béart has claimed, incredibly and hyperbolically, that this is her first genuinely “adult” role! Jacques Rivette’s La Belle noiseuse  must have slipped her mind at that moment.) Beyond her prodigious pouting and posturing, Jeanne is invested with very little character. Jeanne is frequently found scanning each location for those “desiring eyes” of men which (as we are also told) make her feel like “a real woman”. And, as The Eagles almost sang, you can’t hide those desiring eyes!
In fact, it is hard, by the end, to find this particular French woman as anything other than faintly repulsive – and infinitely more objectionable than any of the rebels once incarnated by, say, Jennifer Jones in the great Hollywood melodramas (like King Vidor’s Ruby Gentry ) to which Wargnier makes a weak homage – strong, arresting moments are few and far between in this dull, numbing travelogue. Our repulsion arises not because Jeanne behaves immorally or even irresponsibly; rather, it is because she demonstrates not the slightest skerrick of human warmth towards anyone or anything in her vicinty. One lover is virtually identical to the next in Jeanne’s life; like the touristic backdrops, they pass by in a languid, indifferent haze.
Since Christian Vincent’s The Separation (1994), Auteuil has become a shining, soulful beacon of male pathos in French cinema. He’s the hurt, bruised, brooding man par excellence – hurt by love, hurt by the one woman of his life, hurt not least of all by himself, by his own confused demons. In A French Woman, Auteuil as Louis has metamorphosed into a full-on masochist, passive, ever-suffering, a sad old cuckold the likes of whom you haven’t seen in a movie since John Savage’s bizarrely contorted role in Andrei Konchalovsky’s Maria’s Lovers (1984) – another soldier-back-from-the-front tale – or the tortured Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s and ‘50s.
There are several explicit references to those Hollywood melodramas in A French Woman: to post-war male weepies like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and stories of furious female frustration like Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956). Not to mention the presence of a family clan clucking away disapprovingly in the background. Béart was born to play the scene here where, after literally watching that particular Sirk classic, Jeanne gets drunk, dons a plunging, flaming red dress and dances like Dorothy Malone – the dance of a true hell-cat. Certainly, the role-model is well chosen.
Where the troubled father in another male weepie (of sorts), The Baby-Sitters Club (1995), unexpectedly rides into town, this sad Frenchman keeps finding excuses to ride out – he signs up to serve in every war going, it seems. There’s one moment where both he and Jeanne move to Syria and try, once and for all, to make their marriage work. But then she gets bored and frustrated again, and her handsome young German lover, Matthias (Gabriel Barylli), shows up to boldly take her away. (This entire Matthias subplot, and the public scandal it involves, recalls the real-life case of the French star Arletty [Les Enfants du Paradis, 1945], who once bravely declared: “My heart is French, but my ass is international!”.) Then, for the first time ever, Louis snaps out of his passivity: he comes alive and attacks this damn annoying lover. For his trouble, Louis earns from Jeanne a deep, near-fatal wound in the back – and a scar that he must bear forever more. Further emasculation! The male condition, when faced with the magnificent libido of a woman, has rarely been this despairingly portrayed.
One of the key scenes of A French Woman shows a young boy, locked in his room and desperately wailing, while Jeanne grabs a few stolen moments of passion in an adjacent sin-chamber. Is this meant to be an autobiographical vignette of little Régis, our auteur? If so, the bathetic intensity of the moment suggests that, in attempting to pay generous homage to his late mother, Wargnier simply churned up emotions that he has not yet successfully resolved, or even faced.
MORE Wargnier: East-West
© Adrian Martin January/February 1996