Bertrand Blier's Merci la vie is, in several respects, a mystery.
The first mystery is: how did it get a cinema release in Australia? For Blier's films are mighty queer. Sure, they're a bit slick, they feature the greatest French stars (like Gérard Depardieu and Michel Blanc from Monsieur Hire, 1989), and they usually have a vigorous and/or kinky sex-erotica angle. But in style and approach they're closer to the so-called difficult, experimental narratives of Godard or Rivette than glossy numbers like La Lectrice (1988) or Nikita (1990).
Blier's films, like Evening Dress (1986) and the remarkable Too Beautiful For You (1989), often seem to have been generated out of a principle of fictional free association. Characters transform and swap, and so too do the times and settings of the story. As in Buñuel's last films, we quickly reach a point where the registers of reality and hallucination are indistinguishable – with the film itself taking over the hallucinating function from the characters.
Merci la vie is unquestionably among the freest and most associative of all Blier's films. It is also, strangely and disappointingly, perhaps his least interesting work.
It starts as a fantasy about female sexuality, propelled by two moody teenagers, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Anouk Grinberg. But soon it's into everything – the Occupation, the death camps, parodies of respectable French cinema genres, self-reflexive games – in the vein of Hellzapoppin' (1941), Flying High (1980) and Louis Malle's Zazie dans le Métro (1960).
What's it about? Beats me, but the life's-a-bitch sentiment of the title seems to indicate the general terrain. Blier gives us a distinctive list of what makes life difficult – war, incontinence, 'the clap', AIDS. He treats these topics with the same cheeky tastelessness that has been his trademark since the '70s.
But in Merci la vie, Blier's will to scandal and nihilism seems a bit studied, even jaded.
Still, a filmmaker who has the idea to mix Philip Glass and Dean Martin on his soundtrack obviously can't be completely bereft of wicked inspiration.
MORE Blier: Mon homme
© Adrian Martin November 1991