Monday, June 29, 2009

Pleasure Party

[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For ten days, Flickhead will be dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I'll be following along with many reviews of my own.]

If Claude Chabrol's Nada could be thought of as a kind of sequel to Godard's La Chinoise, Chabrol's next film, Pleasure Party, might be an examination of another older film by another of Chabrol's French New Wave contemporaries. Pleasure Party opens with an idyllic image of familial happiness, as the cheerful Philippe carries his daughter Elise on his shoulders through a field of sunflowers, then kisses his lover Esther as the happy trio lounges on the beach, fishing and playing and enjoying a relaxing day together. Philippe is played by the writer Paul Gégauff, a frequent Chabrol collaborator, and his wife and child are played by his real-life ex-wife Danièle and real daughter Clemence. It is probably no accident then that this opening, with its cheery family outing, fields of sunflowers and classical music, evokes the opening minutes of Agnès Varda's similarly themed Le Bonheur, which also featured a real-life couple and their real children (the actor Jean-Claude Drouot and his family).

As in Varda's film, Chabrol is interested in examining the tensions that can develop within this happy family cliché, the ugliness that can result from pushing too far, shaking up the comfortable status quo. As in Varda's film, the central character is an egotist, and it is his selfishness and obliviousness that brings tragedy upon him and his family. In fact, Philippe is probably one of the most unpleasant characters in all of cinema, a despicable creep who relentlessly controls his lover. He takes pride in his superiority to her, and views himself as her teacher, imparting lessons to her. When she displays her weakness, meekly acquiescing to his desires, he loves her, swelling with happiness. During their fishing expedition, she is squeamish to bait her hooks or to remove the fish from the line after catching it, and Philippe responds with condescending affection. It's obvious he appreciates that she needs him; it feeds his hungry ego to know that she is weak, that she cannot do things without his help. He is teaching her, he says at one point, "how to live."

This smarmy self-satisfaction is nigh-unbearable, and soon even the cringing, servile Esther begins to grow tired of this attitude. When Philippe casually tells her one morning that he has cheated on her several times, and intimates that he wouldn't mind if she did the same, she takes him at his word, sleeping with their acquaintance Habib (Giancarlo Sisti) after a dinner party. Philippe, of course, is not as open-minded as he had thought. While he expected his own infidelities to be received with understanding — and for the most part the ever-accommodating Esther made no fuss — he cannot be so tranquil about her straying. He begins to berate her and mock her, growing even crueler than ever, while on the surface maintaining that he doesn't care what she does. He mocks her friends, particularly the philosophy of Habib, and pretends that his objection to her new lover is intellectual. It's probably at least partly true: Philippe is an upper-class snob and believes that the spiritualist ideas of Habib and his circle are beneath him. Philippe makes much of the fact that Esther is of a lower class, and says that he tried to raise her up to his level, and that by hanging around with Habib she is lowering herself. It's also probably true that race plays some role in Philippe's anger, along with class; he believes that his own class, his own race, is the pinnacle, and looks down on anyone else, his own lover included.

More than anything, though, it's simply a matter of ego. Philippe liked having a woman who he could shape and mold to his own liking, who he could fill up with his own ideas, who could serve him and love him and him alone. He sees that he is starting to lose this — Esther is becoming independent, going out on her own, making new friends of her own, listening to their ideas. This is what he objects to more even than her making love to another man. He cannot bear the thought of his woman thinking for herself. After Esther finally leaves him, sick of the humiliations and brutality he subjects her to, Philippe marries a woman he barely knows, the pretty young triple-divorcée Sylvia (Paula Moore). But he finds that she is much too independent for him, much too content with her own ways, her own life. She is wealthy without his help, and has had many lovers already (including even Habib, her second husband!). When they go on a fishing trip, mirroring the opening scenes, Sylvia can bait her own hooks, catch her own fish and take them off afterwards, without Philippe's help or instruction — when he sees this, he actually breaks down and cries, missing the helpless woman who had to turn to him for everything. It is the pathetic breakdown of a man whose fragile ego requires him to prey on those weaker than him.

In short, Philippe is a thoroughly monstrous creation, a self-centered and abusive man who cannot live without inflicting pain and suffering on someone else. He is a parasite, and Chabrol does not flinch from a precise limning of this monster's personality and behavior. One of the film's most horrifying scenes comes just before Esther finally deserts Philippe for good. After an evening in which he has forced her to apologize for everything, to express her desire to return everything to the way it was, Philippe is still not satisfied; he suddenly grows enraged, slapping Esther around and forcing her to lick his feet. Chabrol captures this humiliating moment in closeup, then slowly pulls back to frame the kneeling Esther, her tongue against Philippe's foot, in a door, a small rectangle of light surrounded on either side by darkness. As a portrait of the unhealthy, parasitic relationship between abuser and abused, this image is the film's most potent and horrible.

But this is the low point: Chabrol cuts from this immediately, without fanfare, to some time later, after Esther has already left Philippe. Her abasement is captured onscreen, but once she frees herself she nearly disappears. This is because the film never wavers from Philippe's point of view, as though sucked in by his outsized ego. This is a film about the monster, not his victim. It's also in many ways a film about class warfare, Chabrol's perennial subject. There is an implicit class difference between the lovers, which makes their relationship something like servant and master rather than a bond between equals. This is the way Philippe wants it, anyway. Like the self-satisfied upper class he represents, he is unhappy when confronted with an equal; he wants only a slave.

No comments: