Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Monday, August 31, 2009
Jean Louis Trintignant discovers that the ghost of Françoise Hardy is tangible in Roger Vadim's hard-to-see CHATEAU EN SUEDE.
In the time I've been playing hooky from this blog, I have, among other things, been delving deeply into an obsession with the music of Françoise Hardy. Ours has been a lengthy courtship; I've been marginally aware of her and her work for many years, principally with her early, so-called "Yé Yé" period and the many striking modelling photos dating from that early Sixties period, some of which were snapped by the unerring eye of William Klein. The first female pop singer-songwriter to emerge in the 1960s, Mlle. Hardy was -- and remains, at age 65 -- such a strikingly beautiful woman that her image is difficult to regard separately from her music, but her music is just as durable and classical as she, rewarding close listening in all of its eras. One might imagine that a voice so plaintive, soothing, vulnerable and articulate could only be crushed if saddled with more instrumentation than a similarly direct acoustic guitar or piano, but over the decades, she has proved herself a remarkably flexible artist with a voice capable of keeping abreast of musical trends and standing up to volume. As for her image, you can visit its many phases in different videos available on YouTube, all of which make it seem incredible that no one has yet assembled a DVD of her archival performances for French television -- there's a wealth of material there that's as compulsively watchable as it is listenable.
Naturally, as soon as Françoise Hardy became a nationally known artist in 1962, she began receiving offers to appear onscreen. The IMDb credits her with a total of 10 acting roles in film and television, most notably including a short uncredited role as the mayor's secretary in WHAT'S NEW, PUSSYCAT? (1964), an elegant supporting role in John Frankenheimer's GRAND PRIX (1966), and a brief cameo as an American officer's attaché in Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin-Feminin (1966) -- a movie I principally remember for how she seemed to stop time by stepping out of a limousine and walking briskly across the screen in a white pants suit. Rarely has a director so eloquently admitted the futility of art's aspiration to equal natural beauty. But the first filmmaker to cast Mlle. Hardy in a feature film was that renowned connoisseur of French beauty, Roger Vadim, who featured the fledgling 19 year-old artiste in his 1963 feature Château en Suède ("Castle in Sweden", 1963), based on a play by Françoise Sagan.
A farcical thriller, Château en Suède had the misfortune of being released in France a couple of days before the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, which led to dire boxoffice returns. The film was subsequently not widely distributed outside France, though it starred Monica Vitti and Jean Louis Trintignant -- two of the hottest names in international cinema, both captured in the full bloom of their youth and beauty in Technicolor and Franscope. Lopert Pictures Corporation issued the film in the USA under the ignoble title NUTTY, NAUGHTY CHATEAU, but hardly anyone saw it and no copies of this version have resurfaced. My web searches turned up this useful if dismissive TIME Magazine review of the English-dubbed import, dated October 1964.
Thanks to a charming -- but alas, mislabelled -- YouTube video of Hardy performing "Je Suis d'Accord" (a Scopitone misidentified by the poster as a clip from Vadim's film), it became one of the chief priorities of my Hardy obsession to locate a copy of this now-difficult-to-see movie, which was apparently released on VHS in France back in the 1980s. Fortunately, I was able to locate a DVD-R copy from a seller on the P2P (person to person) website iOffer. The frame grabs I've provided here attest to its acceptable quality. I don't speak French, so I couldn't appreciate the fine points of its dialogue, but the film is easy enough to follow on a visual level, and probably best appreciated from a purely visual standpoint.
One of the most intriguing facets of the film is that, like Vadim's earlier production BLOOD AND ROSES (Et mourir et plaisir, 1960), it takes place in modern day but, once we enter the chateau, everyone dresses in 18th century garb. When Trintignant first enters this principal setting, after main titles drive-throughs of various contemporary Paris locations, the film's look takes a sudden turn into something that looks remarkably like Mario Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY (La frusta e il corpo), first released shortly ahead of Vadim's film in August 1963.
Director of photography Armand Thirard (a silent film veteran who had previously shot Vadim's ...AND GOD CREATED WOMAN) presents us with a conspicuously more warm-blooded Monica Vitti than Michelangelo Antonioni gave us in his black-and-white widescreen masterpieces. She proves herself an adept comedienne, and the film would count as pleasurable if only for Thirard's occasional closeups of her.
As family cousin Eric, Trintignant arrives at the chateau under the impression that his uncle Hugo's (Curd Jurgens) first and much younger wife Ophelia has died, an impression we initially share. Hugo has remarried another youngster, Eleanore (Vitti), who is only in it for the money to judge by the "incestuous" affair she is conducting with available "son" Sébastien (Jean-Claude Brialy). Left alone at a dinner table where much wine has flowed, Eric sees a feminine hand creep around the frame of a hung painting, and later has a spectral encounter with Ophelia (Hardy), who is in fact still alive, if something of a nutcase, and lives in hiding with a menagerie of animals while sleeping with Sébastien. Once Eric is enticed into Eleanore's bed, the backstory becomes more pronounced and he soon knows too much about the family's private business to live...
The film has a number of impressive visual moments, including a split-diopter shot that posits Vitti in the foreground and Brialy in the distant background, both in equal focus, and a Bava-like bedroom shot that finds Vitti's and Trintignant's nude bodies obscured by a foregrounded lantern. Unfortunately, its comic content is not as lovely or refined as the rest of it, and we're left with an obvious misfire: worth seeing, but far less than the sum of its nice parts. In one of those parts, Eric confirms Ophelia's physical tangibility by touching her bare knee, a moment that Trintignant and Hardy's co-star Jean-Claude Brialy would later famously reprise with pretty Laurence de Monaghan in Eric Rohmer's classic CLAIRE'S KNEE (Le genou de Claire, 1970).
In Françoise Hardy's recent autobiography LE DÉSESPOIR DES SINGES... ET AUTRES BAGATELLES, she devotes only a single paragraph to her Château en Suède experience, noting that she disliked the early-morning, getting-made-up-and-costumed, and waiting-around aspects of filmmaking, and that she was uncomfortable with scenes that required her to kiss and frolic in bed with Brialy, a fact that is sadly apparent onscreen.
Hardy's first screen appearance is not without its charms, of course, but it is undone in the larger sense by her unfamiliarity with camera acting, her noticeable, nervous inability to retain eye contact with her co-stars, and the unavoidable fact that Ophelia is so much less interesting, so much less appealing, so much less than the sublime original that is Françoise Hardy. And herein lies the ultimate reason why Hardy's screen career didn't work out as well as that of her husband Jacques Dutronc (also a singer, who found his ultimate expression as a delightfully edgy actor in films like Andrzej Zulawski's THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE and MY NIGHTS ARE MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN YOUR DAYS): her filmography serves to preserve her youthful beauty, rather than to extend our definition of her, or her own definition of herself. Her music, and the great dignity with which she has always made and presented it, remains her great gift to us.
Charming as she sometimes is as the daffy Ophelia, compared to the Hardy we discover through her songs and musical performances, Château en Suède is a comparatively undignified showcase. In any one of her music videos, you will see a better performance than you will see her giving as someone else, someone less talented. Seeing this film, Hardy must have realized that the discomforts of screen acting were not worth the bother, if they meant working toward an end result that was substantially less than what she was capable of producing spontaneously and without artifice. It's not that Hardy is one of those female performers who need a mask of character or a cloak of enigma to make themselves more interesting; if anything, the essence of her art is its emotional candor, directness and daring, as exemplified by songs like "La Question" and "Le Danger." She had the intelligence to grasp that giving that much more of herself could only have resulted in a lesser legacy, and so -- with a few curious, precious, quirky exceptions to the rule -- Françoise Hardy the Movie Star was not in the cards.