Tag Archives: Farce

SATANS’S BREW/ SATANSBRATEN (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1976)


Fassbinder continues to surprise, this time with an all-out comedy, a high-pitched farce, dealing with the vulgar, explicit and extreme in a way that’s designed to be offensive and to push as many of the audience’s buttons as possible. How did he get away with it? In the first ten minutes of the film, we get fellatio with gun à la CHANT D’AMOUR, a murder enhanced by poppers during coitus, a dildo-drawer with a gun, a woman slapping down her brother-in-law’s erection in close-up, a prostitute getting her nipples tweaked for a laugh… It’s like a grunge explicit version of boulevardier farce about masochistic power relations, drained of any trace of elegance. I found it discomforting and funny.


The plot revolves around Walter Kranz(Kurt Raab), once the poet of the revolution, now suffering from writer’s block, and in constant need of money. He has a long-suffering wife, several mistresses, a brother who’s not all there (and who seems to be modelled on the fly-eating Renfeld, Dracula’s side-kick). He takes adoration as his due and exploits all his inter-personal relationships, including his long-suffering parents, whom he tricks out of the money they’ve saved for their funeral.

designed to be offensive

After two years when he hasn’t been able to write a word, he finally recites some lines he likes. He’s delighted at the break-through only to be told that the lines are not his but those of Stefan George, the famous symbolist poet. So he decides to become George by performing him, by hiring a coterie of young gay men to worship his poetry readings and by becoming gay himself, something he ends up not being too successful at. Performing identity, performing society’s expectations of identity and finding liberation in madness are key themes in the film.

male full frontal

Like in a good farce, everything is over-turned and comes full-circle in a ‘happy’ ending. Walter, who’s surprised when his brother likes the whipping he gives him, ends up finding his own masochistic side, thereby losing the provincial acolyte he’s been dominating, Andrée (Margit Carstersen) but getting together with Lisa, who previously enjoyed an open marriage with Rolf, who has now gone off with the newly liberated Andrée. He finally ends up writing a novel: NO CELEBRATION FOR THE FÜHRER’S DEAD DOG, a book who’s thesis is that Fascism will triumph, a hit with his publishers.


The film is book-ended by a quote from Antonin Artaud: ‘What differentiates the heathens from us is the great resolve underlying all their forms of belief, not to think in human terms. In this way, they are able to retain the link with the whole of Creation, in other words with the Godhead’, ie thinking from a non-hiuman point of view is a way of maintaining contact with the divine. Fassbinder described the film as a ‘comedy about me if I were what I perhaps am but don’t believe I am” Thomas Elsaesser found the film “a rare attempt at comedy from a filmmaker who, as most commentators have noted, is entirely devoid of humour’. A bit harsh I think, though how funny people find it might depend on how far they are willing to be pushed.

José Arroyo




Eavesdropping at the Movies: 276 – The Birdcage

Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whose partnership in the 50s and 60s helped define American comedy, collaborate on a film for the first time in 1996, as director and screenwriter respectively, giving us a comedy so sharp and outrageous that José’s laughter made Mike miss half the dialogue. An adaptation of the French farce, La Cage aux FollesThe Birdcage sees Robin Williams’ South Beach drag club owner, Armand, attempt to force his life into the closet for one night, for the sake of his son, Val, whose deeply conservative in-laws are set to visit for dinner. But Nathan Lane’s flamboyant Albert, Armand’s longtime partner, is unable, and at first unwilling, to participate in the subterfuge as requested, and chaos ensues.

The Birdcage relies heavily on stereotypes – it’s not only theatrical but a farce, in which everything is heightened – and though they’re enjoyably insane in themselves, the film’s brilliance is in how it reveals the real people within them, people whose love and pain are rendered sensitively and richly, through the truly genius performances from Williams and Lane, which work together beautifully while in two different registers, the former internal, the latter external. José suggests that the film’s outlook, despite embodying so vividly a pro-gay message, is nonetheless normative of a certain kind of structure of love, the only difference between the film’s two families being that the mother in one is male – and even then, Albert is occasionally referred to as Armand’s wife and Val’s mother. He even, at one particularly stressful moment early on, claims that he is a woman. (“You’re not a woman”, replies Armand, to which Albert cries, “You bastard!”) But although this could be suggestive of a trans identity, and the drag club certainly houses trans people, 1996 is a little early for such complexity – publicly coming out as gay, never mind trans, was still rare, shocking, and even dangerous.

There’s a lot more to discuss, including the portrayals of Gene Hackman’s conservative, scandal-embroiled senator, Hank Azaria’s Guatemalan houseboy, and Val, who Mike thinks is a bit mean and smug, and Mike Nichols’ overall filmography, which José has been considering of late, having been reading his recently released biography by Mark Harris. The Birdcage sits high among his oeuvre, for José, and it’s not hard to see why – he’s literally never laughed as much in his life.

The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 226 – Twentieth Century

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

A prototypical screwball comedy, 1934’s Twentieth Century sees John Barrymore delightfully chewing the scenery as a pompous theatre impresario who discovers and makes a star of Carole Lombard’s lingerie model. Having separated after several successful years, the former power couple meet by chance on the luxury Twentieth Century train, and it all kicks off as schemes are put into action, conflict erupts, and some religious bloke keeps putting stickers that say “REPENT” on everything he sees.

Barrymore is sensational, sending theatrical types up and orating floridly and dramatically, while Lombard clashes with him spikily. We consider how well Twentieth Century fits into the screwball genre – the dialogue is snappy and witty, the situations farcical, the relationships barbed, although it’s less of an even two-hander than you might expect, the focus heavily on Barrymore. Mike argues that the chemistry between the couple doesn’t play as enjoyably as intended, and that the bits of business on the fringes, and the knowing weariness with which Barrymore’s two assistants handle their jobs, are where the real joy lies. And José effusively compares Barrymore’s ability to move between stage and screen to Laurence Olivier’s, another actor renowned as the greatest of his day, but who appeared fussy and busy on film.

While it’s no new discovery, Twentieth Century holding places in the National Film Registry and the history of film comedy, it’s a new one for us, and a corker.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Une heure de tranquillité/ Do Not Disturb (Patrice Leconte, France, 2014)

une heure de tranquillite

I went to see this for Rossy de Palma and it was worth seeing for her. She’s middle-aged now, a bit zaftig. She’s still got the wonky Picasso eyes, which evoke a memory of the strange and marvellous energy her mere presence once catapulted into any film, but can now pass for an ordinary working-class middle-aged Spanish lady, as she does here. The film seems to me a nothing; or to be fair, nothing I understand. It’s a farce in which Michel Leproux (Christian Clavier) is seeking one hour of tranquillity in which to listen to that great jazz album he’s been longing to hear all his life and finally found but gets constantly interrupted: his wife reveals an affair; the son brings in a Phillipino family to stay, the Polish plumber who is really Portuguese bursts the pipes, his mistress comes to reveal their affair to the wife etc. It’s very French and very sitcommy. I did not find it funny though the audience I saw it with could not stop laughing in ways that I simply didn’t get: offering guests at the neighbourhood party expensive wine got howls of laughter. I found the representation of Rossy de Palma as the Spanish maid, the jokes about the Portuguese/Polish plumber and the whole bit with the Phillipinos a bit crude and slightly racist. What it did make me think of is how certain people can just lift a film out of ordinariness and make it worthwhile to see and think about, like some expensive and exotic ingredient in a store-bought trifle. In this film it’s Rossy of course, who seems to be acting in a coarser, better film than this one — she feels slightly out of place; and Carole Bouquet as the wife, who doesn’t get to do very much but manages to express quite a bit and is so extremely beautiful one can’t help but be riveted by her mere presence.

José Arroyo