In his lushly illustrated new book, Moments That Made The Movies (Thames and Hudson, 2013), David Thomson, referring to the famous nightclub scene in Morocco where Dietrich sings ‘Quand l’amour meurt’ before kissing a woman and then throwing Gary Cooper the flower she takes from her, writes: ‘the moment is weightier than the film, and more enduring. But these days people like to take their films in bits and pieces – video allowed for that – so one day it may be that no one makes full movies any more, just arresting moment.’
Claude Sautet is responsible for more than his share of arresting moments in cinema: the wonderful close-up of Romy Schneider when Michel Piccoli first sees her in Les Choses de la vie; the moment where Yves Montand, full of sea air and lust for life, says, ‘I feel like fighting someone!’ in César et Rosalie; the introduction of Romy Schneider, ‘irised’ through a spyglass, in Max et les ferrailleurs; and many more. His cinema has more than its share of moments that startle either with beauty, meaning or emotion. But his films are always greater than, add up to more than, those moments. Un mauvais fils is no exception.
In Un mauvais fils/ A Bad Son, Paris is seething with strikes, demonstrations, protests but none of the characters in the film can think of anything but their own internal ache. They walk the same streets as people who are aware of and engaged with the surrounding world, drink with them in bars, pass by posters that interpellate involvement and participation from others but which they fail to see. Their thoughts are elsewhere: on what they could have done, should have done, should have been; or on their next fix — the latter being a sign of the failure to measure up to all of the former.
Patrick Dewaere, a singular star and iconic presence of 1970s French cinema, is beautifully cast as Bruno Calgagni, the ‘bad’ son who went to study in America only to be locked up for five years for dealing the heroin he was hooked on but could no longer afford to buy. The film begins as he returns to Paris, where the police greet him at the airport and tell us what got him to that moment. He returns home to find a father who’s loving but also impatient and increasingly reproachful, his very face a picture of disappointment. The son tries to please but always seems to put his foot in it. A scene where he’s drinking with his father at a bar and attempts to impress him by picking up two women, possibly professionals, one for each of them, only to be met by his father’s outrage and disgust is particularly poignant, squirm-inducing and, as we will learn later, hypocritical.
Father and son are loving, both trying their best but failing, albeit each in his own way. The awkwardness, misunderstandings and careless hurtings continue until the father accuses the son of being responsible for his mother’s death; that the shame and hurt he caused her incited a spiral of depression that lead to her taking her own life. This accusation, a breaching of silence that opens the floodgates of anger and blame, is a climactic moment and turning point in the narrative.
We are introduced to Dewaere at the beginning of the film already looking like a cock-eyed spaniel eager to please but bewildered at being wounded, finding himself unloved and drifting in the world through a haze of hurt — that aspect of Bruno doesn’t fundamentally change. He’ll be just as angelic, child-like, sensitive, honourable and manly throughout the rest of the film. But be it careless or cruel, his father’s accusation spurs Bruno to action: his response is to leave the apartment they’re sharing, find a job, make his own way in the world and find his own woman.
Bruno will echo, rhyme, repeat and return his father’s behaviour later in the film when the tables are turned: he will prove himself his father’s son and be just as accusatory and unforgiving when he finds that the affair his father is currently involved with had started way before and might have been just as responsible for his mother’s state of mind as his being in an American jail. It will take him the rest of the film to forgive and come to terms with the father he’s clearly always loved.
Bruno finds some peace when he finds work in an antiquarian bookshop, meets a lovely gay couple and falls in love with Catherine (Brigitte Fossey), herself a former junky. He’s been off the smack for five years; she’s not quite off it, not yet. The film shows the progression of their affair with great tenderness and humanity and without eschewing any of the complexities that such a relationship entails. One of the most touching and moving sequences is when Bruno, understanding of Catherine’s need, lovingly tweaks her with heroin. All this is shown with the arm injected off screen to reduce the most voyeuristic dimension of such a representation and to focus on feeling. The film is refreshingly non-judgmental regarding the drug-taking, really treating it as an illness that good people fall prey to and suffer from rather than, as is often the case, attributing their drug-taking to a lack of character, morals and will.
A LANDMARK REPRESENTATION OF MALE HOMOSEXUALITY
If the film’s representation of heroin addicts is sensitive and humane, its representation of gay men seems to me a landmark, one that deserves greater attention, and is one of many reasons to seek out this film. Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, published a year after the release of Un mauvais fils details a long and damning list of derogatory stereotypes through which homosexuality had been glimpsed to that point, usually briefly; and often only to be feared, derided or extinguished: the evil lesbian, the pansy, the butt of humour, the subject of suicide etc;
In Un mauvais fils, the contours of the representation remain stereotypical; they’re a short-cut, a way of knowing, and with a root in the real. Thus Adrien (Jacques Fulfilho) is an antiquarian dealing in old books, bourgeois, mad about opera, and supporting a younger foreign lover, Carlos. But as with so much of Sautet’s work, the character is so complex, so human that actor and director endow those contours with shape and shading and thus exceed them.
Adrien loves Catherine, wants to help Bruno, is understanding of all, is the catalyst for the film’s conclusion and, more importantly, figures as as the film’s moral conscience. Un mauves fils even accords him his own little aria, which, whilst not up to the heights of Mimi’s in the La Boheme he loves so much, is such a great speech, such a landmark speech in a history of the representation of gay men in cinema that I attach a clip below and a rough transcript of what he tells Bruno below that. Dulfilho, won a César, the French equivalent of an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor, for his work here.
Adrien: ‘You might as well jump, it will at least be faster!’
Bruno:‘You don’t know my life…I needed to escape, at least once’
Adrien: ‘There’s no escape bar jumping out the window! Escape! From what? From oneself? From others? From loneliness? From fear? We escape? We go for a walk? To go where? Here is how things are: it’s nine am, I’m 63, I look at myself and I’m cold and I’m homosexual and I’m covered in debts. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my life, the bookstore, Carlos. I’d love to get drunk and then when the effects have worn off I’d be thirty, I’d own the bookstore, everyone would be homosexual, those that are not would be persecuted, Carlos would be left-wing and there’d be no more bullshit! Yes, it would be great! On condition of being able to return obviously.
GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
It is one of the great moments in the film but as I mentioned at the beginning, Sautet’s films, this one included, add up to more than its parts. Sautet’s a humanist in perspective, a classicist in style, and meticulous in all aspects of his filmmaking. See for example, the fluid long takes with scenes shot on a diagonal that somehow creates a vertical space of action on the horizontal wide-screen; or the the subtle and significant shifts in focus as the father and his girlfriend are driving in to work (see clip below). Note too, how in keeping with the themes of the film, the camera often ends on nothingness (see example above), on empty space that is not without significance: the empty space created when characters leave a room to make love in another room so that what they do may be imagined. But also things like the shadow of a staircase bannister once characters have vacated it. This has an effect not unlike that we see in Ozu or on the films of Takeshi Kitano and in Sautet’s film comes across like an extinguished sigh, a place of action where the desired action did not in fact take place.
See also how carefully sound is used, sometimes so that it sets up one scene or continues from another – not unusual but so beautifully done; note too how often we are not permitted to hear what the characters themselves do as a way of creating tension and drama. I’m also very admiring of the colour design of the film (see image capture below), how each scene has its own dominant colour scheme that is carefully choreographed throughout the film’s narrative: the browns and beiges at the beginning, the bright yellows or reds in the construction scenes, the patterning in blue when Brigitte Fossey gets her hankering for her fix in the seaside.
Note too the wonderful editing, sometimes as indicated earlier, lingering a bit too long on the space of action after the action has finished or moved elsewhere but note the beautiful use of dissolves too (see illustrations below); for example, after Bruno vomits in the metro, there’s that wonderful dissolve of the weeping flower over the rainbow and the sky onto the two men at the bookstore. And then, as is so characteristic in this film, the filming is from outside a window so that it reflects the life outside that the characters inside are oblivious too. Truly lovely.
SUBTLE SHIFTS IN FOCUS
SUBTLE USE OF COLOUR DESIGN
DISSOLVE INTO REFLECTIONS OF OUTSIDE
By the time, the film gets to the end, you know, identify, feel for these characters. It’s a melancholy film but one that feels tender and true. The ending with the son just lighting a cigarette and looking lovingly at the father as he sleeps just brims over with unspoken feeling. The film offers no utopian resolution just an understanding, a forgetting, a moving on, a decision to continue and choose love. That feeling is not the result of one moment, it’s the building up of many scenes, many choices of mise-en-scène, many small miracles of acting. It’s very beautiful.