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Cinema: New Frontiers

3 minute read
Frank Rich

GET OUT YOUR HANDKERCHIEFS Directed and Written by Bertrand Blier

Imagine Truffaut’s Jules and Jim with Laurel and Hardy in the title roles. Imagine Bunuel’s Tristana with a new screenplay by Henry Miller. Imagine—well, what’s the point? There really isn’t any way to anticipate the special charms of Get Out Your Handkerchiefs. This rhapsodic French comedy about men, women and sex is an honest-to-God original with its own challenging brands of humor, style and wisdom. It is the first revolutionary film to come out of France since the decline of the New Wave in the late ’60s.

Bertrand Blier, 39, is best known for Going Places, a fiercely scatological comedy that was widely and unjustly reviled as misogynistic when it appeared in 1974. Handkerchiefs may provoke a similar response from literal-minded viewers. Like Going Places, it focuses on two libidinous buddies (again played by Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere) who will try anything to satisfy the seemingly frigid woman (Carol Laure) they crave. Since the doe-eyed heroine, Solange, appears to be a mindless sex object and the heroes are winning rakes, Blier all but invites condemnation as a sexist. But this film maker doesn’t brood over trendy labels; he’s willing to risk offending people to get what he wants. In Handkerchiefs, Blier uses the stereotypes to shock the audience, then lead it to higher ground. This is not a film for those who want the pat, right-minded answers of An Unmarried Woman or Girlfriends: it unfolds in the subconscious, where sentimental bromides about men and women give way to harder truths.

Blier achieves his subversive vision by pushing his characters’ behavior to outrageous extremes. Handkerchiefs is a wet dream gone beautifully berserk. The tone is set by the opening scene, in which Depardieu presents Dewaere, a total stranger, as a “gift” to his wife Solange. She remains indifferent to the men’s shenanigans, and the men succumb to complete bafflement. They sit by Solange’s bedside, aimlessly but poetically speculating about the mysteries that lie within her heart and mind. Only when the heroine falls for a 13-year-old prodigy (Riton) does she finally arouse from her stupor. The boy becomes, by turns, Solange’s brother, son, lover, father and husband. By pushing such adolescent fantasies to hilarious fruition, Blier begins to crystallize the infinite complexities of male-female entanglements. A movie that begins as a locker-room joke magically turns into a kaleidoscope of feelings.

The film’s cast is both talented and sexy, but Handkerchiefs is a director’s movie. Blier consistently conquers the challenges of mood and texture set up by his script, weaving disparate elements into a ripe, dreamlike whole. The film opens in the slapstick manner of a cartoon, then evolves seamlessly into a bucolic Renoir romance. In the second half, Blier stages chase scenes, a benign car crash and a farcical kidnaping—the larky stuff of American screwball comedy. The film’s stylized denouement, shot around a wintry mansion, is a surrealist’s spooky intimation of tragedy. But even when invoking death, Handkerchiefs is no cause for gloom. By liberating sex from the political and cultural cant of our time, Blier leaves the audience drunk on the possibilities of life.

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