© 2014 by James Clark
I notice that, in an interview with Slant Magazine, filmmaker, Jonathan Glazer, claims not to have seen Her. Also, he says, “I’m very bad at detecting themes in my work… I suppose it’s [the affinity between Her and Under the Skin] in the air or something…” This, hardly unique to him, penchant for misrepresentation brings us to some necessary infill, perhaps, though, especially pressing in the task of charting where Glazer’s films go and where that leaves us. Disclaimers aside, the three feature films he has brought forward over the past fourteen years are discernibly steeped in strivings central to a filmic avant-garde, as rooted in a wider showdown with conventional rationalist securements. Equivocation is “in the air” and we have to care enough to get a handle on its roots and the kind of fruition being allowed to see the light of day.
We’re starting in this seemingly odd way, to address A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973), because we have also in our sightline Glazer’s Birth (2004), which might well be called A Slightly Reincarnated Man. Glazer hopes to keep the general public happy with the notion that he’s simply a not particularly unusual craftsman of arcane cinematic images which he himself cannot comprehend and which trigger musings that the viewer plays for days to come. That kind of transaction is right up the alley of consumers of rock concerts and TV ads (rock and product filming being a big part of his professional career). It benefits, over and above its monetary rewards, from being an outburst unimpeachable in its variable intimations. As a spokesman for his feature films, he looks to that vein so useful in popular entertainment to disarm those possibly alarmed by brash unconventionality. He’s offering, he’d like us to believe, no more than a sensuous tingle from which we can and should bail out at any time it proves discomfiting. For all its corporate savvy, that gambit is seriously questionable. Interviewers and enthusiasts positively struck, as they should be, by the multiple assets of the three features to date, are dismayingly ready to imagine that the highly complex discursive narratives are tantamount to short-loop, gallery-bound video art—optical and aural tone poems. But the films as such, though aptly felt to amount to problematic suspense, are built like a Swiss watch, delivering an undertow expertly laced with avant-garde consequentiality. That is to say, a degree of friction obtains here, intrinsic to the phenomena being traversed. (I doubt that in his early days as a director of stage plays he’d have been so loath to admit he knew something about the history of his art, as distinct from the technical craft. Glazer’s rather incongruous approval of the work of the great stylist, Stanley Kubrick, has faked many of those viewers who want to believe that it always comes down to the gratifying variety of humankind as established several thousand years ago.)
If for career reasons Glazer offers us a deal where Birth seems to emanate from the likes of Stephen King, let’s see what we can do to find that it measures its narrative thrust by means of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. And, as a first step, let’s provide some infrastructure, for Birth’s study of a stultifying chic address in the form of Upper East Side Manhattan, by way of the Montparnasse district of Paris, as seen by a long-time resident of that Bohemian redoubt, namely, Jacques Demy, and depicted in his seldom-noticed film, A Slightly Pregnant Man. Demy, you may recall, would have been pleased as punch to have you see him as nuts about Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), never missing a chance in fact to see how that film’s daring protagonists, Mike and Velda (Los Angelinos never feeling all that welcome anywhere), indirectly put some heat on his desultory, by and large self-satisfied creations. Desultory here, means (among others) Marco, a driving instructor in a Paris-streets-friendly tiny, low-powered car, being distinctly unfriendly to an elderly woman client, Mme Janvier (that would be Mrs. January, about frozen times and frozen figures. The opening credits have given us black and white, arthritic lunging in the form of the celebrated 1969 Moon Walk [as also showing a not-smooth little golf cart]. They have also, in marked contradistinction to the optics, treated us to a surprisingly resonant musical theme, by Michel Legrand.) As Marco and the annoyance haltingly move along, the name Montparnasse appears on a couple of commercial buildings. “Stay on the right!” he barks at her, rather out of sync with such a voraciously liberal turf. “Stupid pedestrians!” he cries, intimating his being at odds with slow and simple ways. Turning to the irritant sitting beside him, he snarls, “You see, you killed the engine! You’re discouraging, Mme Janvier…” Making things even worse, the befuddled lady cries. (All the while, of course, there are trendy Mike and skeptical Christina in his flashy sports car on the dark, open [and lost] highway, as at the outset of Kiss Me Deadly, where the tang of imminent death is light years away from Marco’s candidacy for cool [the French title here being a veritable monsoon of irony: The Most Important Event since Man Walked on the Moon]. Further damaging his stake in bracing navigation is Marco’s habit of slurring and blurring his communications, very much in the register of Jacques Tati in Jour de Fete and M. Hulot’s Holiday.)
Having dispensed with Mme Janvier for the day—his advice, “Try to relax,” drawing upon an assumption that he and his close associates demonstrate a mastery of poise which the uncool cannot rise to—there is from his office radio a trickle of tourist-friendly Belle Époque accordion riffs and then a cut to Irene, the mother of their child, checking in by phone from the hairdressing salon she owns and operates. As played by a resplendent Catherine Deneuve, this incursion accomplishes several effects. She offers a glimpse of the other side of the universe from Mme Janvier. (She has a physical presence capable of derailing all entanglements of plot, and Demy clearly cherishes her for it.) “Do you love me?” she asks the somnolent, curly-mane beast on the other end of the line—played by the 1960s’ ne plus ultra of suavity, Marcello Mastroianni, now gone to seed (pudgy, scruffy and unable to enunciate a single phrase you’d want to listen to). In addition to introducing this battleground of choice for Demy, we have an opening salvo of the Paris which fired the dreams of the arts-ambitious young girls of Rochefort (in Demy’s film of the same name, from 1967), featuring Deneuve (as “Delphine”) and her sister, Francoise Dorleac (as “Solange”). The Delphine push is, therefore, provocatively inflected; and the Solange push turns up later in our film here, as an executive secretary to a clothing manufacturer. Irene’s shop has given us a glimpse of her clientele—rather hard-edged, sexually ambivalent media mavens, who go on, after she’s concluded with the love of her life, to tweak her for maintaining the Tooth Fairy game for her son. Irene admits, not at all losing her instalment within that milieu, “I haven’t quite grown up…” (If she were not so photogenic and self-assured, the traffic might have behaved less generously.)
Marco, characteristically without enthusiasm, accepts the offer of tickets for a concert that night by chanteuse, Mireille Mathieu. Their son, Lucas, is seen watching the star give a TV interview maintaining her love of the edgy (Montparnasse-salient) heart of Paris, but also maintaining the “fantastic welcome” she received recently in America (linkage to America having been a huge matter for the postman in Tati’s Jour de Fete). Both Lucas and Irene, the Tooth Fairy cartel, are thrilled by the chance to make a close encounter with such a celestial presence. The show is introduced by a young girl even more wound up (perhaps a late Dadaist) than Delphine and Solange were, blurting out, “Our heart is young/ Our songs are new/ Our voices are pitched in a style of blue!” (Irene maintains an almost solemn countenance here, as if unpleasantly reminded of her own, now abandoned, hopes.) The star’s first number is also keyed to the theme of how fortunate are true Parisians, like her, living as they do at the hub of chic and adventure. (Before our Montparnasse family heads out for the Big Night, a friend drops by with her “Old Friend, “Jean-Paul”—the sainted existentialist philosopher and novelist, Jean-Paul Sartre, having been a fixture of Montparnasse cafes; and Irene complains about the dinner the maid left, “Oh, chicken again!”)
“My Paris, there’s nothing else like my Paris…
Why in every corner of Paris there’s exciting nights and wit.
Paris of Notre Dame, Paris of our romance
And most of all… Montparnasse
The swirl, the lovely gardens…
My Paris, the Paris of my smile, Paris…”
The star’s first number is the only one we hear, due to Marco’s becoming so ill they all have to depart that musical celebration of Paris, Montparnasse and Themselves. This juncture soon transposes to the occasion of their reaching the summit of what has hitherto been a flickering hope to be part of “Something Big” (that tag line of Deadly’s Mike Hammer; and its filtering into Irene’s often sputtering but quite Olympian wardrobe). Irene persuades Marco to see her general practitioner, a true denizen of the coolest city—Dr. Delavigne (as in etre dans les vignes du Seigneur: “to be in one’s cups”). Micheline Presle’s parading the aura of Bay of Angel’s gambling addict, Jackie, in this role is the high-water mark of Demy’s comedic lexicon. Locked into a facade of convivial confidence, dressed, as always, for the cocktail hour, with eye and machinery-catching bracelets, and, when things get complex, using a long cigarette holder, she clears away Marco’s Hulot-like befuddled mumbling—about the specifics of his “marriage” and having begun with Irène while still married to another woman—with that little conspiratorial smile so true to Jeanne Moreau, and Jackie’s flipped-up enunciation, “…histoire classique.” Then, at the examination table, she evinces Jackie’s fearlessness about plunging her blue chips in hopes of breaking the bank. Apropos of his bloated belly she chirps, in the aura of Jackie’s encompassing “voluble/versatile,” “You’re ballooning…you’re blossoming!” No more provoked to thought than if someone had dropped a tray of champagne glasses, she cheerily informs him he’s four months pregnant (a reading, like that of his blood pressure, “sound as money in the bank”) and calls up her trusty gynaecologist-resource, who greets her with, “How’s the old orgasm?” “Très bien” she smiles, as if meeting an old beau at a party.
After going through a brief shock and then a spate of betrayed anger, Irène comes around, like the Princess in Peau d’Ane (but without war-veteran, Delphine Syrig, to keep her from making a big mistake). At the specialist’s the next day, accompanied by Dr. Delavigne, getting into her generalist stride, they are both reassured by the Professor’s ready scientific explanation for the unusual turn of events. There has been, it seems to him, a “hormonal imbalance” due to environmental pollution as affecting food. “Modern man is his own worst enemy.” Be that as it may, Irène wonders if there should be an x-ray and is cut off with “That would harm the baby.” Her family doctor relishes the “revolutionary” social consequences attendant on her academic crony’s prediction that millions of men in Marco’s condition would soon have to be reckoned with.
Hence begins a media frenzy and a subsequent windfall involving Marco modelling in ads for a manufacturer of maternity wear, branching out to paternity wear. (At one stage of the latter exercise, Marco, with the firm’s executive secretary, Solange, in attendance, poses for publicity shots in his loose-fitting, blue-denim ouvrier attire, mood music, not far removed from that of Young Girls’ Andy’s protégé, Solange, filling the air.)
Thus installed in a pantheon of celebrity, and dovetailing with a well-advanced sensitivity protocol—buttressed by the imprimatur of an International Congress of Medicine—Marco and Irène glide through social intersections that you might have expected to produce some pain. Their little boy (who had just completed ridding himself of the sham of the “Tooth Fairy”), on learning of the “roles transference,” admits to puzzlement about the route of the “seed,” but soon falls in line with the “new system,” his with-it clothes, haircut and demeanor implying he’s cool with this because it’s clannishly cool. During a segment of the TV program, “Person of the Week,” Dr. Delavigne, perhaps due to a fondness for escargots, or maybe because she read something, muses that the new system puts us in league with “snails,” and is curtly contradicted by the Professor. Irène fields—in a flash—a question from the moderator about how this affects sexual politics, with the handy sound-bite, “It will finally bring men up to equality with women.” Lesbian and gay men acquaintances, clients and denizens of the quartier find in the new regime golden opportunities for making the world more gratifying to them. The newly affluent media darlings look for a larger home/workspace for both Irene’s craft and Marco’s endorsement windfall. On their finding one, the real estate agent warns them, on their saying they have to reflect on this, “Never think for too long.”
But it is in the circle of friends, co-workers, clients and casual contacts that Marco and Irène ignite engagements exuding the interpersonal sunniness of special interest to this work. The speed of assimilating the edginess receives its definitive confirmation when Marco refers to dealing with the “situation” (meaning getting officially married), and Irène asks, “What situation?” The morning the situation hits the press is a busy one in the beauty salon, and a copy of the newspaper is quickly passed around. The ladies’ first response is discreet ribaldry, and on reading Marco’s name they look to Irène with some curiosity but no malice. She acknowledges the situation as if it were a minor lottery win, but with socially apt domestic solicitude. The girls rise to the occasion, asking good questions and making workable observations, as if they were in a seminar for some Honors program. Irène fits in well with some grievances about abortion services and the Pope. (Only an elderly misfit on hand, Mlle. St. Claire—recalling the bar-café owner in Lola—does not get onside, recalling once again the skeptical researcher with her goat in Tati’s Jour de Fête.) The tenor at Marco`s bar-hangout near his driving school is understandably more earthy (one of the pinball games is called Long John), but he is treated with no less kindness than Irène. This being Montparnasse, there would be no mockery along the lines of Young Girls’ “Monsieur Dame.” A woman, not noticeably drunk, infers that a man having a baby is “no weirder” than a woman having a baby. Marco is only slightly nonplussed, due to having to drink nothing stronger than water. There is a register of breezy warmth (virtually) everyone in sight masters, and this (in a manner akin to the creepiness of The Pied Piper) is the innermost content of A Slightly Pregnant Man. Soon after the appointments, Marco draws Irène’s attention to his no longer being able to button the waist of his pants. This is done with a kind of quiet sufferance Tati’s François, the thoroughly modern mailman, would present and it exudes a similar scruffiness. Irène, every millimetre turned out resplendently, gently takes him through the idea of custom-made trousers and using suspenders. The thunderous incongruity of their appearance, alertness and prospects cannot tarnish in the slightest their instinctive mutual respect and its thrum of gentleness, in some way linked to love.
Frequently visible from Marco’s bar is a movie house marquee advertising a version of Frankenstein. The happy couple, he now renowned as “l’homme de demain” (“man of the future”), find an upgrade for their businesses and home, she enthusing, “C’est vast! C’est très vast!” (At the same time, running to answer the phone, in a raincoat and porkpie hat, the real estate agent conjures the accident-prone protagonist of Tati’s Mon Oncle.) It all comes crashing down at the “seven month x-ray.” “To err is human and regrettable,” the Specialist observes. But what holds fast is the web of contrivance, so attractively maintained. Marco’s sweetly sardonic business partner remarks, “The world’s turned upside down,” and thereby puts into the open the physics from which a compromised liberality not only quells its terror but also tests the vitality of a new terrain. Conventionalities with their retainers on poetic depth, thoroughly discredited—the moon become a quasi-industrial desert on which to stage slapstick circuses—the exigency of poetry makes itself known by unconventional routes—smashing clothes, smashing hair, and being on the cusp of sensational change (“revolution”)—suitably tempered. Marco’s promising indisposition (a spinout from Pandora’s Box) comes to be replicated all over the globe, as explained by the Specialist as “mass psychosis.” It could also have been named a “plague.”
Demy puts in motion a topspin of sunny bounce (far more graceful than the moon walk) accruing to capitulation to the distortions wrought by actions on behalf of well-being, material and social. Whereas the glorious sparks evident in Les Demoiselles were short-lived and not apt for development, those cool embers on display in A Slightly Pregnant Man introduce a far more complex historical reflection. With all its baggage, Montparnasse was not the place for kicking over the traces, but instead for piecing traces together. Demy’s scenario discloses that such an enterprise functions as a subtly oppressive force on behalf of a comfortably equivocal oblivion. On being brought down to earth, Irène uses the phrase, “the village idiots” to cover their new look. Nothing like a village to bring off extortive correctness. The dynamic at the heart of that audacity, as combined with a self-sparing compact, makes it particularly susceptible to misplaying matters of inertial physicality, sexual matters being a prominent component. (Another quite fascinating misplay, speaking to the clannishness of that gentle weave, is Marco’s having no qualms about cruelly needling Mlle. Janvier, clearly not in on the smooth glide alluded to by the song, “Mon Paris.”) More basic and no less important are the intimations about cowardice at the heart of such expediency. Irène, you’ll recall acknowledges, to the curmudgeon-customer who berates her for sustaining the idea of the Tooth Fairy, “I haven’t quite grown up yet.” She and Marco are fed a steady diet of chicken by the no-nonsense housekeeper. Their “baby” never “moves.” Irene’s clothes (though, of course, she looks fabulous in them) are often designed in a child’s mode. And one outfit featuring a cloche is unimpressively retro. As they rush off to their wedding, sparked by the illusory, semi-invalid situation and by Irene’s becoming pregnant, in the gutter is a newspaper with the headline, “The Pregnant Man Was a Hoax.” The Specialist goes on in such a way as to inadvertently illuminate their shortcomings. “Is there a person who goes through a day without fear? You’ll be better for having been creative.”
But the spectacle of a broad historical territory in clandestine and loving research—cheap and farcical outcomes not precluded—would have introduced another dimension to Demy’s take on the deadly kiss of originary dynamics. The compound of that “Paris” so awkwardly belted out near the beginning bespeaks a truly “vast” problematic, to be inhabited not only by Demy but by those members of his audience ready to take him seriously.
One viewer, who was forcibly struck by the seriousness of this work that is generally dismissed as self-indulgent fluff, was David Lynch. His Club Silencio is lovingly modelled upon the scene by Mireille Mathieu, at Bobino, the Montparnasse music hall.
Another confirmation that the craziness of this film is a craziness we shouldn’t ignore has been folded into the following little visual citation of the ballet Kontakthof (1978) by the heavy hitter, Pina Bausch.