Mademoiselle, a Woodfall Production directed by Tony Richardson from a script by Jean Genet, starring Jeanne Moreau, was not a success in its day but has been reassessed since.
In a French village, there have been recent floods and fires. The blame falls on Manou (Ettore Manni), a hunky Italian logger with an eye for the ladies. But the real culprit is the local schoolteacher, known only as Mademoiselle (Jeanne Moreau), who is infatuated with Manou.
By the mid-1960s, Woodfall Film Productions, and its co-founder Tony Richardson, were riding high. Tom Jones, directed by Richardson, had been a big hit and went on to win the Best Film Oscar. The Knack…and How to Get It, directed by Richard Lester, collected the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Both films were key documents of a decade, and a London, that was beginning to swing. Earlier films, often based on novels and plays by younger regional writers, brought new voices into the cinema on both sides of the camera reflecting – and in their own way enabling – social change.
However, with hindsight, it wouldn’t last. Woodfall effectively became Richardson’s production company and of its eleven remaining feature films, up to and including The Hotel New Hampshire in 1984, all but two were directed by him. Mademoiselle was the first, premiering at Cannes in 1966. It was a flop, both critically and commercially, though in later years it has often been reassessed and defended. Part of the issue was that, unlike Woodfall and Richardson’s more commercial earlier films, it was very much arthouse (in black and white, too) so could have been more kindly received if subtitled rather than as it is now, mostly in English with some of the French cast noticeably dubbed, even though they seem to be speaking their lines in English. Richardson and his collaborators made the film under some strict parameters: a fixed camera throughout, and no music score, though there is a dense sound design. Frequently, Richardson emphasises his characters’ isolation by placing them at the left or right hand sides of the wide Scope frame.
Jean Genet wrote his original script in 1951, with Anouk Aimée originally to play the title character. In cinema, Genet’s only work as a director is the short Un chant d’amour, a silent film whose explicitly homoerotic content kept it underground and for many years only showable in the UK under club-membership conditions, not receiving a BBFC certificate until 1992. However, his themes of transgressive desire and exclusion and removal from conventional society are certainly present in Mademoiselle. Yes, it overdoes the Freudian symbolism: water associated with Mademoiselle and a snake with Manou. Mademoiselle is introduced with fetishistic close-ups of her lace-gloved hands and her black high-heeled shoes before we see her face. Some may indeed find it ludicrous in parts. This is a world away from the realist films with which Richardson began his career. Given the presence of a gay writer and a bisexual director (not to mention a gay cinematographer, David Watkin), it’s not difficult to read Mademoiselle as a coded gay film.
Genet originally worked with Richardson on the script until, as Richardson put it, he made the mistake of complimenting Genet on his punctuality and professionalism. Genet was so offended he left the production. There are many sources which say that Marguerite Duras had a hand in the script, though she’s uncredited. In fact, as Adrian Martin establishes in his commentary, that is incorrect. (Jon Dear makes this error in his booklet essay.) She did visit the location, the tiny hamlet of Le Rat in the Corrèze region of France, and interviewed Moreau for a magazine article, but her only involvement with Woodfall and Richardson was their next film, The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967), which is based on her novel and which also starred Moreau. Richardson and Moreau had an affair, which resulted in the end of his marriage to Vanessa Redgrave (who continued to work with him though). In fact, after Genet left the production, Richardson worked with David Rudkin on the script, though Rudkin is uncredited.
Given that the two lovers do not have a common language, Richardson and Watkin place greater emphasis on their visuals. Watkin was ignored by the Oscars but was BAFTA-nominated for his work here. Watkin’s distinction with his colour work during his three-and-a-half-decade career as a feature-film DP is not in doubt, but on the evidence of this film, his second and final feature in black and white, it’s a pity he didn’t work in monochrome more often. Apart from Tom Jones, Woodfall and Richardson had always favoured black and white, and seemed to use it for as long as commercially viable, and continued to do so in The Sailor from Gibraltar and Inadmissible Evidence (1968, released in the UK in 1969), directed by Anthony Page from Woodfall co-founder John Osborne’s play. Mademoiselle‘s only BAFTA Award was for Jocelyn Rickard’s costume design, where she beat herself for The Sailor from Gibraltar.
Eight of Woodfall’s first nine feature films were released by the BFI in 2018 as the box set Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema, one of the disc releases of its year. A second box set is unlikely, one reason is the fact that the rest of the catalogue has multiple rights-holders, but that’s not to say that individual films can’t get individual releases, such as the portmanteau feature Red White and Zero and now Mademoiselle, which is a dual-format release. A check disc of the Blu-ray, encoded for Region B only, was received for review. The film had a X certificate (then restricting audiences to 16-year-olds and over) on its cinema release and is now a 15. Doll’s Eye is also a 15.
Mademoiselle was shot in 35mm black and white with anamorphic (Panavision) lenses, and the Blu-ray transfer is in the intended ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer has its flaws, namely brief scratches and spots no doubt due to source damage, but for the most part is very good, with the grain and contrast vital to monochrome present and correct.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. The film was shot in both English and French versions, with Moreau providing her own dialogue for both. It’s only the English version available here, with some Italian dialogue as the Italian characters speak among themselves. The soundtrack is clear and well-balanced. There’s no music score, but it does feature a complex sound design. As the film was mostly if not entirely post-synchronised, lip synch sometimes wanders. The default subtitle option translates the Italian dialogue and some onscreen French text. Also, English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available. A third option, via your remote if not the disc menu, is to turn all subtitles off.
The extras begin with a newly-recorded commentary by Adrian Martin, which is excellent. It goes into great detail about Genet’s involvement and how the film reflects many of his themes and preoccupations and also discusses Richardson’s methods in making the film, dispelling a few myths along the way.
Given that the film is now fifty-four years old, inevitably many of the key personnel are no longer with us. However, Keith Skinner, who plays the key role of Bruno, Manou’s son, is available and he is interviewed (36:02). He talks about the beginning of his career as a child actor, up to leaving the profession in the mid 1980s when he was in his mid-thirties. He has since become an authority on Jack the Ripper, and has written several books on the subject. More recently, he revisited Le Rat and the interview includes photographs of him standing on the exact spot where he did in the final shot of the film. Also on the disc are the film’s trailer (2:00) and a self-navigating stills gallery (6:00).
Also on this disc is a second feature film, Doll’s Eye (74:26), directed by Jan Worth in 1982, shot in 16mm as a BFI/Channel 4 production and given at the time a small cinema release and a showing on the channel. The film follows three women as they live their lives in London but is explicitly concerned with male attitudes to women, prostitutes in particular: many genuine accounts by men appear on the soundtrack as voiceovers and sometimes as fourth-wall-breaking speeches to camera. Dialogue is often on the nose and much of the acting is on the flat side. Doll’s Eye is an example of the kind of avant-garde and experimental, overtly political cinema which could find a home at the time, less so now.
The BFI’s booklet runs to thirty-six pages and begins with an essay by Jon Dear, as mentioned above, which does a thorough job of discussing the film’s making and its themes. It’s followed by a piece by Jane Giles on Genet, with a selected filmography of films based on his works. Neil Young gives us an overview of Woodfall, and Jan Worth talks about her own film Doll’s Eye. The booklet also contains full film credits for Mademoiselle and Doll’s Eye, notes and credits for the extras and plenty of stills.
Mademoiselle is available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD from September 21.
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum