The Hairdresser's Husband Review

French, Spanish and Italian films are often especially welcome due to their ability to depict true sensuality on film, as opposed to the brashly aggressive, ‘sexiness’ of Hollywood or the often disturbingly perverse carnal sensibilities of the United Kingdom, where sex is either completely avoided, transmogrified into a weird, unnatural object of embarrassment or viewed with a bleak, coldly clinical eye, offering anatomical detail but little warmth. Admittedly our Latin cousins, in their eagerness to depict the capital act, can just as easily get caught up in pretentiousness, sentimentality or wanton misogyny, but thankfully the films of Patrice Leconte manage to avoid all these pitfalls, centring instead on that elusive quality: eroticism.

One of the most prolific and diverse contemporary French directors – and one whose work regularly achieves international distribution – Patrice Leconte, in tandem with his prodigiously gifted cinematographer Eduardo Serra (who has come to greater international notice since his camerawork on ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’) has developed a mastery of the erotic form where the touch of a hand, the stretched fabric of a housedress or – as in ‘Husband’ – the apparently prosaic ritual of hairdressing, are all rendered with a deep and abiding sensuality that radiates off the screen like an inaudible hum. Using long, dialogue-free sequences, lulled by ambient noise – the clip of scissors, the rustle of cloth against skin, distant birdsong – he conjures up scene after scene of almost transcendent longing, gorgeously tactile sequences of images that seem to be ported directly from someone’s memory. While the element of plot is not always as fully developed as one might wish, his ability to evoke a mood and a sense of time and place more than compensates, yielding a viewing experience of often breathtaking intimacy.

This new series of Leconte films released by Second Sight features three films from the early 1990s: his popular hit ‘The Hairdresser’s Husband’, the entertaining black comedy ‘Tango’ and the erotic masterpiece ‘Le Parfum d’Yvonne’. While the films are uniformly fascinating, the DVDs are a great disappointment. Extras are – apart from Leconte’s debut short film on the ‘Hairdresser’ disk – entirely absent and there are only Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks included. Much worse, the transfers are substandard and have been inexplicably hacked about, losing great chunks of screen information; no way to treat one of France’s most engaging directorial talents.

12-year old Antoine (Hocking) falls in love with the local hairdresser (Pisani), finding himself passionately attracted to the experience of having his hair cut. As an adult, Antoine (Rochefort) falls immediately in love with another hairdresser, Mathilde (Galiena) and the two marry. They get to know the other inhabitants of their little town, including the previous owner of Mathilde’s salon, Agopian (Chevit), and a henpecked husband (Mathou) in between bouts of passionate lovemaking. Nothing disturbs their happiness, until one night a fateful storm stirs up fears and doubts in Mathilde that she cannot put to rest…

While ‘The Hairdesser’s Husband’ appears to be set in the real world, it’s actually set in that quirky fictional Gallic universe where an older, plain-looking man can ask a young beauty to marry him on their first meeting, she will accept and they will both live together happily with only a single cross word between them for a decade. It’s not simply ‘romantic’ in the cute, self-aware Hollywood style, it’s a whole other particularly French sub-division of the genre (‘Amelie’ is another example) that borders on a cinematic magic-realism.

It’s also quintessential Leconte. His work often revolves around fetishists (the voyeur of ‘Monsieur Hire’, the lingerie-obsessed adulterer of ‘Tango’) and Antoine’s curious predilection for buxom hairdressers represents another addition to this quirky canon. But a central tenet of this fetishism, at least as it relates to the couple he features, is that the woman at the centre of the scrutiny is, despite overt ogling, never degraded or demeaned by observation, or reduced to the status of a mere object. In fact, it’s a notable feature of the French eroticism – if not the Spanish or Italian counterparts – that men are not dominant sexual aggressors, but more often than not helpless victims in their desire for women (see Truffaut’s ‘The Man Who Loved Women’ for a definitive example). Antoine is utterly besotted with Mathilde. He literally does nothing but sit around the salon all day, pretending to read a newspaper but actually ogling his wife. With that odd combination of naïve simplicity and unabashed directness that defines an aspect of the French eroticism and Leconte’s work in particular, the camera assumes his gaze, grazing quietly over her breasts, the curve of her neck and her slow, sad smile when she looks up and sees him watching (hairdressing becomes a deliciously prolonged act of foreplay, as each of them long for closing time so they can fall into each other’s arms).

If this description sounds as if it contradicts my earlier statement about the woman not being reduced to an object, it doesn’t, because the intention of Leconte is not simply to titillate, but to show that, after years of marriage, Antoine is still passionately in love with his wife, and part of this love is unapologetically sexual. The camera is thus representing his ‘old, loving’ eyes and its gaze is affectionate and familiar, not prurient, sleazy or – heaven forbid – clinical. Crucially, Mathilde welcomes his attentions and it’s really their relationship – not just their sex life – that’s at the heart of the film. ‘Lose half a pound and I’ll throw myself under a bus,” Antoine tells Mathilde, capturing her breasts with his hands, “Just promise if you ever stop loving me, you won’t pretend to,” she replies. Clearly, this is a couple that understands each other!

As he would in ‘Yvonne’s Perfume’, Leconte returns repeatedly to an extreme close-up of the central character’s face, often staring silently into the camera. It’s an extraordinarily powerful device that, while it isn’t woven into the overall narrative as it is in ‘Yvonne’, certainly contributes to the unusual atmosphere. Rochefort’s classically French face – half farmer, half aristocrat – makes for a beautiful study. It’s to his great credit as an actor that one sees the little boy of the film’s beginning still looking out through his eyes.

It’s a point that Leconte picks up on by occasionally dropping in the 12-year old Antoine into the present, gazing up gleefully into the face of Mathilde when she agrees to marry him, or peering through the salon’s window as his adult self and Mathilde wake after a night of partying. This sense of a dialogue between the past and the future – of the presence of memory in all our everyday actions – is, I would argue, quintessentially French (Proustian to the extreme) but, handled by Leconte, never comes off as heavy-handed or pretentious. It’s rather an aspect of his film-making that he goes on to explore more fully – or one might say, less surrealistically – in his later film 'Yvonne's Perfume'. Disappointingly for this reviewer, it's a quality that has been largely absent from his recent works 'L'homme du Train' and 'Confidences trop Intimes'.

The story takes a swerve at its end that may alienate some viewers – I struggled with it, finding the combination of fatalism and whimsy unsavoury; however, Rochefort’s understated portrait of a grief tipped over into quiet madness – a madness that, retrospectively, seems always to have been hovering around his long face – rescues the film as a whole, as does Leconte’s exquisite handling of the final scene. One doesn’t leave the film feeling slighted, but rather, parts from it as a friend.

Here's where it all goes downhill. My fellow DVD Times reviewer Noel Megahey pointed out that the screen image on the Second Sight DVD of 'The Hairdresser's Husband' has been cruelly butchered. See below.





This is shocking. I would guess that about half the original screen image has been cropped. Notice also the stronger, brighter colours and clearer image in the latter transfer. The Second Sight DVD is washed out, soft and grainy by comparison. I believe there's a 4:3 version of the film available on a Tartan DVD - is this version ported from that? Anyway, the Second Sight DVD case claims their version of the film is '16:9 anamorphic widescreen'. If I see that on the back of a DVD case, I expect to see the film as the director and cinematographer intended; that is most definitely not the case here.

There is some very slight distortion at the very start of the DVD, when the title song plays over the film’s curious introduction. However, this soon disappears. It’s a shame that Michael Nyman’s fine soundtrack – and the song that features so prominently in the film – don’t get the full 5.1 treatment. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is acceptable, however, and the dialogue sounds reasonably clear.

Special Features
The only special feature on any of these Second Sight disks is included with ‘The Hairdresser’s Husband’. ‘La Famille Heureuse’ (‘The Happy Family’) is Leconte’s late 70s debut short feature and follows the increasingly bizarre activities of the paterfamilias of an apparently ordinary bourgeois family. A satire of materialism? A surreal farce? It’s hard to tell, but it’s worth seeing in order to witness how certain key elements of Leconte’s style – the highly sophisticated visual sense, the ability to create atmosphere – were present from the very start. Interestingly, the credits for ‘La Famille Heureuse’ come up accompanied by the ambient sound of birds and the opening scene of children by a roadside filled with passing cars is nearly identical to ‘Tango’. Sound and picture quality aren’t great (the material hasn’t been cleaned up), but it’s watchable. I was acutely aware, however, that the subtitles were missing out a great deal of what was being said.

‘The Hairdresser’s Husband’ is sweet, subtle and beautifully understated, just a lovely film, albeit one with a very Gallic insistence that death is the only possible culmination to a truly great romance. The DVD is a real let down. What was Second Sight thinking of?

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Last updated: 27/06/2018 00:39:34

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