Merci, La Vie Review
In 1974, when Lou Reed released Sally Can't Dance, an album that he hated, he watched in horror as it became the most successful of his career, moreso even than Transformer and Berlin. In response, Reed recorded an hour of layered guitar shrieking and released it as Metal Machine Music. Audiences recoiled from the shock of it and its sales limped short of 1,000. A defiant Reed said, " ...if they don't like it, they can go eat rat shit." Reed had done exactly what he had intended to do.
In following Trop Belle Pour Toi, the most successful film of his career, Bertrand Blier reached back to Les Valseuses, his controversial 1973 film, which starred Patrick Dewaere and Gerard Depardieu as a pair of amoral young men in seventies France. Despite the air of violence that exists in the film - Dewaere and Depardieu are sexually aggressive towards every woman they meet during the course of the film, even to Depardieu raping Dewaere when no woman is available - the film ends, as Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange did, with its leads presenting no further threat to society, even to reaching maturity. Many felt that same of Blier when upon the release of Trop Belle Pour Toi but as Merci, La Vie showed, this was only temporary.
With Merci, La Vie, Blier produced what was effectively a remake of Les Valseuses, with the roles of Jean-Claude and Pierrot recast as Joëlle (Anouk Grinberg) and Camille (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a pair of young women as sexually predatory and as amoral as the young men in the earlier film. Blier even reinforces the connection between the two films by a repeat of a symbol from Les Valseuses within Merci, La Vie. Where Pierrot pushed Jean-Claude around a car-park outside a shopping centre, Camille pushes a shopping trolley across the housing complex in which she lives towards the beach where Joëlle has just been assaulted. Providing a direct connection is the sight of Camille pushing Joëlle to the home that she shares with her parents, recommending to Joëlle that she take time to recover.
A typical Blier film sees him finding opposites within his cast - consider the characters of the female leads in Trop Belle Pour Toi, who react to the changes in Blier's story but by always remaining as opposites in their relationships withBernard - so Camille is cast as innocence, a plain beauty and passivity whereas Joëlle is sexual adventurous, beautiful and dynamic. Unlike previous Blier films, however, Merci, La Vie does not ask Camille and Joëlle to remain as opposites, rather that they act to encourage one another as the film progresses. Camille, therefore, becomes more sexually adventurous, firstly by losing her virginity to a painter in the back of his car before asking that her father have intercourse with her mother so that she can be conceived. Joëlle, on the other hand, is introduced as being sexually promiscuous and responsible for the spread of gonorrhoea in a small French town, much like a modern-day, AIDS-era Typhoid Mary. She is in some part complicit with this as she is being used by an unscrupulous doctor, Marc-Antoince (Gerard Depardieu) to encourage the use of his private clinic but as the film progresses, Joëlle's role is to become less predatory and to find love with Camille's father, suggesting that it was with Joëlle that he found happiness.
The most obvious theme within Merci, La Vie is the same as that expressed more bluntly by John Lennon in Woman Is The Nigger Of The World, suggesting that, regardless of the time or place, woman will be trodden down, enslaved and, finally, cast out. Where the young men in Les Valseuses find happiness, even to giving themselves over to the sexual initiation and satisfaction of a young teenager, Jacqueline (Isabelle Huppert), Joëlle and Camille are offered no such ending. Through a series of occurrences, fortune frowns on both of them, pulling them apart as the film ends, with Camille hiding in a bombed-out house while Joëlle is put aboard a train heading for a Nazi concentration camp. Between their meeting and their parting, Camille is assaulted by a man while he tells her that he sexually abuses his daughter, Joëlle is attacked by those men who she infected with gonorrhoea, both are regularly slapped by men, Camille listens to her father being tortured and having one of his eyes pulled out, which is then pushed into Joëlle's vagina before both women are finally parted. Blier uses Merci, La Vie to paint a grim picture of the relationships between men and women and despite flashes of affection between Joëlle and Camille's father, when played by Michel Blanc or the care with which Camille is watched over by her father, when played by Jean Carmet, the film's outlook is almost entirely pessimistic.
But along the way, Blier finds space to comment on more than the treatment of women. The part that Joëlle plays in infecting a small town with gonorrhoea is obviously a comment by Blier on the spread of AIDS, whilst the interruptions by Didier Bénureau, the second film director, reveal the pretensions of a director using outrage to find commercial success and the route to blockbusters. Given the controversy that has regularly been faced by Blier with the release of his latest film, this may well be a comment on his own actions for the benefits of critics. Around all of this, Blier jumps in and out of a two-films-within-a-film, out of time and location and out of his own film, with the cast talking directly to the audience and out of character. Blier directs sequences of fantasy and reality, using colour, black-and-white and sepia tones within scenes and picks out his subjects in the night with spotlights. The effect is initially disorientating and confusing but, like Lindsay Anderson's if..., it soon becomes the norm and the viewer can revel in the freewheeling nature of Blier's filmmaking, which rushes headlong from scene to scene. Not even those scenes of outrageous fantasy, such as Joëlle dying and being drawn 'into the light' feel out of place in a film that shows Blier being in love with film.
Of course, some sequences work better than others - the use of Joëlle by Marc-Antoine feels like a late addition to the film, whilst the scene in the fertility clinic is Blier putting his point across too forcefully given that it has already been adequately made - but the appearance of the Nazis in France gives Merci, La Vie another chance to blossom. It is rare that a film illustrates the feelings of defeat in war so readily but like Jean-Paul Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy - The Age Of Reason, The Reprieve and Iron In The Soul - the fall of France is in the air and Blier's cast, no matter how steely their looks as they drive through the countryside, sense nothing but defeat. All that is left after the war is Camille's memory of her father in bed with Joëlle as his wife collaborates with the occupying Nazi army.
Nazis, AIDS, sexual abuse but is there a purpose to Blier's film. Yes, I think there is and it's Blier's appreciation of the family and of friends that is the film's lasting message. Merci, La Vie translates as, "Thank you, life" and both Camille and Joëlle do have much to appreciate during the film. At first Camille is thankful just for the angels sending her a friend but, as the film progresses, and she sees the pleasure that Joëlle brings to her father, which may have resulted in her being born, both Camille and Joëlle give thanks for finding love - a love that exists between a father and daughter and one between a man and a woman who causes him to give love in return. As the film ends and it is revealed to have been a fantasy in Camille's mind, who has invented the character of Joëlle as a means to believe that her wheelchair-bound father was once a youthful and red-blooded man, Blier's rewrite of the controversial Les Valseuses becomes a film that is very much of the family.
Looked at once, Merci, La Vie is the film that is to Blier what Metal Machine Music was to Lou Reed - a difficult and uncompromising work that was as far removed from its predecessor, Trop Belle Pour Toi, as Blier was likely to go. Give it time, however, and the carefree filmmaking show Blier having fun and producing one of the best films of his long career. That it hides a conservative message is only one surprise amongst many that Merci, La Vie has to offer. Another is surely that there is so much to enjoy from a film that, on the surface, offers so little.
Merci, La Vie is one of Blier's best looking films and from a director who is as capable of marrying content and image as, for example, Peter Greenaway, this film should be no less than stunning. Unfortunately, the transfer is not with numerous blemishes, scratches and spotting on the source print with the noticeable wobble demonstrating little care being taken in the transfer. Indeed, in producing the screenshots for this review and with there being as many marks on the print as there is, it was necessary to work back and forth between frames to find a clean one.
Secondly - and please use the comments below to confirm this - the IMDB lists the original aspect ratio of Merci, La Vie as 1.85:1 whereas it has been transferred here in 1.78:1. Whilst not a major difference, one wonders why they would have bothered with the change.
The soundtrack is fine, being 2.0 Stereo, but there is a little noise and the songs from Arno Hintjens don't have quite the impact that I remember them having during a showing of the film following its 1991 cinema release. Unfortunately the subtitles are burned into the picture and are surprising coy for what is an 18-rated film.
There are only two special features on this DVD, one being a Picture Gallery, which features eleven stills from the film, with the other being, like the release of Trop Belle Pour Toi, a Director's Filmography, which includes two pages of text.
The risk with a good-looking but confusing film is that it may end up looking like one of Peter Greenaway's less successful films or, indeed, like an Anton Corbijn music video, any frame from which would look great but which can be entirely without meaning. Lately, after watching Yimou Zhang's Hero on DVD, I was asking myself the question, "Looks wonderful...but is it a good film?" With Hero, I decided that no, it wasn't a good film but I loved how it looked whereas with this and, for example, Greenaway's The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover, they not only looked wonderful but were also great films.
In terms of Blier's work, there is no film in his extensive list of credits that I enjoy as much as this one, largely because his own enjoyment is so obvious. Almost everything that he had done before is included in Merci, La Vie but he still finds room for an entirely fresh look at his own work as well as a traditional view of the importance of friends and family within a life led well. In that sense, there is as much surprise in Blier being the messenger for that moral as there is for fans of Kubrick's film being told of Burgess' unfilmed twenty-first chapter in A Clockwork Orange. One thinks, therefore of Blier, finding space after the success of Trop Belle Pour Toi to deliver a reassuring message before Un, Deux, Trois, Soleil would take him into even greater controversy and from which, in the UK, he has never really recovered.