Quiet Days in Clichy Review

Paris, the 1920s. Joey (Paul Valjean) is a struggling writer, sharing a flat with his friend Carl (Wayne John Rodda). They have no money, and the lack of food is always a problem. But what they have is sex, and lots of it. Quiet Days in Clichy follows them, and the women they encounter. The film doesn’t have a plot as such, placing more emphasis on character, mood and a sense of time and place.

In the 1960s, censorship restrictions seemed more and more archaic. Many a freethinker felt honour-bound to smuggle one or more banned books from continental Europe past British Customs. (More recently it would be banned videos and DVDs…plus ça change.) And some of those books were written by Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Quiet Days in Clichy and others were loosely-autobiographical “novels” written by Miller while an expatriate in Paris during the 1920s. For a while in that decade, Miller was a standard-bearer for honesty and unflinching realism in literature, particularly in the portrayal of sex.

Later in the same decade, the boundaries of what was acceptable in the cinema were being extended, and it was hardly surprising that Miller’s books were considered for adaptation. Jens Jørgen Thorsen’s version of Quiet Days in Clichy was filmed simultaneously to Joseph Strick’s adaptation of Tropic of Cancer, shooting in the same Parisian districts that feature in the books. Comparison of the two films is inevitable, but there are significant differences between them. Strick’s film was made for a major studio (Paramount), is in colour, and features name actors (Rip Torn, Ellen Burstyn). Thorsen’s film is a Danish production filmed in English, shot in grainy black and white, with unknown actors, including some allegedly genuine prostitutes playing themselves. In the USA, Clichy was seized by US customs before going on to a very limited arthouse release, while Tropic received an X rating from the MPAA. In Britain, the BBFC were having none of this liberality and banned both films outright. (The Greater London Council did pass Tropic with a local X certificate.) This DVD release is the first time Thorsen’s film has been commercially available in the UK, and is uncut. Strick’s film remains banned as I write this (July 2003) though that’s only because no-one has resubmitted it to the BBFC. There’s no reason why it wouldn’t get an 18 certificate without any difficulty nowadays – in fact, it had a few showings on Sky TV around 1990, which is how I got to see it.

Some films that seek to break taboos sneak up on them; others smash them at the earliest opportunity. After “Contry” [sic] Joe McDonald’s opening song has played and the opening captions have passed before our eyes (the film uses captions instead of voiceover), there’s the words on screen: “It has been a period when cunt was in the air.” Quiet Days in Clichy is credited with being the first film to use that word, which it does extensively, though it should share that distinction with Strick’s film. There’s a sense of Thorsen gleefully ticking off a list of broken taboos. “Cunt” – spoken early on. Close-up of thrusting buttocks with testicles visible – in the first ten minutes. Woman, full-frontal – no delays there either. Vagina clearly visible – yes, that too. Towards the end of the film you’re thinking that Thorsen has one taboo left: although he’s shown us every inch of his actresses’ naked bodies, we never see our two male protagonists full-frontal. (This was achieved three years earlier in another Scandinavian-made film, I Am Curious...Yellow.) And then we do, with a semi-erect penis in the final shot. Thorsen doesn’t shoot a hardcore sex scene (though a few shots are close to it), but that’s one of the few sexual boundaries he doesn’t cross.

Paul Valjean certainly resembles Miller physically, but he and Rodda aren’t up to much as actors. All the cast were non-professionals, probably due to the nature of what they’d have to perform on screen. (Strick’s Tropic of Cancer is comparably verbally explicit, but is much less visually frank. Rip Torn gives a fine force-of-nature performance in the leading role, even if he looks nothing like Miller. I haven’t seen Claude Chabrol’s 1990 version of Quiet Days in Clichy, which stars the unlikely-sounding duo of Andrew McCarthy and Nigel Havers.)

Thorsen is a director best known for a film he didn’t make: in 1976, he announced that he had funding to make a film about the sex life of Jesus Christ. After a newspaper campaign and the Queen’s reported disapproval, Thorsen was forbidden entry to the UK. Whether this film project was genuine or simply a prank no-one will ever know. Of the films Thorsen did make, Quiet Days in Clichy is by far the best known. The film does a very good job of conveying atmosphere, with Jesper Høm’s monochrome photography a major asset. Country Joe McDonald’s songs, played solo with an acoustic guitar, are also effective. Thorsen’s direction displays a few tricks (the previously-mentioned captions, jump cuts) that date the film to the late Sixties.

The film is dated in other ways too, for similar reasons to the book. Back in the 1960s, Miller was a poster boy for free speech. But, as with many like him, along with the urge for sexual freedom (as much of it as often as possible) came a naïve, no doubt unthinking, sexism. The women in this film are little more than willing ciphers, with only Ulla Koppel as the Renoir-like Nys and Avi Sagild as the depressed Mara standing out. As the then-emerging feminist movement pointed out, this sexual liberation still depended on women lying compliantly back with their legs open. I doubt that many people nowadays (and very few if any women) still regard Miller as a great writer, though his place in history is certainly secure for other reasons. And that goes for this film too: a curio from its time and a landmark in film permissiveness, but no more than that.

Arrow’s DVD is presented in the film’s original ratio of 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The picture is very grainy, but that’s intentional and probably unavoidable for a film that looks like it was shot in natural light. In any case, the grain is an asset, and adds to the atmosphere of the film. I’ve no doubt this is a faithful transfer of the original, with only occasional artefacting.

The soundtrack is in mono, which is the way the film was made, so no problem there. It’s occasionally a little rough, betraying some live recording in the streets, but all the dialogue is audible. Joey’s voice is dubbed by Bruce Johansen, but not so you’d notice.

There are twenty-three chapter stops but regrettably no subtitles anywhere on the disc. All the menu screens and extras are in 16:9 anamorphic.

The two main extras are featurettes produced by Blue Underground. “Dirty Books, Dirty Films: Barney on Henry Miller” (17:14) is an interview with Miller’s editor and publisher Barney Rosset. He’s an entertaining talker, with his memory clearly still sharp despite his obvious advanced age. This interview covers his association with Miller from early days to the production of Thorsen’s and Strick’s films and their release. The second interview is “Songs of Clichy” (11:07), with Country Joe McDonald. McDonald is no doubt best known as the leader of Country Joe and the Fish, whose Fish Cheer at Woodstock (“Gimme an F, gimme a U…”) is now legendary. He’s another personable interviewee, honest enough to address his own part in the film’s sexist attitudes. His own conversion took place when a group of feminists objected to the line “All her brains are between her legs” in one of the soundtrack songs.

The extras also include a 42-picture stills gallery, which you do have to navigate yourself, and extensive text biographies of Miller and Thorsen.

Image’s American DVD has the same extras plus DVD-ROM material concerning the film’s US court case for obscenity, which may well be interesting but isn’t really relevant to a British audience.

Quiet Days in Clichy is an interesting, if dated, film. Its cult following has no doubt been helped by the film being so hard to track down for many years. Arrow’s DVD serves it very well, with picture and sound as good as they will likely ever be and some well-chosen extras.

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