Sunday, November 4, 2007

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Bertrand Blier's riotous 1978 feature Get Out Your Handkerchiefs takes as its central joke the idea that a 13-year old boy can do what two men cannot: satisfy a grown woman. The two men are Raoul (Gérard Depardieu), the woman's husband, a burly, well meaning, but ineffectual petit bourgeois who claims to teach at a driving school but never seems to work at all and Stéphane (Patrick Dewaere), a parody intellectual complete with beard, glasses and a wall full of books (he owns the complete collection of éditions poches but is never seen reading any of them. In another running gag, he continually waxes lyrical about his love of Mozart, but is completely unfamiliar with the work of any other composer). The woman, Solange (Carole Laure), is a grotesque exaggeration of traditional notions of femininity - she is beautiful, nearly silent, completely without opinions, and perpetually engaged in her sole hobby: knitting.

The film, which plays out as subdued farce, begins with a restaurant conversation between a bored Solange and Raoul, discouraged by his inability to make his wife happy (her dissatisfaction manifests itself alternately in an utter indifference to life and a series of minor physical afflictions - fainting spells, headaches - which the film treats as a form of "woman's hysteria"). This dissatisfaction is easily understood (at least by Raoul) as explicitly sexual in nature and finds its clearest physical expression in her inability to get pregnant, a sign for Raoul of his lack of virility. This sexual shortcoming is unacceptable to the husband who takes the extreme measure of picking out a random man from the restaurant (Stéphane) for his wife to sleep with, hoping to achieve a sort of potency by proxy, an arrangement to which Solange is typically indifferent.

The disturbing peculiarity of so readily offering up one's wife for another man's pleasure is evinced in an early scene in which Raoul shows off a sleeping Solange to Stéphane, describing the unsuspecting woman as an angel, the peculiarity furthered by the discrepancy between the descriptor (angel) and the woman's actual function (whore). As in a later scene where Solange is glimpsed naked unawares as she sleeps, the aggression of the male gaze directed on the unwitting female registers as an extreme form of invasion, an invasion that is extrapolated to include the everyday life of the central couple, since Solange's sleeping is really only an extension of her general passivity. Raoul may claim to act with no intention other than to make his wife happy, but as he proudly shows off his sleeping wife for another man's delectation, his violation embodies a hypermasculine attitude which imagines the woman as a bill of goods, able to be transferred at the owner's whim. Blier is canny in how he links this attitude to generalized male fears of sexual inadequacy. The two circumstances really come from the same source, an inability and unwillingness to understand the female sex, an attitude which relegates women to the realm of the mysterious and then, frustrated by this mysteriousness, attempts to reduce them to a more easily malleable form in which this impenetrable personhood becomes a lack of personhood altogether. In the film's first half, Solange obliges by remaining both inscrutable and perpetually passive, but in the second act, she begins to assert a sort of capricious will that proves to be no more comprehensible to the male characters than her initial passivity.

When Stéphane proves as incapable of satisfying Solange as her husband, Blier introduces a fourth character, Christian Beloeil (Riton Liebman), a 13-year old boy, the son of a factory owner in Northern France. The intelligent (he boasts of a 158 IQ), but socially awkward boy not only makes Solange laugh for the first time, but shatters her indifference towards men and, in a final twist, succeeds where Raoul and Stéphane have most shamefully failed, by impregnating the supposedly frigid woman. The film's great joke is that a man so concerned with asserting his sexual potency that he is willing to pimp out his wife is undone by a virginal child who, in contrast to Raoul's burly, masculine appearance, is physically frail and whose long hair stamps him as markedly feminine. That Christian outdoes both men in their alleged areas of strength - he exhibits genuine potency in favor of Raoul's outward virility and offers real intelligence in place of Stéphane's intellectual posturing - only adds to the thorough evisceration of their desperately asserted conceptions of masculinity.

A savage excavation of man's sexual fears, Blier's comedy exposes these fears to an ultimate ridicule as his two male leads end up in jail and humiliated, which the film posits as the logical extension of their misguided efforts to assuage their Freudian anxieties. For the director, man's inability to understand women finds its clearest expression in farce. That the woman, fickle and inscrutable to the end, doesn't come off any better than her male counterparts may grant legitimacy to the men's fears, but it is ultimately they who must suffer for their lack of comprehension.

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