Saturday, August 27, 2016

Beau Père (1981)

Because He's Young

 written and directed by Bertrand Blier
starring Patrick Dewaere, Ariel Besse,
Maurice Ronet, Nathalie Baye, Geneviève Mnich

A mother catches you looking at her daughter. She scowls, she knows what you are thinking because she knows what her husband is thinking when he looks at his daughter’s friends. Yet she scowls more when she sees her daughter returning the gaze.
—Nic Kelman, girls

Far more resonant than a mere sex comedy — and far sadder, in fact, than its risqué premise prepares you for — Bertrand Blier's bittersweet French pastry Beau Père is like a resigned "c'est la vie" exhaled through cigarette smoke as one looks out over the Seine for the last time; it wears its jazz-laced melancholy like a comfy old sweater. Blier forgoes the nudge-wink provocations one would expect from a Euro-flick about a thirtysomething musician seduced by his underage stepdaughter; he's as uninterested in Godardian nose-thumbing at bourgeois propriety as he is in moralistic finger-wagging. Accordingly, the film bares the knobby, fifteen year-old chest buds of lead actress Ariel Besse as nonchalantly as it ends with the sight of a blonde moppet mesmerized by watching her mother have sex, yet it's so disarming in its acquaintance with human impulse and its imperviousness to common sense, and so committed to its soft-porn setup as a vehicle for exploring its characters' loneliness, that the would-be shocks don't register as such; Blier's assertions about the sexual psychology of our daughters and nieces cozy up to us like the melody to a familiar song.

Besse's ridiculously doe-eyed Marion confesses to stepdad Rémi (Patrick Dewaere, a Blier regular) that years of listening to him stick it to her mother only aroused her curiosity; yet, rather than blanch, we find ourselves recalling our own childhood fascinations with sex as that constant amorphous presence on the periphery of our understanding, dangled just out of our reach until we were deemed old enough to join the party. Marion crawls into Rémi's bed to coo at him about the sensitivity of her still-developing breasts (while sporting pigtails that almost make her a parody of our notions of little-girl innocence), and we find ourselves nodding: yes, the experienced-older-man archetype will always hold a seat-moistening allure for audacious nymphets in the springtime of sexual awareness — particularly so in our "progressive" post-Women's Lib delirium, in which the neutering-for-equality's-sake of young masculinity has rerouted female sexual need down all sorts of avenues that champions of dismantling "the patriarchy" never intended. Beau Père glanced back at the Sexual Revolution™ yanking society's protective hedge from around the female id, and served up a teaser for the inevitable: ever greater numbers of sub-drinking-age sweeties would soon bypass playing "Daddy" with nice boys browbeaten into passivity and seek men old enough to be the real thing.

Beau Père was kept from U.S. distribution for over a year after its premiere — surely, Besse's training-bra tits prominently displayed on the French theatrical-release poster didn't allay anyone's fears. Missed in all the New York Times agonizing over potential youth exploitation, though, is the fact that Marion's campaign to be deflowered by her stepfather is simply the culture-bullying of "my body, my choice!" harridans taken to one of its many logical conclusions. God bless him: Blier, in effect, hijacks one of feminism's greatest planks — that cherished notion of young women breaking with convention and "owning" their sexuality — in service of the ultimate Lester Burnham wet dream, a cheeky reversal of the classic Lolita scenario. Pace Messrs. Nabokov and Kubrick, it's Marion who's driven to obsession by her inability to get Rémi in her pants, Marion — our jailbait idol of unsullied girlhood, a French vanilla ice cream cone dripping with predestined heartbreak — who functions as Beau Père's Humbert Humbert: besotted to the point of social isolation, hellbent on storybook rapture with an age-inappropriate paramour who admits his desire for her yet keeps her dangling on the string of his devotion to her recently deceased mother (not to mention, his determination to avoid a prison sentence).

When Marion finally teases out her confession of all-consuming lust, Rémi goes saucer-eyed and greets her embrace with hover-handed consternation, but her pining for his touch is fairly obvious from the moment they first share a frame; he ignores the two and two his intuition keeps putting together. She gravitates toward whatever space he's in, those quavering brown headlights she has for eyes (at times, Besse looks as if she'd been sketched by an anime artist) sizing up the widescreen distance between them, trying their damnedest to beam a lovestruck S.O.S. through the newspaper he keeps near his face whenever she's around like some emotional barricade. She waits in nightgown like some starry-eyed little girl's fantasy of a dutiful wife as Rémi returns home — she takes his coat, she follows him to the couch, she almost plants herself in his lap, radiating so much near-motherly concern for him at the expense of her own needs that she's practically glowing, before slipping an arm around him and trying to cuddle up to his rigid, slowly comprehending frame. He'll take her by the hand and lead her into the bedroom from there, but it won't be the exchange of bodily fluids she's anticipating — they soak each other in tears over the car wreck that's claimed Marion's aging model of a mother, Rémi being perfectly willing to use her as a hug-doll for his time of mourning while assuming that the flame he's just stoked will die out on its own, that it's a passing schoolgirl crush he'll never be pressed to give an answer to.

However dissolute he may be, Rémi takes his role as stepdad — le beau-père responsable — seriously (or, at least, seriously enough): he twists himself into a knot over how to break it to the poor girl that she no longer has a mother. A highlight of the film's balance between tickling you with human folly and making you want to sniffle into your fifth martini shows Rémi sitting across from Marion as she does her homework; he's composing a letter to her that he feels will drop the bombshell more gently than a mere talk can, his words on the page revealed to us in voice-over as the kind of heartfelt life coaching designed to keep a sweet kid from falling to pieces. He's reassuring her of his continued presence in her life, offering up his shoulder for the tears that are sure to come, all of it addressed to "my little Marion" — the orchid he's tended from germination, the unofficial-now-official daughter his beloved wife has left to his precarious molding. And all Marion the reverie-dazed young hormone machine can make out as she peers across to meet his gaze, spilling over with worried-dad mawkishness and scared shitless in the face of this new responsibility as it is, is that he's making eyes at her, that he's harboring the same desire for near-incest that she is. It's the slyly comic misunderstanding that sets the rest of the film in motion: a born cad's self-reforming catapults toward respectability going splat against the brick wall of a fourteen year-old girl's dunderheaded conflation of romance with danger; his sincere urge to do the right thing torpedoed by the hold on even the sanest man's biology that only fertility in bloom can maintain, what with the teen coquette's unique erotic fragrance — that child's willingness to be shaped, wrapped in raw pheromonal urgency — at its ripest. (Or as rapper 2Pac once put it: "A bitch could be, like, fifteen, fuckin' witta nigga [that's] thirty-five, gittin' him for erry-thang.")

What Rémi, to the corruption of his new-dad initiative, is forced to come to terms with is nothing less than the ephebophilic heart of man's programmed drive toward reproductive fruitfulness — that eternal guarantee of competition from younger, prettier females that pushed feminists to lobby for today's eighteen-and-over laws and "statutory rape" shaming. It's the reason middle-aged men with the looks, the charm and the money to pull it off show up to dinner parties with women young enough to be their daughters. It's the reason comedian Patrice O'Neal once observed that "a beautiful thirty-five year-old ain't as good-lookin' as an ugly nineteen year-old." It's the reason that, far and away, the porn biz's most lucrative niche is the one devoted to the fantasy of the "barely legal" teen (especially as it portrays her "first time" in front of a camera). It's the reason popular song has crystallized the baby-faced, baby-fat vixen on the cusp of her transition from precocious cygnet to erotic swan as our pan-cultural, pan-generational, psychosexual elixir of life — from blues standards ("Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl," Muddy Waters' "She's Nineteen Years Old") to Chuck Berry (the "Little Queenie" who's "too cute to be a minute over seventeen"); from Sam Cooke ("Only Sixteen") to Neil Diamond ("Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"); from Lennon-McCartney ("Well, she was just seventeen" in "I Saw Her Standing There") to Jagger-Richards (the fifteen year-old in "Stray Cat Blues"); from Zeppelin ("One day soon, you're gonna reach sixteen" in "Sick Again") to Motörhead ("Jailbait"); from cheese-metal ("Christine Sixteen" by KISS, Winger's "Seventeen," Warrant's "Cherry Pie" — an ode to virgin pussy) to, hell, original M.C. and ghetto-rage agitpropist/Afrocentric we-wuz-kangs revisionist KRS-One (in Boogie Down Productions' "13 and Good").

It's the reason an oral history of Zeppelin quotes insiders who talk about the band getting blowjobs from thirteen year-olds in the back of star deejay Rodney Bingenheimer's club, and about a subculture of vampiric groupie moms who groomed their high school-age daughters to feed off the fame and energy of others — to extract, via hotel-room assignations and after-hours sex parties, all the cars and perks and gossip-column notoriety that they themselves were too far past their own primes to obtain. It's the reason yours truly, back in my sport-fucking-the-rainbow phase, nearly rear-ended cars on Santa Monica Boulevard while lost in ogling quinceañera-age mestiza baby-dispensers and the waterbed bob of Jiffy-colored cleavage as the stroller they pushed hit every raised fissure in the L.A. sidewalk. It's why novelist Nic Kelman, in girls, his psychologist-cum-historian's contextualization of that programmed male drive, illustrated the thoughts of a man about to fuck an underage prostitute as follows:
This girl they sent up really is young. It's possible she's not even sixteen. The traces of childhood are gone — the gangliness, the spindly limbs and neck, the overlarge eyes — but just barely. Her hips have hardly swollen enough to give her a waist, her breasts will still develop a little more. But God is she sexy. She has the most beautiful eyes, the fullest lips. When you opened the door the thought that she might be too young flashed through your mind for a second, just for a second, but then you dismissed it, asked yourself what that meant anyway, by whose standards, by where's standards, she was capable of carrying a baby wasn't she? In Egypt she would already be a married mother of more than one child.
The bottom line — the God-given, ineradicably biological bottom line — is this: men, whether old or young, straight or homosexual, and regardless of moral inclination or social standing, want to fuck teenagers as young as they possibly can. Some can and do, many can but don't, and most simply lack the ability to intrigue fatherless tarts with an unbridled masculine presence or with the cad's brazen disregard for social (and possibly legal) roadblocks. Brittle spinster egos be damned, though, there's no fantasy, no mental what-if, no possibility whether far off or close enough to taste with the flick of one's tongue, that's as stirring to the libidos of men — born explorers and conquerors of uncharted territories that they are — as the planting of I-was-her-first flags, the defiling of sexual innocence. Innocence is suicidal by God's own design, of course; it begs to be sacrificed, to be stripped and fondled and laid quivering before that amorphous presence that must finally take shape and bring it to its ceremonial end so that the cycle of life may properly begin.

For Rémi, it's an innocence that waits naked in his bed for him, an innocence that finally rips that damn evening edition of Le Monde from his face and climbs atop him like a bonobo in heat. Oh, he throws everything he can at it, this quenchless beast that knows no shame, that has Marion wielding even the loss of her mother as a cudgel of pouty-lipped persuasion. He appeals to their age difference, to his role as her guardian, to her mother's spirit, which he imagines casting its condemnatory glare down upon them. He isn't quite old enough to go for little girls, he tells her — he isn't yet ready for his midlife crisis. She gives him pause with her spoiled-brat impudence at being tossed out of his bed and told to go to her room, and with her pliability in offering to alter her very appearance for him. But alas, nature reserves its wickedest tricks for those whose scheme is to leash it: it's the sparks these signifiers of lingering childhood give off, as they chafe against the Venus that's pushing out from underneath, that ultimately melt his steely resolve. In fact, they nearly send it trickling down his face as he comes clean to his wife's spirit about having put the first miles on her saucer-eyed bichette while assuring her, as if fending off her emasculating verbal pin-pricks that very moment, that he was as gentle as could be. (Beau Père makes for a strangely Catholic film around its edges: Rémi's ideation of Marion's mother watching him from the afterlife, his apartment walls adorned with her modeling shots as if the place were a shrine to a saint, the confessions of Rémi and other characters who break the fourth wall and confide in us what they're unable to express to anyone within the narrative.)

It's not that male sexuality hews to some Freudian codswallop wherein all men want to fuck their daughters — men in tune with nature's dictates, after all, nourish and optimize their bloodlines, not pervert and decay them. Rather, it's a sense of power that's at play here — power being, as always, the supreme aphrodisiac. Gangliness, child's eyes, and hips and breasts yet to be filled in evoke for men a blossoming maiden in need of fatherly molding; a Marion whose carnal essence juxtaposes sexual maturity with childlike psychological tendencies does the same — fatherly molding being, most especially where it shapes tomorrow's wives, mothers and gatekeepers of sexual access, the single greatest power a man can have. It's the reason porn starlets catering to their male audience and women in seduction mode often slip into breathy little-girl talk with its fetishistic callbacks to childhood discipline ("Daddy," "spank me," "I've been a bad girl," etc.) — that hand-against-ass corrective for willful little girls traditionally meted out by the man of the house, the ever-potent "father" in that pulse-quickener of a mothers' threat, "Just wait 'til your father gets home."

As for female sexuality, well, life experience and a clear-eyed observation of social trends make plain that a woman's fundamental hardwiring is altogether less beholden to logic than a man's, something far more dysgenically inclined if the fruit it bears is left to grow wild and untended. The Electra complex isn't just a nifty shrink's theory derived from mythology: all daughters, however symbolic the beneficiaries of their clammy affections, seek validation and regeneration in the arms of the Great Father. It's Daddy, in singularity, who determines the sexual path his daughter takes. If he's stalwart in his protection and direction of her, then he's crafted for her a template of stability under male guidance that she'll seek to carry over into her relationships; she'll pursue a man or men like him. If he rejects her via weakness or negligence, or he's simply absent, then what erupts is the lashing-out of the ignored child: she smites her motherly purpose — the continuation of his genetic legacy — by squandering her best years on slutdom as "self-expression" before shitting out a "developmentally challenged" Rain Man baby at thirty-five plus; she flings herself and the future of his lineage at the feet of men she perceives to be as offensive to his sensibilities as possible, as if to curse him by destroying or at least sullying what he's created. All the while, she's still seeking men to fill the void he's left. (As for fathers who do kiddy-fiddle, well, every street john, strip club patron and consumer of porn the world over owes them a hearty, "thanks, guys, and keep up the good work.")

Quelle surprise, then, that Marion should swan-dive into the mother-anointed loins of her substitute daddy. Given a rather high-handed, sulky air by veteran character actor Maurice Ronet, her estranged father Charly's an old smoothie gone sour from having sat out too long — one of those men for whom a divorce they never wanted is the cut that's never healed, and in the residual bitterness over feeling moved on from, and at having their children snatched from under them, they turn petty, graceless. They abdicate their parental roles, as if depriving the child of a father might cripple its development enough that their ex would grow remorseful and finally realize how indispensable they are. Charly's hardly broken up about his ex-wife's death upon receiving the news from Rémi; Marion's not even on his radar. Charly's still settling scores: he berates Rémi for failing to give his ex the lavish life of a musical prodigy's wife, then demands to know why Rémi stole her away from him. When Rémi asks what they're going to do about Marion, a dim light dawns in Charly's eyes — he utters, "oh, merde!" as if only then recalling that she bears some vague relation to him. (The same "oh, merde!" is exclaimed by the driver whose truck Charly's ex smacks into — two men forced to reckon with damage they hadn't intended to cause.) Essentially, Charly's a cuckold twice over: first, Rémi poaches his wife, then Rémi fucks his daughter, who — in a kick-to-the-heart echo of her mother's marital perfidy — makes no secret of her preference for the brooding artiste and all his pianistic je ne sais quoi over her own flesh and blood. Her cherry pie offers Rémi the interloper a branch on Charly's family tree because to do so is a jab in her daddy's eye, payback for his having penciled in the well-being of his little girl far beneath the running of his nightclub and the nurturing of an aging-playboy existence on his list of priorities.

If Blier errs, it's in making Marion a bit too much of a sexual Madonna figure, far beyond any real teenager's capacity for selflessness. (Nabokov had the right tack: Dolores Haze picked away at the layers of Humbert Humbert's sanity then flung them back in his face, the way boys exploring the limits of their own cruelty pluck the wings off flies.) His instincts fuel the film's transgressive charge, though: Marion the middle-aged artist's idée fixe (correctly) sees teen pussy as unguent for a wounded soul; her antennae — attuned as they are to Rémi — have picked up his depressive transmissions long before her mother is out of the picture. As Rémi explains to us while tickling the ivories in the high-end restaurant that employs him as dinner accompaniment for rich tourists: he'd given himself until the age of thirty to succeed as a musician and here he is at twenty-nine and a half and fully aware that he's been kidding himself all along; while he's stuck soundtracking the late-night swooning of Cupid-darted geriatrics with jazz standards no one cares about, his own wife is leaving him and, fool that he is, he's as smitten with her as ever. It's less a narration to the audience than a self-romanticizing, if charming, sad-sack baring his soul to the bartender whom he's mistaken in his fog of inebriation for his only friend in the world, just before he goes home to slit his wrists to his favorite old Bud Powell record.

One seeking the human embodiment of Beau Père's irresistibly sighed fatalism over a glass of Pernod could scarcely find better than Patrick Dewaere as Rémi. He cuts a hangdog, almost Chaplinesque figure here in his cheap tux behind a baby grand, massaging out his wordless elegies for what Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry once expressed as "l'amour, toujours l'amour." As Rémi seduces us with talk of what goes on in the minds of lonely pianists like himself, he's got the cleft chin, the seedy affability and the practiced candelit-dinner flattery of a broken-down gigolo who bangs rich old widows for grocery money — except that it's still a genuine act of passion for him; deriving his energy from the curled toes and arched back of another woman in his pursuit of something that might last a little longer this time: it's who he is. We never doubt that he's a good guy in his own way, but years of wasted potential — flitting moth-like from flame to flame, never sitting still — have wilted his ability to look in a mirror; he's gone from the self-convincing buoyancy of Kid Creole and the Coconuts' "I'm a Wonderful Thing, Baby" to Ferry on the cover of Another Time, Another Place: soul-weary in the wan light of the morning after, still dressed for the next soirée, the next swanky shindig, while knowing it's the only place he'll ever go in life, and it's no laughing matter.

Something in Dewaere — some ritual dance with demons, something unfulfilled and nagging — made him a vessel for these misfits and tortured loners; it's these roles, in light of his death, that have dominated perceptions of him as an actor. Beau Père would be his penultimate performance — not long after killing himself onscreen for Alain Jessua in 1982's Paradis pour tous, the thirty-five year-old Dewaere put a shotgun to his head in a Paris hotel room. Rémi isn't nearly that despondent, though; his sadness is too vital and assiduously cultivated a component of his wounded-Romeo come-on. He endures lashes to his pride as penance for having lied to his women that he has more talent than he does. When Martine, his wife, castigates him for not providing the material comforts a woman expects, he takes it with eyes cast downward as if he didn't deserve to look at her; he's a terrier caught pissing on Mommy's new rug. Certainly, he registers the slap to his face in her agreeing to pose for lingerie shots despite his objections. If he can't afford the cost of her body's upkeep, she's telling him, then he has no say over whom she shows it to; implicitly, it means her putting it back on the market to fetch the highest bidder she can for however long she has left to trade on her looks. He knows this, he hears that divorce bell pealing from just down the road, but he also knows he hasn't kept up his end of the bargain. (Charly, in his cynicism, understands Martine better: Rémi arrives to tell him she's died and Charly assumes she's dispatched her loverboy to hit him up for more money.)

I don't mean to give the impression that Beau Père is some dour, glacially-paced, cinema-of-misery piece about morose Frenchies doing degenerate things under the glaze of sumptuous cinematography. Au contraire, this is European film before its post-Nineties epidemic of muted-color, shakily-photographed anhedonia took hold, back when its arthouse darlings still mixed some honest-to-Voltaire humor and wit and spontaneity in with all the stylishly blasé tit-and-furry-beaver-flashings and Cahiers du cinéma-approved moral and narrative ambiguity. Godard and Catherine Breillat notwithstanding, Europe's maestros of celluloid still sought to commingle over life's absurdity with their audience (the cinema of "we") rather than lecture it or numb it with the pornography of shock value (the cinema of "you"). Blier's only interested in "shocks" as a means of widening our purview of human insanity as the cellophane stretched over mankind's toilet by a God who's been tippling at the Johnnie Walker and still has some prank calls to make — see Gérard Depardieu's anarchic lout in Going Places, goading Brigitte Fossey as a prim whore of a military wife into feeding Dewaere's character milk from her perfect breasts that resemble dollops of cream dribbled from the mouth of a seraph; see Carole Laure's existentially knackered wife in Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, finding her soulmate in neither Dewaere nor Depardieu as her husband but a thirteen year-old boy.

Beau Père is a deeply funny film, provided you meet it on its table-for-one-on-a-rainy-day wavelength. Rémi's a knowing parody of droopy-lidded Gallic sleaze in that opening monologue, with his Pepé Le Pew enunciations of "le T-bone STEAK," "le shrrrrimp cock-TELL" and "Art Tat-tooom," or later, as he picks up on a rhyming jag about his bum's lot and turns it into improvised lounge-lizard verse, dryly amused by all the songwriter's clichés he's living out. He balks at Marion's relentlessness by insisting that a mutual attraction doesn't mean they have to sleep together — why, there's plenty of women he's never made love to, he rather loftily informs her, somehow spinning missed chances into personal triumph and a testament to his self-restraint, in the process. (Probably the funniest bit: brooding at the piano, he explains to his boss that he's too sad to play; his boss wonders what difference it makes since all he ever plays is sad-ass music, anyway.) The humor hides a sting, though — it leads you in a circle back to the sorrow it came from. Rémi pushes Martine off to her lingerie assignment in their non-starter of a jalopy while grumbling about jerk photographers who only want to shoot her from the neck down, and there's a malevolent cosmic irony to the fact that he unwittingly sends her off to meet her destiny with that truck. (It becomes a semi-motif: Rémi pushes the women he loves out of his life, knowing they can do better.) He even keeps a picture of her taped over the bed, the way devout Catholics seeking admonishments against temptation used to hang crucifixes and paintings of Christ in their bedrooms: her eyes peer down as if to make certain that her spot next to him is never filled. All he has to remember her by are those sainted modeling portraits, which only preserve her bitchiness and loss of passion for him as daily reminders: anytime he needs to feel the prick of the cilice against his self-worth, he need only look up to find her still avoiding his gaze, still too regal for a vagabond like himself, still the disapproving mother, as uncommunicative as ever.

The timing of Marion's confession of lust, then, renders it an unconscious advertising of her qualities as caretaker and nurturer. As per woman's nature, Marion seeks to ensnare a worthy mate by foreshadowing the care she'll lavish on his progeny; she straddles the line between sex doll and earth mother, promoting herself as a better wife for Rémi than her jet set-minded narcissist of a mother ever was: giving him money (whereas her mother only took it), offering to nourish him with late-night omelets, encouraging his music, clamoring for his company, inquiring as to his health. Blier even literalizes the earth-mother conceit: our introduction to Marion in wide shot has her seemingly rising up from the ground itself as she ambles toward us. (Critics unafflicted by hot flashes over Besse's tender age were busy swooning over what they saw as the film's right-on endorsements of the new sexual era: David Denby, in his pan for New York Magazine, nonetheless saluted Blier for "celebrating heroic sexual will in a little girl." Heroic? Good God, man, don't blow a gasket.)

The film's visual design speaks to the impossibility of their remaining together — the two of them posed adversarially on opposite ends of the frame; a gulf of barren, mostly blank-walled space between them. Yet, it also binds them as soul twins of an ill-fated, hapless romanticism: Blier gives us pointedly similar shots of each character standing T-shirt-clad in a bedroom doorway, all lump-throated vulnerability as they wait to be noticed by the targets of their affections, their noses pressed to the glass of an existence that barely acknowledges them or, worse, can't even begin to deal with what's welled up inside of them. What Blier does here is akin to showing us pictures of a beautiful child that perished before it could grow. It's a matter of what could have been in regard to male-female relations: a taunting spirit brought to brief, flickering life by the affections of young women at their purest and most unspoiled. With Marion, Blier's shutter clicks just before a push from the wicked old stepmom of feminism — emboldened from a decade-plus of legitimacy when Beau Père was made — is sure to send the lass hurtling down a post-high school staircase of soul-deadening cock-hopping with its resultant crippling of her ability to truly bond with a man, a husband, a life partner. Never again will she be as open-hearted, as trusting, with a man as she is with Rémi here — and that's to her detriment more than that of any future paramours; it's as much a debit from Rémi's good-will savings account as it is from her father's.

Marion's sense of men is all tangled up in that daddy-lover duality. She remarks to Rémi that he's helped raise her while in the midst (and mist) of declaring her lovesickness. She shows up at Rémi's door with suitcase in hand after he's turned her over to Charly — as if pitting rival suitors against one another, she blithely informs him that she's snuck off under her father's nose, and that he should prepare for the inevitable scuffle with Charly when it's made clear which of the two men she's chosen. (Said scuffle occurs right on schedule: despite bruises that Marion tends to like some imperturbable mother-nurse, the two rather physically undistinguished combatants end up hurting the living room furniture more than each other.) Most intriguingly, as her coupling with Rémi winds down to its predetermined fizzling-out, she tells him she'll be seeking his replacement. (Or replacements, as she emphasizes.) He promises her they'll still have the occasional romp for old times' sake but she's wise enough to know finality when it's staring her forlornly in the face. Cut to her, two scenes later, buttoned up like a librarian in training at Charly's club. She's announcing, to his befuddlement turned victor's elation, that she's got her things in a taxi outside and she's moving back with him — if he'll have her, she says. The scene reads at first glance like a straying wife, after the implosion of her most torrid fling, returning for the sake of the kids to the put-upon lump of a husband who's nonetheless thanking God he's got her back.

Blier leaves it a heady tease as to what the implications are here — her deflated acceptance of Rémi having moved on to an older woman reminiscent of her mother, her sudden adoption of sartorial chastity after a frequent state of half-dress around Rémi: both point one way. (Here, she's chastened from heartbreak; she's ready to grow up and play the model daughter.) Pointing the opposite way: her easy acquaintance with blurring appropriate boundaries, her cool resort to hanky-panky with other men so as to torture Rémi. Bowing to his conscience — rattled, really, by fears of being branded a pervert and losing his pass to conventional society — Rémi had implored Marion to date boys her own age. Yet, when she responded by partying and making out like a typical teenager, he reacted like a comically uptight dad and flew into fits of womanish pique, denying Marion sex like some hausfrau punishing her husband for having flirted with a shopgirl half her age. Marion assured him that her nether regions remained his exclusive property; his encounter with a boy leaving her room at night, followed by the sight of her smirking with her shirt halfway undone, suggested quite another story. As did her dancing with boys at a party for which he'd been hired to provide the music. As Rémi bore the indignity of his playing being cut off by a blast of disco from the turntable, then sat there, forgotten by all but one of the kids' mothers (who complimented his "magic touch"), Marion was busy flaunting her adaptability to their new arrangement. She enjoyed herself — fully lost herself in being a kid — as if he weren't there. When she saw him leaving, she gave him the quick kiss on the cheek that he'd established as their cover in front of others, then she returned to dancing, rousing him from afar with her moony-eyed, just-between-us smile while her physical self was immediately accessible to the boy she was with. Rémi reneged on his hands-off-Marion pledge when she got home that night; Salome, as usual, got her man.

Blier links Marion's turn of the screw in this scene with her crawling back to Charly. The peppy Eurodisco number she dances to while pushing Rémi's buttons plays again in Charly's club as she wades like an apprehensive Alice through the red-lit adult Wonderland of facile grasps at connection and jaded, easy sex. She finds her father at the center of it all: he's fully ensconced, no mere spectator but a drained satyr who's so at home here, in the smoke and the banal conversations shouted over robotic music, he may as well be in an easy chair. (We never see Charly in his actual home, only here at his club or nipping at the heels of our forbidden bedfellows.) The song's lyrics, chirped by session vocalists over a correspondingly anonymous soft-funk throb, reduce human chemistry to no more than a "hook-up" based off a single look — portending, perhaps, Marion's own Charly-like benumbment and retreat from emotional engagement, post-Rémi.

And this is the backdrop Blier chooses for his father-daughter reunion with the daughter sitting stiffly next to her father, looking like a girl who's about to do something she knows she won't enjoy, with the father trying to read his daughter's intentions and recalling for us the look he wore when he accepted her stepfather's denial of impropriety while knowing the truth, anyway. Charly's suspicions about the two of them had been confirmed after he'd caught them in a lie and then spied their embrace through the window of their flat. He'd asked them point-blank if they were sleeping together and, naturally, Rémi erupted with the desired measure of righteous indignation. Yet, you got the feeling that Charly, as he left their makeshift abode like a man with new ideas in his head, was more intrigued than angered by what was going on. (He'd already proposed his ménage à trois: the idea, glumly received by Rémi and Marion, that the three of them live together.) Is Charly now entertaining the seduction of Marion as a means of possibly — finally — one-upping Rémi, of cuckolding the cuckold? Is incest, for Charly, a way of reclaiming the upper hand he'd lost as all-around protector and director and template-setter, of nursing back from devastation what Rémi the deadbeat dad has left half-formed and abandoned to fate in his frightened rejection of the illegitimate romance he's spawned?

And what of Marion? On his 1980 album, Scary Monsters, the late, great David Bowie included "Because You're Young," perhaps his most emotionally evocative number, an achingly-crooned paean to realizing that sometimes, as the old maxim has it, if one does love someone then it's best to let them go. Its chorus assumes the voice of someone singing to youth. But, as Marion represented the older half of her and Rémi, it captures brilliantly the desolate little girl of her final scene: the naïf who'd sealed her heart's doom by bringing Rémi into the orbit of the woman who'd go on to replace her, the hope-sick optimist who'd clutched to her tiny bosom a vision of the day when she'd be old enough for Rémi to no longer feel ashamed of being with her, when Rémi could greet her in public with something more than a chaste fatherly peck. It sketches a Marion watching the adolescent lothario who made her imagine forever as he recedes into the past:
Because you're young
You'll meet a stranger some night
Because you're young
What could be nicer for you?
And it makes me sad
So I'll dance my life away
A million dreams
A million scars
Is Marion's humble-footed slog back to Charly the disco dance that she hopes will re-ignite Rémi's sense of ownership over her? Is she so addicted to what Rémi's awakened in her that she aims to refashion her relationship with Charly according to the template established by her rake of a stepdaddy? Blier hips us to the secret of life: we're all essentially someone else's replacement or doppelgänger — re-enactors of others' yearnings; third-rate community-theater hopefuls in the staged dramas of our lovers' lives, expected to fill the shoes of the Oliviers and Brandos who played our roles before us. Rémi melts into the arms of his new Martine after taking his final longing look at a portrait of the real thing. His new love, a graceful concert pianist whose mastery embarrasses him into retirement, is waiting naked in bed for him, à la Marion: sheets pulled up over her breasts like a present for him to unwrap. The cycle repeats itself: Rémi the ne'er-do-well has once again latched onto a woman more accomplished than himself; the film begins again, but now much further back into Marion's childhood, as the woman's daughter, no more than four or five years of age, totters up to Blier's bedroom doorway of ill-fated romanticism like Marion making her way through Charly's club.

The girl watches her mother and Rémi make love, her eyes as impossibly huge and inquisitive as Marion's as she confronts for the first time that presence, that amorphous presence, that beckons her toward life's most intoxicating discovery, that awakens in her a curiosity she's never before felt: the tingle in her little mind's loins that forecasts the death wish of her innocence. We can't miss what Blier's telling us — he over-emphasizes the moment with a triple jump cut/dolly-in flourish that distills the core of his narrative into her blank slate of a face, her unblinking eyes. It's a visual paraphrasing of that famous, apocryphal quote about shaping children's minds, and it says in plain French: give a man a girl before she's seven and she's his for life. Humbert Humbert, eat your heart out.  

©2016 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Friday, September 25, 2015

Maladolescenza (Spielen wir Liebe) (1977)

Games Without Frontiers

written and directed by Pier Giuseppe Murgia
starring Lara Wendel, Eva Ionesco,
Martin Loeb

I must confess: careful considerations of aesthetic merit and my personal fascination with fringe cinema aside, my initial reaction to this notorious-beyond-notorious, banned-in-several-countries-and-still-considered-kiddie-porn-in-some treatise on S&M as the Yin and Yang of the mating dance wasn't exactly the reaction you'd have expected from a lapsed-Catholic libertine such as myself — a libertine who still harbors the belief that "respectable" cinema can incorporate explicit, and even unsimulated, sex into compelling essays on the human experience without qualifying as degenerate pornography; a libertine who holds that there's nothing inherently objectionable about the various instances of under-eighteen nudity that dot the history of Western cinema, and who openly laughs at the schoolmarmish harrumphing of misandrists who insist that a man's natural attraction to, say, a comely and sexually mature sixteen year-old girl would mark him as some sort of "child molester." Though I wasn't offended by anything Maladolescenza had to show me, my reaction was something akin to mild shock — shock that a film like this had ever seen release beyond being projected on the wall at some private party attended by jaded, decadent jet-setters. It was the reaction of a man whose immediate instinct would be to ward off unsavory assumptions about his character, should anyone burst into the room and catch me watching this thing. It's a reaction that speaks to a wholly legitimate, and increasingly warranted, concern over the sexualization of children that we've seen more and more of in the years since "free your mind, maaaan" and The Sexual Revolution™ took hold — a sexualization which represents the inevitable fallout from several decades of leftist soapboxing in favor of eradicating boundaries and taboos without any consideration of the long-term consequences of all that "freedom," and with little understanding of why society might have erected said boundaries in the first place.

After all, Maladolescenza ("Adolescent Malice" in the King's, "We Love Playing" in Der Kaiser's) illustrates its thesis via a sort of stunt casting effect: it puts a baby-faced trio of grade-schoolers through a series of thoroughly adult, and incredibly kinky, Lord of the Flies-inspired scenarios as a means of positing that twisted psychological games and the female predilection for aloof jerkboys who hopscotch back and forth between lovers'-lane solicitousness and the casual sadism of a budding Richard Ramirez are so unshakably central to our very nature that they're evident in even our interactions with each other as children. Conceptually, it's not far off from where Alan Parker was when his old-style gangster musical Bugsy Malone gave us tykes with tommy guns and fourteen year-old Jodie Foster as a parody of va-va-voom in a slinky moll's dress. Maladolescenza, though, takes a hard left from there into ethically indefensible Euro-sleaze art-porn via the rather arrantly detailed nudity of its mostly preteen actors in what I tend to doubt were fully simulated sex scenes. (This being Europe in the wild 'n' woolly Seventies and all.) Note that I said "arrantly detailed" — the underage nudity on display here, then, isn't of the "socially acceptable" variety, as in a scene of a parent giving his child a bath. It isn't the kind of child nudity one could justify as being necessary to a film's plot, as when David Cronenberg, in The Brood, gave us a father documenting the bruises on his daughter's naked body — bruises which point toward a climactic revelation about her mother. To my mind, it isn't even of a piece with the endless examples of European cinema's use of child nudity in furtherance of an objective, brazenly unsentimental — yet artful — portrait of childhood and all the burgeoning of sexual awareness that goes with it.

No, what director Pier Giuseppe Murgia feasts our eyes upon here are blatant, calculated eroticizations of pre-mature physical forms, as in his prelude to a sex scene featuring pedophile-pinup doll Eva Ionesco — who, by the time of Maladolescenza, had already appeared in Italian Playboy, had supposedly done a nude scene for the 1976 French softcore flick Spermula (it was cut out), and had been posing for her photographer mother in topless, lace-gloves-and-lipstick-type glamour shots since the age of five. (If Roxy Music made music for children, she'd have graced one of their album covers.) Rather than portray carnal exploration the way a precocious young girl might actually approach it, Murgia has her gyrate on all fours in the "doggystyle" position atop a satiny white duvet that suggests a mimicking of adult romance rituals — she tosses her mane of blond hair about, moves her little hips and ass around as if he'd prepared her for the role by showing her a bunch of Seka movies; and the kicker is that it isn't done for the delight of the young boy she's about to bed down with, it's done for ours. Her naked-as-the-proverbial-jaybird, way-underage patootie is pointed at us as she bends over, not at her "lover"; and, though Murgia keeps her audition for Roman Polanski's remake of Behind the Green Door confined to the distance of a wide shot, his camera nonetheless leaves no detail about her pint-sized anatomy to our imaginations: the surprising hairiness for an eleven year-old, a rather dilated-looking asshole that suggests a familiarity with acts unthinkable for a girl still figuring out training bras and pre-algebra. Likewise, Murgia spares us no anatomical acquaintance with the fledgling Miss Ionesco's co-stars — be it the head-on medium shot of Lara Wendel's still-developing anti-breasts as Martin Loeb's burgeoning dom Fabrizio seduces her character Laura inside a cave; be it the glimpse of Wendel's muff that Murgia makes sure to capture as Laura pulls up her panties after urinating by a river; be it the outline of her illegal clam through tighty-whiteys as Wendel assumes the endless parted-thigh, damsel-in-distress positions of fetishized female endangerment that he's choreographed her through; or be it the curious fact of Murgia's having chosen to open the film with Fabrizio sleeping naked, his not-yet-a-manhood on open display.

And my initial reaction to all this — however puritanically American it may seem to snail-eaters and Autobahn-riders — was that there's nothing so earth-rattling or aesthetically unprecedented in Murgia's "revelations" about human nature or the cruelty of which children are capable that it would warrant Maladolescenza having been so meticulously designed as a junior-high theater-class prelude to David Lynch's Blue Velvet, and directed to make an audience of adults view children in such an unabashedly titillating fashion. Despite the half-hearted justification of the film as a "coming of age" piece, there's no way it was put together with an audience of kiddies in mind; its easy familiarity with sexual sadism, a male's Vertigo-like obsession with the image of the perfect female, and the give-and-take between fetishistic control freaks and their all-too-willing subjects is far too dependent upon being viewed and understood from within a knowing adult framework for it to work any other way — it's a fourth-year lecture in advanced psycho-sexual dynamics, not an introductory course. Rarely does Murgia even attempt to excuse his erotic scenarios and doctor's examinations of his actors' bodily development as being from the point-of-view of someone within the narrative. When we see Fabrizio naked at the start of the film, he's all alone (save for his trusty German Shepherd — and not even a pretentious Euro-perv is ridiculous enough to give us a dog's-eye view of things); when Fabrizio undresses Laura inside the cave and indulges his apparent jones for cunnilingus (he'll do it with Ionesco's character Silvia, as well), they're the only two present — thus, our perspective in these scenes is that of our own, of adult spectators encouraged by Murgia's X-rated staging to call to mind vivid recollections of our own sex lives, or of countless similar sex scenes using adult actors, and then plug in the bodies of eleven year-olds where that West Hollywood bartender girl you once doggy-styled in a women's restroom or your favorite spank fodder from an unrated Jess Franco film should be.

Murgia does toss in shots of Fabrizio watching from up high as Laura pisses near the river, or as she and Silvia engage in a fascinatingly near-sapphic bit of Persona-lite roleplay wherein Laura willingly attends to Silvia's preening before a mirror, brushing Silvia's blond mane like a servant girl under a spell, before the angle of Murgia's camera makes it appear as though Laura's own reflection has taken the place of Silvia's. But — Fabrizio's earlier eyeballing of Laura's panties aside — his appearance at the tail ends of these scenes feels like an afterthought, a fuck-it-why-not stab at adding voyeurism to the film's exhaustive list of kinks for completion's sake. The details dwelt upon by Murgia's choice of camera placement couldn't possibly represent Fabrizio's view from the distances he's at, anyway — such casual lapses in technique are echoed by the film's habitual nosedives into abject tastelessness, such as the kiddie bondage tutorial wherein Fabrizio ties Laura to the base of a tree and watches with the dispassion of a sociopath as a huge snake crawls all over her; between the ultra-gratuitous visibility of Wendel's panties beneath a conspicuously unbuttoned skirt and the incipient Euro-cuck impulse of having funkalicious Seventies porn music kick in at the exact moment the big, black, phallic snake slithers into frame, you're either laughing your ass off or wondering how in the hell the makers of this film ever escaped jail time. (Or, if you're like me: both of the above, plus wondering how many Jewish moneymen and distributors were likely behind this soft push of kiddie-fiddler chic via the brazen pornification of European children, regardless of however many Italian names the credits boast.)

All told, there's obviously no rational post-Seventies defense for this stuff any more than there is for the genuine bit of animal snuff (another Euro art-flick mainstay) that has Fabrizio and Silvia shooting Laura's pet bird full of arrows while she pouts over their wanton cruelty. Murgia treats us to the sight of the bird's eyeball bulging out as the final arrow pierces its tiny skull and all it adds up to is another moment of envelope-pushing checked off of the film's laundry list of transgressions from a "more innocent" era (as they tell us): an era when record shops kept the sleeves to Zep's Houses of the Holy and Blind Faith's debut on open display, an era when The Scorpions could plaster schoolgirl twat on the front of their Virgin Killer album and not see their careers ended; an era when a Coppertone suntan lotion commercial full of little-girl ass crack and a Rolling Stones lyric about seducing a fifteen year-old (thirteen, if you listen to the live version) were barely noticed bricks in the pop-cultural wall; an era when the fact that rock stars like Jimmy Page routinely availed themselves of sub-eighteen groupie flesh was the stuff of casual jokes and, thus, common knowledge; an era in which William Friedkin could use button-nosed Linda Blair as his crotch-stabbing instrument of sacrilege in The Exorcist, making it both his uneasy metaphor for a little girl's emergent sexuality and an across-the-board box-office smash; a pre-Disneyification-of-New-York era in which one could walk through Times Square and legally purchase child porn imported by major companies like Color Climax; an era in which "erotic" snaps of Eva Ionesco's naked young form could gain her a spread in a men's magazine and a walk-on in a Roman Polanski film while catapulting her mother to art-world notoriety. (Ionesco would go on to direct a film inspired by this phase of her life: My Little Princess, from 2011, with Isabelle Huppert as the mother.) Taken with a full accounting of the era in which it was created, then, Maladolescenza stands as either par for the shag-carpet-and-8-track-tape-era course or the point at which the allegedly naïve and innocent spirit of naked children as avatars of purity and unspoiled potential started curdling over into the lurid gaze of the trenchcoated old man hanging around school playgrounds even though he hadn't a son or a daughter to pick up.

When it comes to these divisive cinematic raspberries in the church lady's face of social mores, though, I go split-personality. There's my pragmatic side, which finds itself highly immune to the puerile shit-stirring and shallow épater-la-bourgeoisie grandstanding of self-styled guerrillas-with-cameras; and there's my voyeuristic, nothing-sacred-in-the-name-of-art side that cries "feed me!" in anticipation of the most ostensibly shocking, yet galvanizing, images I can find: Klan riders galloping to the rescue of civilization in Birth of a Nation's invention of the action-film climax, the breath-taking aestheticism of German unity in Triumph des Willens, live animals hacked open for your money's worth in Cannibal Holocaust. Maladolescenza sits squarely on the fence between these two impulses, a big hairy child-molester ball draped over each side. My good-citizen, planning-on-having-children-someday brain registers the supreme immorality of Murgia having endowed Ionesco with a specifically tailored miniature-blonde-vixen appeal — her ritualistic application of lipstick and eyeshadow, the baby sex-kitten dresses in which he outfits her, the exceedingly grown-up certainty of her pleasure in taunting Laura or her sexual confidence in pushing Fabrizio's head down toward her little crotch as if she'd done it with a hundred previous boy-toys just like him. (All the while, she resembles a porcelain angel figurine you might have seen on some old lady's dresser during the Victorian era: the same naughty-by-contrast look her mother devised for her photo shoots.) The effect is that of seeing a pair of middle school girls in "booty shorts," eyeliner and T-shirts so impossibly tight that they reveal the outlines of their training bras (not an uncommon sight in our age of spineless, largely matriarchal parenting): you register the visual signifiers of mature female sexuality and you feel the involuntary spark that attempts to set your arousal mechanisms whirring and humming before your brain recoils and reminds you that you shouldn't be having that reaction to a pair of juveniles, that this is the very reason why society traditionally frowned upon young girls being allowed to wear makeup or dress like whores in training.

And it's immediately — defensively — countered with an acknowledgment that my initial reaction, however sensible, was also the Pavlovian twitch of a self-policing seal trained to arf! disapprovingly at anyone prying the lid off of whatever sexual terrain modern society's deemed a no-go zone; to ignore, if not outright demonize, the notion that one's sexuality doesn't simply wait until one's eighteenth birthday to materialize out of nowhere. It's a reaction I reached for like a pair of comfy old slippers — and this, despite my own childhood memories of bedroom dry-hump quickies with the little redhead from across the street while we pretended to be watching Diff'rent Strokes; this, despite my memories of darting home from middle school to spend the hour I had until Mom got home Wild Bunch-gunning my pubescent DNA into wadded-up paper towels to the Ginger Lynn VHS tape that a buddy had loaned me from his dad's "secret" stash; this, despite my memories of engaging in bouts of show-me-yours-I'll-show-you-mine with the redhead that began with mutual puzzlement and worked their way up to tentative groping while we giggled our way through feigned disgust. (Little-boy me actually thought the redhead's looked weird; my only visual guideposts to female nether regions at that point were the triangular Buckwheat 'fros that late-night cable had shown me.)

Unless you're completely amoral, a film like Maladolescenza will absolutely put to the fire your sensibility as someone who prides himself on never feeling put off by a mere film; you'll search for ways to write it off as something that should never have seen the light of day. And these are unarguably healthy instincts — there's hardly anything that needs shepherding and guidance more than the sexual curiosity of children, lest it be soiled by portly middle-aged dating-market rejects who excel at convincing themselves that a nine year-old girl's greatest fantasy is to be slobbered on by a Viagra-stiffened Wilford Brimley look-alike; lest it be abused and perverted by those who'd place gratification of the real "love that dare not speak its name" above the molding of a child who still stands at the fork of his or her personal development and could go either way: well-adjusted adult or fucked-up freak paying rent to shrinks for couch space; future keeper of civilization's flame or one of its extinguishers. Still, my anything-goes side fights valiantly against such common sense. Why, it asks, should we indiscriminately balk at artistic depictions of the inherent sexual curiosities of children, other than to placate our socially-enforced sense of what's "right" and "wrong"? Obviously, this film has gained notoriety as appealing to the prurient interests of the Humbert Humbert set but, then, Brian de Palma's Scarface has been adopted, lock stock and barrel, as a how-to manual for success in the drug game by the gibbering, genocide-and-materialism-promoting women-in-disguise of the hip-hop crowd; Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese's crystal-ball fever dream of beta-male explosion, inspired John Hinckley, Jr.'s obsession with a teenage Jodie Foster and his subsequent attempt on Ronald Reagan's life; A Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers have likewise been accused of stoking copycat violence by aboriginal-IQ, shoulda-been-a-load-in-their-mother's-mouth types who look at the movies and see a guidebook of Really Fun Activities You Should Totally Try in Real Life! — should these films be banned as well?

It isn't a particularly skillfully made film but, to the justification of its contentious existence, Maladolescenza is at least semi-legitimate in laying bare the roots of the fundamental push-pull of male-female interaction. It's like a psychosexual re-fashioning of Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small — a world where, in keeping with the template from William Golding, little ones' darkest impulses are given free reign to shine a light upon the ways of us grown-ups as events devolve into naked savagery, where there's no overarching moral authority but that which is established by the whims of the strongest and most dominant. Fabrizio leads Laura through the woods as they play his favorite game, King of the Forest: he, of course, is the "King" and Laura — so she thinks — is his "Queen." But Fabrizio constantly tests her loyalty to him through an increasingly cruel series of games: siccing his German Shepherd on her, tricking her so that she falls into a hole that he's covered with leaves, watching her squirm and shriek during the aforementioned bit with the snake, running hot and cold on her with words of devotion followed by dismissive taunts. In Laura's feeble pining for Fabrizio's approval — for the validation of a male she deems master of her environment — we see the female's impulse to melt before the alpha male, to qualify herself to him for the purpose of pulling his strength and resourcefulness down around her like a warm blanket, as a means of her own survival. It's why she yields her body to him after he gets her inside the cave and pretends that he doesn't know the way out so that they can spend the night there: Fabrizio's offered her the shield of his protection in a scary place and, in return, she attempts to secure future protection by giving up the greatest commodity a girl could ever offer: her virginity backed with the assumption of fidelity. Fabrizio is no provider type, though — he only ups the mind games afterward, and the film becomes a nifty demonstration of what happens when a girl fumbles with the fine china of her precious innocence (which is inevitable when it's left in her hands); it makes crystal clear the certainty that a girl whose heart is shattered by a cad early on will only be ruined for the lifetime's worth of second-placers who queue up in his wake.

Fabrizio displays the preternatural jerkboy game of a born heartbreaker — he keeps Laura dangling from a string with such expertise, one wants to send him out to school all those hopeless doughboys who shell out money for pick-up artist seminars and furiously scroll through "game" websites for the slightest clue as to how to entice a woman into awareness of their existence. But even the mighty must fall — Fabrizio goes from spider to fly as Silvia comes into the picture and rains her penchant for sadism and mental games down onto their little picnic of comparative innocence. She and Fabrizio band together to bedevil Laura, to literally and figuratively sling arrows at her, to belittle her, to taunt and tease and ostracize her until she breaks for no reason other than the sheer fun of it, and because Silvia must embody the female's inherent cruelty and sense of competition in regard to other women that German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer elucidated in his timeless clarification of distaff nature, On Women:
"...while a man will, as a rule, address others, even those inferior to himself, with a certain feeling of consideration and humanity, it is unbearable to see how proudly and disdainfully a lady of rank will, for the most part, behave towards one who is in a lower rank (not employed in her service) when she speaks to her. This may be because differences of rank are much more precarious with women than with [men], and consequently more quickly change their line of conduct and elevate them, or because while a hundred things must be weighed in [men's] case, there is only one to be weighed in theirs, namely, with which man they have found favour; and again, because of the one-sided nature of their vocation they stand in closer relationship to each other than men do; and so it is they try to render prominent the differences of rank."
The rank referred to by Schopenhauer is, in this case, the warm glow conferred upon Silvia by Fabrizio's clear preference for her over Laura; the status of better-than given to her by her ability to cast spells over boys that other girls can't manage. Murgia's direction of Lara Wendel seems to indicate that this treatment awakens something in Laura, some inner Dorothy Vallens-like masochist, especially as she stumbles upon them in flagrante delicto: instead of turning away from Silvia's verbal jabs and from the sight of Fabrizio giving to a much prettier girl what she'd thought was hers alone, Laura meekly relents to Fabrizio tugging at the dog collar he's placed around her by sitting down next to them as they carry on and then biting her lip as if she can barely contain what the erotic charge of voyeurism is doing to her. Jump ahead ten years and she's the black-eyed punching bag who just can't bring herself to leave her boyfriend, the girl who advertises her yen for anal, the dedicated mudshark, the fat girl who'll let guys do anything to her in bed and who takes a debauched pride in her tolerance for debasement: any number of desperate concessions made by lower-value women who'll do whatever they can to elevate their rank nearer to that of the pretty young things who've always taken instant validation for granted.

Echoing the ending of Lord of the Flies, in which Golding has the boys regress to sobbing helplessness in the face of adult authority, Murgia's children revert back to their true ages after a second night in the cave, as Silvia collapses into little-girl hysterics about needing to return home to her parents and Fabrizio stabs her to death in response to the threat that his favorite new toy might be forever taken away from him. The thing about Lord of the Flies, though, is that Golding calibrated his narrative to spring organically from the limitations of his protagonists' youth — the boys' mistaking the dead parachutist for a mythical beast, their hewing to a middle-schooler's sense of caste; it's not simply an adult slice of soft-porn retrofitted onto childhood as an excuse to get youngsters naked and have them do dirty, transgressive things. It's why Lord of the Flies works and Maladolescenza — once you've gotten over the kick of tracking this thing down and seeing what all the fuss was about — remains little more than leftoid envelope-pushing from a time when too large a slice of the population dismissed the red flags raised by aestheticization of naked kiddie flesh as repression's final cry as we flushed it down a cultural shit-bowl sold to us as an ivory throne; an outmoded impulse from our obsolete, black-and-white past.

The great liberal conceit, of course, is to free the oppressed, to loosen the shackles clamped around various groups' quality of life or personal expression. Yet, one may be tempted to ask when confronted with the liberties taken by a film like Maladolescenza: exactly how was little Eva Ionesco "liberated" by having been posed like a fuck-doll by her own mother or coached to shake her ass and spread her legs here for an audience of grown men? Exactly whose benefit is being considered via today's slow, soft push of sympathy for pedophiles — the only fruit ultimately borne by Silvia under that plush white comforter or by the sixth-grader who once beckoned the enlightened to give Blind Faith a spin?

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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