directed by Tony Richardson
starring Jeanne Moreau, Ettore Manni,
Keith Skinner, Umberto Orsini
One can only suspect that Mr. Richardson and probably Mr. Genêt were out to denigrate and castigate a woman as much as they could in this film. For there is absolutely no redeeming quality in the spectacularly vicious female here.—Bosley Crowther, New York Times review of Mademoiselle, August 2, 1966
When it comes to dissecting male identity in order to ferret out the root of all the world's evil, Western society is mighty quick with the scalpel. What we're taught not to do, of course, is to stare head-on at the destructive capabilities of the fair maidens in our midst; to scrape away the layers of make-up from our own wives, mothers and daughters — that hallowed half of the human race which benefits inordinately from naïve assumptions of vulnerability and man's stubborn attachment to the notion of the female as born nurturer. Yet, any open-eyed stroll through the footnotes of history yields no shortage of young life snuffed out by motherly hand behind a lawyer's gauze of ready-made psychological explanations; of women riding shotgun in a rocket's burst of bad-boy criminality that they've egged on and then rewarded with the sweet nectar of gaping punanny; of women who indulge their hearts' blackest whims simply because a feminized society will always accord a woman the benefit of the doubt and — compared to a man in the same boat — the lightest punishment possible. Wrap it in Botticelli's Venus and Byron's "She Walks in Beauty" if you must; history unadorned will forever brandish the ugly tattoos of its Bonnie Parkers and Caril Ann Fugates; of its Andrea Yateses, its Susan Smiths, its Diane Downses and its Casey Anthonys; of its Countess Bathorys and Aileen Wuornoses and all the women whose dubious cries of "rape!" sparked lynchings and character assassinations and madness like the 1923 Rosweood massacre; of the women who served the Führer as guards and officers at the height of the Third Reich — real-life Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS prototypes, as unblinking in the execution of duty as their male colleagues.
Accordingly, Tony Richardson's Freudian noir psychodrama Mademoiselle is the purest horror film imaginable: a bleak-souled, matter-of-fact account of uncured fuck-lust that's curdled into the blank-faced perversion of a woman trusted with molding the young. It cracks open that hardy walnut known as a woman's psyche to spill forth an unholy brew of sadism and vindictiveness born of wounded vanity; it's as indelible a portrait of the unwell mind as any given us by the cinema of the Psycho-and-Rosemary's-Baby decade. Like the tortured snuff-film pioneer of Michael Powell's fervid Peeping Tom or Hitchcock's Norman Bates, the small-town schoolteacher of Mademoiselle simmers with antisocial impulses under a mask of outward respectability. Unlike her jittery celluloid analogues, however, the Mademoiselle is burdened neither by stirrings of conscience nor by the likelihood of ever arousing suspicion. Set fires, poison farm animals and shatter a young boy's fragile psyche simply to get one's rocks off? Why, hush thy sour tongue, misogynist — women don't do such things. Her mask of respectability is, ultimately, the mask of a woman's perceived virtue and harmlessness — perfect, given Western society's inherent white-knight inclinations, for concealing what philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described as the sex's "fundamental defect" of "falseness, faithlessness [and] treachery."
Jeanne Moreau, as the Mademoiselle (we never learn her name), insinuates herself into the margins of cinematographer David Watkin's static black-and-white panoramas like a creeping fog of prim, stuffed-twat hostility that swallows anything blooming and vibrant. She's a spinster in black for the funeral of human possibility — a Grim Reaper signaling the death of her own fertility, made manifest for the sole purpose of unhooking the safety pins that hold together a sleepy French farm town's flimsy sense of community. There's our Mademoiselle, by way of an introduction, all done up in her Sunday finest, hands sheathed in black lace gloves resembling a doily on your grandma's dinner table, as she cranks open a sluice gate to let loose a tide of river water that floods a farmer's property and nearly drowns his livestock.
From there, she grows only more destructive, more daring in her catch-me-if-you-can outbursts: stealing away under cover of night to light a barn fire that results in the death of a farmer and threatens to swallow half the village, annihilating yet another farmer's livelihood by poisoning the trough from which his animals drink, abusing her authority over the town's schoolchildren with ritualized S&M emasculations that see her bashing the young and helpless against the woodpile of her icy sadism until they're transmuting her psychological crushing of the weak into savage grenade-blasts of violence; until everything that's open-hearted and trusting about them has leaked out like the contents of a jackrabbit's pulpified skull, never to be replenished. Naturally, the townspeople think the Mademoiselle is a model citizen, if not exactly "one of us." She fills in as a secretary down at the police station in her spare time, and it's here that she earns her stripes from method acting school: perfecting a poker face while listening to police consternation at her senseless acts, chiming in with concern at their misdirected suspicion.
It's the town's children, however, with whom she drops the mask. She lords it over them from the perch of her blackboard like a germaphobe in a lepers' camp, as if these spawn of the proletariat were tainted with the Original Sin of their parents' provincial-hick outlook; as if squeezing out the very will to thrive from the town's future inhabitants were a form of long-range genocide — suitable punishment to the adults for having offended her with their backhanded approval of her presumed chastity while pitying her for her lonely existence.
She fixates upon Bruno, a motherless immigrant waif from the Dickensian-urchin mold, as her classroom whipping boy. He tries to please her — tries in his unconsciously Freudian way to win this dominatrix mother figure's approval. He even comes to realize that it's the Mademoiselle who's setting the village fires and, as part of his good-son auditioning, he says nothing. But she's the Anti-Mother; his nascent beta-male neediness only puts the smell of blood in her nostrils. She prods away at him — mocking his tattered clothes and his immigrant poverty, forcing him to stand in a corner while the other kids play. Here, though, she's no wily domme playing a game of cat and mouse; she's more like an abusive husband belting his wife over lukewarm meatloaf and a spike in the light bill. She lashes out at the boy as if she couldn't help it, as if the persistence of his daily presence were a deliberate tightening of that straitjacket of responsibility which she's never asked for, never wanted. He's the kicked-around old dog who keeps coming back for more — naturally, he must be kicked until he breaks.
Of course, her sociopath's self-absorption precludes an awareness of what her petty humiliations are doing to the kid. When she banishes Bruno from the classroom over his grubbiness, and he takes his rage out on a small rabbit that he'd brought as a gift to her, she can scarcely believe the murderous rage that's erupted from such a harmless runt; it's her "eureka!" moment, a discovery of her full satanic powers. (Richardson gives us a close-up of that demolished rabbit, which is echoed later on by our nearly identical glimpse of a dead man lying in the weeds — images linked by their testimony to the violence that she brings out of others.) With her bun that bars her hair from even thinking about touching her forehead, and her haughty Gallic features gelled into an iron mask of assured disapproval, she's the distillation of every pent-up schoolmarm who's ever tried to stamp out burgeoning male vitality in revenge for her barren existence. What's more, she's the godmother to feminist hard-liners who inject their misandrous poison into the heart of the culture, in a bid to crush future manifestations of the red-blooded male imperative that never saw fit to elevate them to the same pedestal of worthiness as it did the attractive, well-adjusted women they secretly hate. (If nothing else, Mademoiselle makes one question the "wisdom" of subjecting boys to the castratory whims of a female-run education system.)
Her crowning touch: she concocts a tale of ravaged womanhood and pins it on Bruno's father — a lusty Italian woodcutter named Manou, whose way with the town's women has the men showering him with open antagonism. Certainly, it's another of her private aggressions against social cohesiveness with its rootedness in the family unit that leaves old maids like her in the cold. What's more, though, it betrays the envying of straight society at her core — that desperate need to be defined by love and to mimic the rituals of normalcy that all misfits harbor, no matter how relentless their machine-gunning of BB's against the battleship of civilization. (The Mademoiselle lashes out, Travis Bickle-like, at a social order which refuses to make room for her.)
Manou's night of passion with the Mademoiselle, which coaxed her long-suppressed masochistic desires into full bloom like some rancid flower, was but a trifle to him — exactly what his love-'em-and-leave-'em advertising promised. It proceeds with a stop-start dream logic — no dialogue, no music; only the sound of the Mademoiselle's moans, the distant cawing of birds, the clap of storm clouds breaking overhead. Manou summons the Mademoiselle toward him like the lapdog that she's dying to be, and she devolves quickly from playful little girl to whimpering animal: it's the regression to absolute primal nature, hinted at all along by the film's use of animal/forest noises as its sole "score." He grips her by the throat and she wilts under the deadening high of sweet degradation — clearly, what this emotionally corseted arch-villainess has been crying out for is a good bit of sexual humiliation. She's like the black-hearted aunt to the Susan George character in Peckinpah's Straw Dogs — she craves subjugation by an alpha male, except she won't put up a fight or pretend that it's wrong.
Afterward, Manou communicates his plan to take Bruno and move on to greener pastures, and it's a transgression that our Dark Goddess can't abide, as if the old trope of being responsible for the life one saves were somehow applicable to sexual awakenings. The greatest lover our Mademoiselle has ever had threatens to leave her stranded in a backwater town full of xenophobic rubes — implying to her that her true place is there among them, that she's no different from the uncultured village floozies who fell spread-eagle under the chainsaw of his seducer's tongue just as easily as she. And for this grave insult — this unwanted reality that rudely punctures her inflated sense of otherness and sends it sputtering down around her — the rage of a thousand wronged women must be summoned, collateral damage be damned.
Richardson, true to both his grounding in the warts-and-all British New Wave and the screenplay's genesis in a Jean Genet short story, balks at pulling any punches. As a writer and as a brand name lending his imprimatur to the Black Panthers and the transgressive shock of gay rutting, Genet flung plenty of mud at mean old Western civilization; I'd wager a bottle of bourbon and my next half-Asian slampiece that he found himself rooting for the Mademoiselle as a foxy little rabble-rouser. Director Richardson stops far short of pulling out the pom-poms, though. His Mademoiselle is no gleaming-eyed Alex DeLarge getting over on staid society in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange; rather, we watch her through the lens of the film's dispassionate approach, as if we were lab technicians and she were some rare breed of poisonous rat trapped under the world's most artfully crafted glass. We're given no background to the Mademoiselle, no patronizing "insights" into whatever aberrant psychology fuels her anarchic deeds; but neither are we allowed, for the sake of any bourgeois femme-coddling instincts which may arise in protest, a handy way to deny or whitewash the fetish for mayhem which greets us from — literally — the film's opening frames. Of course, the Mademoiselle has the single-minded perversity to return to the scene of her crimes to pose as one of the townspeople gathered to help. Her sparkless eyes take in the raging fire she's started as if she were an autistic child who'd set her dollhouse alight and had become mesmerized by the beauty of the destruction. Richardson captures her face emerging from the inky womb of a jet-black screen like a demon soul born of the night itself — distant flames lapping at her chin, smoke curling up toward her medieval countenance until she conjures up a flash of some ruthless queen condemning mankind to the guillotine or, more appropriately, a witch burning at the stake.
Is the Mademoiselle meant to be a symbolic figure — more a demonic spirit of ancient legend than a flesh-and-blood human being? Certainly, it's more comforting to think so; to scoff that women like the Mademoiselle exist only within the febrile brows of misogynistic French writers. Certainly, it's easier to turn away from Mademoiselle's head-on stare at the sociopathic potential of women embittered by the ego-crushing realities of age-lowered sexual market value and "freed" from the civilizing influence of the contract between the sexes. (Which is, in effect, a contract with society.) Richardson's vision, though, is far too pickled in the brine of hard-won wisdom. There's a theory that gay men are often quite unsentimental — or "red-pill," if you will — about the nature of women; Mademoiselle bears this out. (Richardson himself was a practicing bisexual; he'd succumb to AIDS in 1991.) Few men biologically programmed to smear as much lipstick on the pig of modern femininity as possible would dare cast their woman protagonist in such a harsh light, sans mitigating male "oppressiveness"; nor would they appear to indict the whole of womanhood with sordid little touches like the ostensibly married women who fall unhesitatingly at Manou's feet or the random woman who looky-loos with unflinching zeal as the village mob beats a man to death.
It's the cobwebs between the Mademoiselle's thighs that drive her to lash out — her sudden invisibility as a sexual object, brought on by the accumulation of years. An old-timer makes a cutting remark about her age — even the townspeople see fit to chatter about her single-and-childless status — and she's taking her indignation out on the first symbol of new life that she happens upon: a nest full of bird eggs, which she gathers up and crushes in a giddy adolescent burst of sex-while-Mom-and-Dad-are-upstairs naughtiness. (Repudiation of her own womanly purpose? Violence against a symbolic pair of balls? Take your pick.) Moreau invests the Mademoiselle's callous disregard for life with a misplaced eroticism that's compounded by the sense of superiority aroused in her by her surroundings. She practically radiates as she harangues her pupils with a terse, clipped monologue about French madman Gilles de Rais, luxuriating in the tale of his prowess as an arsonist the way American schoolteachers once spoke of George Washington driving back the British at Saratoga. Gilles de Rais is actually known for his murders of children — France's first serial killer, they call him — but it's a veiled admission by the Mademoiselle of her own crimes; a confession dangled in the faces of those too dimwitted to see what's standing right in front of them. As per her criminal nature, the Mademoiselle can't resist basking in her own deviousness — covertly seeking credit for the way that she's hornswoggled a town full of peons and languished right under the noses of the authorities.
Compulsive blasts of miniaturized anarchy are all the Mademoiselle has to excite her, to fill the hole in her sexual essence where a strapping, dominant male should be. She makes herself up to set fire to that barn in the middle of the night, and — naturally — it's as if she were prepping for a hot date. There's an eerie ritualism in the time and care she takes to wrap herself in layers of ladylike perfection — the donning of those black lace gloves, the application of lipstick, the perfectionist manner in which she selects just the right box of matches from her secret drawer of saboteur's tools. And afterward, she faces her placid reflection in the mirror, combing her hair over the sounds of panic and confusion from outside. It's a disquieting snapshot of everyday banality sheltering a chaos seemingly loosed from the bowels of the beyond; a peek into the void behind unchecked feminine wiles wherein "matters of justice, honesty and conscientiousness" (as Schopenhauer put it) scarcely make a fingerprint, and where childish gratification of immediate desires, fueled by an obsession with redressing a lifetime's catalog of perceived slights, can only swell in their absence.
The Mademoiselle's violence spirals in correlation with her Manou obsession — with her ripening jealousy as she watches him lavish upon other women the attention that he seems to deny her. She first spies him in all his barrel-chested, he-man glory as he takes charge of evacuating livestock from the farm flood she causes at the beginning of the film. The pleasure of wreaking havoc for her, then, becomes the thrill of watching Manou play hero after — she'll soon progress to a stalker's fit of watching him from a distance as he saws away at forest trees and indulges in on-the-job naps.
And why wouldn't all the women want a ride on the Manou Express? He's the strapping, unabashedly male presence striding through a village full of dour-faced God-worshipers destined to die quietly in the same town in which they were born. Manou, with his twinkling eyes and his Italianate zest for life is, by comparison, a fast-moving train to somewhere bursting with candy-coated Technicolor, whereas this town can only be rendered in stormy black-and-white on life support — an overcast sky constantly threatening to turn midnight. The villagers deride Manou as a foreigner — it's all the reason they need to finger him for the Mademoiselle's reign of terror — but what really gnaws away at their pride is his godlike rule over the town's vaginal pool, which they can only curse from afar. Taping over her swollen nipples is the Mademoiselle's desperate stab at hiding her arousal for the man; at obeying the sexual market laws which would deem her foolish for showing her attraction to a pre-selected alpha male with far higher value than a middle-aged hen such as herself. (Manou knows exactly what women try to hide from him; among his first gestures with the Mademoiselle is to reach for her nipple.)
Mademoiselle has the mounting dread of some long-buried nightmare from the attic of humanity's subconscious — it's as hermetically sealed a black-and-white dreamworld as Eraserhead or Murnau's Nosferatu. Richardson and Watkin's way with the extreme width of the Panavision frame burns itself into the retina of your memory's eyeballs. The film has some of the plain, direct power of an Italian neorealist film in its shots of peasant-garbed village women kneeling in church or the townspeople marching against the horizontal stretch of a sun-bleached countryside in their somber religious communion. Its narcotic mood is enhanced by a camera that never pans, never tracks, never dollies — Mademoiselle is literally an accumulation of static compositions, one after the other, watching a town come apart at the seams without even the traditional sweetening of a score. Richardson uses a visual motif revolving around mirrors: the Mademoiselle as Anywoman, reflected in various mirrors at once to suggest the multitude of compartmentalized identities — or demons — lurking beneath the still waters of her sexless, socially acceptable façade.
The film's head-on stare at female solipsism turned seething and malevolent is written into the text itself: Mademoiselle climaxes with the scornful j'accuse in the glare of Bruno, who can do little but stand mute in his helplessness as the Devil Herself rides off into her preordained sunset of matronly respectability; as the town to which she's brought nothing but chaos and wanton destruction sends her off with fanfare usually reserved for queens and heads of state. Bruno steps forward to place the curse of his gaze upon the woman who's destroyed his life, and one shudders to imagine what the festering hatred she's left him with will blossom into. It's no accident that Richardson has Keith Skinner, the young actor, look directly into the camera here — staring into his eyes is like looking at a childhood photo of a Ted Bundy or a Jeffrey Dahmer, back when they were still "nice, quiet" boys whose only prey was the occasional small animal. (It's like the where-will-he-go-now? in the last shot of The 400 Blows dipped in black acid and turned inside out.)
Richardson holds the shot until Bruno's baby fat seems to melt away before our eyes — it suggests a solitary shred of remaining humanity thrashing away beneath a rising tide of implacable rage and soullessness; a drowning young spirit in its death throes. It spells out for the lad a miserable life of orphanages and of petty thievery; of pathological anti-authorianism and an inability to trust women. It foretells for society a directionless ball of male energy hellbent on lashing out; perhaps even the raped, strangled bodies of girls-next-door strewn along the roadsides and riverbanks of some anguished loner's future killing spree. And all of this — Richardson insists — is a portal back to us, back to the quiet-boys-gone-berserk headlines and furrowed criminologists' brows of our own fractured world. It's what we as a society bear the weight for, as long as we see fit to weave stone gospel out of the fallacy that women — blindly trusted with the shaping of young minds — are incapable of the cruelty and savagery which we so readily impute to anything with a pair of testicles.
Just before the screen mercifully fades out: we watch from on high — as close to the horror as we can bear to get — as a fatherless immigrant boy is left to wander the French countryside in total ignominy. Like the white-clad sadists in Michael Haneke's Funny Games, the Mademoiselle will simply move on, breezing into the next sleepy little farming community with her reputation intact, only to spark anew the hellish tide of chaos and ruination that finds its culmination in the sacrifice of a handy scapegoat. One can attempt, like Bruno, to spit in the face of madness; to sound a lone klaxon against the mascara-veiled daggers poised so near to man's jugular that they sleep in his very arms. But, alas, one would find oneself — like Bruno — shunned and banished to the margins of polite society; an outcast spitting in the wind.
©2014 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic