Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Les arpenteurs

Les Arpenteurs is one of those rare tongue-in-cheek films that do more for cinema than all of Salvador Dali's so-called surrealist works: it's a dark comedy without being dark and a feminist lookout without being committal to feminism, but above all the film is a surreal study in art of conversations, relations and human desires. The thing worth noting here is that it is not the morsels of conversations that are surreal, nor does the film belong to a Dali-esque movement that is supposed to juxtapose together odds and ends in a self-mocking attempt to create, an eyeball of one creature with the ear of another: no, it is the study, of human society, that is surreal here, where topics of conversation or musings range from a hat's make to in which or in whose bed did you make love and where was it.

The film of course works much more if you know French, for no amount of subtitling can help absorb in their immediacy the fine nuances of double entendres and reinforcing by way of rhyming, for which French is a gifted language. The title "Les Arpenteurs" itself does not simply mean the surveyors, but also those who stride with long paces a space: here the space of a field to be surveyed as much as human hearts and homes, crushing what lies beneath their feet regardless of the texture of the trampled upon. Which is why it's a stupid folly to sell the film in English as The Surveyors - better not to translate the title in such a case. (Not to mention that the "The" is completely off here: only "Surveyors" is the sense!)

On the face of it, the film is strongly feminist, with two female protagonists, Alice and Ann, though the chief protagonist is a man, Léon (played expertly by Jean-Luc Bideau). The roles are projected to be stereotyped, but there is always a certain lingering self-derision at these stereotypical characters all through the film, as if the director Soutter is washing his hands off any kind of interpretation yet only amusing himself in your attempts to interpret and reinterpret. In a way, the film repeats the "liberty to women" kind of message, where liberty is held to mean that if men have been fucking around, why can't women do the same and break men's heartless hearts, men being nothing but driven by lust? Where women are "free" to express themselves through their bodies and not just submit to the old argument that man's bodies they must explore, but even each other's they "should/must?" (preach, preach, preach). Where mere wantonness is celebrated as "we are not afraid/shy/repressed" and where every argument turns around the phallus and thus the order needs to be subverted. The usual feminist trash. However, the message is so stalely given forth by Soutter, as if he's asking the validity, that well, is that really any kind of liberty? Or did we only try to emulate the man, and thus keep living in a world defined by men?

The film has a very strange construction, which helps in the lack of a definite interpretation for every viewer. While all throughout brilliant comedy, which is not through some Woody Allen kind of wit but by classic French props of comedy such as facial expressions, whimsical dialogues and slow pace (yes, a slow pace gives the same flavour - some claim only colour and nothing more, though - to a comedy as oak barrels from Limousin give to cognac), the film is almost throughout filled with the broad and huge frame of Léon, but in a sudden shift of balance of power, which could leave a viewer or two feeling betrayed, it's the two women, in turns Alice and Ann, who come to occupy the central place in the film, just as the looming shadow of an arpenteur's work also brings in a tint of impending tragedy but possible greater - or truer, depending on your choice of opinion - liberty in the women's life. However, the final image, that of Alice as a school teacher supervising children, leaves much to ponder and much unresolved: is it the future, once the houses have been demolished, or is it a wait? Is it the life Alice wanted or is it a compromise? A compromise for what?

The strangest thing is not however the construction but the images used throughout the film. One of the most striking is that of the cello case: while I usually am not fond of seeing things as symbols, to me at least the cello case of Eugène, the gentle, patient lover with whom Alice plays mercilessly, functions as the vagina: waiting to be penetrated. It's a strange image to use with a man, as if Alice, even if in the body of a woman, has donned the mind of a man, whereas Eugène has the mind of the woman. When Eugène invites Léon to bring the case till his car, his woman mind is inviting the man-mind man Léon over in a sexual manner, as if dejected of getting Alice, he will make do with the non-gay (mentally) gay (physically) option of sleeping with Léon. Of course, when I talk about the man mind and the woman mind here, I am talking of the classic hypothesized images of man and woman, on the exploitation of which all feminism, in all its forms howsoever diverse, thrives. After all, the vagina need not await penetration by some phallus, the modern feminists would claim: the earlier feminists said why couldn't the phallus wait, but now they say why couldn't a vagina be content with another vagina and artificial penetrations through sex toys? Or, rather, not be dependent on any of them, just keep "expressing" through your body: simply keep soaking physical pleasure as you will. Just as the men have been doing it. Full circle, anyone?