Tuesday, 8 March 2011

VHS Quest #3. Merci La Vie (Bertrand Blier, 1991)

Surreal, antagonistic and sexually charged, Merci La Vie (1991) is a forgotten gem.

Some films are impossible to synopsize, whether they be expressionist, surrealist or avant-garde. Such a film is Merci La Vie, and therefore I must regress into shallow comparison with other films and filmmakers. With that in mind Merci La Vie is like Thelma & Louise shot by Godard - but with all of the extravagant, taboo-busting flourish that makes up the best of Blier's cinema. Cast your mind back to 1974 and the hedonistic voyage that was Les Valseuses; a tale of heedless sex and senseless violence - it's a raw and liberated picture, equally sensuous and dangerous. Merci La Vie is a cinematic nod to that film, but instead of wandering thugs Jean-Claude (Gérard Depardieu) and Pierrot (Patrick Dewaere) we have a fractured, virginal loner named Camille (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Joëlle (Anouk Grinberg), a sexually advanced spirit who invites the random violence of men. To provide a few key plot points (although the more accurate word would be interpretation; there is a narrative thread and plentiful exposition but presented in a framework of antagonistic surrealism) I shall say that Joëlle has been infected with an STD by Dr. Worms (Depardieu) so that he may find its cure - as he works she ravages men with aggressive disease. A promiscuous lover who may or may not exist - or may be the star of a period war film - she comes into and corrupts the life of young drifter Camille, whose loneliness hangs like a noose around her fragile neck.

Camille and Joëlle are not so much characters as poems; eloquent and caustic archetypes in a world of savagery and disease - it is little surprise that the film-within-a-film is one of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust as this heightened world seems, in the context of Dr. Worms, just as much about eradication for the purpose of self-enrichment and power. This allegory may be an intentional one but Blier seems much more interested in engaging with aesthetic and challenging the audience to recognize him as the guiding force of the picture. The most notable way in which he does this is through narration. The narrator is not embodied by a single person and is not limited to the four walls of fiction - in one scene Joëlle recalls an event from her past. But Camille, whom in the memory Joëlle would not know yet, pops up and asks "Is this a flashback" resulting in the characters reshaping past events to suit the mold of the present. Sometimes the narrator is omnipresent, sometimes he/she is a character - sometimes they acknowledge the audience (there is a notable dig at perverts and critics early on) and sometimes they're not even born. Indeed, one scene sees Camille desperately trying to convince her father to make love to his mother (disturbingly, she suggests rape) who is clearly frigid. "I'm still in your balls" she says, "are you hard?" This would also be the same part of the movie where Nazi's gag her father and enter his eyeball into Joëlle's genitals - yes, it baffled me too. Camille displays some serious father issues throughout the film as one distressing scene sees her visited by a violent thug who speaks of sexually molesting his daughter; and her enjoying it.

The colour scheme is perhaps the most baffling element. Even on VHS the film, shot by DoP Philippe Rousselot, looks beautiful (I can only dream of what the DVD would be like) and it shifts between sepia, black-and-white and colour, sometimes focusing on a single shade - blue, green, purple, yellow. I would say that the shifts are in aid of reflecting mood or emotion, but they are too random and frequent for that. I would say that they are merely an experiment and mean nothing, but Blier is too smart for that. His camera is fluid and invasive; both self-conscious and stylish. I get the feeling that he cares very little for narrative, as Merci La Vie abandons it with an anarchic glee. Carefully treading a line between feminist and misogynist (the women are strong, independent and free, but also manipulated and abused, sometimes in ecstasy at the hands of men) but never makes a point about morals or politics. His is the guiding voice through a collage of scenes that weave in and out of each other, from multiple perspectives and varying dimensions. If you're expecting a tale where you can be engaged by characters, follow a plot or connect with a genre hook then you should probably be looking elsewhere. Of course it goes without saying that Merci La Vie is flawed, and will prove divisive. There were moments that infuriated me greatly but overall I'm glad to say that VHS Quest has unearthed another forgotten gem.

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