aka Ténue de soirée
aka Evening Dress
Screened in June 2011 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Bertrand Blier. Cast: Michel Blanc, Gérard Depardieu, Miou-Miou, Jean-François Stévenin, Mylèene Demongeot, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Caroline Sihol, Bruno Cremer, Michel Creton, Jean-Yves Berteloot. Screenplay: Bertrand Blier.
Twitter Capsule: Cheerily amoral, sexually frisky at start. Gets nasty, messy, and chauvinist, but still nervy

Photo © 1986 Acteurs Auteurs Associés/Hachette Première/Cinecom Pictures
Tenue de soirée was already a big, starry hit comedy in France by the time it played in competition on the first full day of the Festival. The movie was meant to be released as Evening Dress or Black Tie when it eventually crossed over to the U.S. market but wound up being called Ménage, with the dueling connotations of ménage à trois, entirely appropriate to this film, and of doing your housekeeping, for which the phrase in French is faire le ménage. So there's the sexy and the mundane, bundled up right there in one title, with three other titles still to pick from. That tension between economy and overspill and that sense of schizophrenic identity manifests in the movie, too, which is a jubilantly amoral farce about sex and crime before it comes close to viewing sex as a crime. Without dropping its rather broad grin, the long dénouement keeps thinking of ways to humiliate all the characters, continually rearranging their relations both to each other and to themselves in ever more jarring ways. These frequently arrive as bolts from the blue, implausible even by the standards of farce, and frequently dubious by the measure of moralistic implication. The movie is quite funny for the first half and deeply weird for the second, with a laudable courage of its own bizarre conviction throughout, even as it reveals a nasty undertone (sometimes an overtone) that smacks of reactionary associations that the film otherwise aspires to ridicule.

The initial strength of Ménage derives from its staccato rhythms and its knack for starting scenes in medias res, qualities that will nonetheless risk the undoing of the film as its mood sours and its conceits get more extravagant. In the first scene, Antoine, played by Michel Blanc, is being berated by his wife Monique, played by Miou-Miou, for the fact that they never seem to have any money. From the other side of the restaurant table, Antoine keeps pledging his adoration for her, but her waspish indictments go unabated, only barely holding to the level where the rest of the club isn't hearing her. Gérard Depardieu sidles up, louche but pensive-looking in an open shirt and tiny necklace, and he settles down to follow the argument. He plays a character called Bob who has never met either of these people before but chooses sides quickly; finding Monique to be a harridan, he smacks her across the face. Neither Monique nor Antoine can believe this, but nor can they believe it when Bob says there is no reason to fight over money, when there's so much of it in the world that's right there for the taking—if you're an even halfway decent house burglar.

Bob produces giant wads of cash and sticks them in Monique's and Antoine's hands, the way a crusty great-uncle would tend to a squalling, hungry toddler with a fistful of Snickers bars. He's impatient with the timidity that keeps 99% of the world's people from just getting what they want in the easiest possible way, especially if you can nick it from folks who don't deserve it. But he may also have other motivations for intervening as he does. After a night spent walking around a rich suburb and breaking into several swanky domiciles, Antoine asks his wife about Bob, "Don't you get the feeling he wants to fuck me in the ass?" The merry velocity of events in Ménage is such that I already can't remember whether this exchange takes place before or just after Bob delights Monique by showing up to the trailer she shares with Antoine, using their propane tank to detonate the whole thing. Now they'll have to join Bob in his career of thievery, and she, at least couldn't look giddier.

All three actors seem delighted to be tarting things up with ranking French farceur Bertrand Blier, even or especially when having fun at their own expense. Depardieu, cocky, amiable, and oafish throughout, jokes that his enormous nose enables him to smell the best houses to rob, and even to sniff out where the money is hidden. Miou-Miou looks delighted by the sprightly and salacious vehicle and by her company, and Michel Blanc, who shared the Best Actor award at Cannes, is something of a secret weapon. Mustached, scrawny, and heavy-lidded, he's sort of like an actuary playing Bugs Bunny playing Buster Keaton. This persona matched to this pale, rabbity frame is what sells the punchline, making us laugh not at Bob but at the tersely anxious Antoine. Who could ever imagine Bob wanting to nail him? But the other thing that sells the jokes it that even though Antoine's nose isn't as big as Depardieu's, he's absolutely right about this.

How Ménage handles Bob's perfectly blithe, perfectly randy, and but comically underplayed lust for Antoine is interesting, insofar as it's the inverse of the Philadelphia- or even the Birdcage-type recipe where the two actors copiously profess their devotion to each other but the film seems clenched up at the possibility that they might even graze lips. Neither Blier nor Depardieu seems shy, exactly, about Bob's sexuality, and if anything, it's refreshing to see the humor of the situation get routed onto the sheer, stalwart, inconvenient facts of Bob's ardor and Antoine's resistance ("Je suis très aimable, mais j'suis pas pédé! Nuance!"), rather than a bunch of "comic" business about homosexuality, effeminacy, or even desire itself being hilarious. Even more un-Hollywood is the fact that Depardieu and Blanc wind up naked in bed together, repeatedly and vigorously, at which point Antoine starts retrenching from his previous position that "being fucked in the ass isn't so troubling... it's the idea of acquiring a taste for it that would be troubling." Whether Blier himself ultimately agrees with Antoine becomes an important question, but not until he's afforded Antoine unexpectedly ample time to learn and enjoy a new way to live. Again, it's not just the reversibility of Antoine's positions that is the source of humor, but the staccato rhythms and accelerations by which all three characters are able to inhabit positions, sometimes literally, that they had not previously imagined. Mostly Ménage achieves this without forcing an equivalence between burglary and anal sex: things you shouldn't knock until you've tried 'em. Then again, the jovial amorality of the dialogue, the characters, and the filmmaking make that analogy seem almost as fun to entertain as it is easy to question.

What is easier to feel nervous about is, roughly, the third quarter of the movie, once Miou-Miou starts playing a dejected third fiddle and occasionally a fifth fiddle to all the polyamorous folks accumulating around her. One rich, bored, secretly kinky couple who are robbed by our anti-heroic trio propose that Antoine and Bob make love to both husband and wife simultaneously, with specific ideas about which orifices should go where. Monique, comically but understandably bruised, asks, "What should I do in the meantime? Knit?" But this attempt to be chipper about misogynistic exclusion, which haunts the film's early treatment of homosexuality more than the theme of burglary does, becomes too untenable once Ménage decides to shift gears into a sort of degrading cycle of barely comedic revenge. Antoine and Bob shack up for a while and keep Monique in their employ as a housekeeper and cook, until she meets a sexy, vaguely Mediterranean or Middle Eastern fellow on the sidewalk, a casual stroke of luck that prompts her to serve her walking papers. Turns out Antoine and Bob hired this guy to "casually" meet Monique and sweep her off her feet, and he turns out to be a disco-owning pimp with a violent streak, forcing Monique into his employ, though the editing goes easy on the audience and, more cravenly, on the film by not forcing us to watch this turn of events. We only learn about them later, under very strange circumstances having to do with life back in the gay atélier. Apparentely, nature abhors a feminine vacuum, and Antoine suddenly gets cast by Bob and/or Blier in a stereotypical role as the aggrieved, abandoned wife, whingeing that Bob doesn't appreciate his cooking and hasn't even looked at him in weeks. Bob, in turn, gives Antoine a hard time for all the chocolate he eats during the day and gives him sexy, vertiginous stilettos to wear as a "present." He would also like it if Antoine would don a wig and a dress, at least for when they go out.

We haven't come nearly to the end of Ménage's narrative developments, which also include a stabbing, a child who may or may not be real, and the sight of Michel Blanc looking an awful lot like the 5th-place finisher in the Annual Hoboken Patti LuPone Lookalike Contest. Blier also presents us with the best/worst gay club dancing this side of that thrusty chin-to-shoulder thing everyone does in Basic Instinct. As with that film, Ménage is impossible not to review for the sexual politics that it foregrounds so insistently while busily, often viciously playing all the angles, though Blier is franker than Verhoeven about making an intentional comedy. The material hasn't been shaped quite right to pull off what Ménage seems most intriguingly to aim for, a two-sided and chirpily extreme glimpse at homosexuality, first as a premise for surprising sexual burlesque and then as a platform for telescoping cruder, meaner, and occasionally more pathetic impulses in the characters. By my count, the first half shows a dab hand at being candid and specific to what the characters all think about guys being with guys, while also making clear what a scapegoat this often is for indulging other thrills and fears. This thesis isn't missing, exactly, from the second half, so you can't quite deny the film's conceptual integrity. But it's a venal sort of integrity, all but conflating homosexuality with misogyny, and changing Bob demonstrably from a bon vivant to a chauvinist tyrant, less interested in having a man to enjoy than a woman to abuse. Monique and, by extension, Miou-Miou have a hard time hanging on, as increasingly do Antoine and Blanc, while Depardieu at least has Bob's sudden-onset indifference as an excuse for seeming distracted and creatively parched.

The last reel of Ménage is such a nonsensical, funhouse distortion of itself that it's tempting to say that the film flies off the rails, but also to savor its step backward from pure, galloping nastiness into the relative comforts of mystifying inanity. Unless the upshot of that final bit is that the early, already sexist experimentations with ethics, permutations, and sexual plumbing can only possibly lead to grisly competitions, and then ridiculous caricatures, cut off from anything recognizable as "life." At least one of the characters appears to read the plot this way. You could bicker all day about what Ménage is saying, and whether it takes sufficient responsibility for what it sure seems to be saying, unless one is obligated to take Blier's rhythmic and tonal cues and assume that he is daring us to read anything earnest into this rapid-fire kaleidoscope about three hedonists with different but manifest character flaws, collding into and then jetting away from each other. If Lars von Trier had made Threesome and didn't have time for formal ambition, even a little bit, it would look like this.

The aftertaste is bitter and more than a little perplexing, but aside from the good will it sustains early on from being so fleet and offhandedly funny, Ménage solicits some admiration on at least two counts. One, it's the rare sex farce where sex itself isn't the main joke or even the primary joke, although the film has a good time watching Depardieu hulking about in his tiger-stripe speedo, turning himself on, nuzzling up to the reedy Blanc, so dazed and apprehensive that he makes Radha Mitchell in High Art seem almost raring to go. Two, it's the rare sex farce, particularly compared to American feints at that genre, that leads you along into brightly disconcerting territory, and then risks really pulling the rug out from under you—and leaving you somewhere that might be tough to hang out, even for a short spell. One doesn't want to overpraise cruelty or disorganization, both of which Ménage seems guilty of perpetrating by the end, but it's an oddly bracing experience, especially if you expect the kind of "filler" comedy that sometimes gets dropped into the Palme competition, just as a respite from all the Scandinavian hand-wringing at God and the Weinstein-ready Oscar bait and the Austrian child murders. Or maybe it's no better than a Gallic Quick Change and the Croisette showing just dignifies a flawed, reactionary piece of pop? If that's really what we're looking at and I was able to enjoy it and think about it this much, then it's done well stealing its way onto such a prestigious global platform. That's a petty crime I can applaud. Grade: B

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
Ménage was nominated for eight Césars in France and lost all of them; in terms of eager reception and ultimate consecration of value, that seems about right. For the reasons I outlined at the end, Ménage warrants some points for credit for its appreciable nerve, even if marshaled to increasingly distasteful ends. And the pacing, playing, and deadpan panache of the first 45 minutes, at least, feels like a Joe Orton spin on French comic traditions, in a way more filmmakers could stand to emulate. There's less of the Smuggy McSmuggery that, say, Yasmina Reza brings to her modern versions of farce, and I certainly prefer genuine prickliness that's worth debating over slick, wholly familiar "provocations" that someone recycles every few years. I'd rate Ménage down before I'd promote it higher, but at least at the moment, I'm feeling oddly bullish about this modest and messy burlesque.

Cannes Film Festival: Best Actor (Blanc; tie)

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