Guy de Maupassant, Michel Drach
Who’s again at the door? It’s the drama-doc, toc, toc. The cultural religious kitch. The new film by Michel Drach.
Ever the rotten barrel of the good old French cinema, the cultural hagio-biography had slowly taken refuge on television. In the shape of drama-docs, and with various successes, it was the TV’s equivalent of school literature manuals. This old propaganda tool (“our great men”), even re-read by lifeless Brechtians, is a risk-free genre, a cushy number. On one side, the TV audience can be moved that the great artists from the past appear as people “like you and me” with their greatness and their smallness, and on the other side, the audience knows deep inside that they were not people like you and me because they are in the dictionary, and not us.
Take Maupassant for example. This celebrated man, to whom everything succeeded, comes to a bad end: he contracts syphilis, becomes mad and dies (in 1893). The authors of the film must have thought noble and audacious to follow the writer from his public life to his life in disease, and not to spare any of Maupassant’s committal and painful end to the audience. The film, despite being ridden with random flashbacks, broadly moves from fiction to documentary. From being a subject (of the film and of his own life), Maupassant becomes an object in Dr Blanche’s clinic.
Michel Drach, having always better succeeded in morbid dryness than in imaginary games (The Red Sweater is in my mind his best film, The Simple Past his worst), we can say that in Guy de Maupassant, it’s the least bad when it’s sad, it’s really bad when joyous (and super-bad when Ophulsian). We can also say that with immense good will, Claude Brasseur gives a strong performance, Miou-Miou is bizarre as a lesbian fellow traveller, Carmet is stereotyped as a possessive servant and Signoret is very “Signoret” as a not so stupid mother.
This being said, what’s wrong in such a film? A certain “moralism of perception” I think. Let me explain myself. Poor spectator, you and I wander among the shots of this pompous drama fearing that a voice (over) tell us: careful, don’t touch anything, everything is in place, the disorder is only an appearance, every sidekick and prop has a number, it all has a meaning, it has to. The film is invisible because it has no stakes for the spectator. For example, Maupassant comes across as a sex beast, but no, a flash back reveals that as a teenager (what a surprise!), he had a traumatic experience which… (extenuating circumstances). At another moment, the writer is presiding over a king of orgy. You are crazy (the mise en scène whispers to the spectator): look at him, this poor genius, artistically wedged in a corner of the frame, the eyes pointedly distant and weary: he’s not having fun (in the subtext: unlike you!), he’s obviously already writing in his head a tale or a novel where this orgy will find its sense: he’s scouting locations, don’t disturb him, or maybe just with a discreet zoom in, just like that, yes.
We end up wondering if Drach is not filming a Maupassant who is desolately watching the orgy that Drach is staging – a strange masochism. Anyway, Guy de Maupassant is a film which sends us always elsewhere, forward or backward. Forward with the writer’s childhood, a background that explains many things, a gruff Flaubert, the already crazy brother. Backward with the books that he’s going to write where all this will be transmuted into Art. And what about us then, who are now the spectators of this film? What are we doing in the midst of this simulacrum? What is the point of the guided visit in this museum which seems badly kept as if trying to be modern?
Another, funnier, example: at the end of a social evening, a woman introduces new guests to the writer. The last of them is young, gaunt and sweet. “My dear Guy,” says the woman, “Let me introduce you to the little Proust”. And the little Proust walks in front of the camera (after all, this is not his film, he knows it, he is very young and Gaumont studios have not yet built the cork-lined room). Smiles in the theatre, but fake smiles when we realise that the authors, have actually written, typed, photocopied, rehearsed, shot, and still kept this sentence at the editing, apparently without smiling. They have written this sentence thinking it realistic, because it ought to be done!
After all, we’re not obliged to film writers. There have been many unhappy, crazy, syphilitic characters (especially in the 19th century). There are plenty of dying people. But if we suppose that Drach took the trouble to make a film on a certain Guy de Maupassant, it’s because we remember him as a writer, as someone who lost his life (it happens to every one) but who – for a time – won the war of words. He won it to the extent that he took the trouble, feeling he was becoming mad, to write the progress of his disease. There are few things in the literature of that time as terrifying as Le Horla. To verify what’s left of his reason, Maupassant transformed himself in an object of experiment and wrote what happened to him. None of this features in Drach’s film of course. (I remind every one that Jean-Daniel Pollet made a beautiful film about this in 1966 with Laurent Terzieff).
There is a rather bizarre disdain for the actual writing that can be felt behind all this imagery. Drach could very well film Maupassant (but then, that he’s a writer is anecdotal) or he could try to film the writer (but then, the character doesn’t explain much). I can admit that Drach is neither Straub nor Bresson, that filming writing is a challenge and, in the production system within which it operates, Drach has no incentive to take it up. I’m just upset that he pretends to regret it. I’m a bit upset that he doesn’t do like Guitry.
When I see a cultural hagio-biography like this one, I always think of the way Guitry (in La Malibran) has settled the question.
One night, two bourgeois go to the Council declare the birth of a child. “Surname?” asks the clerk without raising his eyes from the register. “Poquelin” timidly answer the parents. “First name? – Jean Baptiste.” Then the clerk raises his eyes ecstatically and shouts: “Molière!”
The scene is not only an easy gag of the type Guitry indulged upon. It gives to the person who laughs the possibility to also laugh about his knowledge (his culture if you want). His knowledge doesn’t refrain him, he doesn’t become its hostage. Whereas the “Let me introduce you to the little Proust” only provokes the nasty laughter of the one who knows more than what the film pretends it doesn’t know. It denotes a wrong relation with knowledge, spectator, time, cinema. Decidedly a rotten barrel.First published in Libération on 14 April 1982 (at the time of the release of the film). Reprinted in Ciné-Journal, 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma/Seuil, 1986.