Bertrand Blier's 1986 comedy
Menage (the original title was Tenue de soiree, which translates
literally to "Evening Dress") is a strange, contrived, uncomfortable
film that raises interesting questions about gender roles and sexuality,
but does so in a tasteless, unfunny way.
Antoine and his wife Monique
are having an argument in public, when they are set upon by Bob, a charismatic
burglar. Bob tells Antoine to take charge of Monique - to be
a man. With the promise of wealth ahead (Antoine and Monique are
penniless), Bob takes the couple under his wing, training them to burglarize
mansions of the extremely rich. Along the way, things become complicated.
Bob turns out to be homosexual, and falls in love with Antoine, who
has no interest. He loves Monique although she is indifferent
towards him at best. Finally, thinking that it will please Monique,
who has an anarchic streak, Antoine gives into Bob's advances, only
to eventually lose his wife completely as she becomes dominated by the
misogynistic Bob. As the dynamic among the three continues to shift
and evolve, we see gender roles and notions of sexual orientation morph
into unexpected arrangements. Ultimately, the trio is doomed to
a fate that befits their confused, desultory antics.
With the significant exception
of Eric Rohmer's films, I don't find French comedies funny.
This is something that I need to get out of the way. There's
something about the French sense of humor that isn't amusing to me.
And, I speak French - I read it even better, and understand it well
enough to know that certain French concepts of "comedy" don't
appeal to me. In other words, it's not just a matter of something
being lost in translation that I'm not "getting." The French
tend to be a bit dull and witless when it comes to joke-making - their
comedy is often obvious, pre-meditated, and routine. There are,
as I said, exceptions - besides Rohmer, there is Jacques Tati, of
course, whose films I enjoy, and Truffaut, who had a wonderful, sly
sense of humor.
Unfortunately, Bertrand Blier's
Menage is not one of these exceptions. The jokes in the film
can be seen coming from a mile away, and most of them arrive with the
delicacy of a ton of bricks. Complicating the success of the jokes
is the discomfiting subject matter, which is handled crassly and without
any introspection. Worst of all, Blier's characters are just
stand-ins for abstract concepts about sexuality and gender. The
characters have no backgrounds, no likes or dislikes, no goals, and
no personalities. They are ciphers for Blier's jaundiced outlook
on sex roles, and we care nothing for them. All that drives them
is sexual desire, sexual revulsion, and money. Those are the only
three engines behind the film's plot; the characters are marionettes
that act out Blier's bizarre ideas.
I realize that this is not
the most precise analysis, but Menage is not
a thoughtful or careful - or appealing - film. Blier
doesn't seem to have any respect for people - his characters are
one-dimensional, unlikable, and silly. I mean, Bob comes along,
bullies Antoine into being his bitch, while Monique sits on the sidelines,
reduced to the role of housemaid. That's really all there is
to the film - and it's supposed to be funny, too. I found
it tasteless, and not in a clever or purposeful way. By creating
characters for the simple purpose of watching them debase themselves
and each other, Blier shows that he has no faith - or any real interest
- in human beings.
Oddly, Koch Lorber has performed
another switcheroo. I recently reviewed another Koch release,
Andrzej Wajda's excellent Katyn the back cover of which advertised
a 2.35:1 aspect ratio - but the transfer was 1.85:1. This time,
with Menage, Koch's label tells us that the film is at 1.85:1,
but the transfer is in fact widescreen. In both cases, the films
appear to have been transferred at their original aspect ratios (there
is some debate about Katyn, but IMDB has Menage at 2.35:1).
The enhanced 2.35:1 transfer here is pretty lackluster - it looks
like it was taken from some intermediate source. Colors are a
bit faded and blacks are too light. The image suffers from being
oversharp, as well. In all, it's not terribly pleasant to look
The original mono French track
is included here, with English subtitles. The audio is fair, if
a bit muddy. As this is a subtitled film, English-speakers need
not worry whether dialogue is fully audible at every moment, but it
would have been nice to have a more enveloping presentation here.
The dry musical score, credited to the great Serge Gainsbourg, is flat
and very much in the background.
The feature's trailer - and a few for other Koch releases -
Menage was controversial upon its original release, but what
makes it offensive now is its disregard for human beings as individuals.
Blier presents characters whose behavior is transparently the product
of the auteur's whims - they play "funny" gender-swapping games
because he finds it amusing. The plot does not grow from the characters
at all - it grows from Blier's blinkered and rather depressing view
of humanity. Skip it.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.