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.