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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 at.
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 - is included.
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.